Axial Age Madness??

I’ve been looking through A.C. Graham’s “Disputers of the Tao” and found what I take to be a statement of why many philosophers find the Pre-Qin period so interesting but are quickly bored by the Han. Graham says, right on page one of his Introduction:

“China, like the other civilizations of the Old World, draws its basic ideas from that time of awakening between 800 and 200 B.C. which Karl Jaspers has called the Axial Period, the age of the Greek and Indian philosophers, the Hebrew prophets and Zarathustra. The creative thinking of that era seems everywhere to have sprung up amid the variety and instability of small competing states; in China it begins toward 500 B.C. in a time of political disunion, and may be judged to lose its impetus with the reunification of the empire in 221 B.C.”

There you have it–the “axial age” was more interesting than the surrounding times because of the philosophical and religious creativity sparked by political instability. There are a number of things that bother me about this apparently widely held belief.

First, I am suspicious of “axial age” claims in the first place. The religion of Zarathustra seems to be a somewhat arbitrary boundary line for the beginning of the age (around 1000 B.C), and even this religion was probably an amalgamation previous religious thought (as in many new religions). Also, the upper boundary of the age seems very arbitrary as well–there were certainly great innovations in both Greek, Middle eastern, Indian, (and yes, Chinese) philosophical and religious thought after 200 B.C. Messianic Judaism (including the Christian movement) comes to mind, as well as Hellenistic philosophy (Skeptics, Stoics, etc.), deep philosophical changes in Buddhism within the Mahayana tradition, the amalgamation of “modern” Hinduism…and these are just a few. It seems wrong to claim that innovations such as these were merely changes of pre-existent worldviews, whereas the innovations of the axial age were completely original. I simply see no evidence that the axial age innovations were any more original then the innovations in philosophy and religion that happened before and after the axial age. Of course, the axial age innovations certainly were striking new creations, but so were many other innovations throughout human history.

Another thing I take issue with is Graham’s claim (of course not his alone) that the cause of such axial age innovation was political instability. In axial age China, this was certainly the case, however in other areas, this was not true. If we take it for granted that political instability motivates creativity, we should expect (as we don’t find) that contemporary American society (for the last two hundred years or so) should be less creative than more war-ravaged societies. Even if this is true, it isn’t obviously the case. Surely there are some relatively stable societies in which innovation thrives, as well as the opposite. So I think Graham’s explanation here is lacking.

This kind of reasoning and viewing the axial age as a completely original period has led to some claims I find a bit dubious. I heard an interview with Karen Armstrong on NPR, on her new book “The Great Transformation” about axial age thought. I haven’t yet read the book (I think I’ll read it this summer), but she claimed on the show that there were certain common elements to axial age thinkers, such as an emphasis on compassion. In the case of axial age China, this is untrue. There were some thinkers who emphasized this (especially Mencius and Mozi), but there were others who either cared little for compassion in particular or openly rejected it (I’m thinking mainly of Zhuangzi in the first case, the legalists in the second). I see her search for a “common cause” as a symptom of the kind of sentiment revealed in the Graham quote above–the view that there was something unique in the axial age not to be found in other periods. I think this is untrue, and this is the reason such a “common cause” will not be found. (that said, I think Armstrong is an excellent writer, and highly recommend her work. I’m currently in the middle of “A History of God”. I also plan to check out her writings on Islam.)

Anyway–perhaps it is for reasons like Graham’s that many philosophers ignore Han dynasty philosophy. However, I think considerations such as those above justify a reappraisal of those reasons.

One response to “Axial Age Madness??

  1. Hah! Having spent years exhausting myself on the Warring States, I’m delving into Han thought now (as you can tell from my blog). Most secondary treatments talk about this as a rather bleak period. I know little about Daoism and internal cultivation in this period, but if all the Han adds to Confucian abstract philosophy is correlative cosmology, heads are going to roll…

    You like Confucians. Which of them do you think gives the best thoroughgoing justification of the Way? As in, offering in-depth explanations of why given things are good or desirable. Xunzi vs. Mengzi is of course an age-old dead heat, but beyond them…? Unless you start pumping in metaphysics, it seems to me that human nature arguments are really the only way to justify an ethical system of this kind. Obviously many later Confucians do pump in the metaphysics–to what extent do you think they succeed in offering additional justifications for the Way preferable to those of Xun and Meng?

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