The Axial Age

May 03, 2020

Carl Sagan, in Cosmos (1983), introduced me to the notion of the Axial Age, a period of “pivoting” in human history:

The sixth century B.C. was a time of remarkable intellectual and spiritual ferment across the planet. Not only was it the time of Thales, Anaximander, Pythagoras and others in Ionia, but also the time of the Egyptian Pharaoh Necho who caused Africa to be circumnavigated, of Zoroaster in Persia, Confucius and Lao-tse in China, the Jewish prophets in Israel, Egypt and Babylon, and Gautama Buddha in India. It is hard to think these activities altogether unrelated.

William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life (2009):

However and whenever it may have started, philosophical thinking took a giant leap forward in the sixth century BC. We find Pythagoras (570–500 BC) philosophizing in Italy; Thales (636–546 BC), Anaximander (641–547 BC), and Heracleitus (535–475 BC) in Greece; Confucius (551–479 BC) in China; and Buddha (563–483 bc) in India. It isn’t clear whether these individuals discovered philosophy independently of one another; nor is it clear which direction philosophical influence flowed, if it indeed flowed.

David Graeber makes the same point in Debt (2014), chapter 9:

The phrase “The Axial Age” was coined by the German existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers. In the course of writing a history of philosophy, Jaspers became fascinated by the fact that figures like Pythagorus (570–495 BC), Gautama Buddha (563–483 BC), and Confucius (551–479 BC), were all alive at exactly the same time, and that Greece, India, and China, in that period, all saw a sudden efflorescence of debate between contending intellectual schools, each group apparently, unaware of the others’ existence. Like the simultaneous invention of coinage, why this happened had always been a puzzle. Jaspers wasn’t entirely sure himself. To some extent, he 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 kind of pause between empires, a time when political landscapes were broken into a checkerboard of often diminutive kingdoms and city-states, most often at constant war externally and locked in constant political debate within. Each case witnessed the development of something akin to a drop-out culture, with ascetics and sages fleeing to the wilderness or wandering from town to town seeking wisdom; in each, too, they were eventually reabsorbed into the political order as a new kind of intellectual or spiritual elite, whether as Greek sophists, Jewish prophets, Chinese sages, or Indian holy men.

Jaspers’ observation had antecedents, some of whom he cited as well as others he was probably unaware of. There was (and is) a lot of debate about the dates and details. The period in question is now put at 800–200 BC.

This idea fascinates me, and I will be developing some thinking related to it here.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.