Axial Crisis or Axial Fulfillment?

24 January 2011


Among the many television documentaries hosted by Micheal Wood is the series Legacy: The Origins of Civilization that recounts the particular characteristics of distinct traditions of civilization as it separately emerged in Mesopotamia, India, China, Egypt, Central America, and Western Europe. Last night I was watching the episode about India and was reminded of Wood’s account of the Axial Age (which he called the “Axis Age” in the video). Here is what Wood says:

“The period of the Buddha’s lifetime from the sixth to the fifth century BC, has been called the Axis Age because so many of the great thinkers in world history were alive at the same time — the Buddha and Mahavira in India; Pythagoras and the early Greek philosophers; the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, like Isaiah; Confucius, Lao-tzu, and the Taoists in China; and even, some have thought, Zoroaster in Persia. It’s extraordinary to think that many of those people could actually have met each other. It suggests that the ancient world which had emerged from the first civilizations of Iraq and Egypt, China and India was undergoing a crisis of spirit but also a crisis of opportunity. Fundamental questions were being asked about the nature of God, about the meaningfulness of life on Earth, and about the basis of the authority for kings and states. And at the heart of that the question which still plagues governments even today in the United States and the Soviet Union — how do you persuade your citizens to act as moral beings? How do you you persuade them to be good? The different ways in which those civilizations attempted to come to terms with these questions still shape them and us today.”

I find it troubling that Wood did not say that the fundamental questions included how citizens could persuade their governments to act as moral beings, to persuade them to be good, but I will leave that aside at present.

Wood’s perspective seems to constitute a very different assessment of the Axial Age than I have suggested in several posts. I have argued that axialization is a process that occurs in mature civilizations when the ordinary business of life has been provided for by the economic system that emerges from the civilizational paradigm in question, so that resources are available for the higher productions of civilization, which in the case of axialization is the expression of the idea intrinsic to a given civilization in a mythological form that makes that idea vividly present and accessible to all individuals within that tradition of civilization.

Michael Wood says that it is a crisis that precipitates axialization, and not the fulfillment of the potential of a civilization, as I have suggested. However, these two conceptions of the advent of axialization are not necessarily in conflict. A society can experience a crisis as a consequence of affluence. This is, in fact, one of the leitmotivs of our time. It is a familiar topic of comment that our industrialized civilization and consumer-driven capitalism has made us so wealthy, so comfortable, so affluent, and so jaded that we have lost touch with the authentic and genuine dimensions of human life.

It could be argued that a given civilizational paradigm, once having attained to maturity and therefore able to address the ordinary day-to-day needs of its people, past that point passes over a threshold and becomes involved in both supplying and creating novel wants that lie above and beyond the basic needs of mere survival. I have noted in previous posts that axialization (since I consider this not a one-time event in the history of the world, but something that occurs within any civilizational paradigm given time to mature) took place very late in the nomadic paradigm, and relatively late in the agricultural paradigm. I also speculated that axialization, if it occurs within the industrialized paradigm, will come sooner than it came to nomadism or agriculturalism.

The very fact of a social system coming to a maturity that allows it to address itself to previously non-existent wants creates a spiral of escalating desires that virtually guarantees a perception of relative deprivation. Even under social conditions in which everyone’s (basic) needs are being met and everyone is equally enjoying a gradually improving standard of living, the creation of novel wants and their novel modes of satisfaction produces a growing gap between perceptions of entitlement and actual circumstances of life.

Under such conditions, the full maturation of an economic system predicated upon the assumptions and presuppositions of a particular way of life rooted in a particular demographic paradigm (nomadic, agricultural, industrial) is more likely to produce a crisis of affluence than not. It is another matter to hold that axialization is a response to this crisis of affluence; one could just as well maintain that axialization and a crisis of affluence have the same source, and the crisis and axialization are parallel yet separate developments that follow from the maturity of social institutions.

It is one of the peculiarities of the industrialized paradigm that it has produced abundance and affluence before achieving mature institutions of industrialized society. At the same time, the flood of consumer goods has exacerbated the calculus of relative deprivation. Perhaps this difference from historical precedent will have consequences for the axialization of the industrial paradigm. I will have to think about this more before I can better understand the forces at play and their likely interaction.

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