The Axial Age and Its Consequences

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The first classics in human history—the early works of literature, philosophy, and theology to which we have returned throughout the ages—appeared in the middle centuries of the first millennium bce. The canonical texts of the Hebrew scriptures, the philosophical writings of Plato and Aristotle, the Analects of Confucius and the Daodejing, the Bhagavad Gita and the teachings of the Buddha—all of these works came down to us from the compressed period of history that Karl Jaspers memorably named the Axial Age.

In The Axial Age and Its Consequences, Robert Bellah and Hans Joas make the bold claim that intellectual sophistication itself was born worldwide during this critical time. Across Eurasia, a new self-reflective attitude toward human existence emerged, and with it an awakening to the concept of transcendence. From Axial Age thinkers we inherited a sense of the world as a place not just to experience but to investigate, envision, and alter through human thought and action.

Bellah and Joas have assembled diverse scholars to guide us through this astonishing efflorescence of religious and philosophical creativity. As they explore the varieties of theorizing that arose during the period, they consider how these in turn led to utopian visions that brought with them the possibility of both societal reform and repression. The roots of our continuing discourse on religion, secularization, inequality, education, and the environment all lie in Axial Age developments. Understanding this transitional era, the authors contend, is not just an academic project but a humanistic endeavor.

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Editorial Reviews

Edward A. Tiryakian
With eighteen leading multidisciplinary scholars, this volume covers enormous ground in the transformative beginnings for civilizations that shared cultural origins in the mid-first millennium BC in Europe and Asia. Extending the insight of existential philosopher Karl Jaspers regarding the 'Axial Age' and its later evolution to 'multiple modernities,' The Axial Age and Its Consequences, superbly edited by Hans Joas and Robert Bellah, is a must-read for contemporary comparative-historical sociological analyses in our own global age.
Donald Levine
The Axial Age, the epic moment around the 6th century BCE which saw the intellectual outburst that engendered the major world religions, has enjoyed an upsurge of scholarly attention in the past generation. Great themes demand great voices, and editors Bellah and Joas have assembled a remarkable choral ensemble for a score organized to address fundamental questions about Axiality and its comparative manifestations, destructive possibilities, current status, and implications for the future. I can think of no compendium in the past generation that measures up to the quality and significance of this volume.
Library Journal
In Karl Jaspers's The Origin and Goal of History (1949), the existential philosopher coined the term axial age to describe the 600-year period between 800 and 200 B.C.E., which witnessed the formation of a significant number of the world's great religions from Buddhism to Zoroastrianism. He believed that the period represented a fundamental shift in the spiritual foundations of humanity and the birth of intellectual modernity. In this volume, editors Bellah (sociology, emeritus, Univ. of California, Berkeley) and Joas (sociology, Univ. of Chicago) have expertly selected essays by various interdisciplinary scholars who originally presented at "The Axial Age and Its Consequences for Subsequent History and the Present," a 2008 conference in Erfurt, Germany. Notably, "What Was the Axial Age?" by Charles Taylor (political science & philosophy, emeritus, McGill Univ.; A Secular Age) conceives of that era as a shift in humanity's notion of the good life from being one of "prospering or flourishing" to one comprising complete virtue and salvation in which the higher powers are on our side (a shift Taylor refers to as "disembedding"). VERDICT While highly recommended for readers of Bellah's Religion in Human Evolution and students of religious philosophy and evolutionary sociology, the academic depth of the theoretical discussions here will place this volume beyond the interests of all but a select audience.—Brian Odom, Pelham P.L., AL
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674066496
  • Publisher: Harvard
  • Publication date: 10/31/2012
  • Pages: 560
  • Sales rank: 786,031
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert N. Bellah was Elliott Professor of Sociology, Emeritus, at the University of California, Berkeley.

Hans Joas is Permanent Fellow at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies and Professor of Sociology and Social Thought at the University of Chicago.

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Read an Excerpt

From Chapter Two: What Was the Axial Revolution? (Charles Taylor)

The full scale of this far-reaching change becomes clearer if we focus on some features of the religious life of earlier, smaller-scale societies, insofar as we can trace this. There must have been a phase in which all humans lived in such small-scale societies, even though much of the life of this epoch can only be guessed at. If we examine (what we know of) these earlier forms of religion (which coincide partly with what Robert Bellah called “archaic religion”), we note how profoundly these forms of life “embed” the agent. And that happens in three crucial ways.

First, socially: in Paleolithic and even certain Neolithic tribal societies, religious life is inseparably linked with social life. This meant first of all that the primary agency of important religious action—invoking, praying to, sacrificing to, or propitiating Gods or spirits, coming close to these powers, getting healing, protection from them, divining under their guidance, and so forth—was the social group as a whole, or some more specialized agency recognized as acting for the group. In early religion, we primarily relate to God as a society.

This kind of collective ritual action, where the principal agents are acting on behalf of a community, which also in its own way becomes involved in the action, seems to figure virtually everywhere in early religion, and continues in some ways up till our day. Certainly it goes on occupying an important place as long as people live in an enchanted world. The ceremony of “beating the bounds” of the agricultural village, for instance, involved the whole parish, and could only be effective as a collective act of this whole.

This embedding in social ritual usually carries with it another feature. Just because the most important religious action was that of the collective, and because it often required that certain functionaries—priests, shamans, medicine men, diviners, chiefs, and so on—fill crucial roles in the action, the social order in which these roles were defined tended to be sacrosanct. This is, of course, the aspect of religious life which was most centrally identified and pilloried by the radical Enlightenment. The crime laid bare here was the entrenchment of forms of inequality, domination, and exploitation through their identification with the untouchable, sacred structure of things. Hence the longing to see the day “when the last king had been strangled in the entrails of the last priest.” But this identification is in fact very old, and goes back to a time when many of the later, more egregious and vicious forms of inequality had not yet been developed, before there were kings and hierarchies of priests.

Behind the issue of inequality and justice lies something deeper, which touches what we would call today the “identity” of the human beings in those earlier societies. Just because their most important actions were the doings of whole groups (tribe, clan, subtribe, lineage), articulated in a certain way (the actions were led by chiefs, shamans, masters of the fishing spear), they couldn’t conceive of themselves as potentially disconnected from this social matrix. It would probably never even occur to them to try.

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Table of Contents

Introduction Robert N. Bellah Hans Joas 1

Fundamental Questions

1 The Axial Age Debate as Religious Discourse Hans Joas 9

2 What Was the Axial Revolution? Charles Taylor 30

3 An Evolutionary Approach to Culture: Implications for the Study of the Axial Age Merlin Donald 47

4 Embodiment, Transcendence, and Contingency: Anthropological Features of the Axial Age Matthias Jung 77

5 The Axial Age in Global History: Cultural Crystallizations and Societal Transformations Björn Wittrock 102

6 The Buddha's Meditative Trance: Visionary Knowledge, Aphoristic Thinking, and Axial Age Rationality in Early Buddhism Gananath Obeyesekere 126

7 The Idea of Transcendence Ingolf U. Dalferth 146

A Comparative Perspective

8 Religion, the Axial Age, and Secular Modernity in Bellah's Theory of Religious Evolution José Casanova 191

9 Where Do Axial Commitments Reside? Problems in Thinking about the African Case Ann Swidler 222

10 The Axial Age Theory: A Challenge to Historism or an Explanatory Device of Civilization Analysis? With a Look at the Normative Discourse in Axial Age China Heiner Roetz 248

Destructive Possibilities?

11 The Axial Conundrum between Transcendental Visions and Vicissitudes of Their Institutionalizations: Constructive and Destructive Possibilities Shmuel N. Eisenstadt 277

12 Axial Religions and the Problem of Violence David Martin 294

13 Righteous Rebels: When, Where, and Why? W. G. Runciman 317


14 Rehistoricizing the Axial Age Johann P. Arnason 337

15 Cultural Memory and the Myth of the Axial Age Jan Assmann 366

Perspectives, on the Future

16 The Axial Invention of Education and Today's Global Knowledge Culture William M. Sullivan 411

17 The Future of Transcendence: A Sociological Agenda Richard Madsen 430

18 The Heritage of the Axial Age: Resource or Burden? Robert N. Bellah 447

Bibliography: Works on the Axial Age 469

Contributors 539

Index 543

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