It was Karl Jaspers who coined the phrase 'The Axial Age' in his book 'The Origin and Goal of History'. It describes the cultural changes which occurred in the first millennium BC that inaugurated a new vision of the world based on values different from the previous ones. What was surprising about these ideological advances in religion, philosophy, and science was that they occurred at virtually the same time throughout the Eurasian continent. Pythagoras (570–495 BC), the Buddha (563–483 BC), and Confucius (551–479 BC) were all contemporaries. In the same period Greece, India and China saw a sudden flourish of debate between contending intellectual schools. Jaspers describes the period in this way:
It would seem that this axis of history is to be found in the period around 500 B.C., in the spiritual process that occurred between 800 and 200 B.C. It is there that we meet with the most deepcut dividing line in history. Man, as we know him today, came into being. For short we may style this the ‘Axial Period’.The most extraordinary events are concentrated in this period. Confucius and Lao-tse were living in China, all the schools of Chinese philosophy came into being, including those of Mo-ti, Chuang-tse, Lieh-tsu and a host of others. India produced the Upanishads and Buddha and, like China, ran the whole gamut of philosophical possibilities down to scepticism, to materialism, sophism and nihilism; in Iran Zarathustra taught a challenging view of the world as a struggle between good and evil; in Palestine the prophets made their appearance, from Elijah, by way of Isaiah and Jeremiah to Deutero-Isaiah; Greece witnessed the appearance of Homer, of the philosophers, Parmenides, Heraclitus and Plato, of the tragedians, Thucydides and Archimedes. Everything implied by these names developed during these few centuries almost simultaneously in China, India, and the West, without any one of these regions knowing of the others.
(The Origin and Purpose of History Karl Jaspers)
Jaspers suggested it must have been an effect of similar historical conditions. For most of the great urban civilizations of the time the early Iron Age was a pause between empires, a time of small kingdoms and city-states, often at war externally and in political debate within.
Jaspers argued that it was the first period in history in which human beings applied principles of reason to the great questions of human existence. He observed that many large regions of the world, China, India, and the Mediterranean, saw the emergence of almost exactly the same philosophical tendencies, from skepticism to idealism.
For Jaspers, the period begins with the Persian prophet Zoroaster around 800 BC and ends around 200 BC. However, if his Axial Age is extended to include the later Spiritual Age that centers on figures like Jesus and Mohammed then it would run from 800 BC to 600 AD. This period saw the birth of all the world’s major philosophical tendencies, and all of today’s major world religions: Zoroastrianism, Prophetic Judaism, Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism, Christianity and Islam.
On the other hand, Baumard, Hyafil and Boyer in their article characterise the Axial Age, not as a cognitive change but as a behavioral one: it is when self-discipline and altruism emerge, a moral change. The authors argue that the change in orientation was to focus attention on objectives from the short to the long term. They were behavioral changes within society: in cooperation (compassion and charity); in sexuality (taboos); in economics (condemnation of greed and exaggerated consumption); in family (more care of the offspring). In definite how to improve social integration.
The Persian Empire was formed in the middle of the first millennium BC, a pivotal date in the Axial Age. Persian rule spread over all ancient civilizations and beyond: from Macedonia to India, some 4,000 km. A network of roads and rapid communication by horse held the empire together in information, trade and ideas. Herodotus tells that the imperial courier linked Ephesus with Persepolis in a week using horsemen, posts and the Persian royal route. Merchants using the same posts as caravanserai exchanged ideologies throughout the territory.
It is speculated that imperial commerce and communications, together with Persian religious tolerance, led to religious syncretism and thus the theocratic principle was gradually brought into question. Questions about divine justice prompted the first attempts to formulate a greater awareness of the responsibility of personal destiny, particularly in China, India, the Middle East, and Greece. In addition, the practical question of how best to manage the new cities prompted reflection on the most appropriate policies.
In China individual thinkers such as Confucius, Lao-Tzu, and Mo Tzu pondered the ethical and metaphysical implications of human existence. From their teachings came Confucianism, Daoism and Jainism.
Confucius appears in China in the middle of the first millennium BC. when central control has been lost in a country that through centuries of civil war split into 14 feudal states. Confucius' proposed answer was a fundamental reflection on what it means to be human. He tried to revitalize and redefine institutions that for centuries had provided political and social stability: the family, the school, the local community, the state, and the kingdom. He proposed "de" (the charisma to attract and change others) as a fundamental value for personal and social order
In India the authors of the Upanishads expanded their research to include metaphysical thought in their search for the meaning of life. They evolved to become the teachings of Buddha and Mahavri.
It is said that Buddha was a prince but that when he became aware of human misery he decided to seek a solution. He did not investigate the environment but his inner self. India's answer would be sought within the human, not in the outside world.
The core of the Buddha's teaching can be captured in the 4 truths: exorbitant sensory contact causes suffering that traps us in a vicious cycle. To end this cycle, you have to reach nirvana, the end of exaggerated desire. You get there by practicing meditation.
The Hebrew prophets also form part of Axial Age thinking. In the 8th. century B.C. the two Jewish States, Judah and Israel, traded freely and grew rich. Religious practice was superficial and ritualistic. The rich interpreted their fortunes as proof that Yahweh gives material rewards to practising this ritual religion. The poor were considered to be impoverished through not being religious enough. (Protestant predestination later resurrected a similar argument.) In reality the Jewish poor were exploited by their rich counterparts and a corrupt political and legal system made it impossible for them to achieve a better life.
In Palestine the prophets Elijah, Jeremiah, Isaiah and Deutero-Isaiah insisted on monotheism and the free pact, an alliance, between the people and their God against the polytheism of the environment and their puppet gods. It was during the exile in Babylon in the 6th century BC. that the perception of Yahveh changed. Instead of being seen as a god of war or empty ritual, the prophets viewed Him as a personal God. In this renewed Covenant an individual relationship was established between God and his people that required individual responsibility, morality, and justice.
Isaiah prophesied in Jerusalem the capital of Judah in the 740s B.C. Like Amos he spoke out against ruling class corruption and interpreted the Assurian invasion of Israel, in 722 B.C., as a moral punishment from Yahweh. Isaiah also prophesied the coming of a Messiah who would understand the poor and protect their rights.
In 597 B.C. the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, invaded Judah and carried off 8,000 people to Babylon. It was while in thus exile that the Jews learned that Yahweh could be worshipped away from the Temple and they began to think of the divinity as the one true God who transcends borders. The Babylonian Captivity also taught the Jews to hate idol worship and to rely on the word of the one true God. Jewish scholars then began to collect and redact the memories, stories, and events from written and oral tradition, possibly to preserve their religious identity in a foreign land. This recopilatión of texts would create what we know today as the The Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament.
Jeremiah encouraged the exiled Hebrews by telling them to examine their own conduct. He preached that the essence of religion was the individual's relationship with Yahweh. Like Amos, Hosea and Isaiah he rejected the external forms of worship unless they brought the individual nearer to Yahweh. The prophet Ezekiel also recognised that the suffering of exile must lead to a deeper personal relationship with Yahweh.
In Greece the changes were more philosophical than spiritual. They were inaugurated by the group of Mileto, Samos and Heraclitus who influenced Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. These philosophers investigated the principles of existence based on the belief that humanity can understand and decide on its own life without reference to the gods.
Socrates' interests were centered on ethics: how to live life? In short, how to live in society? Athens found a brilliant answer: democracy. The Socratic question-and-answer method of getting to the truth may come from the courts, where lawyers would use this system to question the accused.
Some include Zoroaster in this new era saying that he was a contemporary of Cyrus the Great, emperor of Persia. Others date him before the Axial Age in the second millennium. The idea of monotheism is atributed to him.
Jaspers divides the story into various eras. During the Paleolithic, humans were gatherers and hunters. In the Neolithic, some began to colonize a territory and dedicate themselves to agriculture. Then came civilization, cities, politics and legislation to try to solve the problems of coexistence. Within these theocratic societies problems were projected onto the authorities and the gods.
New ideas that were postulated, almost simultaneously, in the Axial Age by prophets, philosophers, and rationalists at various points in Eurasia included:
- The freedom and independence of the individual;
- fundamental questions about the meaning of human existence
- a rational vision of natural processes.
In the East the answers were based on inner peace; in the West in the harmonious order of society.
The consequences of the Axial Age are still with us. We are aware of ourselves and our limitations. Philosophy and science emerged and have shaped our modern way of thinking in the West. If we add Islam, modern world religious beliefs were then established along with their proselytizing tendency that implies religious intolerance and ideological superiority.