The Axial Age: A spiritual revolution

The Axial Age, coined by German philosopher Karl Jaspers, is a period from roughly the 8th to 3rd century BCE that signified a cultural shift in the major Eurasian civilizations of China, India, Persia and the Mediterranean toward the modern era. Notable philosophers and prophets such as Socrates, Confucius, Zoroaster, the Buddha, Pythagoras, Lao Tse,…
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Wayne Wu

June 24, 2021

The Axial Age, coined by German philosopher Karl Jaspers, is a period from roughly the 8th to 3rd century BCE that signified a cultural shift in the major Eurasian civilizations of China, India, Persia and the Mediterranean toward the modern era. Notable philosophers and prophets such as Socrates, Confucius, Zoroaster, the Buddha, Pythagoras, Lao Tse, and the Hebrew prophets all arose in this period, according to “The Great Transformation: The beginning of our religious traditions,” by Karen Armstrong.

Major religions today such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism can trace their roots to or are a religion founded during the Axial Age while others such as Hinduism were forced to reform to become more like those Axial Age religions, according to Academia.

The vibrant pagan pantheons that existed before the Axial Age such as the Greek, Mesopotamian and Egyptian pantheons were largely replaced by these new religions in the following centuries. While the exact reasons they died out are still hotly debated by historians, these old religions have very little impact on religion and spirituality today, according to the NCBI.

However, the rise of these Axial Age religions and philosophies, most notably the Abrahamic religions, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucian systems, were the sociological response to a changing world and continue to have a strong influence on the spiritual development of humanity.

While it is largely disputed exactly what sparked this change in human philosophy and spirituality, many societal pressures influenced the emergence of this intellectual flowering. One of the first major shifts in this era of human history is the growing number of people that don’t have to work. For most of humanity’s agricultural history, notably in ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian societies, there was a small elite class of rulers with everyone else at the bottom of the social hierarchy, according to the NCBI.

Roughly 95% of civilized society at the time consisted of peasants, serfs and slaves with a mix of warriors, scribes, craftspeople and rulers making up the rest, according to Chad Meister, author of “Introducing Philosophy of Religion.” The walls of Babylonian cities were more for keeping the slave populations in rather than keeping invaders out, according to Academia. Realistically, the bottom majority were farmers that did not matter to culture and existed purely to feed the rest of society, according to Peninsula College Professor Wesley Cecil.

However, as cities grew and agriculture became more efficient, there came a growing need for specialization in the upper classes. As the scale of civilization and the need for specialists grew, so did the upper class of people not working in the fields. When there is a certain amount of well-fed literate people with free time, a critical mass of people forms where philosophy is preserved through the written word, according to Cecil.

The rise in literacy was also a major contributor to the social conditions that sparked the Axial Age. From the creation of the written word, literacy was for the rich and powerful as they could spend the years it took to learn it and had use for it, according to author Johanna Drucker.

These early languages were mostly used by scribes to document the various infrastructure and economic systems needed for the city to function. The scribes quickly figured out that by making the script extremely complex, they would become invaluable as they were the only ones who could read them and protect their position in society, according to Cecil.

The remnants of this thinking can be found in modern languages with very old scripts such as Chinese and Sanskrit records. However, by the Axial Age, a much larger percentage of people were literate and could record their thoughts through writing, according to Armstrong. A philosophy could have been thought of millions of times by separate people, but unless it is written down and preserved it will be lost to history, according to Daniel Mullins.

For example, scholars know a lot more about ancient Babylon than they did about Egypt at the contemporary time because while Babylonian clay tablets survive thousands of years in the desert, Egyptian papyrus scrolls do not fare as well. Writing allows for a sort of memory outside of the brain and allows for more self-reflection and challenging of beliefs, which created a new outlook on the world that differed drastically from previous ideas, according to the NCBI.

Because writing could circulate ideas so easily, the aristocracy saw writing as a threat to their power and sought to limit its use to as small of a group as possible. Socrates believed in very limited education for philosopher-kings and the aristocracy because in his mind if more people were educated, they would be discontent and rebel, according to Cecil.

Furthermore, the rise of merchants was another root cause for the Axial Age as they were extremely disruptive to society particularly due to the new ideas they brought with them as well as the influence gained through new trade routes. New ideas can bring doubt and uncertainty to society,  becoming an existential threat to the aristocracy, according to Cecil.

If the peasants found out that the rulers in a nearby city treat their workers better, it would make them question whether their ruler is just. The aristocracy wanted to have the current social order remain fully intact as they were the ones that benefit the most from it, so any suggestion for change that weakens their power was considered dangerous and would be prevented at all cost, according to Cecil.

Money was also something that the aristocracy deeply feared as it was not directly under their control and could thereby create a power base of wealthy merchants separate from themselves, according to Armstrong. The reason why merchants were always put near the bottom of various caste systems was to tarnish the power and reputation of the current merchants along with discouraging people from becoming merchants, according to Academia.

However, despite the massive disdain the aristocracy had for merchants, the money and power they wielded made them a staple in ancient society.

All these factors culminated in a social environment that encouraged self-reflection and questioning the pre-existing ways of life. The radical questioning of tradition faced by the Axial civilizations has resulted in the birth of philosophy in the Greek parts of the Mediterranean and the emergence of monotheism in the Levant, according to the NCBI.

In China, there were prominent scholars such as Lao Tse and Confucius. While Confucius claimed to be a Chinese conservative, his methods of questioning rulers and suggesting new ideas for governing was very radical for the time and was the main reason why he was never able to hold a job as an advisor for very long, according to Cecil.

When Buddhism started to spread throughout India, Hindu priests reformed their religion to better connect to the current social environment, according to Meister. While the everyday life of an average peasant would not have been heavily affected by the developments of the Axial Age, the culture and ideas of the civilizations they lived in were set on a trajectory that would come to define the modern world.

Despite the evidence presented above, there is still a fierce debate over whether or not the theory of a singular Axial Age is even valid. It has been noted that while the philosophies and religions attributed to the Axial Age were all founded in that relatively short time frame, the conclusions they all came to differ drastically from each other, according to Academia.

There was no distinctive path or pattern that all the religions and philosophies took to address the changes to society, which puts into question whether the Axial Age was an actual event or just a collection of disparate faiths that were founded roughly the same time and incorrectly grouped together.

Another hole in the Axial Age theory is the prominence of “great men” who single-handedly reformed the way people thought about life and society, according to Mullins. The “great men” approach to history is widely criticized for not taking in the context of certain actions and events. While supporters of the Axial Age theory say that the list of influential individuals is supposedly representative of the civilization’s change in thoughts and ideas, much of the Axial Age hinges on these “great men” and fall under similar scrutiny.

The Axial Age theory also fails to address the two secondary breakthrough religions that were founded over a millennium after the Axial Age ended: Christianity and Islam, according to Mullins. While proponents of the Axial Age theory claim that these two are offshoots of Judaism, their prominence in world history should not be overlooked.

If two branches of Judaism could come to encompass over half the world’s people by the twenty-first century, why have there been no major secondary breakthrough religions in the other major world faiths?

These questions, although difficult to answer, are important to consider and must be accounted for when discussing the Axial Age and its effects on history.

While both sides of the debate hold valid points, the struggles of people during that period are becoming more prominent. Jaspers has stated that there have been multiple Axial Age-like shifts in human history, with humanity being on the verge of another one very soon, according to Academia.

As the number of people on Earth has grown exponentially and society becomes wealthier and more urbanized, the number of people who no longer need to worry about imminent survival and have free time to think about life grows, according to Cecil.

While technology and governments have changed, critical thinking and questioning the social order have remained a part of humanity to the modern-day. As society continues to evolve and adapt to a changing world and growing challenges, the social and spiritual needs of man must not be neglected.

The modern struggle to find spiritual solace in a worldview that demands scientific proof can be equated to the spiritual and philosophical developments of the Axial Age.