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The Axial Age and the European Discovery of Logos: Part I

In the beginning was the Presocratic discovery of logos

he idea of an “Axial Age” was a boon to the ideological drive after WWII to envision the history of all cultures as a “collective” undertaking between “connected” peoples. The behavior of Germany during Second War was testimony, apparently, of what happens when an otherwise modern culture refuses to join with the world of cosmopolitanism in defense of its ethnic integrity. Germany had strayed from the course of “human history” by envisioning itself as “special people” with a unique destiny for greatness.

When Karl Jaspers first articulated this idea in the late 1940s, he saw it as an exceptional age in which the major civilizations of the world accomplished similar intellectual and spiritual breakthroughs roughly between 800 and 200 BC. He saw this age as an example of how relatively isolated cultures had shown a common humanity in producing rather similar moral ideas and rules with universal intent. But while Jaspers believed that the civilizations of the world diverged greatly after the Axial Age, and agreed with the then general consensus that Western history was characterized by a “special quality” in the generation of far more cultural novelties, historians in subsequent decades gradually came to the view that axial-age thinking was the product of the “common” and “connected” nature of the entire history of “humanity” and that its thinking “spread and shaped thoughts and feelings in every clime and continent”.1

In this essay I will use the Axial Age thesis as an opportunity to make the case that there was a dramatic contrast between the revolution in thought in ancient Greece and in the other civilizations combined. In making this argument, I will restrict myself to the pre-Socratic thinkers of the sixth and fifth centuries BC. The Presocratics were the originators of the uniquely Western idea that there is a logos in the universe, a pattern, a structure in the way all things are. This idea teaches us that humans have a faculty within their soul, or natural constitution, that can be identified as “rational”, which allows them to offer arguments about the logos of the world and “to speak” or use words in a reasoned way about the way the world and humans are structured and the way humans should live in accordance with this order.

I will also use the Axial Age idea to highlight the movement by which Western scholars came to make the opposite “argument” against the uniqueness of the Greeks and Europeans generally in the name of world history connected. I will examine this use first. The acceptance and popularization of the Axial Age has come in varying degrees and ways, but a good way to access its impact and general characteristics is to examine its incorporation in college textbooks. Many world history texts could have been chosen to show how far ahead the idea of an Axial Age was extended, but for our purposes the following two, very successful, texts, will suffice: The Heritage of World Civilizations (2003), by Albert M. Craig et. al. This 2003 publication is the sixth edition; the text was first published in 1990, and it is already in its tenth edition as of 2010. The other book I will examine briefly is the above cited, The World — A History (2007), by the internationally celebrated Fernandez-Armesto. This book was released with a huge splash, evaluated by more than a hundred reviewers from around the world and “class-tested” at fifteenth academic institutions in the United States. The third edition of this text came out in 2011, with another edition planned for 2015.

Heritages of World Civilizations

Examining these two text makes for a interesting contrast between the initial phases in the acceptance of an Axial Age, as understood by Heritage, which is now seen as an outdated text written by old white men close to retirement, retired, or dead, still employing “unsound” terms like “civilizations”, and what is currently seen as a truly progressive version of the Axial Age, as understood by The World.

The authors of Heritage, Craig, William Graham, Donald Kagan, Steven Ozment and Frank M. Turner, are known as relatively conservative historians in academia. Kagan has a reputation as a “neoconservative“, and Turner, no longer alive, as a “historian of the ideas that shaped Western civilization.” All in all, they are/were solid academics from a generation that has now been practically replaced by outright promoters of diversity. In the sixth edition of Heritage, they humbly write about improvements in the text such as the consolidation of four chapters on European peoples into two chapters, thereby offering “a more balanced treatment of world history”.2

We should not be surprised at their efforts to march in step with the cultural Marxist expectations of the time. In fact, not only do they follow Jaspers, but go further in solidifying and expanding historically Jasper’s rather moderate assessment, making the following key observations about this age:

There is more than an obvious similarity between the Jewish Messiah, the Chinese sage-king, and Plato’s philosopher-king…Each would reconnect ethics to history and restore order to a troubled society…The reason is not that humans’ creativity dried up after 300 BCE, but that subsequent breakthroughs and advances tended to occur within the original [Axial] traditions…Once a cultural pattern was set, it usually endured. Each major culture was resistant to the others and only rarely displaced (my italics).3

While they agree with Jaspers that in subsequent centuries, once each tradition was set, each culture tended to follow its own tradition, we are made to believe that they remained equally attached to the fundamental ideas of the Axial Age. Chinese thought “had greater staying power than Greek thought”, as Greek thought was “submerged by Christianity”, becoming “the handmaiden of theology” until it “reemerge as an independent force in the Renaissance”.4 So, overall, the West more or less continued the axial-age thinking of the Greeks, with the difference that it then brought in the tradition of “the Jewish Messiah”, submerging the Greek one under it, until Greek thought managed to reemerge again in the Renaissance, leading to the rise of modern science.

To its credit, Heritage examines each of the four traditions of the Axial Age separately, bringing out some key differences, backed by solid, old fashion sources. Yet, the text cannot help playing up the idea that we are all “homo sapiens” who have come together historically through “globalization” and that no citizen in the West can “escape the necessity of understanding the past in global terms”.5 The current global course of history dictates the way we should see the past. We have always been moving towards the creation of cosmopolitan citizens, and this book hopes to contribute to this process.

The World — A History

Once we get to Fernandez-Armesto’s text all these qualifications about divergent paths and Western dissimilarities are thrown out the window. I have already examined this text in Uniqueness and will not rehash the flagrant manner in which it deals with European uniqueness. Suffice it to say that he allocates a meager 40 pages or so to ancient Greece, Rome, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance combined, but 23 pages to the Mongols alone. He then goes on to claim, for the modern era, that there were “comparable” revolutions in science, industry, and in Enlightenment thought in China, India and in the Near East. The paramount message of the text is that the history of the peoples of the earth must be presented in a “unified” or “global context”. This is the message right from the opening chapters on the evolution of humans. What, then, is so different about the Axial Age?

After some cheerful chapters about how “all the people that we now recognize as human” evolved in Africa, the emphasis, leading up to a chapter titled “The Axial Age, from 500 BCE to 100 CE”, is about how humans moved “out of Africa” “peopling the earth”. We hear endearing stories about how “Eve’s children” migrated out of their native “homeland” in Africa to other continents. Did you get this students? We are all immigrants except the original humans of Africa!

Armesto then goes on to say that most cultures across the world made similar transitions to herding and farming on their own initiative, everyone developing civilizations.6 The old definition of “civilization” is now rightfully “discredited as a word” for all cultures are civilizations since any agrarian engagement with an environment is a form of civilization.7 As he puts it in Civilizations (2000),

In reality, civilization is an ordinary thing, an impulse so widespread it has transformed almost every habitable landscape.8

It became widespread through diffusion; there may have been more, but we know of only six civilizations originating on their own. Armesto imagines himself a provocateur in academia. He condemns the “crude perversion” of Kenneth Clark’s words that “‘the Apollo embodies a higher state of civilization than the [African] mask'”.9 All civilizations are equally ordinary, or no better than foraging societies.

Armesto believes this to be aesthetically equivalent to…

The importance of the Axial Age is simply that “the thinkers of the time anticipated and influenced the way we think now” (my italics).10 Whereas Jaspers saw the Axial Age as a unique epoch, world historians nowadays see it as a continuation of past “connected” trends characterized by new intellectual trends. Whereas Jaspers observed divergent paths after this age, with the West following a “special” path, Armesto views the West as no different from the other civilizations; every place was similarly “anticipated and influenced” by “the common content of the minds” of the axial thinkers. In the many centuries after this age, the West, just like the Rest, “added so little to it”.11

Armesto, however, adds that the Axial Age was not restricted to Eurasia but was a “worldwide story”

because of the way axial-age thinking later spread and shaped thoughts and feelings in every clime and continent.12

The other areas were co-participants as members of trade networks, as colonial areas, or plainly as members of the same species that migrated out of Africa, supporting the core regions in their endeavors while adding their own cultural motifs. World history is a wonderful tapestry of cultures working together.

Ancient Greece produced far more great thinkers

But anyone with some knowledge of ancient Greece would know that the number of thinkers coming from the Greek world was vastly greater than the number coming from all the other, large and heavily populated, civilizations combined. Much as Armesto tries to portray the thinkers outside Greece as saintly, lofty and exalted sages, while ignoring most of the Greek thinkers and referring to Plato as a “member of an Athenian gang of rich aristocrats” who idealized “harsh, reactionary, and illiberal” states, “militarism”, “regimentation”, “rigid class structure”, and “selective breeding of superior human beings”,13 the achievements of Asia cultures barely compare in originality to the Greek invention of tragedy as a literary form, dialogical reasoning, deductive method in geometry, invention of prose, citizenship politics, the science of geography, cartography, historical writing, and numerous original thinkers.

First, the region of Persia, South West Asia, produced only one global thinker known as Zoroaster from the late seventh and early sixth centuries BC. In the case of India, we have Vardhamana Jnatrputra, also dated without precision to the sixth and early fifth century BC. He founded Jainism. We also have Gautuma Siddharta, who “probably” lived in the mid-sixth and early fourth centuries BC, associated with the foundation of Buddhism. Concerning the Israelites, we have “the monotheistic revolution” associated with the “Book of Deuteronomy”, the fifth book of the Hebrew Bible, dated from about the eighth to the fifth century BC. There are no clear names here other than prophets such as Hosea and Jeremiah, both roughly dated to this period. Some add Jesus to this group, Armesto for one, “as an independent-minded Jewish rabbi”.

What about the much talked about “Hundred Schools” in China? As far as we know, there were three major schools: Confucianism, Taoism, and Legalism, together with some other important figures known as “Logicians”, “Mohists”, “Cosmologists”, and “Rhetoricians”. The original, great thinkers, were: Confucius (born 551 BC), Mencius (370-290 BC), who offered an idealistic version of Confucian thought, Mo-tzu (470-391 BC), founder of Mohism, Lao-tzu (fifth or fourth century BC), founder of Taoism, and Sun-tzu (sixth-fifth century BC), author of the Art of War. This is an impressive list, with other less significant names.

To make the case that something very different transpire in the Western world, it will suffice to contrast China’s contribution to Greece’s contribution to axial thinking. China is the only civilization that contributed thinkers that were actually not religiously oriented and, in this respect, China is closer to the criteria that Jaspers sets, according to which this age saw not only a brake with tribal gods and values, but a new style of thinking emphasizing reason and argumentation, logos. Armesto confounds his students by placing the main ideas of the axial thinkers under such generic terms as “Monotheism”, “New Political Thinking”, “Math”, “Reason”, and “Science”.

The number of great thinkers in the pre-Socratic era alone is greater than the number of all the thinkers of all the other civilizations combined. I am using primarily as my source for this list the very authoritative text, The Presocratic Philosophers, by Jonathan Barnes (1982), linking each name listed to respected Encyclopedia links as well as Wikipedia, and other links which include book sources. These are not obscure or secondary names; there is ample choice of links for each in the internet. I will leave out dates, which are available in the links, except to say that they are essentially thinkers of the sixth and fifth centuries BC.

Presocratic schools of thought and their influence on Plato and Aristotle

We have a total of 17 great Presocratics: Anaxagoras, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Democritus, Diogenes, Empedocles, Gorgias, Heraclitus, Leucippus, Melissus, Parmenides, Philolaus, Protagoras, Pythagoras, Thales, Xenophanes, Zeno.

I am leaving the great figures associated with Greece’s most creative period, the classical period, which borders with the Presocratic era but extends into the fourth century BC. The Axial Age for Greece, in truth, extends through the Hellenistic period, usually accepted to begin in 323 BC and to end in 31 BC, which produced not just the major philosophical names of Epicurus, Cleanthes, Chrysippus, Ariston, Pyrrho, and Aristippus, but the first true scientists in human history, as argued by Lucio Russo in The Forgotten Revolution: How Science Was Born in 300 BC and Why it Had to Be Reborn (2004). What Russo argues in great detail, mind you, has long been known by classicists; for example, Marshall Clagett, in Greek Science in Antiquity (1955), calls the Hellenistic period “the great period of Greek science”,14 correctly identifying the Presocratics as philosophers rather than scientists, and offering an overview of the original writings of Strato, Aristarchus, Eudoxos, Erastosthenes, Hipparchus, and Archimedes.

It can be argued, actually, that the Greek accomplishment, which can be extended beyond 31 BC to cover the ideas of Euclid, Ptolemy, and Galen in the first two centuries in mathematics, solid and fluid mechanics, optics, astronomy, and anatomy, found no parallel in ancient, medieval, and modern China. The reasons for this lack of a breakthrough in the cultivation of a proper scientific method has been much discussed recently. I will refer here to James McClellan and Harold Dorn’s Science and Technology in World History (1999), which sums up some of the key differences:

  1. Chinese society did not witness a distinct profession of scientists; there were many sciences but these were practical and there was “no notion of pure science pursued for its own sake”.
  2. Despite producing great algebraists, Chinese mathematicians did not cultivate a formal geometry with logical proofs.
  3. The Chinese style of thinking was correlative or associative, and strove to find analogies and relations between diverse things, rather than looking at nature as a separate entity working according to universal laws that could be understood in terms of cause-effect relations, self-evident definitions, and logical inferences.15

In Part II, we will see that the Presocratics had already come to view nature as working according to rational laws explainable through the proper employment of rational arguments. This contrast was a key difference, among others, setting the West apart as a civilization driven by the movement of reason freed from external hindrances, arguments for or against, with a dynamic of its own, producing, through the process of proving arguments and receiving criticisms, refutations, new conjectures and new-proof-generated concepts, leading to the accumulation of knowledge.


[1] Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, The World — A History, 2007: 185
[2] Albert M. Craig et. al., The Heritage of World Civilizations, 2003: xxviii
[3] Ibid. 42
[4] Ibid. 42
[5] Ibid. xxvi
[6] Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, The World — A History, 2007: 5-68
[7] Ibid. 70
[8] Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, Civilizations, 2000: 214
[9] Ibid. 8
[10] Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, The World — A History, 2007: 159
[11] Ibid. 187
[12] Ibid. 185
[13] Ibid. 172
[14] Marshall Clagett, Greek Science in Antiquity, 1955: 34
[15] James McClellan, Harold Dorn, Science and Technology in World History, 1999: 121-149
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