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Axial Age

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Axial Age

Axial Age (also Axis Age,[1] from German German: Achsenzeit) is a term coined by German philosopher Karl Jaspers in the sense of a "pivotal age" characterizing the period of ancient history during about the 8th to 3rd centuries BC. During this time, according to Jaspers' concept, new ways of thinking appeared in Persia, India, China and the Greco-Roman world in religion and philosophy, in a striking parallel development without any obvious direct cultural contact between all of the participating cultures of the Old World.

The concept was introduced in his book Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte (The Origin and Goal of History[2]), published in 1949. Jaspers claimed that the Axial age should be viewed as an objective empirical fact of history, independently of religious considerations.[3] 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 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 1
  • Thinkers and movements 2
  • Theoretical background 3
  • References 4
  • Bibliography 5
  • Further reading 6
  • External links 7

Characteristics of the Axial Age

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".[4] It has also been suggested that the Axial Age was a historically liminal period, when old certainties had lost their validity and new ones were still not ready.[5] Jaspers had a particular interest in the similarities in circumstance and thought of the Age's figures. These similarities included an engagement in the quest for human meaning[6] and the rise of a new elite class of religious leaders and thinkers in China, India and the Occident.[7] 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, from Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism; in Persia, from the religion of Zoroaster; in Canaan, from Judaism; and in Greece, from 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."[8] These foundations were laid by individual thinkers within a framework of a changing social environment.

Eisenstadt analyses economic circumstances relating to the coming of the Axial Age in Greece.[9]

Many of the cultures of the axial age were considered Second-generation societies given the fact that they are built off of the societies that proceeded them. [10]

Thinkers and movements

Parsva[11][12] (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.[13][14] They propagated the religion of sramanas (previous Tirthankaras) and influenced Indian philosophy by propounding the principles of ahimsa (non-violence), karma, samsara and asceticism.[15] 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, The Hundred Schools of Thought were in contention and Confucianism arose during this era, and in this area it remains a profound influence on social and religious life. Zoroastrianism, another of Jaspers' examples, is crucial to the development of monotheism[16] – 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.[16] 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.[17] 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.[18]

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.

Theoretical background

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.[19] 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.[20]

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."[21] 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."[22]

German sociologist Max Weber played an important role in Jaspers' thinking.[23][24][25] 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.[7] 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.[25] 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,[26] and the theory has been the focus of academic conferences.[27] 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. It has also been suggested that the modern era is a new axial age, wherein relationships between religion, secularity, and traditional thought are changing.[28]

The validity of the concept has been called into question.[29] Diarmaid MacCulloch in 2006 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".[30] A comprehensive critique appears in Iain Provan's 2013 book Convenient Myths: The Axial Age, Dark Green Religion, and the World That Never Was.[31]


  1. ^ Meister, Chad (2009). Introducing Philosophy of Religion. Abingdon: Routledge. p. 10.  
  2. ^ Karl Jaspers, Origin and Goal of History, Routledge Revivals, 2011, ISBN 978-0415578806
  3. ^ Jaspers K.,The Origin and Goal of History, p.1
  4. ^ Jaspers 1953, p. 51 quoted in Armstrong 2006, p. 367.
  5. ^  
  6. ^ Neville, Robert Cummings (2002). Religion in Late Modernity. SUNY Press. p. 104.  
  7. ^ a b  
  8. ^ Jaspers, Karl (2003). The Way to Wisdom : An Introduction to Philosophy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. p. 98.  .
  9. ^  
  10. ^ Pollard;Rosenberg;Tignor, Elizabeth;Clifford;Robert (2011). Worlds Together Worlds Apart. NewYork: Norton. p. 162.  
  11. ^ Fisher, Mary Pat (1997). Living Religions: An Encyclopedia of the World's Faiths. London: IB Tauris. p. 115.  
  12. ^ "Parshvanatha". Encyclopædia Britannica. Online. 2007. Retrieved 2007-10-22. 
  13. ^ "Mahavira", Britannica Concise Encyclopedia, Encyclopædia Britannica, 2006 .
  14. ^ Mahavira, Answers, 28 Nov 2009 .
  15. ^  .
  16. ^ a b  
  17. ^  
  18. ^  
  19. ^  
  20. ^  
  21. ^ Graeber 2011, p. 224.
  22. ^ Graeber 2011, p. 249
  23. ^ "Karl Jaspers". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2006. Retrieved 2006-06-14. 
  24. ^ Szakolczai, Arpad (2003). The Genesis of Modernity (First hardcover ed.). UK: Routledge. pp. 80–81.  
  25. ^ a b Szakolczai, Arpad (2006). "Historical sociology". Encyclopedia of Social Theory. UK: Routledge. p. 251.  
  26. ^  
  27. ^ Strath, Bo (2005). "Axial Transformations". Retrieved 2006-06-14. 
  28. ^ Lambert, Yves (1999). "Religion in Modernity as a New Axial Age: Secularization or New Religious Forms?". Sociology of Religion 60: 303.  
  29. ^ Baumard; et al. (2015). "Increased Affluence Explains the Emergence of Ascetic Wisdoms and Moralizing Religions". Current Biology 25: 10–15.  
  30. ^  
  31. ^ Provan 2013.


  • . A semi-historic description of the events and milieu of the Axial Age.  
  • .  
  • .  
  • .  
  • 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

  • "Wisdom, Revelation and Doubt: Perspectives on the First Millennium BC", Daedalus, Spring 1975 .
  •  .
  • 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

  • The Axial Age and Its Consequences, a 2008 conference in Erfurt, DE.
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