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Why Did People Change in the Axial Age?

What caused people to change in the Axial Age?

The Axial Age (800 BCE to 200 BCE) brought with it an apparent change in human nature.

Individual consciousness appears to have become richer. A new reflective self-awareness seems to have emerged, in which people began to see themselves as objective, distinct entities and to consider their own motives, feelings, thoughts and to more carefully plan their acts.

Working together, people formed new institutions such as religious organizations and philosophical academies that taught about values and character.

Sages and religious prophets influenced the politics of the day. They traveled from place to place, competed against one another, and hoped to influence and advise secular leaders.

"What is new about this age, in all...[affected] areas of the world," wrote the German philosopher and psychiatrist Karl Jaspers, "is that man becomes conscious of Being as a whole, of himself and his limitations." Jaspers further noted: "Measured against the lucid humanity of the Axial Period, a strange veil seems to lie over the most ancient cultures preceding it, as though man had not yet really come to himself."

During the six- to seven-hundred years involved, these changes in awareness occurred in India, China, Greece, and the Middle East. The degree of communication among these four geographic areas at that time is uncertain. So why did this happen?

No one is quite sure, acknowledges Karen Armstrong, a scholar of the Axial Age and its "Great Transformation."

That said, here are a few explanations:

Alfred Weber's thesis was that the change occurred in response to the new horse-riding-based cultures that emerged in central Asia. Riding horses, Weber speculated, simultaneously gave these peoples a broader view of the world and the peoples and cultures around them. Their travels on horseback literally widened their horizons.

Moreover, in the military campaigns pursued by these peoples, they were exposed to key questions of life and death. One limitation of Weber's theory is that some scholars are skeptical that horse-riding had spread to the Middle East at that time. Yet the Great Transformation took place there as well.

A number of sociological explanations have been proposed. One of these was that greater specialization provided an opportunity, and an increased need, for self-observation. As Harvard professor Benjamin I. Schwartz put it:

"One finds large-scale division and specialization of labor in the various realms of social and cultural life. Spectacular advances in material technology (particularly agriculture), writing, the rise of cities, universal kingship and bureaucracy (or "palace organization"), law codes, large-scale military organization, systematization of religion, priesthoods, and spread of common mythologies are among the specific features that come to mind."

Such changes might well have required correspondingly more reflective conduct among people. That is, the problems of getting along, cooperating, and specialization triggered a new need for self-monitoring.

Whatever happened, the new morality and ways of thinking about the self put a new pressure on people to understand who they were and who they might want to become.


The quote, "For reasons we do not entirely understand...," is from p. 27 of Armstrong, K. (1993). A history of God. New York: Ballentine Books.

Weber's thesis and the sociological approach are described on pages 16-18 of Jaspers, K. (1953). The origin and goal of history. New Haven: Yale University Press.

The quote: "One finds large-scale division and specialiazation..." is from page 2 of Schwartz, B. I. (1975). The age of transcendence. Daedalus, 104, 1-7.

The quotes, "What is new about this age..." and "Measured against the lucid humanity..." come from pp. 2 and 7 of Jaspers, K. (1953). The origin and goal of history. New Haven: Yale Unviersity Press.

(C) Copyright 2009 John D. Mayer

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