Axial Age

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Axial Age or Axial Period (German: Achsenzeit, "axis time") is a term coined by German philosopher Karl Jaspers to describe the period from 800 to 200 BC, during which, according to him, similar new ways of thinking appeared in Persia, India, the Sinosphere and the Western world. The concept was introduced in his book Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte (The Origin and Goal of History[1]), published in 1949. Jaspers claimed that the Axial age should be viewed as an objective empirical fact of history, independently of religious considerations.[2] He identified a number of key thinkers as having had a profound influence on future philosophies and religions, and identified characteristics common to each area from which those thinkers emerged. Jaspers saw in these developments in religion and philosophy a striking parallel without any obvious direct transmission of ideas from one region to the other, having found no recorded proof of any extensive intercommunication between Ancient Greece, the Middle East, India, and China. Jaspers held up this age as unique, and one to which the rest of the history of human thought might be compared. Jaspers' approach to the culture of the middle of the first millennium BC has been adopted by other scholars and academics, and has become a point of discussion in the history of religion.

Characteristics of the Axial Age[edit]

Jaspers presented his first outline of the Axial age by a series of examples:

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
Jaspers argued that the Axial Age gave birth to philosophy as a discipline

Jaspers described the Axial Age as "an interregnum between two ages of great empire, a pause for liberty, a deep breath bringing the most lucid consciousness".[3] To the extent that the Axial Age represents an in-between period, a period where old certainties had lost their validity and where new ones were still not ready, it has also been suggested that the Axial Age can be considered a historically liminal period.[4] Jaspers was particularly interested in the similarities in circumstance and thought of the Age's figures. These similarities included an engagement in the quest for human meaning[5] and the rise of a new elite class of religious leaders and thinkers in China, India and the Occident.[6] The three regions all gave birth to, and then institutionalized, a tradition of travelling scholars, who roamed from city to city to exchange ideas. After the Spring and Autumn period and the Warring States period, Taoism and Confucianism emerged in China. In other regions, the scholars were largely from extant religious traditions; in India, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism; in Persia, the religion of Zoroaster; in Canaan, Judaism; and in Greece, sophism and other classical philosophy.

Jaspers argues that these characteristics appeared under similar political circumstances: China, India, and the Occident each comprised multiple small states engaged in internal and external struggles.

Jaspers argued that during the Axial Age "the spiritual foundations of humanity were laid simultaneously and independently in China, India, Persia, Judea, and Greece. And these are the foundations upon which humanity still subsists today."[7] These foundations were laid by individual thinkers within a framework of a changing social environment.

Thinkers and movements[edit]

Parsva[8][9] (23rd Tirthankara in the 9th century BCE) and Mahavira (24th Tirthankara in the 6th century BCE), known as the fordmakers of Jainism lived during this age.[10][11] They propagated the religion of sramanas (previous Tirthankaras) and influenced Indian philosophy by propounding the principles of ahimsa (non-violence), karma, samsara and asceticism.[12] Buddhism, also of the sramana tradition of India, was another of the world's most influential philosophies, founded by Siddhartha Gautama, or the Buddha, who lived during this period; its spread was aided by Ashoka, who lived late in the period. In China, Confucianism arose during this era, where it remains a profound influence on social and religious life. Zoroastrianism, another of Jaspers' examples, is crucial to the development of monotheism[13] – although Jaspers uses the Seleucid-era estimate for the founding of Zoroastrianism, which is actually the date of Cyrus' unification of Persia. The exact date of Zarathustra's life is debated by scholars with some, such as Mary Boyce, arguing that Zoroastrianism itself is significantly older.[13] Others, such as William W Malandra and RC Zaehner, suggest that he may indeed have been an early contemporary of Cyrus living around 600 BC.[14] However, Boyce and other leading scholars who once supported much earlier dates for Zarathustra/Zoroaster have recently changed their position on the time when he likely lived, so that there is an emerging consensus regarding him as a contemporary or near-contemporary of Cyrus the Great.[15]

Jaspers' axial shifts included the rise of Platonism, which would later become a major influence on the Western world through both Christianity and secular thought throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance.

Term and theory[edit]

The word axial in the phrase Axial Age means pivotal. The name comes from Jaspers' use of the German word Achse, which means both "axis" and "pivot". The period is also sometimes referred to as the Axis Age.[16]

In addition to Jaspers, the philosopher Eric Voegelin referred to this age as The Great Leap of Being, constituting a new spiritual awakening and a shift of perception from societal to individual values.[17] Thinkers and teachers like the Buddha, Pythagoras, Heraclitus, Parmenides, and Anaxagoras contributed to such awakenings which Plato would later call anamnesis, or a remembering of things forgotten.

David Christian notes that the first "universal religions" appeared in the age of the first universal empires and of the first all-encompassing trading networks.[18]

Anarchist anthropologist David Graeber has pointed out that "the core period of Jasper's Axial age [...] corresponds almost exactly to the period in which coinage was invented. What's more, the three parts of the world where coins were first invented were also the very parts of the world where those sages lived; in fact, they became the epicenters of Axial Age religious and philosophical creativity."[19] Drawing on the work of classicist Richard Seaford and literary theorist Marc Shell on the relation between coinage and early Greek thought, Graeber argues that an understanding of the rise of markets is necessary to grasp the context in which the religious and philosophical insights of the Axial age arose. The ultimate effect of the introduction of coinage was, he argues, an "ideal division of spheres of human activity that endures to this day: on the one hand the market, on the other, religion."[19]

German sociologist Max Weber played an important role in Jaspers' thinking.[20][21][22] Shmuel Eisenstadt argues in the introduction to The Origins and Diversity of Axial Age Civilizations that Max Weber's work in his The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism, The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism and Ancient Judaism provided a background for the importance of the period, and notes parallels with Eric Voegelin's Order and History.[6] Wider acknowledgement of Jaspers' work came after it was presented at a conference and published in Dædalus in 1975, and Jaspers' suggestion that the period was uniquely transformative generated important discussion amongst other scholars, such as Johann Arnason.[22] In literature, Gore Vidal in his novel Creation covers much of this Axial Age through the fictional perspective of a Persian adventurer.

Religious historian Karen Armstrong explored the period in her The Great Transformation,[23] and the theory has been the focus of academic conferences.[24] Usage of the term has expanded beyond Jaspers' original formulation. Armstrong argues that the Enlightenment was a "Second Axial Age", including thinkers such as Isaac Newton, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein,though it should be noted that Sigmund Freud was born a number of decades after the end of the Enlightenment[25] and that religion today needs to return to the transformative Axial insights.[26] In contrast, it has been suggested that the modern era is a new axial age, wherein traditional relationships between religion, secularity, and traditional thought are changing.[27]

Scholars still debate whether the idea of an Axial Age is sufficiently grounded in actual empirical evidence as some researchers claim.[28] Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of the history of the church at the University of Oxford, has called the Jaspers thesis "a baggy monster, which tries to bundle up all sorts of diversities over four very different civilisations, only two of which had much contact with each other during the six centuries that (after adjustments) he eventually singled out, between 800 and 200 BCE".[29] A comprehensive critique appears in Iain Provan's 2013 book Convenient Myths: The Axial Age, Dark Green Religion, and the World That Never Was.[30]



  1. ^ Karl Jaspers, Origin and Goal of History, Routledge Revivals, 2011, ISBN 978-0415578806
  2. ^ Jaspers K.,The Origin and Goal of History, p.1
  3. ^ Jaspers 1953, p. 51 quoted in Armstrong 2006, p. 367.
  4. ^ Thomassen, Bjorn (2010), "Anthropology, multiple modernities and the axial age debate", Anthropological Theory 10 (4): 321–42, doi:10.1177/1463499610386659  |chapter= ignored (help)
  5. ^ Neville, Robert Cummings (2002). Religion in Late Modernity. SUNY Press. p. 104. ISBN 0-7914-5424-X. 
  6. ^ a b Eisenstadt, SN (1986). "Introduction". The Origins and Diversity of Axial Age Civilizations. SUNY Press. pp. 1–2. ISBN 0-88706-094-3. 
  7. ^ Jaspers, Karl (2003). The Way to Wisdom : An Introduction to Philosophy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. p. 98. ISBN 0-300-09735-2. .
  8. ^ Fisher, Mary Pat (1997). Living Religions: An Encyclopedia of the World's Faiths. London: IB Tauris. p. 115. ISBN 1-86064-148-2. 
  9. ^ "Parshvanatha". Encyclopædia Britannica. Online. 2007. Retrieved 2007-10-22. 
  10. ^ "Mahavira", Britannica Concise Encyclopedia, Encyclopædia Britannica, 2006 .
  11. ^ Mahavira, Answers, 28 Nov 2009 .
  12. ^ Zydenbos, Robert J (2006). Jainism Today and Its Future. München: Manya Verlag. pp. 11, 56–57, 59. .
  13. ^ a b Boyce, Mary (1979). Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-23903-6. 
  14. ^ Malandra, William (1983). An Introduction to Ancient Iranian Religion. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0-8166-1114-9. 
  15. ^ Brown, Brian Arthur (2012). Three Testaments: Torah, Gospel, and Quran. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 23–24. ISBN 978-1-4422-1492-7. 
  16. ^ Meister, Chad (2009). Introducing Philosophy of Religion. Abingdon: Routledge. p. 10. ISBN 0-203-88002-1. 
  17. ^ Voegelin, Eric (2000) [1985]. Order and History (Volume V): In Search of Order. Collected Works 18. Columbia, MO: The University of Missouri Press. ISBN 978-0-8262-1261-0. 
  18. ^ Christian, David (2004). Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. California World History Library 2. University of California Press. p. 319. ISBN 978-0-520-23500-7. Retrieved 2013-12-29. Not until the first millennium BCE do the first universal religions appear. Though associated in practice with particular dynasties or empires, they proclaimed universal truths and worshiped all-powerful gods. It is no accident that universal religions appeared when both empires and exchange networks reached to the edge of the known universe. Nor is it an accident that one of the earliest religions of this type, Zoroastrianism, appeared in the largest empire of the mid-first millennium BCE, that of the Achaemenids, and at the hub of trade routes that were weaving Afro-Eurasia into a single world system. Indeed, most of the universal religions appeared in the hub region between Mesopotamia and northern India. They included Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism in Persia, Buddhism in India, Confucianism in China, and Judaism, Christianity and Islam in the Mediterranean world. 
  19. ^ a b Graeber 2011, p. 224.
  20. ^ "Karl Jaspers". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2006. Retrieved 2006-06-14. 
  21. ^ Szakolczai, Arpad (2003). The Genesis of Modernity (First hardcover ed.). UK: Routledge. pp. 80–81. ISBN 0-415-25305-5. 
  22. ^ a b Szakolczai, Arpad (2006). "Historical sociology". Encyclopedia of Social Theory. UK: Routledge. p. 251. ISBN 0-415-29046-5. 
  23. ^ Armstrong, Karen (2006). The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions (First ed.). New York: Knopf. ISBN 0-676-97465-1. 
  24. ^ Strath, Bo (2005). "Axial Transformations". Retrieved 2006-06-14. [dead link]
  25. ^ Armstrong, p. 356
  26. ^ Armstrong, pp. 390–99
  27. ^ Lambert, Yves (1999). "Religion in Modernity as a New Axial Age: Secularization or New Religious Forms?". Sociology of Religion 60: 303. doi:10.2307/3711939. 
  28. ^ Baumard et al., Increased Affluence Explains the Emergence of Ascetic Wisdoms and Moralizing Religions, Current Biology (2015),
  29. ^ MacCulloch, Diarmaid (17 March 2006). "The axis of goodness". The Guardian. 
  30. ^ Provan 2013.


  • Armstrong, Karen (2006), The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions (1st ed.), New York: Knopf, ISBN 0-676-97465-1 . A semi-historic description of the events and milieu of the Axial Age.
  • Graeber, David (2011), Debt: The First 5000 Years, Brooklyn: Melville House Press .
  • Jaspers, Karl (1953), The Origin and Goal of History, Bullock, Michael (Tr.) (1st English ed.), London: Routledge & Keegan Paul, LCCN 53001441 . Originally published as Jaspers, Karl (1949), Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte [The origin & goal of History] (in German) (1st ed.), München: Piper, LCCN 49057321 .
  • Provan, Iain (2013), Convenient Myths: The Axial Age, Dark Green Religion, and the World That Never Was (book), Waco: Baylor University Press, ISBN 978-1602589964 .
  • Eisenstadt, S. N. (Ed.). (1986). The origins and diversity of axial age civilizations. SUNY Press. ISBN 978-0887060960
  • Hans Joas and Robert N. Bellah (Eds), (2012), The Axial Age and Its Consequences, Belknap Press, ISBN 978-0674066496

Further reading[edit]

  • "Wisdom, Revelation and Doubt: Perspectives on the First Millennium BC", Daedalus, Spring 1975 .
  • Eisenstadt, Shmuel (1982), "The Axial Age: The Emergence of Transcendental Visions and the Rise of Clerics", European Journal of Sociology 23 (2): 294–314 .
  • Yves Lambert (1999). "Religion in Modernity as a New Axial Age: Secularization or New Religious Forms?". Oxford University Press: Sociology of Religion Vol. 60 No. 3. pp. 303–333. A general model of analysis of the relations between religion and modernity, where modernity is conceived as a new axial age.
  • Rodney Stark (2007). Discovering God: A New Look at the Origins of the Great Religions. NY: HarperOne.
  • Gore Vidal (1981). Creation. NY: Random House. A novel narrated by the fictional grandson of Zoroaster in 445 BC, describing encounters with the central figures of the Axial Age during his travels.

External links[edit]