Exploring the Axial Age
Jasper’s Axial Age – now that’s something that always fascinated me, ever since I stumbled on the idea while I was setting up my first course in Taoist philosophy.
Karl T. Jaspers was a German psychiatrist, philosopher and thinker that noticed how, between the 8th and the 3rd century BCE, a lot of new ways of thinking emerged all over the world.
Confucius and Lao-Tse were living in China, all the schools of Chinese philosophy came into being, including those of Mo Ti, Chuang Tse, Lieh Tzu and a host of others; India produced the Upanishads and Buddha and, like China, ran the whole gamut of philosophical possibilities down to materialism, scepticism and nihilism; in Iran Zarathustra taught a challenging view of the world as a struggle between good and evil; in Palestine the prophets made their appearance from Elijah by way of Isaiah and Jeremiah to Deutero-Isaiah; Greece witnessed the appearance of Homer, of the philosophers – Parmenides, Heraclitus and Plato, – of the tragedians, of Thucydides and Archimedes. Everything implied by these names developed during these few centuries almost simultaneously in China, India and the West.
(Karl Jaspers, Origin and Goal of History, p. 2)
Now, of course, “simultaneously” and a span of five/six centuries are two notions somewhat at odds, and indeed Jasper’s theory is considered mostly bogus – an exaggeration at best, an abomination at worst.
And yet it is the Axial Age that gets the spotlight in Michael Scott’s Ancient Empires, a hefty historical essay from 2013 I have here now on my nightstand. Scott’s idea is simple: what about all those empires and civilizations that are normally left in the shadow of Greece and Rome when we talk about the ancient world? And what about the connections between those peoples and those nations?
It’s the old matter of history not being divided into boxes, but being the place where communication, cross-pollination and exchange make it clear that we were always a global species.
And so here Professor Scott goes, with a good overview of both Eastern and Western powers between the 500BC and 300AD, and of all those nations, peoples and characters that are usually mentioned passingly while the main action develops center stage…
This is an excellent volume, filled with maps and images, and one that covers both historical events and our perception of history.
It makes a good companion to Christopher I. Beckwith’s Empires of the Silk Road, and it promises high adventure and large-scale events of world-changing proportions.
And I felt like reading some history or some science – hence my latest rampage n the pages of Amazon, cashing in a gift coupon and getting some reading material to scrap the rust from my synapses.
Not that I have much time for reading, but getting finally rid of my television has opened up a few hours every week I can and will devote to learning something new.
Because that, as T.H. White said, is the best cure for the blues.