The Axial Age and Classical Culture

The German philosopher Karl Jaspers famously spoke of an “axial age” spanning roughly between 800 B.C. and 200 B.C. during which most of the great extant spiritual and intellectual traditions in many diverse parts of the Eurasian land mass began to take clear form.

In China, Confucius spread his doctrine of moral education and social harmony, while the Tao Te Ching spoke of communion with the deep principles of nature.

In India, Hindu mystics set down their profound insights in The Upanishads, and Prince Siddartha Goutama renounced worldly life to become the Buddha  preaching a doctrine of compassion and deliverance from suffering existence.

In Ancient Israel, religion developed toward an ethical monotheism as prophets like Isaiah and Micah thundered against injustice, cruelty to the weak, and idolatry as offenses against the one true God.

It was also during this period that the European classical tradition emerged. Homer and other poets penned their great epochs and the Greek Drama emerged in the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes.  It was in this time also that the Greek City-State gave birth to democracy.

Then it was that philosophy began in ancient Ionia, and reached its climax as the great philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle  forged a new ideal of life  around reason, virtue, and the care of the soul. It was also during this period that the early  foundations of the Roman republic were laid.

Is there any relationship among these events in disparate places? Specifically are there any connections or parallels between the classical tradition and other  intellectual or spiritual developments of this time? And how do these events and thoughts from this distant time continue to shape us today?

One Response to The Axial Age and Classical Culture

  1. admin says:

    Hi Ted,

    That last post was quite an extraordinary effort! If you produce that kind of work consistently your book should be done in no time:). Kidding aside we at the Petrarch Institute naturally appreciate the time and thought you put into what are very important discussion topics.

    Because you raised so very many topics, it would be more economical to focus on a small number at the time. First of all let’s focus first on the issue of why pre-modern European civilization eventually developed liberalism, rather than industrial capitalism, for though related though these phenomena are not entirely identical. The fact that China is industrial but not liberal points to this.

    I would agree with you that monotheism – (which for Europe means overwhelmingly Christianity) and not merely pre-Christian classical civilization is an essential part of the matrix that produced liberalism. This principally for two reasons:

    1) While Greek thought had a deep sense of the cultivation of human moral and intellectual powers, it also tended to subordinate the good of individual man to the common good of the Polis. Christianity qualified this subordination. Man has essential duties to his community, but the human person had a dignity and value above and beyond his relation to the political community. The Jews had already produced in the Bible the idea that man was created in God’s image. This sensibility was amplified by the terms of Christian Dogma – man’s immortal soul has an eternal destiny far more important than worldly politics and the salvation of man was worth the sacrifice of God Himself. In short each human person has an infinite dignity with the Christian economy.

    2) Christianity distinguished the spiritual and political spheres. Better than thinking of the pagan Roman state as secular(which I consider a very modern notion), the basic reality of the Roman religion was that it was PART of the Roman state. So while the Romans were generally tolerant of who people worshiped on their time they demanded worship of Roman gods or emperors, in much the way we regard saluting the national flag – a sign of loyalty. The Christians being spiritual descendents of that other Axial age culture Israel, viewed this act as idolatry, and insisted that loyalty to God was a higher allegiance than loyalty to the State. This is best expressed in Augustine’s distinction between the earthly city and the heavenly city with Christians being at best pilgrims in the former. The Christian insistence that the state was subordinate to God, and the divine law was higher than the civil law of the Romans created the epochal clash – one that ended with the victory of Christianity, the conversion of the Romans, and the synthesis of classical and Christian culture we designate today as “the West”.

    Now Christianity is not either sufficient of itself to explain liberalism. Democracy and republicanism are purely fruit of Greco-Roman culture. And no one would regard medieval Christian culture as liberal; while much of Enlightenment liberalism was militantly secular and anti-clerical. For that emergence one must also look at specifically modern developments. But without the influences of both Greco-Roman and Christian culture in generating a lofty sense of human worth, and without the specifically Christian distinction between the political and spiritual I don’t see how one arrives at modern liberalism. As long as the political community is the supreme value the primacy of the individual is unthinkable. But modern liberalism took a further radical step and proclaimed that the political community exists for the sake of the individual. This is the doctrine that the government exists principally to protect individual rights.

    The absence of these influences in China perhaps explains also the persistent note of collectivism in the Chinese culture. The factors Craig speaks to – namely the terror in Chinese history produced by the bloody experience of revolutionary chaos – and the periodic regional and peasant revolts that dog its whole history – perhaps also explains the evident Chinese preference for authoritarianism, order,and stability.

    Whether the Western liberal model represents the “apex of history” or as Fukuyama put it “the End of History” is a long debate topic best reserved for another post! But can we not conclude that classical culture was a necessary though not sufficient source of the rise of Western liberalism?

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