The Axis Age

8 Dec 2014

Michael Wood, in BBC History magazine (Christmas issue 2014) writes from China - and specifically, from the birth place of Confucius. In East Asia the erstwhile Confucius defines the collective values of hard work, duty, and benevolence. A very important cultural figure.

Karl Jaspers, in his book, 'The Origin and Goal of History' (see also Karen Armstrong, The Great Transformation: the world in the time of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah' Random House:2006) noticed that the early Greek philosophers, such as Socrates, as well as Old Testament prophets, the Buddha and Mahavira, Confucius and Lao Tzu, all lived close in time with each other, in the middle of the first millennium BC. All appear to have surprising new ideas about humanity. Was it known they lived in a post-catastrophe world and more able to rationalise the past?

Jasper spread his net wide and this has tended to dilute his argument. Armstrong is more compact with her figures of history. According to Michael Wood, famous for his 'in the face' television (a 1990s version of the Cox phenomenon) it is an interesting idea that in the mid first millennium BC, across Eurasia, there is something that is detectable, a way of thinking that spread around the world, quite different to what had gone before. The key figures all lived within a few generations of each other, between the 550s and the 4th century BC. Some were alive at the same time. We don't of course know if pre-writing cultures had a similar adjustment of cult belief.

What we have are city states with lots of merchants and trade that was wider in scope than at any earlier time - with trade routes that criss-crossed the known world. Or that may be a soft option for an explanation by reason trade routes are very old and go back deep into the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, thousands of years prior to the mid first millennium 'enlightenment'. In fact, Jasper's ideas were not greatly taken up - but we may note the historical figures cluster around the second of two major events in the first millennium BC that appear to be associated with either a C14 injection or a C14 plateau (and from that point the calibrated model diverges from the raw C14 data). In a Velikovskian scenario the 6th to 4th centuries fall after the last of his catastrophes, but others would disagree. In Ionia there were Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Anaxagoras etc, Buddha was contemporary with Jains and Ajirikas. Confucius' near contemporaries included Daoists, Mohists, and Mencius. The religion of the Jews, it has been argued, was in a state of flux, emerging as something quite different to what it had been before the Exile. Apart from the Jews none of the others put God at the centre. The gods had become figures of reduced fear - why?