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The Significance of the Axial Age (the Great Transformation)

Did a new level of consciousness evolve in 550 BCE?

Are we homo sapiens the same as we were in ancient times or are there vast differences between our psychology today and that of our ancient ancestors?

Ancient peoples of 3,000 years ago knew far less than we do today about medicine, biology, and the solar system, and probably much more about such subjects as how to identify edible plants, defend themselves from animals, and relate to their societies.

Before a certain time, some psychologists believe, ancient peoples also differed from us by exhibiting far less capacity to monitor their internal thoughts, feelings, and motives; they engaged in little or no self-reflection, and lacked a personal identity other than a name, parentage, and a recollection of a sequence of life events.

The German philosopher Karl Jaspers wrote:

...a strange veil seems to lie over the most ancient though man had not yet really come to himself..."

In a horizontal timeline extending from 2000 BCE to 2000 CE (today), crossing it vertically is an "Axis of Change" positioned at 550 BCE. This axis, according to Jaspers, divided earlier peoples from those who more closely resemble the peoples of today. Around that axis is an era—from about 800 BCE to 200 BCE—designated as the "Axial Age" or "the Great Transformation."

People who lived on the early side of the axis, some scholars believe, lacked much self-reflection and lacked the concepts, ideas, and thoughts related to such awareness. People who lived on the later side of the axis were essentially contemporary in those aspects of their psychology.

Before the Axial transformation, human beings told one another myths and other stories about how they came to be. The stories were not regarded as true or false; rather, their truth did not require questioning. Such was the state of human beings, Jaspers believed, because of a lack a self-reflective, fully conscious self-understanding. Under such conditions, abstract truths matter not.

During the Axial Age, however, some scholars argue that dramatic shifts took place in human thought across four geographically distinct regions of the world: India, China, the Middle East, and Greece.

New ways of thinking emerged that defined the world's psychological culture for all time since. Jaspers wrote:

What is new about this age ... is that man becomes conscious of Being as a whole, of himself and his limitations. He experiences the terror of the world and his own powerlessness. He asks radical questions. Face to face with the void he strives for liberation and redemption. By consciously recognising his limits he sets himself the highest goals.

Big questions that were specifically psychological in nature emerged: "Who am I?" and "Why are people different?" [PDF]

Perhaps as a consequence of this questioning, a new generation of wisdom teachings emerged across the four geographic areas affected. In India, new Hindu doctrine included a greater degree of reflection and analysis. Buddhism and Jainism both emerged, similarly self-reflective and analytical. China saw Confucianism, Taoism, and the "Hundred Schools." Iran saw Zoroastrianism. In the Middle East, Judaism coalesced, and changed from its non-reflective earliest writings to a more human-focused perspective epitomized by the later books of the Hebrew Bible and by Rabbinic Judaism. Greek philosophy explored the human mind and argued for self-knowledge.

Theologians, philosophers, and prophets took their place alongside kings and monarchs as leaders of the populace.

Considering the Hebrew prophets, Siddhartha (the Buddha), and similar others as establishing a new social role, Jaspers notes:

Philosophers travel from State to State, become advisers and teachers, are scorned or sought after, enter into discussions and compete with one another. A sociological parallel can be drawn between Confucius' failure at the court of Wei and Plato's failure at Syracuse, between the school of Confucius, which trained future statesmen, and the academy of Plato, which served the same purpose.

During the Axial Age and since, new pressures also were placed on human personality.

Earlier, an individual's characteristics were appreciated or devalued, perhaps, nonconsciously, automatically.

After the transformation, qualities such as courage, solidarity, and kindness occupied a new cultural place and were explicitly valued by religious and other wisdom writings. Human beings became caught between their own untrammeled natures and the new teachings. Such valuing of character led to "...a new level of internal tensions in the formation of personality...." according to Professor S. N. Eisenstadt. Each person was far more likely to be judged by their fellows according to new community standards.

Any idea of an historical age simplifies the complexities of the time period under consideration. Moreover, the claim that a new form of consciousness emerged in the Axial era is controversial; nonetheless, it is sufficiently intriguing to warrant consideration.

If true, when the Axial period arose, humanity was divided into those who were newly reflective and those who were not. One's family, tribe, or group either joined in with this remarkable new movement, or, perhaps, became lost to the ages.


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Copyright © 2009 John D. Mayer.



Jaspers, K. (1953). The origin and goal of history. New Haven: Yale University Press. "...a strange veil seems to lie over the most ancient cultures," p. 7; "What is new about this that man becomes conscious...", p. 2. "Philosophers traveled from state to state..." p. 5.

"...the spread of common cultural patterns and political empire..." from page 2 of Schwartz, B. I. (1975). The age of transcendence. Daedalus, 104, 1-7.

"...a new level of internal tensions in the formation of personality was generated." Is from p. 5, Eisenstadt, S. N.(1986). The axial age breakthrough. In S. N. Eisenstadt (Ed.) The origins and diversity of axial age civilizations. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

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