The Axial Age

Migration into Greece may have begun around 10,000 BCE, mostly from the east from India across present-day Turkey. Tough terrain here; mountain ranges kept groups apart and therefore independent – no central ruler as seen in China.   Different groups reigned until 1100 BCE, when conquerors took over. A productive civilization did not appear for another 500 years. From about that time, first Socrates, then Plato, and finally Aristotle explored philosophical issues of what life is all about.

The views of Socrates concentrated on good and virtuous life, saying “an unexamined life is not worth living” – in other words, think for yourself. Do not accept superstitions, class distinctions, or the dictates of others. He spoke as easily to slaves and servants as those with more stature. Some quotes from Plato, his student, set the tone:

Wise men speak because they have something to say. Fools because they have to say something.

We can forgive a child afraid of the dark; the real tragedy is when men are afraid of the light.

Ignorance, the root and stem of all evil.

This quote from Plato captures the central issue well: “There will be no end to the troubles of state or humanity itself until philosophers become kings of the world, or until those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands.” This was a little later than 800 BCE. The dominant themes: (a) life is not a chance event and means more than just eat, live, die; (b) the importance of caring for the world around them; and (c) an individual’s behavior should not be controlled by bribes or mystic beliefs.

The fourth group, a clan called Jews, appeared around 2000 BCE. The initial location was probably in Egypt. Abraham, viewed as an ancestor by Judaism, Christianity and Muslims, was the leader. Perhaps 500 years later the group left Egypt for Israel, which they viewed as home. The Ten Commandments appears, becoming the religious, moral, and ethical foundations for the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic cultures.

The first three of the commandments address religion, acknowledging only one God, respecting that name, and setting aside time for his work. These are beliefs, not behaviors. The others addressed morality-defining behaviors: caring for one’s parents, being true to one’s spouse (and not desiring another’s partner), not stealing, being honest, and not murdering. The time was around 1400 BCE. At this time, the idea of just one god was quite radical.

The Jewish people, surrounded by potential enemies, took a pounding, leaving many of the tribes to simply mix into other cultures. However, one group survived intact and may have been carried on. In that group, the concept of a future divine grace, which would end conflict and suffering, was introduced. Those beliefs reached out to include all people, not only those in the Jewish clan. Essentially, set the current time aside; better times are coming.

Once again, as was seen in the other civilizations, a person is responsible for her or his behavior. The Ten Commandments defines acceptable behaviors. Social justice was firmly rooted. Their beliefs at this time certainly do not conflict with what was seen at the other locations. The time is just after 800 BCE.

Three excellent scholars identify the years 800 to 200 BCE as pivotal years which they have called the Axial Ages. Their work focused on those last four sites—India, China, Greece, and Israel—as the long line of hunter-gatherers quit moving and began living together. Living together required depending on one another. Animals preceding those early people just accepted things like day and night, seasons, rain, trees, wind, and stars.

Why is this particular time of interest to these three researchers? Because this was the first time – first time people lived, learned and interacted together. As the human mind develops, it tries to make sense of it all. No previous books or televisions or newspapers — nothing. This was all brand new.

Initial work was done by Karl Jaspers, who provided the term Axial Ages, and wrote in 1953, The Origin and Goal of History. Jaspers argued that during the Axial Age “the spiritual foundations of humanity were laid simultaneously and independently in China, India, Persia, Judea, and Greece. And these are the foundations upon which humanity still subsists today.” Participating in this growth were the minds of great Axial Ages contributors like Confucius in China, in Buddha in India, Zarathustra in Iran, Elijah, Isaiah and Jeremiah in Palestine, and Homer (later Plato and Aristotle) in Greece.

In our current times, based only on personal experience, people who think of themselves as religious mostly see religion as believing, without ever really questioning the specific creeds, writings, or doctrines of their faith. The interpretation of these three authors is that the summary conclusions of Axial Ages thinking took a very different direction. All agreed humans were capable of transcendent thinking, but the outcome did not require any connection to theoretical doctrine or a person’s spiritual beliefs. As you read the following quotes, remember Native American beliefs.

Karen Armstrong writes that the “Axial Ages pushed forward the frontiers of human consciousness and discovered a transcendent dimension in the core of their being. They did not necessarily regard this as supernatural and most refused to discuss that issue.” For those readers who view themselves as religious, this statement undoubtedly conflicts with your spiritual beliefs. She also writes, “What mattered was not what you believed but how you behaved. Religion was about doing things that changed you at a profound level.” A connection to the Native Americans is there. “Not what you believe but how you behave” – at this point in time, only the “what you believe” part fits.

Bellah writes: “The theoretical breakthrough in each axial case led to the possibility of universal ethics, the reassertion of fundamental human equality, and the necessary respect for all humans, indeed for all sentient (conscious) beings.” And this summary by Armstrong is powerful: “Nobody, they believed, should ever take any religious teaching on faith or second hand. It is essential to test everything and to test any teaching empirically, against your personal experience.”

As the Axial Ages came to a close, having the beliefs common to all four independently developing religions provided just a moment when civilization could have been so very different. At this moment, the universal beliefs included respect for all humans. Called for was that all human interactions conform to a set of ethics based on social justice, behavior toward one another and to all living things. Jasper said it would, “…give rise to a common frame of historical comprehension to all people without regard to particular articles of faith.” Judgment was based on behavior, not on knowledge or conformity to rigid doctrines. If you are even an amateur student of history, you know that “doctrines” won. For example, Armstrong writes, “Telling the historical truth is, to some religions, unacceptable.”

The four widely-separated sites had basically come to the same general conclusion. And those general conclusions did conform to the evolved emotions and behaviors that were passed onto homo sapiens.

Each of the four regions had independently come to a conclusion, without contact with one another. Thus each viewed their model as the best possible summary of what humanity should be. That meant trouble. Bellah, near the end of his book, says it better:   “In our present situation in a world of multiple traditions is that when theory has come loose from its cultural context, it can assume a superiority that can lead to crushing mistakes.” The assumption of superiority did lead to crushing mistakes. For example, think of the Crusades: certainly a crushing mistake.

Five different locations have been studied. Based on what we’ve seen, did those slowly evolving behaviors pass onto homo sapiens? The answer certainly appears to be, “Yes.”

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