Around 800-200BCE, there was a phenomenal transformation of human culture which philosopher Karl Jaspers dubbed the Axial Age. During this time, what we generally consider to be the great philosophies and religions were born around the world, largely independent of each other. I’ve not read any of Jaspers’ work and can’t comment on any specific interpretations he may have, but I think he’s quite right to point this out as a significant turning point in the history of humanity.
I’ve recently been reading some of Daniel Quinn’s work, which I have very mixed reactions to, but he raises a number of critical points which have given me pause to reexamine many of my views. Among these is my understanding of the Axial Age. Specifically, I find myself reconsidering the basic nature of that transformation and the particular ways that it has and continues to play out in our lives.
I have formed a preliminary hypothesis. As such it is limited and merely seems to fit the circumstances. I have a sense that it’s not the whole story, but perhaps it’s getting at part of it.
Whatever is at the heart of the Axial Age is clearly rooted in the Sacred (for lack of a better term). However, humanity has equally clearly had a sense of the Sacred ever since we could be described as human. So it seems that in some manner our existing relationship with the Sacred changed at a fundamental level. But how?
In thinking about what the various developments of the Axial Age have in common, it seems to me that they all involve the construction of a larger model of reality. Specifically, a universal model in which all things are seen to be united in some fundamental way. Of course, these models were formulated in any number of radically different ways, but the underlying commonality seems to be one of building a bigger big picture.
The challenge with comparing this to pre-Axial Age culture is that we just really don’t know very much about what people believed before that. We have various bits of evidence to suggest this or that, but for the most part there aren’t any clear records for us to refer to. So I’m pretty much going to have to wing the next part.
We suspect that the general way of viewing the world prior to the Axial Age was what anthropology has called animism. When I compare this to post-Axial Age systems, I have the impression that animism tends to view reality as a set of interrelated but discrete elements. Humans, animals, plants, the earth, and their accompanying spirits might be compared to how a community is typically viewed today. Each member is valuable and dependent upon the other members, but they are all individuals who are ultimately separate from each other.
On the other hand, the big picture presented in post-Axial Age beliefs can be viewed from a perspective of mystical monism (many people do not agree with this, but it’s how I see things). That is to say that while humans, animals, plants, the earth, and their accompanying spirits are in one sense distinct individuals, they are also in another sense all one being; they are God (again, lacking a better term).
So, having an unconscious awareness of our underlying unity, humanity is now faced with a very serious problem. I believe that this problem is ultimately about the tension between opposites, but the best way I know to formulate it at the moment is this: we have to kill to live. Previously, we could respect and even revere the plants and animals whose lives we took, but they were ultimately not us so there was no reason to feel bad about it. But now, the deer isn’t just the deer, the deer is me. And I am the deer. Suddenly, to continue surviving I have to kill myself and allow myself to be killed. Even though the vast majority of humans have no conscious experience of this, to this day we have this tremendous sense of underlying conflict that we can never quite figure out how to resolve. As you might imagine, this could very easily lead to the multitudes of insanity we visit upon ourselves and each other on a daily basis.
As I said, this is a very limited picture. Some or even most of it is almost certainly wrong. But perhaps it is a step in the right direction.