The Next Axial Age
11 August 2010
It is rare for a philosopher to have much influence over the popular mind, although it does happen occasionally. I have previously mentioned how Kuhn’s conception of a paradigm shift has been widely adopted (Philosophy of Science in the FT). Another rare borrowing is the idea of an “Axial Age.” This goes back to Karl Jaspers book, The Origin and Goal of History, although the same idea and even the same term was introduced about the same time by Louis Mumford.
Jaspers is a genuine philosopher (I mentioned him a few days ago in The Atomic Age Turns 65) and thus commands our respect. (And, yes, if you’re wondering, there are fake philosophers who command the approbation of the public but who have few if any genuine ideas of their own.) Since the idea of an Axial Age comes out of Jaspers, and is not merely a manifestation of popular intellectuals, it is worth considering in some detail.
Jasper’s idea of an Axial Age is that of an axis of world history, and not only of western history. This he finds in a period that he characterizes as, “a spiritual process that occurred between 800 and 200 B.C.” And Jaspers goes on to say that, “It is there that we meet with the most deepcut dividing line in history. Man, we we know him today, came into being.” Jaspers cites the presence of Confucius, Lao-tse, the Buddha, the writing of the Upanishads, Zarathustra, the Hebrew Prophets, and the Greek philosophers as empirical evidence of such an Axial Age.
I have written many posts dealing with historical periodization, and my own attempt to frame a naturalistic historical periodization that I call integral history both builds upon and transcends the traditional periodizations of western history. In this, I also aspire to defining axes of world history, although I do not see a single axis as does Jaspers, but several (which, of course, is why I referred to them as “axes”). So as I see Jasper’s Axial Age it falls entirely within the agricultural period of human civilization. In this sense, like my post mentioning the English Civil War and its ideological ramifications (The Agricultural Paradigm), we see that an enormously important age of human history, with all its changes and transformations, nevertheless lies entirely within, and is therefore at least in part constituted by, the institutions of agricultural civilization.
Since I have called attention to this on several occasions — that is to say, I have called attention to periods of great intellectual ferment that do not seem to have been triggered by demographic or economic transformations that define how the bulk of human beings live in a given age (and which I therefore take as an adequate basis for a naturalistic conception of history) — I might as well give it a name, so I can refer to it again in the future. Therefore I will call such periods or transitions between periods intra-civilizational axes. I might also call them intra-integral axes, intra-integral shifts, or even intra-integral civilizational axes (or shifts), but I fear I may lose what few readers I have if I stretch it that far. So we will leave it at that for the time being.
I do not deny that there was an Axial Age, and that it was crucial to the intellectual and spiritual development of human beings, but it isn’t a naturalistic phenomenon, and therefore doesn’t constitute what I have been calling an integral shift. And I think that Jaspers (as well as many of his defenders) would agree with me that the Axial Age was a non-naturalistic historical phenomenon and that indeed its non-naturalism is the very point. So in this respect I can make common cause with those who conceive history very differently from the way in which I do.
Bear with me for a digression. I have a habit of what may be called “binge scholarship,” by which I mean that I tend to completely immerse myself in a particular intellectual milieu for a period of time until I become sated and “come up for air,” as it were. I mentioned just such a binge of listening to Joseph Campbell lectures (in Class Consciousness and Mythology), and this resulted in several posts. I have recently returned to Joseph Campbell and am listening again to what has become my favorite set of lectures, Man and Myth. Of the Campbell lectures I have heard, these are the most dense with ideas and therefore provide the greatest degree of intellectual stimulation.
As I have re-listened to Campbell’s Man and Myth lectures over the past few days I am reminded of the emphasis that Campbell placed on the fact that the western tradition placed an emphasis upon the historicity of mythological events, and subsequent developments in science have called this historicity into question, which has also called the mythology into question. Campbell has also on many occasions discussed the need for myths that speak to the contemporary mind. I don’t think that he put it this way, but what he is saying is that we need to respond to a myth viscerally or it isn’t really a myth; a myth has lost its power as a myth if it no longer affects us immediately.
Campbell is such a great speaker that when he is giving an exposition of an ancient myth it is easy to believe that he is himself a true believer, and the implicit message some people take away from his books and lectures is a reactionary one: that we need to go back to the great myths, which are all, I will point out, myths of the Axial Age. In this, he is like Nietzsche, who often made such a convincing case for his adversaries that many took Nietzsche to be advocating precisely the doctrines he was criticizing. Walter Kaufmann has pointed this out in several of his books.
If you listen to Campbell closely, however, and listen to a lot of what he had to say (not being content with a few quotes and fragments that happen to agree with what you want to hear) it is obvious that he is a true believer in no one mythology, but in the role of mythology in human life generally speaking. I think this is what tripped up Walter Kaufmann in his estimation of Campbell, as well as a great many more lesser minds.
Campbell’s repeated statements to the effect of the need for modern myths for a modern age belies any reactionary interpretation of his works, and I am myself personally very sympathetic to this claim that Campbell makes. There are many incipient myths of contemporary industrialized civilization, but they remain amorphic, not fully formed, and are not yet prepared to take the full weight of an existential crisis, to be that which sustains ordinary men and women in their hour of need, except for a very few (non-representative) individuals.
Thinking about this aspect of Campbell’s thought at the same time as I was thinking about Jaspers’ Axial Age, I began framing these two ideas within the context of my own recent work. As I noted above, I see the Axial Age as an intra-civilizational axis that is entirely contained within the agricultural paradigm. I think that the case could be made, even though the Axial Age appears relatively late in the agricultural paradigm, that agricultural civilization had to develop to a given degree of sophistication, stability, and institutional complexity before such an intellectual and spiritual turning point could develop in this context. And this is what I think happened.
The Axial Age represents the flourishing intellectual maturity of the institutions of agricultural civilization, that is to say, this is the first time in the history of agricultural civilization that its institutions passed a critical threshold beyond which such non-naturalistic developments in civilization became possible, and once they became possible they were rapidly realized in many diverse cultures and civilizations. In this sense, the religious traditions of the Axial Age are fully a product and a consequence of agricultural civilization, and are specific to it. This accounts for the progressive decline (except when fanned by reactionary fervor) of these traditions in industrialized civilization. We can argue as much as we like about the future of mythology and religion (or even the future of an illusion, as Freud would have it), but the fact of the matter, as Campbell has repeatedly pointed out, is that many if not most of the mythologies of the Axial Age no longer speak to people on a visceral level. Mass man continues to render his respect to these traditions, but they do not move him as they did in the past — specifically, in the pre-industrial past.
Everything takes time, and it will take time for an authentic and genuine mythology of the industrial age to emerge. I have several times argued that industrialized civilization has sought a modus vivendi in two forms of social consensus that have failed, and that the social discontent, anomie, and drift that we see today is the consequence of industrialized civilization groping toward a third social consensus that it has not yet found (Social Consensus in Industrialized Society). Even if industrialized civilization does settle upon a third social consensus, there is no guarantee that this will be a lasting social consensus, if indeed there can be any lasting social consensus in industrialized civilization. However, I predict that if and when such a modus vivendi emerges within industrialized civilization, and the institutions of industrialized civilization can then come to maturity within a stable social context, that it will be then, and only then, that the next axial age can occur. And the next axial age will be an intellectual flourishing of industrialized civilization that will create mature, authentic, and genuine spiritual traditions specific to industrialized civilization.
All of this, as I said, takes time. Of course, things today happen very quickly. T. Greer’s vision of a growth revolution makes this clear. In an age of exponential growth things happen very quickly indeed, and we have seen things happen very quickly in our own lifetimes. But some historical processes still take time. It required perhaps 8,000 or more years for the slow development of agricultural civilization to experience its intellectual efflorescence in the Axial Age identified by Jaspers. I do not think that it will take civilization of the industrial age even a thousand years to develop to a similar degree of institutional maturity, but I do think that it will take several hundred years, and that we are not quite there yet. The next axial age is coming, but we cannot deliver ourselves of the prophecy, and say as Christ said, “Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power.” (Mark 9:1 KJV) While this is the message of the singulartarians, my message is that many generations will pass before the next axial age comes with power.
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