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Karl Jaspers, the Axial Age, and a Common History for Humanity

The Philosophers of the “Axial Age”: Socrates, Confucius, Buddha and Zarathustra

From the nineteenth century through the 1960s and 70s, World History books did recognize the varying accomplishments of all civilizations in the world, but most authors and teachers took for granted the fact that Europeans deserved more attention particularly in view of their irrefutable influence on the rest of the world after their discovery of the Americas, development of modern science and global spread of modern technology.

But this Western-oriented teaching was increasingly rejected by historians who felt that all the peoples of the earth deserved equal attention. A major difficulty confronted this feeling: how can a new history of all humans — “universal” in this respect — be constructed in light of the clear pre-eminence of Europeans in so many fields?

It soon became apparent that the key was to do away with the idea of progress, which had become almost synonymous with the achievements of the West. The political climate was just right, the West was at the center of everything that seemed wrong in the world and in opposition to everything that aspired to be good: the threat of nuclear destruction, the prolonged Vietnam War, the rise of pan-Arabic and pan African identities, the “liberation movements” in Latin America, the Black civil rights riots, the women’s movement.

More than anything, the affluent West was at the center of a world capitalist system wherein the rest of the world seemed to be systematically “underdeveloped” at the expense of the very “progression” of the West. Millions of students were being taught that the capitalist West, in the words of Karl Marx, had progressed to become master of the world “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt“.

The idea of Western progress was eventually replaced with the idea of “world history connected“. Students would now have to learn that all humans irrespective of cultural and historical differences were alike as homo sapiens, as members of the same planet, and as migratory creatures who had made history in unison. The aim was hardly that Europeans were creatively involved in the creation of Chinese, Mesopotamian, or Mayan civilization; it was that they were morally and economically responsible for the “underdevelopment” of civilizations that were once more developed than the Germanic Barbarians of the Dark Ages — while insisting simultaneously that non-Europeans were the ultimate originators or co-participators of every great epoch in Europe’s history.

But before this great fabrication was imposed on unsuspecting white students, a preparatory, though by no means identical, idea had been articulated by a German named Karl Jaspers: the notion that the major civilizations of the Old World experienced, more or less at the same time, a “spiritual process” characterized by a common set of religious, psychological, and philosophical inquiries about what it means to be “specifically human”. The argument was that humanity, at this point in history, together, came to pose universal questions about the meaning of life with similar answers.

The Goal of Jasper’s Axial Age

Jaspers, a highly respected philosopher, argued in The Origin and Goal of History (1953), published in 1949 in German, a few years after the end of WWII, that Western culture was not uniquely gifted with ideas that bespoke of mankind generally and the course of history universally; other major civilizations, too, had espoused outlooks about humanity together with moral precepts with universal content.

Jaspers believed that this ability was “empirically” made possible by the occurrence of a fundamental “spiritual” change between 800 and 200 BC, which gave “rise to a common frame of historical self-comprehension for all peoples — for the West, for Asia, and for all men on earth, without regard to particular articles of faith”. Believing that these spiritual changes occurred simultaneously across the world, Jaspers called it the “Axial Period”. It is worth quoting in full Jasper’s identification of the main protagonists of this period:

The most extraordinary events are concentrated in this period. 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-tsu and a host of others; India produced the Upanishads and Buddha and, like China, ran the whole gamut of philosophical possibilities down to skepticism, to materialism , sophism 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, Thucydides and Archimedes. Everything implied by these names developed during these few centuries almost simultaneously in China, India, and the West, without any one of these regions knowing of the others.1

Jaspers used certain amorphous philosophical phrases to bring out what was novel spiritually about this Axial age: “man becomes conscious of Being as a whole…He asks radical questions…By consciously recognizing the limits he sets himself the highest goals. He experiences absoluteness in the face of self hood”.2 But in some instances he offered more concrete sentences: “hitherto unconsciously accepted ideas, customs and conditions were subjected to examination, questioned and liquidated”.3 Essentially, in this Axial Age, the age of myths came to “an end”.

The Greek, Indian and Chinese philosophers were unmythical in their decisive insights, as were the prophets [of the Bible] in their ideas of God.4

A number of religious figures, philosophers and prophets came to rely more on their own judgments, visions, and reasoning powers: logos was set “against mythos”.5 Humans were now willing to rely on their rationality to make sense of the cosmos, to draw a clearer contrast between the inner world of consciousness, reflection, and the outer of accepted norms and beliefs, subject and object, spirit and matter. Combined with this spiritual awakening, came the idea of a transcendental One God as the basis of a new ethics against unreal demons and as the locus for thinking what was morally right for all.

It is not that the philosophical outlooks of these civilizations were identical, but that they exhibited similar breakthroughs in posing universal questions about the “human condition”, what is the ultimate source of all things? what is our relation to the universe? what is the Good? what are human beings? Prior cultures were more particularized, tribal, polytheistic, and devoid of self-awareness regarding the universal characteristics of human existence. From the Axial Age onward, “world history receives the only structure and unity that has endured — at least until our own time”.6

The central aim of Jasper’s book was to drive home the notion that the different faiths and races of the world were once running along “parallel lines” of spiritual development, and that we should draw on this “common” spiritual source to avoid the calamity of another World War. The fact that these civilizations had reached a common spiritual point of development, without any direct influences between them, was likely, in his view, the “manifestation of some profound common element, the one primal source of humanity”.7 We humans have much in common despite our differences.

German Guilt requires a Common History

This notion of an Axial Age, with which Jaspers came to be identified, and which has been accepted by many established world historians, historical sociologists and philosophers, is also a claim he felt in a personal way (as a German) in the aftermath of the Second World War. According to Jaspers, after the end of the Axial Age around 200 BC, the major civilizations had ceased to follow “parallel movements close to each other” and instead began to “diverge” and “finally became deeply estranged from one another”.8 The Nazi experience was, in his estimation, an extreme case of divergence.

It should be noted, in this vein, that Jaspers, whose wife was Jewish, was the author of a much discussed book, The Question of German Guilt, in which he extended culpability to Germany as a whole, to every German even those who were not members of the Nazi party. A passage from this book, cited upfront in a BBC documentary, The Nazis — A Warning from History, reads:

That which has happened is a warning. To forget it is guilt. It must be continually remembered. It was possible for this to happen, and it remains possible for it to happen again at any minute. Only in knowledge can it be prevented.

The intention behind the idea of an Axial Age was to induce in humans an awareness of themselves as beings with a profound spiritual unity, nurturing a sense of “human solidarity”. But this was only the beginning of what was soon to become a culture-wide effort on the part of Western elites to do away with any notion of Western uniqueness by framing its history as part of a “common” historical narrative of interacting and mutually evolving civilizations. It was also the beginning of an effort to instill on European natives the belief that they were citizens of propositional nations, and since these propositions could be held in common by all humans, they were citizens of the world and the inhabitants of the world were potential citizens of their nations. Germanness, in the words of Jürgen Habermas, would “no longer be based on ethnicity, but founded on citizenship”. Habermas, a keen admirer of Jaspers, would be one of countless others embracing this civic/cosmopolitan notion of citizenship.

Hannah Arendt

An interesting figure drawn to the idea of a common historical experience, in the early days after WWII, was Hannah Arendt, a student of Jaspers. She obtained a copy of The Origin and Goal of History as she was completing her widely acclaimed book, The Origins of Totalitarianism. It is quite revealing that Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s traces, in a short essay titled Hannah Arendt’s Jewish Identity, the roots of Arendt’s cosmopolitanism to the role of the Jews of Palestine as one of the Axial Age peoples. Together with Jaspers, Arendt came to share

the project of thinking about what kind of history was needed for facing the events of the war and the Holocaust and for considering how the world might be after the war. They agreed that the needed history should not be national or for a national purpose, but for humankind.

Arendt agreed with Jaspers, Young-Bruehl writes, that the way for Westerners to overcome “the ill effects of their own prejudices and technological progress, which had made the worldwide war possible”, was to open up to the world and think in a “cosmopolitan way about the future of humanity”. In light of her Jewish identity, as one of the Axial peoples victimized by German and European prejudices, Arendt further developed the arguments of Jaspers by invoking the cosmopolitanism exhibited by the Jews in the Axial Age both as an “antidote to tribalist Jewish thinking” and to European ethno-nationalism. Young-Bruehl continues:

It is Arendt’s Jewish identity — not just the identity she asserted in defending herself as a Jew when attacked as one, but more deeply her connection to the Axial Age prophetic tradition — that made her the cosmopolitan she was.

But what kind of history writing does cosmopolitan thinking require given that civilizations, according to Jasper, diverged in their cultural development after the Axial Age? For Arendt this was besides the point, she was not a historian preoccupied with the actual documentation and diverging histories of civilizations and nations. Her goal was to create a new state of mind among Europeans in the way they viewed themselves in relation to the world. She thus called upon Europeans to

  1. “enlarge” their minds and include the experience and views of other cultures in their thinking;
  2. to overcome their Eurocentric prejudices and encompass the entire world in their historical reflections;
  3. to develop a sense of the “human condition” and learn how to talk about what is “common to all mankind”;
  4. to learn how they are culturally shaped both by their particular conditions and the conditions and experiences shared by all humans on the planet.
The “Special Quality” of the West — Rejected
Movie poster of "Hannah Arendt"

This call by Arendt would coalesce with similar arguments about the “inventions of nations”, the “social construction of races”, and the idea that we are all primordially alike as Homo Sapiens. Jaspers, at least in his book The Origin and Goal of History, did not go this far, but in fact retracted, in later chapters, from the general statements he made in the introduction about the Axial Age being a common spiritual experience across the planet, acknowledging the obvious:

it was not a universal occurrence…There were the great peoples of the ancient civilizations, who lived before and even concurrently with the [Axial] breakthrough, but had no part in it.9

He further noted that the Egyptian and Babylonian peoples “remained what they had been earlier…destitute of that quality of reflection which transformed mankind”, even though they interacted with the Axial cultures.10 As it is, Jaspers admitted that after the Axial Age the respective civilizations traversed very different spiritual pathways, which begs the question as to why they would cease to exhibit “parallel developments” despite increasing interaction. Perhaps even more important was his recognition that there was a “specific quality” to the West in the way it exhibited “far more dramatic fresh starts”,11 whereas

in Asia, on the other hand, a constant situation persists; it modifies its manifestations, it founders in catastrophes and re-establishes itself on the one and only basis as that which is constantly the same.12

In the end Jaspers could not avoid the ultimate historical question about why the West followed such a diametrically different path:

if science and technology were created in the West, we are faced with the question: Why did this happen in the West and not in the other two great cultural zones?13

The answer he offered was essentially the same as Hegel’s heavily Eurocentric perspective about the unique pre-occupation of Europeans with freedom and reason. He actually delimited the veracity of the Axial thesis with the observation that only the ancient Greeks came to know “political liberty”, in contrast to the “universal despotism” of the East; and that “in contrast to the East, Greek rationality contain[ed] a strain of consistency that laid the foundations of mathematics and perfected formal logic”.14

Here are more special qualities mentioned by Jaspers about the West: “Tragedy is known only to the West.” While other Axial cultures spoke of mankind in general, in the West this universal ambition regarding the place of man in the cosmos and the good life did not “coagulate into a dogmatic fixity”.15 “The West gives the exception room to move.” In the West “human nature reaches a height that is certainly not shared by all and to which…hardly anyone ascends.” “…the perpetual disquiet of the West, its continual dissatisfaction, its inability to be content with any sort of fulfillment”.16

This is the language of Spengler’s Faustian Soul. Some in the New Right don’t like this perpetual restlessness about the West and would prefer to see the West become one more boring traditional culture. But this cannot be, for “in contrast to the uniformity and relative freedom from tension of all Oriental empires”:

the West is typified by resoluteness that takes things to extremes, elucidates them down to the last detail, places them before the either-or, and so brings awareness of the underlying principles and sets up battle-fronts in the inmost recesses of the mind.17

None of these substantial qualifications would matter in the end. The inquiries Jaspers started would mushroom way beyond his expectations leading to the complete abolition of the teaching of Western Civ courses and the imposition of World Multicultural History. The Axial Age Jaspers had limited to the period 800-200 BC would come to be extended to the entire course of human history! A. G. Frank and Kenneth Pomeranz would announce in their best sellers ReOrient (1998) and The Great Divergence (2000) that the cultural and economic trajectories of Europe and Asia were “surprisingly similar” up until a sudden “accidental” divergence occurred around 1750/1830. Humans are all the same, have always been connected through migrations, race mixing, trade, and cultural borrowings. We have always been part of one big family. Europeans who talk about their uniqueness and complain about mass immigration and the incredible gifts of Islamic culture to the West are ignoramuses in need of replacement.

Yet, there never was an Axial Age: the PreSocratics were dramatically different in their inquiries, and far more universal in their reasoning, than the prophets of the Old Testament, the major schools of Confucianism, Taoism, and Legalism in China, and the Hindu religions of India. As far as I know, no one has explained this seemingly paradoxical combination of extreme Western uniqueness and extreme universalism. I hope to address this topic in a future essay.

[1] Karl Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History, 1953: 2
[2] Ibid. 2
[3] Ibid. 2
[4] Ibid. 3
[5] Ibid. 3
[6] Ibid. 8
[7] Ibid. 12
[8] Ibid. 12
[9] Ibid. 51
[10] Ibid. 52
[11] Ibid. 54
[12] Ibid. 53
[13] Ibid. 61-2
[14] Ibid. 63
[15] Ibid. 64
[16] Ibid. 64
[17] Ibid. 65
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