That said, I turn now to a problem that has interested me ever since I first learned of it almost forty years ago: the controversy over the Axial Age. What is meant by this expression? The Axial Age is an era centered on the period around 500 BCE, when a remarkable body of revolutionary achievements in thought erupted across a broad band of Eurasia. In Greece, there were the pre-Socratic philosophers, followed by Socrates himself, Plato, and Aristotle. About the same time, if the traditional chronology is to be trusted. such reforming prophets as Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah arose in ancient Israel. In India Gautama Buddha appeared, accompanied by the maturation of Hindu thought found in the Upanishads. In ancient China, Confucius, Mencius, and the author of the Daodejing illuminated the Far Eastern manifestation of the Axial Age. There is thus, it seems, a remarkable synchronicity of epochal advances stretching from southeastern Europe to the plains of northern China.
The period not only saw the appearance of major thinkers and their writings, but a new criticality that was prepared to examine, and if necessary to discard the conventional wisdom. In most cases this development occurred in small cities and city states. Subsequently, the rise of empires, such as the Hellenistic kingdoms, the regime of Ashoka, and the Han Dynasty served to blunt the effect of the Axial Revolution. Yet it may be argued that this barrage of innovation, occurring some 2500 years ago, was the breakthrough to the modernity in which we still live.
Sixty-three years ago the concept of the Axial Age rose to prominence thanks to a remarkable book, The Origin and Goal of History, by the philosopher Karl Jaspers. Subsequent research has traced the notion back to the writings of A.-H. Anquetil-Duperron (1731-1805), a French scholar of ancient Iran.
With regard to Jaspers, it is easy to see why this grand concept would appeal to a Europe that was just recovering from the nihilism of Nazism. Over time, though, interest faded, to revive recently, thanks in large measure to the efforts of Shmuel N. Eisenstadt. The new interest seems to be fueled by a broader process, that of globalization, which in the view of some observers is fostering a new Axial Age.
The historical problem has now been addressed by a weighty volume combining the efforts of eighteen distinguished authorities: The Axial Age and Its Consequences, edited by Robert N. Bellah and Hans Joas (Harvard University Press, 2012). Since there is much to ponder in this book, my conclusions must be regarded as tentative.
The key problem is this what can account for this extraordinary synchronization of breakthroughs? After all, in those remote times there was very little communication among the ancient civilizations involved. Merlin Donald, an academic psychologist, has proposed an answer in terms of cultural evolution. He believes that, beginning in prehistoric times, humanity advanced through several distinct phases: the episodic, which yielded to the mimetic, and that in turn to the mythic. The theoretic stage, corresponding to the Axial Age, concluded the sequence.
In what is perhaps the most penetrating of all the essays in this book, the Egyptologist Jan Assmann returns a mixed verdict. “I confess that I cannot bring myself to really believe in the “Axial Age” as a global turn in universal history occurring grosso modo in the middle of the first millennium BCE. On the other hand, I find the concept of axiality (with pre- and post-axiality) a valuable and even indispensable analytic tool in the comparative study of cultures. . . . [The] 'breakthroughs' occurred at different times and to different degrees under different conditions and with different consequences.”
In short the thesis remains tantalizing, but not yet fully secured.
Generally absent from scholarly inquiries into the origin of the Axial Age is the name of Dionysius Exiguus, a Scythian monk active in papal Rome. About the year 525 CE Dionysius introduced the principle of the Anno Domini, that is, dating years from the Incarnation. (That the monk got the date of Jesus’ birth slightly wrong does not effect the efficacy of the concept). Dionysus disliked the then-current practice of dating events from the beginning of the reign of Diocletian in 286, since Diocletian was a persecutor of Christians.
In advancing his Anno Domini principle the Scythian monk fused sacred and secular history, treating the appearance of Jesus Christ as the pivot of history. In my view the concept of the Axial Age implicitly adopts Dionysus’s ploy, but pushes back the date some 500 years.