The “Axial Age” and the Invention of a Shared Future

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Benoit Vermander, SJ

 Benoit Vermander, SJ / Philosophy / 5 October 2021


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Even today the notion of the “Axial Age” (Achsenzeit) is the subject of heated debate.[1] Should we consider it a myth or an actual historical reality? As a first step, we should approach the concept as a tool for analysis rather than as a historical reality firmly anchored in time (such as a dynasty or the Industrial Revolution, for example). Karl Jaspers introduced the expression Axial Age in the aftermath of the Second World War.[2] The context explained both the historical perspective adopted and the reservations that soon emerged regarding it. It was then a question of rethinking what the basis of a shared humanism might be.

It should be noted that the way Jaspers imagined the evolution he wanted to account for remained very unarticulated. In his grand narrative, dominant categories of thought seemed to disappear as another category took over; mythos disappeared in favor of logos, polytheism gave way to monotheism. Since then we have learned to consider the history of thought in terms of shifts, adjustments, new and sometimes disconcerting syntheses, sometimes a return to the past, and not just in terms of sharp oppositions or successions without some cross-pollination.

Decisive steps

Jaspers’ idea-force remained anchored, however, in an observation that should not be too quickly qualified as “mythical.” It concerns what happened between 800 and 200 B.C., and more particularly between the 6th and 3rd centuries B.C. It concerns an almost concomitant series of intellectual breakthroughs that would set the benchmarks of the civilizations in which they occurred, before questioning, much later, those of other cultures.

 

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