|Map of Axial Age Civilizations|
Definition of “Axial Thought”
The Axial Age idea is the most concerted effort to retain aspects of the idea of progress while disallowing Western civilization from claiming to be the most progressive in the sciences, technology, cultural creativity, and forms of state organization. This idea has historical merits. The period between 800 and 200 BC did see major intellectual developments in various parts of the Old World that came to shape the subsequent historical paths of millions of humans, the rise of Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and Greek philosophy. But academics can’t hide the fact that the Axial Age includes a very selected group. The continents of North America, South America, Africa, and Australia saw no Axial revolution. Some academics include Zoroastrian Persia, but Bellah, and many others, include only ancient Israel, ancient Greece, China, and India.
In recent years, noticeable attempts have been made to include the civilizations of the Americas and even the “souls of Black folks“. In our age of equality anything goes. The Axial idea, after all, was driven by an egalitarian idea: disallowing the West from claiming to be the greatest achiever, the progenitor of modernity. Yet, the lowering of the bar involves the inclusion of peoples without writing, without books, without major intellectual-religious revolutions, without a theoretic culture. This is why most academics have accepted Jasper’s cases, otherwise the Axial concept would become meaningless.
Bellah claims to be following Merlin Donald in saying that “the axial age breakthrough involved the emergence of theoretic culture” (273). He makes a distinction between “first-order theory” (which involves rational exposition of one’s ideas, including, for example, mathematics and the beginning of algebra in Babylonia), and “second-order theory” (which is what Donald has in mind, and involves explaining how one’s rational exposition is possible, as well as explaining the grounds for thinking that one’s exposition is true). But, in the end, Bellah makes the mere presence of first order thinking a sufficient condition for Axial status outside Greece. Sometimes he realizes this, but sometimes he seems unsure what the term “theoretic culture” means.
He also seems to prefer another criteria for inclusion into this age: the emergence of new “egalitarian” outlooks that were critical of existing mythical practices and oppressive rulers. Combined with this, he likes to play postmodernist games with his white students, arguing that the supposedly theoretic culture of the Greeks, the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, were no different in their mythical visions than Taoism and Buddhism. This strains his entire conceptual edifice, but he seems compelled to move in this direction, to lower the bar, because he doubts that any non-European culture ever produced any reason-based accounts of the order of things.
What Bellah wants above all else is an Axial Age in which “new prophets” emerged, Confucius, Buddha, the Hebrew prophets, and the Greek philosophers, who called for a re-making of the world order on the basis of transcendental-egalitarian values grounded in “reflexivity” or argumentation, rather than acceptance of mythical accounts handed from the past. My view is that the mere articulation of a moral critique of the existing order does not imply the presence of second order thinking. I agree with Donald that a theoretic culture first came about in Greece in unison with their fully alphabetic writing; and with Eric Havelock’s argument that the written word was an intrinsic component, not the historical cause as such, but an essential attribute of the Greek shift from mythical thinking toward rationalism.The written word induces a new form of thinking in which the knower is able to make a distinction between his thinking mind and the known object. Only the Greek mind evolved to create an alphabet with a level of abstraction necessary for intellectual interrogation, and for a type of universal thinking in which one is able to apprehend essential aspects of the nature of things beyond mere sensory experiences. I have argued elsewhere that only the Greeks exhibited the beginnings of a capacity to evaluate the nature of things without allowing extra-rational motivations to interfere with the judgments of reason. In a future article I will elaborate on the immense philosophical revolution of the Presocratics. My focus below will be on demonstrating that Israel, India, and China did not develop second order thinking, even though these civilizations can be identified as Axial in proposing novel ways of thinking that fundamentally shaped their subsequent history. Bellah makes an excellent case showing that new visions about the relation between gods and rulers, about the meaning of life, about the criterion of truth and falsehood, emerged in India, Israel, and China.
Right from the start, Bellah has to admit that “thinking about thinking was not an Israelite concern” (283). He adds that, “nonetheless, ancient Israel clearly meets the standard for…preoccupation with and criticism of text, and the conscious evaluation of alternative grounds for religious and ethical practices”. He shows how Israelites, beginning in the eight century BC, articulated a new covenant between God and human beings over and above the relationship between king and subjects. The Israelites may be subordinated to a worldly ruler, to the kings of Assyria, but Yahweh is not subordinate to any earthly ruler, and the ultimate moral obligation of the Israelites is to God.I have no difficulties accepting Bellah’s view that the Israelites attempted real argumentation in making their case for a new covenant, “however unsystematic in presentation” (314), as Bellah says. There is some form of first order argumentation in the claim by Israelites that their covenant with God supersedes kings, and that God is in the Word, and that if people abide by the Word they will be in right relation to God, regardless of what’s going on in the world of men. The Israelites did articulate reasons why Yahweh is the only God there is, and they did conceive argumentatively a transcendent God as the ultimate moral legislator above any state in power. But second order thinking is a different matter, and involves a conscious awareness of the procedures one is using to make a distinction between true and false statements. It also means awareness of a faculty of reasoning that makes up its own criteria for truth and is not dependent on any external mythology, godly authority, or self-interested inclinations. This is not to say that the Israelite idea of a covenant was not a new vision radically different from the old mythical conceptions between ruler and ruled.
Revealingly enough, when it comes to the one Axial case, where one witnesses the “discovery of the mind,” Bellah warns white students (right from the opening page) that “being Eurocentric or Westerncentric” is no longer acceptable. The “extreme enthusiasm” of older days for this civilization “has been countered with serious debunking”. Greece will be treated “as just one of four axial cases” (324). But, in truth, Bellah treats Greece as a special case by applying Donald’s criteria for a “theoretic culture” in a far more stringent manner. He recognizes that Anaximander’s account of the origins of the cosmos
appears to be both naturalistic and rational: everything is explained by impersonal forces, not only the origination of the universe, but the workings of the heavenly bodies, the weather and other natural phenomena. The Olympian gods are nowhere to be mentioned (367).
Nevertheless, he can’t help saying that “Greek science, by rejecting experiment, never amounted to much” (324).
We are told that Heraclitus believed “that the truth (logos) is common and available to all” (376); and that Parmenides consciously defined “the form of argument that could lead to truth — he is thinking about thinking, he is giving a method…for finding the truth” (379). Yet, Bellah’s immediate assessment is that these two did not bring about an Axial breakthrough, and that only with the arrival of Plato and Aristotle can we speak of a breakthrough. He has nothing to say about Aristotle other than to ask rhetorically whether he was the first “who reflected on the meaning of our representations in just about every field of knowledge” (365). And the only relevant point he makes about Plato is that he was the first to distinguish between myth and logos, and that in his later dialogues Plato expressed the idea that “every human, at least potentially, is a citizen of the universe”. Not only does he apply a higher standard of theoretical thinking to Greece, but he also focuses on what remained mimetic and mythological in the Greeks. Since the Axial breakthrough does not mean that the mimetic and the mythic per se disappear (they never do), it is easy for Bellah to bring out the mythical aspects of Axial Greece.
Here and there, he recognizes institutional traits that were uniquely present in Greece, that Greece was not a despotic polity even before the rise of democratic rule, but a society in which aristocratic warriors voiced their own views, and in which heroic prowess and eloquence in debate was the basis of leadership.
Nobles…viewed themselves as equals and resisted domination by any particular family. They competed for excellence and virtually created the culture of athletics as we know it today (335).
But Bellah does not know what to make of this, how to connect this to the unique aristocratic nature of archaic Mycenaean Greece. He knows that the “polis is a unique Greek institution,” but says no more. He does not link the aristocratic culture of Indo-Europeans and Mycenaeans to the rise of the polis. He brings up G. E. R. Lloyd’s known argument that the Greeks of the classical age, unlike the Chinese, never sought ancient authority for their arguments, but were always trying to outdo and criticize their teachers with original lines of inquiry. But, again, he notes this in passing only. He forgets that this culture of open debate was pervasive in Greece, manifested in the invention of competitive sports, the heated debates in assemblies open to all adult male citizens, the competitions to have one’s play performed in the theatre.
I have a long article criticizing Heiner Roetz’s book, Confucian Ethics of the Axial Age. Bellah relies heavily on this key book, so I will avoid points already made. He opens this chapter with the words that axial China was “as stunningly innovative as the ancient Greeks” (400). More than this, since he follows Roetz’s argument that China reached the highest stage of post-conventional moral reasoning, which Europe reached only in the Enlightenment era, we have Bellah interpreting such flimsy Chinese phrases as — “society is men treating each other as men” — as if they were “almost Kantian”, almost the same as the categorical imperative Kant introduced in his 1785 Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.Rather than demonstrating in a rational manner that China was already reaching the universal principles we identify with the Enlightenment, Bellah cannot even demonstrate that China reached Donald’s theoretic culture. Just because the Chinese wrote about the “humaneness” of the gentlemen, and about the cultivation of one’s entire person, aesthetic and moral sensibilities, one’s posture and comportment, as a model of how officials of the state should strive to become, it does not mean the concept of humaneness was articulated through second-order thinking. Bellah knows this, and deals with this problem by lowering the Axial Age standards for China, as he did for Israel.
First, it is strange that the same China that cultivated a human ethics characterized by a “remarkable lack of ethnocentrism” (422), with a Mandate from Heaven calling upon the Chinese “to love all the people, and without distinctions” (429), was the China that never abandoned a concern, in his words, “with ancestors, and so with lineage” (430). In all societies that move beyond the tribal stage, beyond chiefdoms, there is a decline in the significance of heredity lineages, and China did create a state open to merit based on a rigorous examination process. But, as Bellah had to recognize in an earlier chapter,
the Shang emphasis on lineage left a permanent legacy for all later Chinese culture, of which the Confucian emphasis on kin relationships was an expression. Ancestor worship, so central in Shang cult, has continued at the domestic level to this day (250).
Confucius “inaugurated the axial age,” we are told. Yet, he can’t deny that ritual is “at the center of the thought of Confucius” (403), and that, indeed, the highest ethical term in Confucian thought, Ren, which refers to the goodfeeling a virtuous gentleman experiences when being altruistic, is “not theoretical…it is performative, enactive, mimetic, though it gives rise to thought” (412). He can’t deny that the Analects “is an aphoristic book, at best anecdotal…not a systematic work…does not ever develop systematic connections between its key terms (416).
In short, the only way Bellah manages to make a case for Axial China is by lowering the bar considerably lower than for ancient Greece. The bar is set even lower for India.
There is no evidence for writing in India before the third century BC, and yet Bellah claims there was an Axial breakthrough in the late Vedic period with the Upanisads, a collection of ideas that were probably conceived between 800 and 500 BC, and passed down orally before they were put into writing much later, interpolated and expanded over time; no one really knows who were the authors. Late Vedic society of about the sixth century BC sees the first cities in the Ganges, irrigation agriculture, considerable population densities, and wide networks of trade, combined with a shift from a society linked by kinship to a society of differentiated roles cutting across tribal boundaries. Bellah detects the breakthrough in the fact that we can now read from the written versions that the ideas of the Upanisads were conveyed in dialogue form, “a tradition of questioning and debate,” with hymns asking big metaphysical questions, such as:
Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it produced? Whence this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen? Whence this creation has arisen — perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not — the one who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows — or perhaps he does not know.
Another supposed breakthrough is that the “lively discussions” depicted in the Upanisads were “not limited by caste or gender barriers” (511), though Bellah can’t deny that these barriers would not be crossed later in all subsequent Indian history until much recently. He notes as well an “incipient level of abstraction that moves beyond narrative into conceptual thinking”; “theory begins to emerge in the Upanisads,” but he has to admit that “it does not do so by way of systematic reasoning…It is revealed in metaphors” (513). He tries to argue that teaching about the identity of brahman and atman is “absolutely universal in content,” citing an expert explaining what makes these ideas universal:
The true self is not the individual self, but rather the identity that one shares with everything else. There is no true distinction among living beings, for they all emerge from being and retreat to it. All things animate and inanimate, are united in being, because they are all transformations of being.
I would agree there is universal content in these expressions insomuch as they speak about being as such, not about any particular being, and about the individual self as such. These expressions may be said to exhibit the beginnings in India of thinking about the absolute, not as a definite conception, but as an indeterminate and abstract conception, since we are not told anything concrete about the way being unites the particular within it, the individual self, but only that they are all transformations of being. It can also be said of the earliest Presocratic ventures into the ultimate source of all things that they dealt with very abstract, indeterminate concepts devoid of any concrete differentiation. Anaximander wrote about how the processes of change we see in the world are expressions of a universal, undefinable, limitless, divine Nature. He did this in writing, but Bellah excludes him from the axial age.
Moreover, with Heraclitus we have someone who does not obliterate the self within an undifferentiated universal being, but argues that the logos of human speech can express the logos which lies in the nature of things; speech (logos) is a manifestation of the logos of the universe; the logos of the universe discloses itself in human speech. In its deepest nature, the mind is a logos; it has the capacity for apprehending the regularity and patterns of things. The mind is rational and therefore it can grasp the rational order of the cosmos through its rational speech. The psyche of man and the cosmos are one but the mind is the highest expression of the one. The cosmos discloses itself through the rational mind of humans. While Heraclitus did not have a concept of subjective freedom, Greeks were moving in this direction in creating institutions in which Greek male citizens were equally free and capable of participating in politics.
By contrast, Indian philosophy would never rise above the early abstractions of the Upanisads. As Hegel argued, the notion of brahman would fail to reconcile the universal, the absolute, with the finite or individual. The concept of brahman would always subsume, swallow up, all finite things, including the self, who would remain incapable of ever understanding the nature, the rationale, of the brahman. The independent self in India would indeed be obliterated in substance, in the indefinite oneness of a Being that would remain aloof and beyond reason.
Bellah has to admit that the concept of dharma in the Bhagavadgita, generally accepted to be a 2nd-century BC text, which prescribes the right way of living, duties and rituals, does not speak about humans in general, but about the way of life appropriate for members of each caste. “This discussion of dharma leads inevitably to the vexed problem of caste” (521). Bellah is not happy dealing with the issue of caste, “because of its pejorative implications”. He is afraid he will be “liable to the accusation of Orientalism”. But he can’t deny that caste “remained basic to Indian social organization until recent times” (523). So how does one square this observation with the idea that India made a breakthrough into a universal ethics?
At this point, Bellah’s mind turns mushy, as he goes on to write that there was a breakthrough in religious thought, but the “premises of society remained non-axial”. Even though he believes the actual society remained non-axial, he insists he can’t be charged with viewing “‘Oriental societies as inegalitarian”. He is a good person, he did describe Chinese civilization as “profoundly egalitarian,” and is “convinced that Islamic societies were also profoundly egalitarian”. However, he the adds that he is not describing these societies in actuality, but referring to their ideologies. No society has been egalitarian since primitive times. He also warns his students that the United States has been “one of the most oppressive societies in history in its treatment of people both within and without” (524). Even if were to accept the lunacy of these statements, why is Bellah trying to hide the fact that the most sacred and important text of Indian philosophy, the Bhagavadgita, which supposedly advocated an egalitarian ethics, was suffused with the notion of caste?
Many whites looking for meaning in their confused, globalist-controlled-lives, love to praise Bhagavadgita or “Gita”. Stephen Mitchell, in his “new translation,” acts as if he was one of the “blessed ones” writing about “the inconceivable depths of reality” of the Gita. He tells his white students that reading his translation is “a matter of the gravest urgency,” a “battle for authenticity, the life and death of the soul…the struggle against greed, and ignorance, against ingrained selfishness”. The Gita “presents some of the most important truths of human existence”. But Mitchell knows that “however powerful its thinking, its intention is not to be a treatise but a psalm,” a hymn or poetic song. It is not a philosophical work.
Brainwashed academics who barely read can understand the Gita, because for all “the inconceivable depths of reality” it pronounces, the ideas are very simple precisely because they are unthinkable and do not require one to grasp them mentally. From its amorphous sounding phrases, easy meanings and conclusions can be generated with ease and without explanation. Mitchell is impressed by the “tolerance and inclusiveness” he finds in Gita.
In the end, Bellah’s case for India leaves us with the claim that Buddhism, for sure, “completed the axial transition” (531). He cites an author who says that it is the “man who practices Buddhist precepts to their utmost who has the highest status,” not the man who is born a Brahmin. Within Buddhism, dharma is “available to all people, regardless of status or ethnicity” (537). But in what ways is Buddhism a product of systematic thought, and in what ways does it engage with second order thinking? This criterion is relegated to the margins. What matters is that Buddhism engendered communities that attempted to exist as parallel societies, as alternative ways of life characterized by “ethical universalism,” independently of criteria of kinship and lineage. Dhamma, the truth told by Buddhism, was about good behavior towards slaves and servants, obedience to parents, generosity to friends and relatives, abstention from killing living beings.
Are these nice thoughts — well embraced in primary schools — all there is to the Axial Age?
Conclusion: Man is “only wholly Man when he is playing”
I did not shy away from the fact that natural selection is the primary mechanism of evolution, biological and cultural, but I was concerned wit the emergence of “relaxed fields” in animal play and human culture, where the struggle for existence or the survival of the fittest did not have full sway, where ethical standards and free activity could arise, forms that in many cases did turn out to be selected, as they had survival value, though they arose in contexts where the good was internal to the practice, not for any external end (600).
He brings up Schiller’s contrasting words between “the sanction of need, or physical seriousness” with the “sanction of superfluity, or physical play”, and how human play, in Bellah’s words, “can move to the level of aesthetic play in which the full spiritual and cultural capacities of humans can be given free reign” (568). He cites Schiller (with italics): “Man plays only when he is in the full sense of the word a man, and he is only Man when is playing“.
|The Weimarer Klassik movement lasted thirty-three years, from 1772 until 1805, and involved intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder, and Schiller,|
To me, this is the most substantive and original component in Bellah’s book. Evolutionary psychology pays attention only to those cultural universals it can directly connect to the struggle for survival, while dismissing as inconsequential “luxuries” (similarly to Marxists) ideas, artistic expressions, musical compositions, and philosophies that do not lend themselves to Darwinian explanations. Bellah astutely interprets, within a grand historical narrative, the ritual practices of cultures, the dancing, feasting, music, and “sense of moral equality that the ritual generates,” as moments of relaxed play “foreshadowed in the egalitarian rules of animal play” (570). He continues this interpretative line even for rituals in advanced chiefdoms in which ritual ceases to be egalitarian but takes place in “walled temples”. He looks for “relaxed fields” in chiefdoms during those ritual times when all the people “devote themselves to feasting, mockery, obscene and satirical singing, and, above all, to dancing” (571), including the “violation of rules of deference to superiors”.
In the over 300 pages he spends on the axial civilizations, he does not try to establish a link between play and axial philosophies. He waits for the conclusion. Yet, when he addresses in the conclusion relaxed fields in the axial age, he does not look at rituals, probably because he knows that rituals, by this time in the evolution of societies, had become too tied to the existing power structures. He looks instead at the “social criticism” entailed in the universal egalitarian ethics articulated by axial age philosophers. We saw major weaknesses in Bellah’s effort to portray Indian and Chinese philosophy as universalist. Chinese and Indian philosophies were heavily preoccupied with the appropriate rituals required to maintain the existing social order. In India, the Buddhist withdrew into their own world without caring to subject to criticism the pervasive presence of caste divisions in their society. Nevertheless, Bellah has a point that axial thoughts contain an element of play in envisioning improved worlds in which the pressures of the struggle for existence are suspended in an imaginary world of non-violence, social justice, plentiful harvests, and peaceful contemplation of the divine.
But there is a fundamental flaw in Bellah’s conception of play in the assumption that humans exhibit their highest talents, best ideas, artistic and philosophical expressions, in the articulation of egalitarian ideals. Firstly, in the realm of Darwinian necessity, humans can express incredible feats of perseverance, physical prowess, and talents that bespeak of greatness. Secondly, Bellah’s conception of play is restricted to its egalitarian, fair-play ideals. He thus laments the fact that play among the Greeks, and in Western/American civilization generally, become tied with the promotion of inequality, because concern with winning became its major preoccupation. This concern with winning, apparently, pulled play away from its initial relaxed context. I have another view, which follows from what I have said about the aristocratic culture of Indo-Europeans.
It is commendable that Bellah recognizes the presence of a more intense agonistic ethos among Europeans, which found expression in their higher concern with winning. But if we are to understand the origins of this Faustian ethos we need to examine its origins in the aristocratic way of life of Indo-Europeans. This agonistic ethos, as I tried to explain in Uniqueness and Faustian Man, found expression in the “infinite drive,” the “irresistible trust,” the “rational restlessness” of the West. It is the drive that took the West way beyond the axial age. Whereas placid Indians, conformist Chinese, and spiritually lethargic Amerindians accepted the dictates of nature, the agonistic Europeans long exhibited a highly energetic, goal-oriented desire to break through the unknown, supersede the norm, and achieve mastery of nature. Unlike the Daoists and Indians who renounced life and suppressed their desires in a state of withdrawal and defeat in the face of the Darwinian struggle for existence, Europeans were driven by an intense urge to transcend the limits of existence, to employ the agonistic nature of life for their own immaterial ends, transcending their biological existence. The “adamantine will to overcome and break all resistances of the visible,” in the words of Spengler, is what allowed Europeans to understand the very laws of nature, the theory of natural selection, to rise above an existence controlled by unknown forces.
Thirdly, and this is another fundamental flaw; why would our thoughts have to be about the promotion of egalitarian fantasies rather than the expression of the highest talents possible by men as artists, musicians, and scientists, including philosophers who have realized that the pursuit of egalitarianism actually destroys what is exceptional about humans? This may explain why Bellah stops at the axial age, and likes repeating that “the European philosophical tradition is a series of footnotes to Plato” (582), and brings up Aristotle, this late in the game, only to view him as a someone interested in theoria as contemplation, together with Plato, in order to make them seem similar to the Daoists and Buddhists with their renunciation of the Darwinian world of everyday politics to live a life of egalitarian contemplation? Not only does he want to hide the first truly systematic act of thinking about thinking that is contained in Aristotle’s logical works, combined with his empirical studies of living things, but his aim is to give white students the impression that the West reached its intellectual peak in Greece, only to then fall into a state of homeostasis like the non-Western world, which barely rose above the axial age.What is the point of insisting, “I do believe in evolution in the sense of increasing capacities,” but then hiding all the new capacities Europeans exhibited in developing almost all the varieties and highest forms of music and dance, almost all the sports, almost all the inventions in technology, almost all the ideas in science, philosophy, and all the disciplines taught in our universities? Instead of writing about these new developments, Bellah actually suggests in the closing paragraphs that the white “invention of racism” has been responsible for lack of progress in the actualization of axial age ideals. He says that European modern history, the racist creation of empires, “calls not only for apology, but for reparations for those who are still suffering from the results of what we have done” (599). He then brings up multiculturalism and calls for a “dialogue across differences” as a way of fulfilling axial ideals. In short, he demands that whites hand over their lands to hordes of foreign immigrants.