Remarks about “The Axial Age and its consequences”

Robert Bellah and Hans Joas have recently edited a volume entitled The Axial Age and Its Consequences. Originally the proceedings of a conference that took place in 2008 at the Max Weber Institute of the University of Erfurt, it provides an overview of the state of the scholarly debates about the Axial Age. It appears that a good number of the contributors embrace a sociological and psychological evolutionism, that locates the Axial Age in a wider theory of the becoming of human cultures from Prehistory to the present, the most systematic theorization of this kind being provided by Merlin Donald.
Without denying the value of this type of approach, one may wonder though if it does not indicate a kind of problematic “naturalist” shift in the approaches to the Axial Age. The strength of the Axial Age hypothesis is that it rests on a solid sociological and historical ground. But at the same type, what makes the Axial Age hypothesis so relevant for our time is that it allows us to raise ethical and meta-ethical questions: what is the relation between modern moral values and religion? Is there an alternative to the Enlightenment’s attempt to base morality on (a so desperately Euro-centric concept of) secular rationality? The Axial Age seems to provide some universal ethical ground transcending cultures, if not the premises of an answer to western secular nihilism.
It is not obvious though whether a naturalist approach will not undermine the ethical possibilities opened up by the Axial Age hypothesis. The choice of a naturalist approach may explain the very little attention paid by the contributors of this volume to the work Eric Voegelin.
Voegelin does not use the concept of Axial Age per se but prefers the one of Ecumenic Age designating a longer chronological period that goes until the late Antiquity, with the rise of Christianity and Manichaeism. Voegelin, after breaking with his original project of a history of political ideas, gradually came to formulate a “philosophy of the consciousness” which rests on 3 principles:
“(1) The nature of man is constant.
(2) The range of human experience is always present in the fullness of its dimensions.
(3) The structure of the range varies from compactness to differentiation.” (Order and History, vol 1)
Voegelin defines human nature in terms of the relationship of consciousness with the Divine, within what he calls the metaxu, borrowing the term from Plato. To say that “the range of human experience is always present in the fullness of its dimensions” is to discard the problematic hypothesis that there would have been a simple “discovery” of God or the Transcendence at some point in time. By definition, we know little about the inner experience of prehistorical Shamans. What is however suggested by the comparative history of religions is that in older/pre-axial cultures like those of Mesopotamia or Egypt, the Sacred was represented by intramundane or cosmological symbols. In Order and History, Voegelin describes a transition from these compact symbols of the Divine to more differentiated ones, as found in Axial and post-Axial religions as well as in the noetic experience of the Greek philosophers.
Voegelin’s philosophy of consciousness also seems capable of freeing us from what is possibly the most problematic side of the Axial Age hypothesis, namely the emphasis on the synchronicity of the spiritual “breakthroughs” across the Ancient World. It has been remarked that Egypt seems to have experienced some type of early breakthrough, at the time of the monotheist Akhenaton. Islam can also be interpreted as a late breakthrough among Arabs, previously untouched by the Axial revolution. The problem was recently formulated as follows by the Egyptologist Jan Assmann in the volume mentioned above:
“In my view, the stress on the alleged and in several cases undeniable synchronicity of Axial moves has led to an unnecessary mystification of the historical evidence. These breakthroughs occurred in different civilizations at different times and to different degrees under different conditions and with different consequences. The undue fascination with time and simultaneity is the congenital defect of the Axial Age theory lending it the character of a myth rather than a theory.” (p.398)
Assmann prefers a typological rather than a historicizing approach, the notion of “Axiality” rather than the one of Axial Age. His approach runs the risk though of ending in a boring catalogue of the significant features of Axiality and needs something like Voegelin’s theory of consciousness to be solidly grounded.

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