The Classical Greek Intellectual Foundations

Aristotle icon
Euclid icon
ptolemy icon

of Agrarian-Ecclesiastical Civilization

One of Voltaire’s most famous witticisms was that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. Such contradictions abound history; as Barbara Tuchman noted, we should expect them rather than be offended by them: “Contradictions… are part of life, not merely a matter of conflicting evidence. I would ask the reader to expect contradictions, not uniformity.” (I just happened to notice today that Michael Shermer quotes this passage in a Youtube video.) In this spirit of historical contradiction it could be observed that the intellectual framework of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization was neither agrarian nor ecclesiastical, but rather reflected the high point of Greek civilization in classical antiquity.

The intellectual space of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization — the paradigm if you prefer Kuhnian language, or the epistēmē if you prefer the terminology of Foucault — was the result of what we might call the “world-builders” of classical antiquity, of them I would like to call attention to three: Aristotle, Euclid, and Ptolemy.

Aristotle, Euclid, and Ptolemy were the architects of the “closed world” that Alexander Koyré famously contrasted to the infinite universe that was to emerge (slowly, gradually, and at times painfully, as Koyré would demonstrate in detail) from the scientific revolution as played out in the work of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and many others (the architects of the infinite universe):

The infinite cannot be traversed, argued Aristotle; now the stars turn around, therefore… But the stars do not turn around; they stand still, therefore… It is thus not surprising that in a rather short time after Copernicus some bold minds made the step that Copernicus refused to make, and asserted that the celestial sphere, that is the sphere of the fixed stars of Copernican astronomy, does not exist, and that the starry heavens, in which the stars are placed at different distances from the earth, “extendeth itself infinitely up.”

Alexander Koyré, From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe, Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1957, p. 35

Aristotle was the comprehensive philosopher who not only had respect for empirical observation (something Plato consistently devalued) but also formulated a system of deductive logic that made it possible for him to connect empirical observations together into a theoretical structure with great explanatory power. Aristotle, then, did not deal with isolated facts, but with theories. Each new fact, each new observation, can in this way be fit within the overall structure of a theory which in Aristotle extends from the summum genus on top to the inferior species on the bottom. There is a place for everything and everything is in its place. The much later conception of a “great chain of being” — a central idea to later agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization — has its origins in the Aristotelian construct.

Euclid and Ptolemy, while comprehensive each within their own disciplines, were nowhere near as comprehensive as Aristotle; it was Aristotle’s philosophy that was the system of the world to which Euclid and Ptolemy contributed. Even though Aristotle distinguished many sciences later recognized as independent intellectual disciplines, with only two exceptions none of these sciences came to be systematically developed in antiquity (except perhaps for Aristotle’s own research in biology). Mathematics and astronomy were the two sciences that were systematically developed in antiquity as sciences recognizable as such, and still recognizable today as sciences.

While later thought, especially medieval thought, made much of the theory of the syllogism found in Aristotle’s Prior Analytics, Aristotle’s theory of science in the Posterior Analytics received much less attention. It was, nevertheless, the theoretical basis of Euclid’s systematic exposition of geometry on the basis of first principles. Euclid brought Aristotle’s world-building and logical rigor into mathematics, and wrote a book on geometry that was used as a textbook well into the twentieth century. We can today read ancient Greek mathematicians as contemporaries, and we can learn something from them; we can similarly read Ptolemy’s treatise on astronomy, the Almagest, as a serious work of astronomy, though we would have less to learn from it than from ancient mathematics.

Aristotle, Euclid, and Ptolemy date (roughly) from what Jaspers called the Axial Age; while peoples elsewhere in the world of maturing agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization were creating religions, the Greeks were creating philosophy of science, and this proved to be a lasting contribution. This was the axialization of Western civilization during the period of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization.

Aristotle provided the philosophical foundations for the thought of later Western civilization up until the scientific revolution, and even after modern science began to change the world, Aristotle’s influence continued to echo in the work of later scientists. Even up into the early modern period, when we see the first signs of modern science taking shape in Galileo’s work on physics and cosmology, scientists were still writing their treatises in the Euclidean manner. Galileo’s early works on motion and mechanics are almost scholastic in tone, but are not as well remembered as his Sidereal Messenger or Dialogues Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. Even Newton’s Principia is laid out more geometrico.

The emergence of industrial-technological civilization from agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization was a process that began with the scientific revolution and continues to this day as the consequences of the industrial revolution continue to unfold, continuing the change the world in which we live. The transitional periods between macro-historical periods — which I have called macro-historical revolutions — are themselves periods of hundreds of years in duration. In fact, the first such macro-historical revolution, which inaugurated the macro-historical division of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, may have been a transition measurable in thousands of years.

In my immediately previous post, The Agrarian-Ecclesiastical Thesis, I suggested that, given the counter-market, counter-developmental mechanisms institutionalized in agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, that its failure is to allow a revolution to take place. The long history of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization — which might be stretched to as much as 15,000 years, depending upon when we date the first domestication of crops and the first settled, quasi-urban villages enabled by domesticated agriculture — witnessed many revolutions, all of which failed except for the last, which issued in the catastrophic collapse of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization and the emergence of industrial-technological civilization.

That I have called contemporary civilization “industrial-technological civlization” and the civilization the preceded it “agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization,” and given that the latter so closely conforms to the distinction between economic infrastructure and ideological superstructure, I am trying to make a point about the overall structure of civilizations, even civilizations that inhabit distinct macro-historical divisions?

The source of Marx’s distinction between economic infrastructure (or economic base) and ideological superstructure is to be found in his A Contribution to The Critique of Political Economy. It is worth revisiting Marx’s formulation. The crucial passage is as follows:

In the social production which men carry on they enter Into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society — the real foundation, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production in material life determines the general character of social, political, and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.

Marx, Karl, A Contribution to The Critique of Political Economy, translated from the Second German Edition by N. I. Stone, Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1911, Author’s Preface, pp. 11-12

Marx’s formulation is a straight-forward social implementation of a materialist theory of the relation of mind to body, so that we can say at least that Marx was a consistent materialist. Marx’s consistent materialism yields consistent results in the analysis of societies, which in some instances seems to be highly successful and offers us some insight. But not always. No schema can be quite true when stretched to fit every possible instance, and this is true of Marx’s consistent materialism. It collapses when confronted by societies in which there is no distinction between economics and ideology (each of these terms broadly construed).

It would be an interesting intellectual exercise to formulate a binomial nomenclature of civilizations characterizing each in terms of its economic infrastructure and ideological superstructure, but this is too schematic to the quite true. One point I have tried to argue several times (but for which I still lack a definitive formulation) is that distinct civilizations are not distinct implementations of one and the same idea of civilization, but rather distinct civilizations embody distinct ideas as to the nature and aims of civilization. So while “agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization” nicely fits the economic infrastructure/ideological superstructure model, “industrial-tecnnological civilization” does not fit as nicely. While there is a sense in which technology has become an ideology, it is in no sense an ideological superstructure in the same way that institutionalized religion served as the ideological superstructure of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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apples and oranges

To compare medieval civilization and industrial civilization may be a bit like comparing apples and oranges, since the two ideas come from two different civilizational periodizations based on different ideas of organizing our thought about civilization. The idea of medieval civilization derives from the familiar Western scheme of periodizing civilization into ancient, medieval and modern, while the idea of industrial civilization derives from the more recent tripartite periodization of human history in hunter-gatherer nomadism, agrarian civilization, and industrial civilization.

Medieval civilization is in some respects more alien to us, and more distant from us, than classical antiquity.

Medieval civilization is in some respects more alien to us, and more distant from us, than classical antiquity.

Nevertheless, I think that there is something to be learned from comparison and contrast even across incommensurable paradigms, if not especially across incommensurable paradigms. From a philosophical point of view, there is nothing more interesting that comparing distinct ontologies, which is to say, comparing the different ways that different philosophers divide up one and the same world into ultimate constituents — or, to appeal to two different images used by contemporary philosophers: 1) comparing two different inventories of the ultimate furniture of the universe, or 2) comparing two different ways of carving nature at the joints. Medieval and industrial civilization represent two distinct ways of carving civilization at the joints.

The individual often finds himself alienated from his own role in industrialized civilization, notwithstanding the fact that this civilization has shaped us.

The individual often finds himself alienated from his own role in industrialized civilization, notwithstanding the fact that this civilization has shaped us.

I often appeal to examples and parallels drawn from medieval civilization, because medieval civilization has a special didactic value: with medieval civilization we have an instance of a particular species of civilization that emerged within historical times, flourished, and then vanished, so that the whole of the process was documented and the story of this civilization itself is a completed narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end.


When we think of our own industrialized civilization as a whole — and while I think of it like this all the time, this is atypical, because most people don’t notice their own civilization any more than the air they breathe — we tend to think of it as a phenomenon at or near its full developmental potential. The persistent apocalypticism and declensionism of our times encourages us in this view, because it suggests that our civilization has reached its peak and has no where to go but down. This is a mistake. Some day we will be able to say of industrial-technological civilization that it had a beginning, a middle, and an end and achieved narrative closure in this way. At present, however, industrialized civilization is a work in progress. We do not yet know what it will look like from a distance, as it were, when we (or others) are able to bear witness not only to its rise and greatness, but also to its decline and fall.

When Satan tempted Christ will all the kingdoms of the world, the devil attempted to show the whole of agrarian civilization from the top of a high mountain.

When Satan tempted Christ will all the kingdoms of the world, the devil attempted to show the whole of agrarian civilization from the top of a high mountain.

What I would like to suggest is that we do not yet even know what industrial-technological civilization will look like at its height, much less its maturity, because we are still in the formative stages of our civilization, such as it is. The industrial revolution, beginning a little more than two hundred years ago, has still to transform all the world. It is steadily working toward this transformation, and we can see the signs of this transformation everywhere, but we can also see that this transformation is far from complete.

industrial technological civilization

I have argued in The Industrial-Technological Thesis (and argued the underside of the same in Industrial-Technological Disruption) that the civilization now being constituted is uniquely characterized by the spiraling feedback of science, technology, and engineering. I tried to refine how this escalating cycle of feedback came into existence in The Human Condition Made Rigorous, and I tried to show how this cycle can fail or be interrupted in Industrial-Technological Disruption.

industrial technological civilization destructive cycle

If I am right about our civilization being uniquely characterized by this spiral of advancing science, technology, and engineering, industrialized civilization will always be changing and never reach a point of equilibrium. This would make it problematic to identify any particular point of height or maturity for this civilization, but we can take a different perspective by understanding the consolidation (and therefore, in a sense, the maturity) of industrial-technological civilization to have come about when the world entire exemplifies this form of civilization. I suggested in The Re-Proletarianization of the Workforce that it is only at this point of industrial maturity that Marx’s predictions can be judged to be true or failed.

The crusades were an unprecedented exercise in power projection at a time in history when geographical obstacles were not easily overcome by technology.

The crusades were an unprecedented exercise in power projection at a time in history when geographical obstacles were not easily overcome by technology.

To return to the example of medieval civilization, if an individual today is familiar with medieval civilization at all, they are likely to be familiar only with the later stages of medieval civilization, unless they appeal to a semi-mythical Arthurian England (or its equivalents elsewhere in Europe). Except for scholars in medieval history, little is known of early medieval history. If one begins to become aware of medieval history with the crusades, moving on to the construction of the great cathedrals, the formulation of the scholastic intellectual synthesis, the Black Death, and then the gradual unwinding of medieval institutions under the pressure of emerging modernity (really, modernism without industrialism), one is beginning with a civilization already more at less at its height, having reached a point of internal development that it turns to projecting its power outward into the wider world.

Prior to the crusades, medieval civilization had at least five hundred years of development to bring itself to a point of development at which it possessed the resources to engage in the crusades, which not only involved a lot of second sons looking for glory (and loot), but also arms and armor, shipping, foodstuffs, and the maintenance of institutions in the absence of significant military assets. It is, of course, controversial to fix a particular date for the beginning of medievalism, but somewhere between, say, the 400s to the 500s AD, Roman imperial power collapsed in Western Europe and was replaced by local regimes and a local way of life focused on the land, not on trade or industry.

As I said, it is inherently controversial to name a date at which medieval civilization begins, but even if we fix that beginning at any of the later dates that are sometimes used, the medieval world developed for hundreds of years before it reached its maturity, and it is only in its maturity that those of us who are not medieval scholars begin to become aware of medieval history. In other words, the whole of industrial-technological civilization, as it has existed so far, occupies less than half of the time that was needed for medieval civilization to come to maturity.

Although history now proceeds at a blistering pace, the potential scope of a civilization is much larger. Medieval civilization took almost five hundred years to consolidate itself in the Western European peninsula. Despite the rapidity of history in the industrial age, we can see with our own eyes that a little over two hundred years of development have sufficed to bring industrialized civilization to much of the world, but not yet all of the world, and as we make this observation it is intuitively obvious (as much as anything in history can be said to be intuitively obvious) that global consolidation is the inevitable telos of industrialism. Our civilization is more dynamic and faster moving, but it has much more ground to cover before it could be said to have achieved its natural teleology.

In the far future, when our distant progeny can see industrial-technological civilziation synoptically, as a whole, I think it will be clear that, two hundred years into the process of industrialization, that process is still far from complete, and the civilzation that will issue from this process is still far from reaching its mature form and attaining the heights of its development.

In some earlier posts I have already alluded to this. In Social Consensus in Industrialized Society I suggested that industrial society had passed through two paradigms of social organization and was more-or-less groping its way to a third paradigm of social organization. Industrial society may ultimately have to pass through many stages of social paradigmata before it arrives at a form of social organization that is in consonance with the institutions of industrialized society.

In The Next Axial Age I suggested that each macro-historical division of civilization may come to maturity in an axial age, that the Axial Age identified by Karl Jaspers was but the Axial Age of Agrarian civilization, and that industrialized civilization may yet be hundreds of years from its axial moment.

The absence of adequate social institutions and of an axialization period clearly points to industrial-technological civilization being yet in its formative stages.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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In the Shadow of Civilization

28 September 2012


Submerged Civilizations: another species

An early modern depiction of a Viking temple from the Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (Rome, 1555) by Olaus Magnus.

to add to the zoo of civilizations

I have learned many valuable lessons from hostile criticism. It was Bertrand Russell’s criticism of Bergson (across several different books) that led me to read Bergson himself, and when I did so (mindful of Russell’s own advice that, “to read an author simply in order to refute him is not the way to understand him”) I realized that even if all of Russell’s criticisms were technically true in the narrow sense, that none of them touched the spirit of Bergson’s philosophy. Like Russell, Walter Kaufmann was a master of the deftly-executed hatchet job, done with a clear conscience. By calling some of Kaufmann’s criticisms of other philosophers “hatchet jobs” I am not saying that they are wrong or illegitimate, I am only making a point about the spirit in which they are executed.

You will not be surprised to hear, then, that it was Walter Kaufmann’s essays on Toynbee that led me to read Toynbee, so I began my reading of Toynbee with Kaufmann’s criticisms ringing in my ears. Kaufmann took up Toynbee in the last two chapters of his From Shakespeare to Existentialism, Chapter 19 “Toynbee and Super-History” and Chapter 20 “Toynbee and Religion.” After you read these two chapters you are likely to feel dumbfounded that Toynbee had the temerity to publish such half-baked thoughts. There is, then, an element of incredulity involved when hostile criticism leads you to look up the original author to see what he really said.

Just as Russell was right about Bergson, Kaufmann was right about Toynbee, but i have still returned to Toynbee and found something of value — not all the baroque details of the exposition, and not even the grand schema of his thought, but the occasional idea, plucked out of context here and there. I have, in this manner, plucked many ideas out of Toynbee, who has proved to be a fertile source for ideas about the typology and classification of civilizations.

I have been explicit in my own criticism of Toynbee, as when I pointed out in Why We Are All Eskimos that Toynbee had it exactly backward when he classified Eskimos (and, more generally, nomadic hunter-gatherers of the far northern latitudes) as an “arrested civilization.” Nevertheless, I find the ideas of arrested civilizations (Eskimos and Polynesians for Toynbee) and abortive civilizations (Vikings and the “Celtic Fringe” of Irish Christianity in late antiquity and the early middle ages) to be quite useful and, indeed, enlightening. In coming to a comprehensive understanding of civilization, we also need to study the blind alleys of civilizations and sub-civilizational development.

Toynbee also discussed “fossil” civilizations (this seems to have particularly irritated Kaufmann) and another kind of civilization that he does not name or explicitly identify, but illustrates with an imaginative story:

“If Christendom had succumbed to the Vikings — falling under their domination and failing to convert them to its Faith — we can imagine the Mass being celebrated mysteriously for centuries in the underworld of a new society in which the prevailing religion was the worship of Aesir. We can also imagine this new society, as it grew in wisdom and stature, failing to find satisfaction in the religious heritage of the Scandinavian Völkerwanderung and seeking for the bread of spiritual life in the soil on which, when the Völkerwanderung had subsided, the new society had found rest for the sole of its foot. In such a spiritual famine the remnant of an older religion, instead of being stamped out as in our Western history witchcraft was stamped out when it caught the attention of the Church, might have been rediscovered as a hidden treasure; and some religious genius might have met the needs of his age by an exotic combination of the submerged Christian rite with latter-day barbarian orgies derived from the Finns or the Magyars.”

Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, Volume 1, Part One, 1, C, I, b (p. 99 in my edition)

There are many features of this passage that perfectly illustrate the qualities of Toynbee’s thought that rightly irritated Kaufmann. Toynbee was definitely of the “tender-minded” temperament, and he tried to place his own religious faith in the best possible light. For my part, I should much rather participate in the orgies of the Finns and Magyars and leave Christianity submerged, but Toynbee had a touching attachment to his Christianity, and I have no doubt that Kaufmann was right when he identified this as the source of Toynbee’s thought and his popularity, especially in America. Amid all the tedious details about internal and external proletariats, people want to be reassured that all is for the best and good will triumph in the end. Well, we need not fall to this level of vulgarity to find something of value in Toynbee’s conception of a submerged civilization.

Toynbee’s fantasy of a submerged Christianity in the underworld of a triumphant Viking civilization is, in fact, the exact opposite of what did happen: a submerged Viking civilization in the underworld of a triumphant Christendom. And I think it is right to say that Viking civilization was submerged and that it didn’t just vanish in a puff of smoke when the leadership of Scandinavian society was converted to Christianity. In fact, Viking civilization moved to Iceland. Iceland remained Viking and pagan for quite some time after the Scandinavian continent was firmly under Christian control.

Even after Iceland, too, was converted to Christianity (a transition that is captured in Njal’s Saga) it continued to be culturally part of the Viking legacy for hundreds of years. It was not until the high middle ages that the Icelandic sagas were set to paper, constituting one of the world’s great literary tradition, and in a sense even expressing the essence of Viking civilization after than civilization had effectively disappeared from history.

In several posts (among them, Axialization of the Nomadic Paradigm, Addendum on Axialization: Organicism and Ecology, and Axialization and Institutionalization) I have suggested a generalization of Jaspers’ conception of an Axial Age, so that the one-off process that Jaspers identified can be conceived as a more general process of axialization that occurs in different societies in different times. I will not try to give a full exposition of this at present, but I realize now that the idea of an Axial Age can be made both more general and more particular. Among the Axial Age that Jaspers identified, a global transition of world history manifested in many different civilizations, we can identify subdivisions within this Axial Age, as, for example, the axialization of Hindu civilization and the axialization of Buddhist civilization, etc.

This sketch of the concept of axialization can then be applied to submerged civilizations, and what I am here suggesting is that in the case of Viking civilization that it achieved its axialization after it became a submerged civilization, with its axialization taking the form of the literature of the Icelandic sagas. In so far as the essence of a civilization may continue in its submerged form, even after that civilization has disappeared from history in its explicit form, its essential elements may yet be expressed in a posthumous axialization.

One way to express this would be to say that abortive or arrested civilizations attain their fully civilization status only in the event of ex post facto axialization. Or this observation can be employed as the ground of a distinction, and we can distinguish between abortive or arrested civilizations with and without ex post facto axialization.

The Christian occlusion of Viking civilization was permanent, although Viking civilization continued in the shadows for centuries allowing it to come to a furtive axialization. There is also the possibility of the temporary occlusion of a civilization. Civilizations conquered or colonized almost always result in the native civilization going underground and becoming a submerged civilization. An obvious case of this is the civilization of the native peoples of the Americas, which continues to this day, more than five hundred years later, as a submerged civilization. Who is to say whether or not this submerged civilization might not rise again in the fullness of time, although the thorough-going syncretism of Latin Christianity and native elements argues against this.

A perhaps less obvious example might be that of the temporary occlusion of Hindu civilization during Britain’s three hundred year rule of the Indian subcontinent, or any of the other major colonizations of world history, when that colonization eventually came to an end and a post-colonial regime attempted to restore the civilization that preceded conquest and colonization. In the case of Hindu civilization in India, the submergence was relatively brief; it could be argued that there was also a submergence of Hindu civilization under the Muslim Mogul emperors.

Civilizations across Africa, Asia, and the Americas were all submerged to a greater or lesser degree. Some have reemerged into the light of day; some, like the Vikings, have been permanently extirpated, but may yet experience a posthumous axialization. But the widespread fact of submerged civilization points to the importance and usefulness of the concept.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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In several posts I have suggested a generalization of Karl Jaspers idea of an “Axial Age.” For Jaspers (and Lewis Mumford, and others who have followed them), the “Axial Age” was a unique period of human history in which peoples all over the world generated the religious and philosophical ideas that were to inform all subsequent civilization, and chronologically corresponded to the period from about the 8th to 3rd centuries BC. I call the generalization of the idea of a “Axial Age” “axialization,” which seeks to understand the processes of Jasper’s Axial Age as a general historical process that is not confined to the single instance Jaspers had in mind.

The posts I have written on this include (inter alia):

The Aftermath of War

The Axialization of the Nomadic Paradigm

Abortive Paradigmata

Axial Crisis or Axial Fulfillment?

Addendum on Axialization: Organicism and Ecology

I have just realized that axialization as an historical process is closely tied to institutionalization as an historical process. In so far as axialization involves a period of unusual intellectual innovation, creativity, and originality in which new ideas and new traditions emerge, it is to be expected that later less creative ages will seek to formulate, elaborate, and establish these intellectual innovations of an Axial Age, and this latter process is institutionalization.

The great religious traditions of the world’s great divisions of civilizations that were the focus of Jaspers’ conception of an Axial Age, I have previously observed, were all emergent from agricultural civilization, and, at least to a certain extent, reflect the concerns of agricultural civilization. In this spirit, I suggested that the the great cave paintings of the late Paleolithic in ice age Europe constituted an axialization of the nomadic paradigm of macro-history.

It now strikes me that not only were the great religious traditions of the world emergent from agricultural civilization, but all of these religions and all of their associated civilizations experienced both axialization and institutionalization under the agricultural paradigm. The institutions of organized religion that have largely served as the organizing principles of the associated civilizations were developed and formalized throughout the duration of agricultural civilization.

I suspect that, since the axialization of the nomadic period came so late in the human development of that period that this axialization never achieved institutionalization, both because the structures of nomadic life did not readily lend themselves to the establishment of institutions, and — just as importantly — because the macro-historical shift from nomadism to agriculturalism meant that the interest and focus of the greater bulk of the human population had shifted to other concerns with the emergence of settled agriculturalism. It is interesting to speculate what an institutionalization of nomadic axial ideas might have been, had settled civilization never emerged.

Agricultural civilization persisted for a period of time sufficient both for the axialization and institutionalization of the ideas implicit in this particular form of human life. Because the ideas implicit in agriculturalism received both axialization (an initial statement) and institutionalization (a definitive formulation), these ideas were not swept aside by the Industrial Revolution in the same way that the ideas implicit in the axialization of the Nomadic paradigm were swept away by agricultural civilization. The nomadic paradigm was swept away so completely by agricultural civilization that this entire epoch of human history was lost to us until it was recovered by the methods of scientific historiography. Throughout the agricultural paradigm, human beings knew nothing except the ideas of the agricultural paradigm. This gave agricultural civilization both a certain narrowness and a certain strength.

I speculated earlier that macro-history may exhibit a “speeding up” such that, while the axialization of the nomadic paradigm came very late in that very long-lasting paradigm, the axialization of the agricultural paradigm did not come nearly so late in the development of agriculturalism. Perhaps, I suggested, the axialization of the industrial paradigm will come even sooner in the relative history of that macro-historical division. But when I wrote that I was not counting on the fact that the institutionalization of the agricultural paradigm had given the axial ideas of agriculturalism a staying power beyond that macro-historical division itself.

Throughout most of the world today, agricultural civilization has been utterly swept away by the industrial revolution and ways of life have been radically change. Yet the ideas of agricultural civilization persist, and they persist partly because of their institutionalization and partly because nothing of commensurate scope and power has emerged to displace them.

Beyond the historical processes of axialization and institutionalization we may have to posit another stage — ossification — in which axial ideas are preserved beyond the macro-historical division that produced them. These ossified ideas serve a retrograde function in keeping human thought tied to a now-lapsed paradigm of human social interaction.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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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.

Karl Theodor Jaspers, 23 February 1883 – 26 February 1969

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.

I find myself listening to Joseph Campbell again.

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.

Walter Kaufmann (01 July 1921 to 04 September 1980) gave a rather uncharitable assessment of Joseph Campbell.

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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