Eric Voegelin about the “Axial Age” hypothesis

The hypothesis of an Axial Age was first formulated by Jaspers, although it finds its most immediate origin in Weber’s sociology of religions. Since then, the topic has attracted the attention of religious scholars like Karen Armstrong, sociologists like  Eisenstadt, or political philosophers like Charles Taylor, Jurgen Habermas or Marcel Gauchet.

It was also challenged by historians like Toynbee, for excluding figures like Mose, Christ and Muhammad from the pivotal period in the history of humanity. More recently Yves Lambert, on the basis of Jaspers’ own indications, has formulated the hypothesis of several Axial Ages since the Neolithic revolution, modernity being the last one.

The most challenging and yet sympathetic critic was however formulated by Eric Voegelin. Below is an excerpt from his discussion of the topic in The Ecumenic Age. In this book, Voegelin seems at first glance only to make adjustments to the Axial Age hypothesis by extending its length to include Christianity. But more radically, he challenges the very idea of an Axial Age on the basis of his philosophy of consciousness which remains probably the most fascinating dimension of his work.

“Linear Time and Axis Time
There was, for instance, the crosscut pattern of the spiritual out- bursts that, in the first millennium b.c., occurred parallel in time in several otherwise unconnected societies from Hellas to China. The pattern had been observed ever since the 1820s, and more recently, Jaspers had elevated it to the dignity of the “axis time” in the history of mankind. I was very much aware of the problem when I wrote the earlier volumes, since the Israelite and Hellenic differentiations of consciousness, running parallel in time as they did, could definitely not be brought on a single line of differentiating, meaningful advance in history. As a matter of fact, I reflected at length on the issue in the introduction to The World of the Polis, presenting on that occasion both the theory of Jaspers and the objections of Toynbee. Later analysis, however, proved these reflections wanting on several counts: They did not penetrate to the core of the issue, to the brute fact of meaningful structures that resist arrangement on a time line, nor did they penetrate to the experiential force that motivates the construction of such lines even though they are incompatible with the empirical evidence; nor were they sufficiently conversant with the ingenious devices for straightening out obstreperous facts on a fictitious line, so that they will carry the eschatological meaning of that other line that runs from time into eternity. I had not yet realized, for instance, that the theory of cultural diffusion, used by Abel- Remusat in his “Mémoire” of 1824 to explain the contemporaneity of Hellenic and Chinese philosophers, was such a device to reduce a disturbingly diversified field of spiritual centers to the oneness of an event in history. Nor had I discerned the same function in Jaspers’s symbolism of an axis time in the history of mankind.
The devices just mentioned revealed their nature under more careful analysis. In the case of Abel-Remusat, it was not necessary to disprove his assumption on empirical grounds; today nobody would maintain anyway that comparable experiences and symbolizations in Heraclitus and Lao-tse are due to cultural diffusion. However, since there were no empirical reasons for making the assumption in the first place, not even in the 1820s, the function of cultural diffusion as a device for obliterating the plurality of centers of meaning in the field of history came into focus. A horror, not vacui but pleni, seems at work, a shudder at the richness of the spirit as it reveals itself all over the earth in a multitude of hierophanies, a monomaniacal desire to force the operations of the spirit in history on the one line that will unequivocally lead into the speculator’s present. No independent lines must be left dangling that conceivably could lead into somebody else’s present and future. Undeterred by the obsolescence of earlier constructions, ever-new ones will be undertaken as soon as new finds of materials seem to offer the opportunity. When the Hermetical writings, erroneously supposed to be ancient Egyptian texts, became better known in the West, toward the end of the fifteenth century, a movement of humanist thinkers placed Moses and the Bible farther down on a line of spiritual evolution that starts from the wisdom of Egyptian priests. The movement lasted for centuries and was still strongly alive in Schiller’s lectures on Universal History in 1789. When Chinese sources became known in the West, Hegel forced the spirit to start its march through history from China, while Egypt and Israel tumbled down the time line into the Persia that conquered them. When ethnographic materials accumulated and became fashion- able, the “primitives” moved to the head of the line and originated the Communism that would ultimately issue into the dream of Marx and Engels. And when the Mesopotamian excavations struck the West with their great discoveries, pan-Babylonian historians were ready to construct a new history of cultural diffusion from the origin of culture in Babylon. But the nature of the enterprise reveals itself in its purity when the historical materials that offer the opportunity for a new construction do not exist at all but have to be produced by speculative fancy for the specific purpose—as in the recent wave of speculations on the origin of human culture on Earth through astronauts landing from another star. The fancy seems still to be gaining momentum, as it is supported by so-called scientists in the employ of various institutions richly endowed with public funds. As a result, if you are not happy with the progress of history from the enlightened priests of Egypt to the enlightened intellectuals of the eighteenth century, or with its progress from primitive to final Communism, take your choice and have a history advancing from stellar to earthly astronauts.
The speculators juggle facts and chronology with such insouciance, if not impertinence, that sometimes there seems to be no limit to the game. Nevertheless, the facts have a way of asserting themselves. It is difficult to ignore the parallelism of spiritual out- bursts observed by Abel-Remusat and his successors. The chronologically parallel events simply cannot be brought on a time line. How then can a philosopher cope with the phenomenon if, on the one hand, the dissolvent of cultural diffusion does not work and if, on the other hand, he is loath to admit that the spirit listeth where it will, unconcerned about the difficulties its divinely mysterious movements will cause to a humanly conscientious observer? Jaspers, I suspect, intended his conception of the axis time to be an answer to this question.
The device was exposed to Toynbee’s objections: In order to elevate the period from 800 to 200 b.c., in which the parallel outbursts occur, to the rank of the great epoch in history, Jaspers had to deny to the earlier and later spiritual outbursts the epochal character which in their own consciousness they certainly had. In particular, he had to throw out Moses and Christ.[1] The construction did not seem to make sense. If spiritual outbursts were to be recognized as the constituents of meaning in history, the epiphanies of Moses and Christ, or of Mani and Mohammed, could hardly be excluded from the list; and if they were included, the axis time expanded into an open field of spiritual eruptions extending over millennia. The objections appeared to have disposed of the axis time for good. On closer examination, however, the argument proved less conclusive than it had seemed at first. For Jaspers had supported the exclusiveness of his period with the argument that the earlier and later outbursts had only regional importance, while a universal consciousness of humanity, pervading all the major civilizations from Rome to China, had indeed been created by the outbursts of the axis time. Moreover, when all the pointing to earlier and later outbursts had been done, the phenomenon of the parallel outbursts was still there, waiting to be dealt with.
The problem became manageable only when I realized that both Jaspers and Toynbee treated hierophanic events on the level of phenomena in time, not letting their argument reach into the structure of experiencing consciousness. The construction of an axis time dissolved when I applied the principle of the study more carefully to the types of order and symbolization actually to be found in the period in question. The analysis of the order concretely experienced in the spiritual outbursts had the negative result: There was no “axis time” in the first millennium b.c., because the Western and Far Eastern thinkers did not know of each others’ existence and, consequently, had no consciousness of thinking on any axis of history. The “axis time,” I had to conclude, was the symbolism by which a modern thinker tried to cope with the disturbing problem of meaningful structures in history, such as the field of parallel spiritual movements, of which the actors in the field were quite unaware.
The conclusion then led on to the questions concerning the validity of the modern symbolism: Could one really interpret the pluralistic field of outbursts, though it had no consciousness of itself, as a meaningful structure in the history of mankind? or did the field not rather suggest the existence of a plurality of mankinds, each having a history of its own? If then one opted for the first interpretation, the further question concerning the subject of history arose: Which was the society concretely existing in time in whose history this curious structure appeared? Certainly not the Hellenic, Hindu, or Chinese societies of the first millennium b.c.; and certainly not any concrete societies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a.d. Who then was the subject hidden behind the bland symbolism of “mankind”? who was this humanitas abscondita?
Mankind is no concrete society at all. In the pursuit of this question, the analysis had to acknowledge the spiritual outbursts, not as phenomena in a history of mankind, but as the sources of meaning in history and of such knowledge as man has of it. By letting man become conscious of his humanity as existence in tension toward divine reality, the hierophanic events engender the knowledge of man’s existence in the divine-human In-Between, in Plato’s Metaxy, as well as the language symbols articulating the knowledge. Moreover, they are experienced as meaningful inasmuch as they constitute a Before and After within time that points toward a fulfillment, toward an Eschaton, out of time. History is not a stream of human beings and their actions in time, but the process of man’s participation in a flux of divine presence that has eschatological direction. The enigmatic symbolism of a “history of mankind,” thus, expresses man’s understanding that these insights, though they arise from concrete events in the consciousness of concrete human beings, are valid for all men.
If the puzzle of the symbolism is solved, however, the mystery of the process itself becomes even more awesome. For the spiritual outbursts are widely scattered in time and space over concrete human beings in concrete societies. The events, though they constitute structures of meaning in history, do not themselves fall readily into a pattern that could be understood as meaningful. Some of the structures constituted, such as the advances from compact to differentiated consciousness, bring the time dimension in the flux of divine presence to attention; others, such as the cluster of events in the crosscut under discussion, appear to accentuate the process in its broadness, as it affects mankind in the spatial dimension of existence. But in either case, the emergent meanings remain open toward the future of the process in time, as well as toward its eschatological fulfillment. I had to conclude: The process of history, and such order as can be discerned in it, is not a story to be told from the beginning to its happy, or unhappy, end; it is a mystery in process of revelation.

1. Incidentally, Moses is a somewhat ubiquitous figure as a disturber of the constructivist peace. In the preceding paragraph I had to note how he slides down on the time scale of meaning, from the Hermeticists, through Hegel and Marx, to the pan-Babylonians. Now it should be noted that Toynbee himself, though he criticizes Jaspers for his exclusion of Moses, excludes Judaism from the sacred precinct of universal religions. And something of the same tendency can be discerned in Freud’s attempt to make Moses an Egyptian. Vico’s admirably perceptive caution to exempt the Mosaic-Christian line of meaning in history from his law of the corso is apparently not considered a warning to be heeded.

Source: Eric Voegelin, Order and History, Volume IV, the Ecumenic Age, p.47-51

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