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Karen Armstrong: The Great Transformation:
the beginning of our religious traditions
(Knopf: 1996)


“From about 900 to 200 BCE, in four distinct regions, the great world traditions that have continued to nourish humanity came into being: Confucianism and Daoism in China; Hinduism and Buddhism in India; monotheism in Israel; and philosophical rationalism in Greece.... During this period of intense creativity, spiritual and philosophical geniuses pioneered an entirely new kind of human experience. Many of them worked anonymously, but others became luminaries who can still fill us with emotion, because they show us what a human being should be. The Axial Age was one of the most seminal periods of intellectual, psychological, philosophical, and religious change in recorded history; there would be nothing comparable until the Great Western Transformation, which created our own scientific and technological modernity.... [And] in fact, we have never surpassed the insights of the Axial Age. In times of spiritual and social crisis, men and women have constantly turned back to this period for guidance. They may have interpreted the Axial discoveries differently, but they have never succeeded in going beyond them. Rabbinical Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, for example, were all latter-day flowerings of the Axial Age.... The prophets, mystics, philosophers, and poets of the Axial Age were so advanced, and their vision so radical, that later generations tended to dilute it. In the process, they often produced exactly the kind of religiosity that the Axial reformers wanted to get rid of.”
(Armstrong, pp.xii-iii)

From its traditional position as the “queen of the sciences”, theology has now been reduced - in mainstream education, at least - to the position of a definite outlier...considered marginal to scholarly understanding. Trouble is, the religious impulse remains a key part of human nature, and we all need a much better understanding of this than is provided by either believers or debunkers...in short, we need genuinely critical, yet sympathetic scholarship. Arguably, perhaps the best route into same is comparative history...in particular, the history of what philosopher Karl Jaspers called the Axial Age, although very few have the necessarily broad scholarship needed to properly tackle such a subject, which may account for the paucity of works on this crucial area. Enter Karen Armstrong...

Although one can argue - and, as you will see, I do - with many of Armstrong’s emphases and arguments in this book, that certainly does not take away from her achievement here...in having provided the general readership with the first comprehensive account of the Axial Age, a feat both extremely timely (given current battles over religion) and well-overdue... And, as one of the world’s leading historians of religion, she is amply qualified to lead us through this fraught period in human history:


“All the traditions that were developed during the Axial Age...discovered a transcendent dimension in the core of their being, but they did not necessarily regard this as supernatural, and most of them refused to discuss it. Precisely because the experience was ineffable, the only correct attitude was reverent silence. The sages certainly did not seek to impose their own view of this ultimate reality on other people. Quite the contrary...it was essential to question everything, and to test any teaching empirically, against your personal experience. In fact, as we shall see, if a prophet or philosopher did start to insist on obligatory doctrines, it was usually a sign that the Axial Age had lost momentum.... [For] what mattered was not what you believed, but how you behaved. Religion was about doing things that changed you at a profound level. Before the Axial Age, ritual and sacrifice had been central to the religious quest. You experienced the divine in sacred dramas that, like a great theatrical experience today, introduced you to another level of existence. The Axial sages changed this; they still valued ritual, but gave it a new ethical significance, and put morality at the heart of the spiritual life.... Indeed, religion was compassion.... First you must commit yourself to the ethical life; then disciplined and habitual benevolence, not metaphysical conviction, would give you intimations of the transcendence you sought. This meant that you had to be ready to change.... Further, nearly all the Axial sages realized that you could not confine your benevolence to your own people: your concern must somehow extend to the entire world.... As far as the Axial sages were concerned, respect for the sacred rights of all beings - not orthodox belief - was religion.... [And] the sages of the Axial Age did not create their compassionate ethic in ideal circumstances. Each tradition developed in societies, like our own, that were being torn apart by violence and warfare as never before; indeed the first catalyst of religious change was usually a principled rejection of the aggression that the sages witnessed all around them. When they started to look for the causes of violence in the psyche, the Axial philosophers penetrated their interior world, and began to explore a hitherto undiscovered realm of human experience.”
(Armstrong, pp.xiii-iv)

As to just why this period produced such a response, in key areas right across Eurasia, we must turn - at least in the beginning - to social and military history...for these reformers were reacting against a situation that was, in many ways, new in human history. Following on from the advent of the first cities - around 3,500 BCE - settlements gradually became larger, economies less and less self-sufficient, and organized military power more and more important until, with the advent of the composite bow/war chariot combination (around 1,700 BCE), a genuinely crucial technology put the aristocracy firmly in the saddle, as it were, until the rise of mass armies between 1,200 and 600 BCE. Robert Drews, in The End of the Bronze Age, has offered the best account of the beginning of the latter processes on a military level, and now Karen Armstrong has made clear its impact on the realm of values.

For this was no orderly transfer of power. As John Keegan has persuasively argued, the Chariot aristocracies brutalized relations between rulers and ruled...and, the former had no intention of sharing power with the “cattle” they dominated. In consequence, every gain by the ordinary people was hard-fought, and it was only in geographies where centralized power could not get a foothold that any type of political egalitarianism developed...

Elsewhere, however, as new powers arose on a mass-mobilized footing - and fought it out for regional supremacy - what was needed was some new principle of value, which could counterbalance the realities of rule w/a sense that the (now armed and very necessary) ordinary people were not in fact “cattle”...and which would help counteract the increasing spread of violence throughout these divided societies, and offer meaning to those living in what were, more and more, mass, urbanized and cosmopolitan cultures:


“The Axial Age began in India when the ritual reformers started to extract the violence and aggression from the sacrificial contest. Israel’s Axial Age began in earnest after the destruction of Jerusalem and the enforced deportation of the exiles to Babylonia, where the priestly writers started to evolve an ideal of reconciliation and ahimsa. China’s Axial Age developed during the Warring States period, when Confucians, Mohists and Daoists all found ways to counteract widespread lawless, lethal aggression. In Greece, where violence was institutionalized by the polis, despite some notable contributions to the Axial ideal - especially in the realm of tragedy - there was ultimately no religious transformation.”
(Armstrong, pp.393-4)

Now, if I have reservations about Armstrong’s work, then this (accurate) summary re origins provides a perfect opportunity for airing them. As a historian of religion - and, what’s more, a former nun - Armstrong does tend to over-rate religion...and, under-rate ethically-comparable, but definitely secular ideas, where she has much less scholarly background. This makes, for example, her treatment of early Greek philosophy extremely thin on the “liberal” thinkers whose ideas Eric Havelock explored - despite the fact that they offered the best  philosophical parallel to the ethical universalism she (rightly) sees as central to the Axial Age...far closer than the elitist conceptions of Plato and Aristotle.  Moreover, as a comparison w/Thomas L. Thompson’s The Bible in History rapidly makes clear, she's also overly respectful of some of the historical illusions still cherished by most Biblical scholars...in contrast w/her treatments of the other traditions here.

Still, these are mere nit-picks, considering the sheer scale of the changes she surveys so well, and easily corrected by reading Havelock and Thompson. For, otherwise, we simply have no broad-scale comparative treatment of the Axial Age on offer...whilst that age is truly one we still need to understand.

And, as Armstrong shows us, the first signs of such values, in fact, were among the chariot peoples themselves...right in the midst of  the “aristocratic” violence:


“The first people to attempt an Axial Age spirituality were pastoralists living on the steppes of southern Russia, who called themselves the Aryans. The Aryans were not a distinct ethnic group, so this was not a racial term but an assertion of pride, and meant something like ‘noble’ or ‘honorable.’... [Theirs] was a quiet, sedentary existence. The Aryans could not travel far, because the horse had not yet been domesticated, so their horizons were bounded by the steppes.... [But] this slow, uneventful life came to end when...they learned about bronze weaponry from the Armenians and...then the war chariot. Once they had learned how to tame the wild horses of the steppes and harness them to their chariots, they experienced the joys of mobility. Life would never be the same again. The Aryans had become warriors. They could now travel long distances at high speed. With their superior weapons, they could conduct lightning raids on neighboring settlements and steal cattle and crops. This was much more thrilling and lucrative than stock breeding.... They killed, plundered and pillaged, terrorizing the more conservative Aryans, who were bewildered, frightened, and entirely disoriented, feeling that their lives had been turned upside down. Violence escalated on the steppes as never before. Even the more traditional tribes, who simply wanted to be left alone, had to learn the new military techniques in order to defend themselves. A heroic age had begun. Might was right; chieftains sought gain and glory; and bards celebrated aggression, reckless courage, and military prowess. The old Aryan religion had preached reciprocity, self-sacrifice, and kindness to animals. This was no longer appealing to the cattle rustlers, whose hero was the dynamic Indra, the dragon slayer, who rode in a chariot upon the clouds of heaven.”
(Armstrong, pp.3-7)

“But the more traditional, Avestan-speaking Aryans were appalled by Indra’s naked aggression.... Events on earth always reflected cosmic events in heaven, so, they reasoned, these terrifying raids must have a divine prototype.... Perhaps the peaceful ahuras [great gods], who stood for justice, truth, and respect for life and property, were themselves under attack by Indra and the more aggressive daevas. This, at any rate, was the view of a visionary priest, who in about 1200 claimed that Ahura Mazda had commissioned him to restore order to the steppes. His name was Zoroaster...[and his] vision convinced him that Lord Mazda was not simply one of the great ahuras, but that he was the Supreme God. For Zoroaster and his followers, Mazda was no longer immanent in the natural world, but had become transcendent, different in kind from any other divinity.... But Zoroaster was not interested in theological speculation for its own sake. He was wholly preoccupied by the violence that had destroyed the peaceful world of the steppe, and was desperately seeking a way to bring it to an end. The Gathas, the seventeen inspired hymns attributed to Zoroaster, are pervaded by a distraught vulnerability, impotence, and fear....[which embodied] a torn, conflicted vision. The world seemed polarized, split into two irreconcilable camps...[and,] if there was a single divine source for everything that was benign and good, Zoroaster concluded that there must also be a wicked deity...equal in power to Lord Mazda, but his opposite. In the beginning...there had been a choice. The Hostile Spirit had thrown his lot with druj, the lie, and was the epitome of evil...but Lord Mazda had opted for goodness and had created the Holy Immortals and human beings as his allies. Now every single man, woman, and child had to make the same choice.”
(Armstrong, pp.7-9)

As Armstrong argues, Zoroaster’s vision prefigures Axial Age spirituality in many ways - particularly its transcendentalism & ethical focus - and, through its near-monotheism and apocalyptic notions of end time & a final judgement - had an immeasurable effect upon subsequent Middle Eastern faiths...


“But Zoroaster’s traumatized vision, with its imagery of burning, terror, and extermination, was vengeful. His career reminds us that political turbulence, atrocity, and suffering do not infallibly produce an Axial-style faith, but can inspire a militant piety that polarizes complex reality into oversimplified categories of good and evil. Zoroaster’s vision was deeply agonistic. We shall see that the agon (‘contest’) was a common feature of ancient religion, [and] in making a cosmic agon between good and evil central to his message, Zoroaster belonged to the old spiritual world...[even if,] his passionately ethical vision...did look forward to the new.... Strangely enough, [however,] it was the Aryan cattle rustlers, whom Zoroaster had condemned, who would eventually create the first sustained religion of the Axial Age, based upon the principle of ahimsa, nonviolence.”
(Armstrong, pp.11-12)

This was to be in India, albeit after migration, the influence of local traditions, and at the end of a long process of spiritual reform. For the earlier (Vedic) spirituality of the Indian Aryans, in contrast, was not at all peaceful, albeit it did stress the paradoxical nature of enlightenment, in a way which would foreshadow later developments. But this culture was strongly agonistic:


“The rishi [seers] represented only a tiny minority of the Aryan community [in India]. The warriors and raiders lived  in an entirely different spiritual world. Their lives alternated between the village (grama) and the jungle (aranya). During the monsoon rains, they had to live an asura-like existence in temporary, makeshift encampments. But after the winter solstice, they yoked their horses and oxen, and set off into the wilderness on a new cycle of raids, to replenish the wealth of the community. The opposition of the village and the forest became a spiritual and social paradigm in India...[and] later, during the Axial Age, hermits would retire to the forest to pioneer the spiritual realm.”
(Armstrong, p.17)

“Sacrifice was...at the spiritual heart of Aryan society in India, but it was also central to the economy. The old peaceful rites of the steppes had become far more aggressive and competitive, and reflected the dangerous lives of the cattle rustlers. Aryan sacrifice was now similar to the potlatch celebrated by the native American tribes of the northwest.... If a community accumulated more animals and crops than it needed, this surplus had to be ‘burned up’, [for] it was impossible for a nomadic group that was perpetually on the move to store these goods...[and] the ritual also showed how successful the chief had been and enhanced his prestige.... [Thus,] at a time when he was supposed to leave his mundane self behind and become one with his heavenly counterpart, he was also engaged in aggressive self-assertion. This paradox in the ancient ritual would be a matter of concern to many reformers of the Axial Age. Sacrifice also increased the violence that was already endemic in the region. After it was over, the patron had no cattle left, and would have to inaugurate a new series of raids to replenish his wealth.”
(Armstrong, pp.17-18)

Before such warriors could see the hermit’s life as a worthy one, however, a great change had to take place. The point of leverage for the ritual reformers was, as Armstrong emphasizes, the dissonance between the competitive (and violent) nature of the rites, and their supposed aim - to make the sacrificer one w/his heavenly counterpart. Seizing upon this, reformers gradually stripped away the competitive/violent aspects of the rituals during the period when northern India became more densely settled, and the old raiding ways increasingly out of place. And, by supplanting this struggle with a new one - an inward search which mobilized new spiritual techniques - the reformers succeeded in fundamentally redirecting their society:


“The Brahmanas were making a courageous attempt to find a new source of meaning and value in a changing world. The ritualists wanted a liturgy that would not inflict harm or injury on any of its participants....[and they] also banned any hint of aggression toward human beings. There were to be no more competitions, chariot races, mock battles, or raids. These were all systematically expunged from the rites and replaced by anodyne chants and symbolic gestures. To ensure that there could be no possibility of conflict...the old noisy, crowded sacrificial area was now empty, except for the single, lone sacrificer and his wife...[along with] the four priests and their assistants, who guided the patron through the ceremonies.... [And, now,] a sacrificer could conquer death only by assimilating it and taking it into himself...directing attention away from the external world and into the interior realm.... By meditating on the inner dynamic of the ritual, the priestly reformers...would now begin to pioneer the exploration of the inner world as assiduously as the Aryan warriors had pressed forward into the unknown jungles of India...demanding that everybody reflect upon the rites and become aware of the implications of what they were doing: a new self-consciousness had been born. Henceforth, the spiritual quest of India would not focus on an external god, but on the eternal self.”
(Armstrong, pp.78-85)

This, in many ways, is the archetypical Axial Age shift...in which a focus upon ritual, in a time of violent social change in which a brutal aristocracy was being demoted, becomes a search for the meaning behind ritual...leading, inexorably (it would seem) to the universalistic ethical standard of the Golden Rule. However, the variety of routes taken to this destination are remarkable, and many aspects which appear to be essential in one tradition may be totally unexplored in another. Monotheism, for example, was approached in certain elements of Greek and Indian thought - albeit in a highly abstract way - yet there is simply no hint of it in the Chinese Axial traditions, nor is there any move towards transcendental ideas, which proved central to the other three traditions here. In each case, to genuinely understand these traditions one must explore their histories, in detail - alert to correspondences and contrasts alike - which is Armstrong’s strategy throughout...

This, however, makes hers a very difficult work to summarize in review, since the real strengths of the book lie in the sheer wealth of details, and in the skilful way in which these are deployed. Still, your reviewer may at least highlight some of these. Perhaps most useful is Armstrong’s chronological approach. By dividing the book into time periods, and surveying changes in all of the four areas within each - rather than treating each region separately - she insistently reminds us of how differently placed each culture was at any given moment, and how genuinely diverse the stories of these traditions are, even if they did come to agree on an ethical core. Furthermore, just as their routes into the Axial Age differed, so too did the ways in which they departed from it subsequently, as is suggested by this incisive critique of Hellenistic philosophy:


“The heroic striving of Confucius, the Buddha, Ezekiel and Socrates had been replaced by a more modest, attainable, and, as it were, ‘budget’ version...[whilst] there is a fatalism in all these third-century Greek philosophies that was anathema to the Axial Age. The Buddha had warned his disciples not to become attached to metaphysical opinions; the mystics of the Upanishads had reduced their interlocutors to silence by pointing out the fallacy of rational thought, but they had not simply ‘suspended judgement’ like the Skeptics.... The renouncers of India had left the world behind, but not to live in the suburban Epicurean Garden, and the Buddha had insisted that his monks must return to the agora and practice compassion for all living things. Herein lay the difference. These Hellenistic philosophers made no heroic ethical demands.... The Axial sages all pointed out that existence was inherently unsatisfactory and painful, and wanted to transcend this suffering. But they were not content merely to avoid distress and stop caring about anybody or anything; they had insisted that salvation lay in facing up to suffering, not in retreating into denial. In Epicurus’s sequestered Garden, there is more than a hint of the Buddha’s pleasure park.”

(Armstrong, pp.354-5)

Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation is a marvellous and genuinely important book, exploring/comparing the emergence of the key traditions which still underlie our value-systems...even if we so readily distort these in self-justification. The criticisms I noted above, early in this review, do not substantially take away from her achievement here and might, in fact, best be seen as those flaws inevitable in any groundbreaking work which attempts to survey such a vast stretch of time and space. For Jaspers’ concept of an “Axial Age” - although influential - has not prompted a work like Armstrong’s before...however much we may have needed it. And, as a non-theist myself, I’d have to say that we have needed it, being far too comfortable in our various positions...and much too unwilling to see that many of the strengths we rely upon are also foundational to the traditions of others.

Moreover, as Jaspers was (perhaps) the first to identify, the Axial Age was a sea-change in human behaviour...a re-centring on the ethical, as well as a re-start of our long empirical turning. Coming to grips w/human history - an inappropriately agonistic phrase, Armstrong might say - demands that we put such great transformations first, since, without understanding these, we are far too liable to confuse history with merely “one damned thing after another”. But, as Armstrong so clearly shows us, the blessed also make history...


“When warfare and terror are rife in a society, this affects everything that people do. The hatred and horror infiltrate their dreams, relationships, desires, and ambitions. The Axial sages saw this happening to their own contemporaries, and devised an education rooted in the deeper, less conscious levels of the self to help them overcome this. The fact that they all came up with such profoundly similar solutions by so many different routes suggests that they had indeed discovered something important about the way human beings worked. Regardless of their theological ‘beliefs’ - which, as we have seen, did not much concern the sages - they all concluded that if people made a disciplined effort to reeducate themselves, they would experience an enhancement of their humanity. In one way or another, their programs were designed to eradicate the egotism that is largely responsible for our violence, and promoted the empathic spirituality of the Golden Rule.... [But] if people concentrated on what they hoped to transcend to, and became dogmatic about it, they could develop an inquisitorial stridency that was, in Buddhist terminology, ‘unskilful.’... All the world religions have seen the eruption of this type of militant piety. As a result, some people have concluded either that religion itself is inescapably violent, or that violence and intolerance are endemic to a particular tradition. But the story of the Axial Age shows that in fact the opposite is the case. Every single one of these faiths began in principled and visceral recoil from the unprecedented violence of their time.... Nevertheless, the critics of religion are right to point to a connection between violence and the sacred, because homo religiosus has always been preoccupied by the cruelty of life.... What should be our response? The Axial sages give us two important pieces of advice. First, there must be self-criticism...[and] Second, we should...take practical, effective action.... The sages were not utopian dreamers, but practical men; many were preoccupied with politics and government. They were convinced that empathy did not just sound edifying, but actually worked. We should take their insights seriously, because they were the experts.... They spent as much creative energy seeking a cure for the spiritual malaise of humanity as scientists today spend trying to find a cure for cancer. We have different preoccupations.... [But] if religion is to bring light to our broken world, we need, as Mencius suggested, to go in search of the lost heart, the spirit of compassion that lies at the core of all our traditions.”
(Armstrong, pp.391-9)


John Henry Calvinist