The Axial Age

Date: Nov 23, 2018

The General Information on the Axial Age

The Axial Age is a term coined by the German philosopher Karl Jaspers to designate the period in human history, during which the rational philosophy that generated the existing kind of man replaced the mythological worldview. Jaspers dates the Axial Age back to 800-200 BC. According to him, all the teachings of the period (which still exist in modified forms) differ by the rationalism and human desire to the rethink pre-existing norms, customs and traditions. Some pre-Axial age civilizations (Ancient Egypt, Assyrian-Babylonian civilization) were not able to adapt to the changes and ceased to exist (Armstrong, 2006).

Some scientists explain the global transformations of the period as a result of the overcoming of the ‘catastrophe’ of the Bronze Age and the proliferation of the iron metallurgy which improved the productive forces of the society of the ancient East.

This rise led to the establishment of regional empires with the spiritual culture conducive to their unity. The revolution in the spiritual life in most societies of the East came in one relatively short period (actually in the ‘axial time’), but its consequences have had the influence for centuries (Meister, 2009). The recent studies confirm the validity of separation of the period from 800 to200 BC as a special era in the evolution of the world system. In that span of time, for example, the level of urbanization and literacy of the world grew, and the world-system underwent a phase of the transition to a qualitatively new state.

The Main Characteristics of the Period

The Axial Age is characterized by the appearance and wide spread of the ideas that the society changes over time, the ‘tribute’ does not coincide with the ‘existent’, as well as the beliefs that, perhaps, the more equitable social order is possible, and that it can be achieved by the specific conscious effort. During this period, social ideals became important issues (Meister, 2009).The Axial Age is characterized by the new organizational forms, in which the activities are performed to put the ideals into the practice in all the ‘centers’ of the axial time such as Greece, Rome and Palestine, Zoroastrian Middle East, India, China.

In this era, the social evolution of humanity, at least of its part which either directly or indirectly passed through the period, cannot be regarded as already full (or almost full) natural historical process caused, even if eventually, only by the objective material factors. The consciousness begins increasingly to determine the existence of the humanity (Provan, 2013).

At this time, the mythological epoch ends and the fight of the experience and myth begins. This period produced the basic concepts and categories for the foundation of the world religions. The intense spiritual movement is detected by Jaspers in three worlds: China and India, Hellas, and the Middle East. In India, the Upanishads and the Buddha appear; in the philosophy of India and China, the intense spiritual movements are skepticism, materialism, nihilism and sophistry; in Iran, Zarathustra arises; in Palestine, the prophets Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Second Isaiah come into existence; and Greece is characterized by Homer, Parmenides, Heraclitus, Plato, Thucydides Archimedes, etc (Armstrong, 2006).

In the Axial Age, the person becomes aware of his/her limits, confronts the highest purposes, knows the Absolute in the depths of the self-awareness and clarity of the transcendental world. Historically, the period becomes to be encompassing involving the Germanic and Slavic peoples, the Japanese, the Malay and the Siamese.

The world history finds a stable structure and unity. Jaspers identifies four ‘sections’ of the history:

  1. The emergence of language, the invention of guns, the beginning of the use of fire.
  2. The appearance of high cultures in Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and, later, in China in the 5th-3rd millennium BC.
  3. The uprise of the spiritual fundamental principles of humanity that appeared simultaneously and independently in China, India, Persia, Palestine, Greece in VIII-II centuries BC. It is the stage which is characterized by the introduction of the contemporary man with his ideas about the inherent possibilities and limits of self-awareness.
  4. The birth of the scientific and technological era, the basis of which was prepared in Europe in the late Middle Ages, acquires the comprehensive nature from the end of the 18th century and starts to develop extremely rapidly in the 20th century (Meister, 2009).

The best examples of the philosophical and religious teachings of the Axial Age are the following:

  • Confucianism;
  • Taoism;
  • Legalism;
  • Moizm;
  • Buddhism;
  • Zoroastrianism;
  • Judaism;
  • Ancient Philosophy.

The Development of Religion and Philosophy

Being an existentialist philosopher, Jaspers emphasized that in the Axial Age people recognized their separation from the natural world and the tragedy of their lives, which means that they were in the borderline situation (Provan, 2013). People realized the horror of the world and their own helplessness. Standing over the abyss, a person raises the radical questions, requires the liberation and salvation. Recognizing the borders, the person confronts a higher purpose. Indeed, the religions of salvation have arisen in the period. According to Jaspers, the Axial Age started about 800 BC and finished around 200 BC. Thus, the Christianity falls out of this period proving that it was something secondary (Armstrong, 2006).

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Thus, the age is a time of the emergence of new religions (‘world religions’) and philosophical doctrines, in the center of which there are the problem of the meaning of the individual’s existence, the relationships between the man and the world, the man and the deity, the man and the society, and, finally, between people themselves. All these problems are essentially the ethical ones, and therefore, the outlook and attitude of an individual begin to concentrate on the ethics and are determined by it. The Axial Age is the period of the formation of the modern human. However, unlike the previous changes that were of the biological character and led to the formation of the Homo sapiens, the transformations of the discussed period occurred only in the spiritual realm. Homo sapiens evolved into Homo sapiens ethicus (Fisher, 1997).

The relevant questions and proposed answers to them were first explicitly formulated in the scriptures of the new religions, which are also called the ‘religions of salvation’, and philosophies. Some of the latter also had the semireligious or quite a religious nature having acquired their own mythology (e.g. Buddhism).

According to Karl Jaspers, the axial time led to the discovery of the thing which later became known as the ‘mind’ and ‘personality’. The self-aware person is primarily an ethical person. However, the beginning of ethical searches refers to much earlier time – the epoch of class societies, and, perhaps, even more ancient times, when an individual started to regard himself not as an inseparable part of the clan or tribe that has no intrinsic value, but as something self-sufficient and as a unique personality.

Following this, the question about the meaning of life and the posthumous fate of the individual arises inevitably. Apparently, the oldest answer to this question that should be called the epic one was the emergence of the consciousness. It forms the ideal of the heroic life and glorious death providing the eternal memory in legends and songs. This ideal found its expression in all early heroic epics such as Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh and their Akkadian versions, The Iliad and The Odyssey, The Mahabharata, Edda, Beowulf (Fisher, 1997).

The heroes of these epics in almost identical terms talk about their firmness in the face of Destiny and the adoption of a glorious death as the performance of his earthly mission. However, the memory about the man reflects some particle of the immortality. This is due to the widespread in the archaic cultures point of view that the name is the essence of the human which means that while a person is called by name, he/she is not dead.


The solution to this emotionally unacceptable situation could be different: one should mention the idea of the transmigration of a soul into a new body after death, as well as the substantial modifications of ideas about the afterlife, which is now conceived as a kind of continuation of life on the Earth. Such detailed images of the futurity which continues the earthly life, appeared, apparently, in the ancient Egypt at the turn of the Old and Middle Kingdoms (Provan, 2013).

Some teachings of the Axial Age refused to discuss the posthumous fate of a man focusing steadily on his lifetime of duty whatever the consequences were. Stoicism is characterized by such an approach, thus connecting the ancient epic concepts with the ethical philosophy. Another example of the idea is the ideal of the ‘disinterested act’ preached in the teaching of Taoists.

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In Egypt, the first attempt of the transition to the monotheism in the history of the humanity was made – the famous coup of Amenhotep. The same tendency to monotheism was observed later in Mesopotamia, where people tried to present all the major gods as the incarnation of the god Marduk, thus turning Him into the one and only god (Provan, 2013). The trends of the ‘axial breakthrough’ in these countries took place even earlier than among the other civilizations. However, the high antiquity of Egypt and Mesopotamia civilizations was probably the stumbling block which prevented the development and completion of this movement.

Furthermore, it could be noted that here the problem of the evil and personal responsibility was initially solved by the conventional means, in particular through the prayer and magic. The tradition was stronger than the innovation. However, when these civilizations were in a state of the deep crisis, and when the authority of tradition fell dramatically, the local religions, and later Christianity and Islam, spread here very quickly.

The views which became the basis of the ethical religious and philosophical doctrines were the stupendous achievements of the human spirit. During the development of these exercises, all the major problems of the philosophy were posed and solved: the problem of being (ontology), the problem of knowledge (epistemology) and the problem of values (axiology). Occupying a central place in the human mentality, they created the modern humans, although there are still people who are different from the majority. The mentality of many people remains largely at the level of the primitive society that, unfortunately, is not always recognized by the ideologists, politicians and economists.

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