The Birth of Axial Thought:
For thousands of years godlike kings had anchored the moral order in chains of ritual, linking the humblest villager to rulers who touched heaven by sacrificing on ziggurats or slaughtering captives in cemeteries. But as godlike kings reinvented themselves as chief executives, the enchantment was going out of the world. “Would that I had died before or been born later,” complained the seventh-century Greek poet Hesiod, “for now is truly an age of iron…Righteousness and Indignation, their loveliness wrapped in robes of white, depart the wide-avenued earth. They abandon mankind to join the deathless gods on
But that was only one way of seeing things. From the shores of the Aegean to the
Karl Jaspers, a German philosopher struggling at the end of World War II to make sense of the moral crisis of his own day, called the centuries around 500 BCE, the “Axial Age,” meaning they formed an axis around which history turned. In the Axial Age, Jaspers portentously declared, “Man, as we know him today, came into being.” Axial Age writings and Daoist texts in the East, Buddhist and Jain documents in South Asia, and Greek philosophy and the Hebrew Bible (with its descendants the New Testament and the Koran) in the West became the classics, timeless masterpieces that have defined the meaning of life for countless millions ever since.
The classics all agree that their ultimate subject, a transcendent realm beyond our own sordid world, is indefinable. Nirvana “blowing out,” a state of mind in which the passions of this world are snuffed out like a candle be described, said the Buddha; even trying is inappropriate. For Confucius, sen translated “humaneness” was similarly beyond language. “The more I look up to it, the higher it is; the more I penetrate it, the harder it becomes; I see it ahead of me and suddenly it is behind…in speaking about it, can one avoid being hesitant?” Likewise, when pressed to define to kalon, “the good,” Socrates threw up his hands: “it’s beyond me, and I try I’ll only make a fool of myself.” All he could do was tell parables: the good is like a fire that casts shadows that we mistake for reality. Jesus was equally allusive about the
The Way that can be spoken of is not the true Way;
The name that can be named is not the true name…
Both may be called mysterious.
Mysterious and still more mysterious,
The gateway of all subtleties!
The second thing the classics agreed on was how to attain transcendence. There is more to Confticianisrn, Buddhism, Christianity, and so on than bumper-sticker slogans, but one I saw on a car outside my favorite coffee shop while 1 was writing this chapter summed things up nicely: “Compassion is revolution.” Live ethically, renounce desire, and do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and you will change the world. All the classics urge us to turn the other cheek and offer techniques to train the self in this discipline. The Buddha used meditation; Socrates favored conversation. Jewish rahbis urged study; Confucius agreed, and added punctilious observation of ritual and music. And within each tradition, some followers leaned toward mysticism while others took a down-to-earth folksy line.
The process was always one of self-fashioning, an internal, personal reorientation toward transcendence that did not depend on godlike kings even, for that matter, gods. Supernatural powers, in fact, often seem beside the point in Axial thought. Confucius and the Buddha refused to talk about divinities; Socrates, though professing piety, was condemned partly for failing to believe in
Did Axial thought promote social development?
Unlikely. Geography is against it. The most important Axial thinkers came from small, marginal communities such as Greece, Israel, the Buddha’s home state of Sakya, or Confucius’ of Lu; it is hard to see how transcendent breakthroughs in political backwaters affected social development in the great powers.
Also, logic is against it. Axial thought was a reaction against the high state, at best indifferent to great kings and their bureaucrats and often downright hostile to their power. Axial thought’s real contribution to raising social development came later in the first millennium BCE, when all the great states learned to tame it, making it work for them. In the East, the Han dynasty emasculated Confucianism to the point it became an official ideology, guiding a loyal class of bureaucrats. In
The more rational strands within Axial thought encouraged law, science, history, logic, and rhetoric, which all increased people’s intellectual mastery of their world, but the real motor behind development was the same as it had been since the end of the Ice Age. Lazy, greedy and frightened people found easier, more profitable and safer ways to do things, in the process building stronger states, trading further afield, and settling in greater cities. In a pattern repeated many times in history, as social development rises, the new age develops the culture it needs. Axial thought was just one of the things that happened when people created high-end states and disenchanted the world.
If further proof is needed that Axial thought was more a consequence than a cause of state restructuring, we need only look at Qin, the ferocious state at the western edge of the Eastern core. “Qin has the same customs as the barbarians,” said the anonymous author of The Stratagems of the Warring States, a kind of how-to book on diplomatic chicanery. “It has the heart of a tiger or a wolf; greedy, loving profit, and untrustworthy, knowing nothing of ritual, duty, or virtuous conduct.” Yet despite being the antithesis of everything Confucian gentlemen held dear, Qin exploded from the edge of the Eastern core to conquer the whole of it in the third century BCE.