In this time of exacerbated nationalisms, the notion of the unity of mankind seems almost an anachronism. Yet if we are to dispel the shadows of barbarism, we must regain some sense of this profound reality. Karl Jaspers suggests that such a sense is to be derived not from any single religious or philosophical system but from a specific historical experience, that of the “axial age” of the years 800-200 BCE. This article is translated from the German by Ralph Manheim.
Philosophy strives to interpret history as a single totality. In the West, the philosophy of history developed on the foundation of the Christian faith. In great works from St. Augustine to Hegel, history is seen as the work of God, and God’s acts of revelation define the decisive epochs. So late a thinker as Hegel could write: “All history moves toward Christ and begins with Christ. The coming of the son of God is the axis of world history.”
But such a view of universal history can be valid only for Christians; Christianity is but one faith, not the faith of mankind. Through a specific historical development beginning in late antiquity, Christianity has become the faith of the Western world; but even in the West, the Christian has not allowed his religion to determine his view of history as human experience: even for him, a statement of faith is not a statement about the actual course of history, and sacred history remains in essence different and separate from profane history. The believing Christian can examine the Christian tradition just as he might examine any other object of his experience.
If there does exist such a thing as an axis, or turning point, in history, it must be based on observable or recorded fact; and it must be valid for all men, including Christians. Such an axis would be that point in history where man first discovered the notion of himself that he has realized since, the point in time where there occurred that shaping of man’s being which has produced the most important results. And the existence of this turning point would have to be, if not absolutely demonstrable, at least convincing on an empirical basis for Europeans, for Asiatics, and for all men, without the need to appeal to the criterion of a definite religious doctrine. Only thus could it provide a common frame of historical self-understanding.
Such a historical axis, or turning point, seems to be situated in the years around 500 BCE, in the intellectual development that took place between 800 and 200 BCE. There lies, it appears to me, the most crucial turning point in history; it was then that man as he is today was born. Let us, for the sake of brevity, refer to this period as the “axial age.”
Many extraordinary developments were crowded into this epoch. In China lived Confucius and Lao-tse, and all the characteristic Chinese philosophical tendencies were born; such thinkers as Mo Ti, Chuang-tze, Liadsi, and innumerable others were at work; in India it was the period of the Upanishads, of Buddha, and, just as in China, every philosophical possibility was then developed, including scepticism, materialism, sophistry, and nihilism; in Iran, Zoroaster taught the dramatic cosmology of the struggle between Good and Evil; in Palestine, it was the age of the Prophets, from Elijah to Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Deutero-Isaiah; in Greece it was the age of Homer, of the philosophers Parmenides, Heraclitus, and Plato, of the dramatists, of Thucydides and Archimedes. All the great developments that these names suggest occurred in those few centuries—and almost simultaneously in China, India, and the West, though none of these three worlds was aware of the others.
The new element that appeared in this epoch was that man became aware of existence as a whole, of his self, and of his limitations. He experienced the awesomeness of the world and his own weakness. He raised radical questions and, in his quest for liberation and redemption, came face to face with the abyss. While gaining consciousness of his limitations, he set himself the highest aims; he experienced the absolute in the depth of selfhood and in the clarity of transcendence.
Man became aware of consciousness itself; the fact of thought became itself an object of thought. Spiritual battles arose, in which men strove to convince others by the communication of ideas, reasons, experiences. Contradictory possibilities were explored. Discussion, partisanship, the splitting-up of the intellectual sphere into antithetical tendencies that yet remained closely related by their very opposition—all this produced an unrest bordering on spiritual chaos.
This age produced the basic categories within which we still carry on our thinking, and the beginnings of the world religions by which man has lived until today. In every sense, a step was made towards the universal.
Opinions, customs, conditions that had been unconsciously accepted were now scrutinized, questioned, dissolved. The world became a retort in which the substance of tradition, still living and real, was brought to consciousness and thereby transformed.
The age of myth—age of the static and self-evident—came to an end, and there began the battle of rationality and practical experience against myth (logos versus mythos); the battle for the transcendence of the one God against the demons who did not exist; the battle of an aroused ethical sense against the false gods. Religion was informed with ethics, and thus the idea of divinity was enhanced. The myth became the vehicle of a language that expressed something entirely different from what the myth had originally meant; the myth became parable. Myths were transformed and given new depth; and during this transition period, new myths were still produced even while the myth as a whole was being destroyed. The mythical world slowly receded, but it remained, in the beliefs of the masses, the background of all life (and therefore it could triumph again in later periods over wide areas).
This whole transformation of man’s condition may be called a spiritualization. An impulse surging up from the unexplored depths of life loosened the mainstays of existence, transforming stable polarities into antinomies and conflicts. Man was no longer self-sufficient. He had become unsure of himself, and thus open to new and boundless possibilities. He could hear and understand what until then no one had questioned or even noticed. Wonders were made manifest. Along with his world and his ego, Being itself now became perceptible to man, but not finally: the question remained. And his highest upsurge ended in new questions.
For the first time there were philosophers. Men dared to rely on themselves as individuals. Hermits and wandering thinkers in China, ascetics in India, philosophers in Greece, prophets in Israel—they all belong together, however much they may differ in faith, content, and inner orientation. Man was now able to set his inner life in opposition to the whole world; he discovered in himself the principle through which he could rise above both himself and the world.
In speculative thought man soared to the level of Being, which he grasped without duality; subject and object disappeared, and opposites became one. The objective formulations of speculative thought express, ambiguously and in a manner open to misunderstanding, what man in his highest flights experiences as a discovery of himself within the whole of Being, or a unio mystica, a merging with the godhead, or else a transformation of the self into an instrument of God’s will, or a consciousness of the self as transcending the arbitrary particularity of the hic et nunc.
Imprisoned in a body fettered by passions, separated from the light and only dimly aware of himself, man longs for liberation and redemption; and he finds that he can achieve liberation and redemption in the world, whether it is by an ascent to the Idea; or in ataraxia—passive resignation; or by immersion in thought; or in the knowledge of himself and the world as Atman, the Universal Self; or in the experience of Nirvana; or in harmony with the Tao—the cosmic order; or in surrender to the will of God. There are, it is true, great differences among the various faiths, but they all alike come to serve as instruments by which man transcends himself, by which he becomes aware of his own being within the whole of Being, and by which he enters upon pathways that he must travel as an individual. It becomes possible for him to renounce the goods of the world and retire to the desert, the woods, the mountains; he can become a hermit and discover the creative power of solitude, and return to the world as philosopher, sage, prophet. What took place in this axial age was the discovery of what was later to be called reason and personality.
The conquests of individuals did not become the property of all; the distance between the heights of human possibility and the crowd was enormous. But what the individual became, changed everything indirectly; humanity as a whole took a leap forward.
Even sociological conditions in China, India, and around the Mediterranean show similarities during this age. There is an abundance of small states and cities, and a battle of all against all, making at first for astonishing prosperity, a development of power and wealth. In China, under the impotent empire of the Chou dynasty, cities and petty states flourished; the over-all political process consisted of the aggrandizement of small states by the subjection of other small states. In Greece and the Near East, there existed an independent life of small social units, even, in part, for those under the dominion of the Persians. n India also were many independent states and cities.
Within the three worlds, travel and trade created intellectual movement. Previously the world had known relatively stable conditions under which, despite catastrophes, everything repeated itself, horizons were restricted, and intellectual movement was gentle and very slow, unconscious and hence not understood. Now out of constant tension came tumultuous and swift movement, leading to revolution; and this was on the conscious plane.
The Chinese philosophers, Confucius and Mo Ti and others, roamed the country, gathering together in famous places favorable to intellectual life. They established schools which the Sinologists call academies, like those of the Sophists and philosophers in Hellas; or else, like Buddha, they spent their lives wandering from town to town.
Men became conscious of history; an extraordinary age was beginning, but men felt and knew that an endless past had gone before. Thus at the very outset of this awakening of the truly human spirit, man was already preoccupied with memories, conscious of lateness, even of decadence.
Now men wished to take the course of events into their hands: to restore conditions that had existed in the past, or to create new conditions. History was conceived as a series of stages: either as a process of steady deterioration, or as a cycle, or as an ascent. Thinkers began to speculate on how men could best live together, how their lives could best be administered and governed. Ideas of reform inspired political activity. Philosophers wandered from state to state, acted as counselors and teachers, were despised or courted, argued with one another. There is a sociological analogy between Confucius’ failure at the court of Wei and Plato’s failure in Syracuse, and between the school of Confucius and the academy of Plato, in both of which future statesmen were trained.
This long epoch represents no simple ascending development. It was both destructive and creative, and its potentialities were never fully realized. The highest possibilities realized in individuals did not become common property because the mass of men could not follow. What started out as freedom of movement ended as anarchy. When the creative power of the epoch was lost the same thing happened in all three worlds: a petrifaction of dogmas and a general leveling; out of a disorder that had become intolerable there grew an urge toward a new stability, toward the restoration of static conditions of life.
The process of constant change first came to a stop in the political sphere. Great, all-encompassing empires came into being almost simultaneously in China (Chin Shih-Huang Ti), in India (the Maurya dynasty), and in the West (the Hellenistic empires and Rome). Everywhere collapse brought initial gain in the form of a highly systematized order. But nowhere was the relation to what had gone before completely extinguished; the achievements and figures of the axial age became models and objects of veneration: the Han dynasty in China established Confucianism, Asoka established Buddhism in India, and the Augustan age in Rome set up the conscious Greco-Roman cultural tradition.
The universal empires that developed at the end of the axial age were considered to be established for all eternity. But their stability was illusory; although these empires lasted a long time measured by the political standards of the axial age, all ultimately declined and disintegrated, and the subsequent millennia have brought enormous changes. Since the end of the axial age, political history has been a history of the decline of great empires and the founding of new ones.
In Order to establish the truth of a historical conception, it is not enough to glance at a few facts, as I have done. An accumulation of historical analysis must increasingly clarify the thesis, or else it must be abandoned. The observations I have made are intended merely to invite further exploration.
Assuming, however, that this idea of an axial age is true in the main, it seems to illuminate the whole of world history in such a way that something resembling a structure emerges. I shall attempt briefly to indicate this structure:
1. Age-old high civilizations everywhere end with the axial age. The axial age smelts them down, takes them over, submerges them, whether by internal revolution or foreign conquest. Much that existed before the axial age was indeed magnificent—for example, the cultures of Babylonia, Egypt, or the Indus, and the primitive culture of China—but all this has something unawakened about it. The old cultures survived only in those elements that were assimilated by the new beginning and became part of the axial age.
Measured by the radiant humanity of the axial age, a strange veil lies over the preceding ancient cultures, as though in them man had not yet truly come to himself; this remains true despite such impressive, isolated impulses—therefore without general or future influence—as can be found, for example, in an Egyptian literary document, the well-known “Dialogue of a Man Weary of Life with his Soul,” or in the Babylonian penitential psalms or the epic of Gilgamesh. The axial age continued to venerate the monumental in religion and religious art, and the corresponding monumental phenomena in the political realm—the great authoritarian states and legal systems. These things were even regarded as prototypes—by Confucius and Plato, for example—but if so, it was in a new conception that informed them with the spirit of the new age.
Thus the imperial idea, which at the end of the axial age achieved new force and, politically speaking, ended the age, was inherited from the old monolithic civilizations. But whereas the imperial idea had originally been the culture-creating principle, it now served to entomb and stabilize a declining culture. It is as if the principle which had once served to drive humanity upward, and which had been a despotic principle de facto, now broke through in the form of a conscious despotism that congealed and preserved like frost.
2. Mankind is still living by what happened in the axial age, by what it created and what it thought. In all its later flights mankind returns to that age and gathers new fire. The return to this beginning is the ever-recurring event in China, India, and the West; the renaissances that have brought new spiritual surges have consisted in the recollection and reawakening of the possibilities of the axial age.
3. Although the axial age began within a relatively limited area of the globe, its historical effect was universal. Those peoples that did not participate in the developments of that age have remained “primitive peoples,” continuing the unhistorical lives they had been leading for tens or hundreds of thousands of years. Men living outside of the three worlds of the axial age either remained apart from the stream of history or were drawn into it by coming into contact with one or the other of the three intellectual centers of radiation, as was the case, for example, with the Germanic and Slavic peoples in the West, and the Japanese, the Malays, and the Siamese in the East. Some primitive peoples died out as a result of this contact. All men living after the axial age were either relegated to the status of primitive peoples or took part in the fundamental new world process. Once history had begun, the life of primitive peoples took on the character of an enduring prehistory, which became increasingly restricted in area and has only recently definitively ended.
4. When the three worlds that experienced the axial age meet with one another, a profound understanding is possible. They recognize when they meet that their concerns are the same. Despite great distances, each deeply affects the others. To be sure, there is no truth common to all three that can be put into objective statement—this exists only in science, with its conscious and compelling methodology, which can be disseminated without change throughout the world and to which all men are called to contribute—but, even so, the authentic and unconditional truth that is lived historically by men of different origins is reciprocally seen and heard.
To summarize: out of the vision of the axial age grow the questions and criteria through which we approach all previous and all subsequent development. The high civilizations that went before lose their distinct contours, and the peoples who were their vehicles become invisible as they merge into the movement of the axial age. Prehistoric peoples remain prehistorical until they are absorbed in the historical movement that spreads out from the axial age-or until they die out. The axial age assimilates everything else. From that age history gains the only structure and unity that survives, or that has survived up to now.
The fact of the threefold axial age is a kind of miracle, in the sense that any really adequate explanation lies beyond our present scientific horizon. And in any case, the hidden meaning of this phenomenon cannot be found empirically, as if it were a meaning that someone had consciously sought to create. Rather, to inquire after this meaning is to ask: what are we to make of this fact, what does it give to us’ If, in attempting to answer these questions, expressions may occur that make it appear as if we were thinking of some plan of providence, they are to be understood only as metaphors.
a) Really to see the axial age, to gain it as a foundation for our universal view of history, means: to gain something that is common to all mankind above and beyond all differences of faith. It is one thing to see the unity of history only from the background of one’s own faith; it is quite another to conceive the unity of history in communication with every other human background, combining one’s own consciousness with that which is foreign to one. In this sense, it may be said of the centuries between 800 and 200 BCE that they constitute the empirically ascertainable axis of history for all men.
The transcendental history of Christian revealed faith knows creation, fall, the steps of revelation, prophecies, the coming of God’s son, redemption, and last judgment. As the faith of a historical group of men, it remains intact. But it is not on the basis of revelation that men can come together; the basis of solidarity can only be experience. Revelation is the form of a particular historical faith; experience is accessible to man as man. Through our experience of history we—all men—can know in common the reality of the universal transformation of mankind that took place in the axial age. This transformation was, to be sure, limited to China, India, and the West, but, although there was at first no contact among these three worlds, it laid the basis for universal history, it drew the minds of all men into it.
b) The threefold historical form of the great advance of the axial age is something like a summons to boundless communication. To see and to understand others helps us toward the greatest clarity concerning ourselves, helps us to overcome that narrowness which is the danger in every self-enclosed history, and to make a leap into the distance. This venture in boundless communication is once again the secret of achieving humanity, not in the prehistoric past but in ourselves.
The call to such communication—which arises from the very fact that our historical origins are threefold—is the strongest force opposing the fallacy that any faith enjoys exclusive possession of the truth. For faith must always be conditioned by historical existence; it cannot, like scientific truth, be stated universally for all. The claim to exclusive truth—that weapon of fanaticism, of human pride, of self-deception through will to power, that scourge of the West in particular, with its secularization in dogmatic philosophies and so-called scientific Weltanschauungen—can be overcome precisely by the knowledge that God has revealed himself historically in many ways and opened up many paths to himself. It is as if God, speaking the language of universal history, were warning us against exclusive claims.
c) If the axial age takes on significance according to the depth of our immersion in it, the question arises: is this age and its creations a criterion for all that has happened since’ Even if we disregard the quantitative aspect, the geographical scope of political events, the preeminence that intellectual manifestations have enjoyed through the centuries, do we not find that the austere greatness, the creative clarity, the depth of meaning, the élan toward new intellectual worlds manifested in the axial age constitute the intellectual summit of all history up until now’ For all their greatness and uniqueness, does not Virgil pale before Homer, and Augustus before Solon’
Surely any mechanical answer would be false. What has come later has assuredly its own value, which was not present in that which went before, a maturity of its own, a sublime splendor, a spiritual depth, above all in its “exceptional” manifestations.
We cannot organize history into a hierarchy simply by setting up some universal idea and drawing automatic inferences from it. But the conception of the axial age may lead us to question what came later, perhaps even to form a prejudice against it—and this may lead us to a recognition of that which is truly new and great and which does not belong to the axial age. For example: the student of philosophy who has spent months with the Greeks may find in St. Augustine a liberation from too much coolness and impersonality, since Augustine raises questions of conscience that were unknown to the Greeks but have been with us ever since; but then a period spent in the study of Augustine may impel him to return to the Greeks, in order to cleanse himself from the mounting impurity. Nowhere on earth is there an ultimate truth, a perfect salvation.
The axial age was shattered. History continued.
I hold only this as certain: whether we adopt or reject this thesis, the conception of an axial age affects our contemporary consciousness of our situation and of our history in fundamental ways which I have been able to intimate only partially. What is involved is nothing less than the question of how the unity of mankind can become concrete for each of us, of whatever tradition.