Philosophy of History and the Axial/Ecumenic Age

Philosophy of history as a topic does not go further back than the eighteenth century. From its beginning in the eighteenth century, it became associated with the constructions of an imaginary history made for the purpose of interpreting the constructor and his personal state of alienation as the climax of all preceding history. Until quite recently, philosophy of history has been definitely associated with the misconstruction of history from a position of alienation, whether it be in the case of Condorcet, Comte, Hegel, or Marx. This rigid construction of history as a huge falsification of reality from the position of an alienated existence is dissolving in the twentieth century. Once the deformation of existence, which leads to the construction of ideological systems, is recognized as such, the categories of undeformed human existence become the criteria by which deformed existence and systems must be judged. Hence, the ideological systems themselves become historical phenomena in a process that reflects, among other things, the human tension between order and disorder of existence. There are periods of order, followed by periods of disintegration, followed by the misconstruction of reality by disoriented human beings. Against such disintegration, disorientation, and misconception there arise the countermovements in which the fullness of reality is restored to consciousness.

(…) If the concepts of order and disorder of existence are applied to the ever-increasing amount of historical materials, certain structural lines of meaning begin to emerge—always with the reservation, of course, that they may have to be revised in the light of advancing historical knowledge. One of the important results that will be incorporated in the forthcoming volume 4 of Order and History is the description of the Ecumenic Age. By Ecumenic Age is meant a period in the history of mankind extending roughly from the time of Zoroaster and the beginnings of the Achemenide conquest to the end of the Roman empire. This is the period in which the cosmological understanding of reality was definitely replaced by a new understanding of reality, centered in the differentiation of the truth of existence through Hellenic philosophy and the Christian revelatory experiences. Geographically, the Ecumenic Age extends from the Persian, and in its wake the Greek and Roman, developments in the West to the parallel development of ecumenic consciousness in the Far Eastern civilizations, especially in China. One of the aspects of this age has been caught in the concept of the Axis-time, the period in which, around 500 B.C., Heraclitus, the Buddha, and Confucius were contemporaries. Another aspect of this Ecumenic Age is the phenomenon which has given it its name—i.e., the imperial expansions through the Persians, Alexander, the Romans, the Maurya dynasty in India, and the Ch’in and Han dynasties in China. By about 200 B.C. we are no longer in a world of tribal societies or of small city states, but in the world of the ecumenic empires extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific. I have spoken of an ecumenic consciousness, meaning thereby that the actors and contemporaries of the imperial events interpreted them as a discovery and conquest of what they called the ecumene, as did Herodotus, or Polybius, or in China the first historians Ssu-ma T’an and Ssu-ma Ch’ien. The symbol ecumene becomes the idée-force of this period; and ecumenic conquest in the sense of domination over contemporarily living mankind has remained a fundamental force of history ever since, even if in practice the realization of such ecumenic—which now would have to become global domination—has never been achieved. The Ecumenic Age, therefore, has to be characterized by three of its more spectacular phenomena: (1) the spiritual outbursts on which Karl Jaspers concentrated; (2) the imperial concupiscential outbursts that have always attracted the attention of historians; and (3) the beginnings of historiography, in which the disorder created by the destructive expansion of empire is weighed against the order established, and the order established is measured by the newly differentiated understanding of existential order.

This triadic structure of spiritual outburst, empire, and historiography characterizes a period in the history of mankind. In my opinion it has to supersede other constructions of history, even non-ideological constructions, such as for instance Toynbee’s earlier assumption of civilizations as the ultimate units of historical study.

(…) None of these observations on discernible structures in the history of mankind, however, must now be converted in their turn into a doctrine. (…) The end of things, thus, has not come, and what a philosopher can contribute today to the understanding of an ongoing process is the understanding of the factors that make for integration and disintegration of the type just indicated.

Eric Voegelin, Autobiographical Reflexions.


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