This episode introduces our listeners to “the Axial Age”, the time period of the middle first millennium BC. The adjective “Axial” is derived from the notion of an “axis” as a dividing line, but within history. Karl Jaspers coins the phrase, although the notion of a “dividing line within history” around 500 BC was a scholarly thesis since the 1700s. It serves as a precedent for our time: it, too, was a time of “the world in multiple crises”. Specifically, many of the great Old World civilizations of Eurasia undergo their own version of a “great acceleration” of power, with attendant volatility. The myths, religion, and spirituality, of those civilizations, undergo a revolutionary transformation. Visionaries of the time articulate the crisis as imperiling our humanity, criticize the politics and religions of the time for their role in developing such dehumanizing power, and argue for a higher spirituality that breaks through the mythical ceiling into claims of universality and transcendence.
Karl Jaspers first presents “the Axial Age thesis” as such in his post-war book:
Jaspers, K. (1953). The Origin and Goal of History. Yale University Press.
I (Chris) finished a book last year on the Axial Age:
Peet, C. (2019). Practicing Transcendence: Axial Age Spiritualities for a World in Crisis. Palgrave.
The following books/anthology are relatively recent, excellent introductions and overviews:
Armstrong, K. (2006). The Great Transformation: The beginning of our religious traditions. Knopf.
Baskin, K., & Bondarenko, D. (2014). The Axial Ages of World History: Lessons for the 21st Century. Emergent.
Bellah, R. (2011). Religion in human evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. Belknap.
Bellah, R., & Joas, H. (Eds.) (2012). The Axial Age and its consequences. Belknap.