Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Axial Age reconsidered

The “Axial Age” is the notion that the contemporary world has been shaped  by an "axial age" centering around the time period (800-200 BC), the time when Western society was born and world religions spontaneously and independently appeared out of a seemingly shared value set. It is most associated with Karl  Jaspers, with  a time line of  (800-200 BCE), which Jaspers called "the most crucial turning point in history; it was then that man as he is today was born" (8). In this age, despite the differences in the religions that emerged, humanity had a unifying goal of self-transcendence.

This idea appears in Ian Morris’s well received tome: Why The West Rules- for Now.” Morris refers to an "Axial Age" (500 BC-100BC) which some scholars see as a period of ferment and  change  in Europe, Asia and the "Middle East" with numerous parallel, independent developments in human thought and philosophy. Thus Greece is a local version of this general period of ferment not the unique geniuses that "invented" "civilization." Said Greeks produced their own unique LOCAL VARIANTS but in broader context, so were major players everywhere else. Per Morris in one article:

"Over and over again, the triumphs of western culture turn out to have been local versions of broader trends, not lonely beacons in a general darkness and, if we think about culture in a broader, more anthropological sense, the West's history again seems to be one example of a larger pattern rather than a unique story."

This “Axial” notion is quite reasonable if considered in a measured way. And it has some importance in terms of historical accuracy and balance, for in certain quarters of the European academy some still claim that the Greeks "invented" such things as "critical consciousness" or "reason" - as if other peoples were not capable of such. The concept of the Axial Age raises a corrective about many extreme, OVER-INFLATED Eurocentric claims not only in academia but outside as well. Popular culture, including liberal culture, often embraces these over-inflated claims, as in the end of the "Spartan" movie "300" – where Greek "rationality" is touted over Persian "superstition" as if the Persians were somehow incapable of rational thought, or organization. This is a movie from liberal Hollywood mind you.

Another laughable attempt to create a "contrast" (plus work in a gay subtext) is that the Persians are bestial "enemies of freedom" while the white Spartans fight for "freedom, "reason" and "justice." This is ludicrous even by Hollywood standards, but it is common, (and sometimes effective) propaganda. In reality the Spartans were brutal imperialists that themselves crushed "freedom" time and time again in Greece when it suited their own ends. One of the most laughable lines in the movie is "The world will know that free men stood against a tyrant." - this from the mouth of the depicted leader of one of the most tyrannical people in the ancient world- the Spartans, whose society was maintained by a form of slavery on the helots, who in addition to the "usual" abuses of violence and exploitation, could be killed with impunity.

In fact the Spartans, at various parts in their history, negotiated with and collaborated with the Persians, sacrificing Greek "freedom" in order to maintain their hegemony in Greece. Their defeat by Persia and Persian-backed forces at Cnidus was cheered by several Greek cities, which expelled the Spartan garrisons and more gladly accepted less onerous Persian rule. Books such as Paul Cartledge's The Spartans: The World of the Warrior-Heroes of Ancient Greece- 2003, break down the credible historical detail, in sharp contrast to Hollywood nonsense.

As for the allegedly more "rational" Athenians- how did they make out on the "freedom" front? Turns out the Athenians were grasping, predatory imperialists as well. As one historian notes:

"The Athenians, seeing no contradiction between imperialism and democracy, also manipulated the league for their own economic advantage. They believed that their freedom and prosperity required subduing, exploiting, and enslaving others, and they adhered to the principle that strong states had a natural right to dominate weaker ones. They relished the empire that gave them wealth, power and glory. Moreover, the Athenians claimed that other city-states benefited from Athenian hegemony. Athens forbade member states to withdraw [from the Delian League], crushed revolts, and stationed garrisons on the territory of confederate states. It used both tribute from members and the league's treasury to finance public works in Athens.. As the Persian threat subsided, hatred for Athenian imperialism grew. In converting the Delian League into an instrument of Athenian imperialism, Athens may have lost an opportunity to perform a great creative act- forming a broad voluntary confederation that might have forestalled the intercity warfare that gravely weakened Hellenic civilization." 
--Perry et al. 2009. Western Civilization: Ideas, Politics, and Society. p. 61

Throughout the "300" movie, the Persians are depicted as a beastly alien "other." Hollywood based the movie on graphic novelist Frank Miller's book of the same name. The film adaptation, with its bogus talk about "rationality" and "freedom" is a travesty of Miller's work on this score. Miller for the most part, simply presented the 300 Spartans as hard but honest warriors, fighting for honor and duty, though he places a somewhat overdone "paragon of civilization" meme in the mouths of the Greeks at the end who say- "We rescue a world from the old, dark, stupid ways and we usher in a brighter future, that is surely brighter than we can imagine."

Exactly how the Athenians and Spartans, who both used slaves and were indeed glad to enslave others, and who indeed collaborated and allied with the Persians at various points deviated from "old, dark, stupid ways" is left unsaid, and perhaps rightly so- for the proposition is dubious. If anything, history depicts the "brighter future" as pretty much like the "dark past" with plenty of death, wars, destruction and slavery as far as the Greeks are concerned. Miller's book uses the well-worn trope but does not lay it on thick like the movie- it is a few lines amid 89 pages unlike the unsubtle "messages" in the movie. And unlike the deceptive Hollywood version- Miller does not demonize the Persians. They are- who they are - no more brutal than the Spartans- and his depiction of the Persian Immortals is not of bestial zombies, but elite fighting men who happen to wear distinctive masks. Hollywood's distortions casts a pall on what is otherwise an excellent action flick.

Per Hollywood, most of the emissaries of Persia - alleged "enemy of freedom" are depicted by black actors and they are almost all killed or maimed. One even rolls his lit-up eyes like the classic "darkie" menace as he bribes Greek traitors. Of course the same "alien" subtext could have been conveyed by "dusky" white actors; nevertheless use of blacks here is not necessarily a bad thing, and does speak to the multinational character of the Persian empire, and does spark more visual engagement as opposed to just another nondescript set of white actors with heavy suntan lotion. The main envoy is veteran Ghanaian-born British actor Peter Mensah- who has appeared in other well received ancient epic productions like "Spartacus" before and after, bringing a certain heft to the role.The filmmakers deserve credit, and some of the case might just be typical Hollywood "bending" history. But just maybe, there is another anti-"multicultural" subtext there too.. perfect fodder for post-911 propaganda tropes, and narratives of an "enemy" Other..

Anyway, liberal Hollywood's Persians use "bestial" half-men, half-beast, wild-looking creatures called "The Immortals" to fight the white heroes. Unlike Miller who presents them as simply a daring elite force, the movie depicts them as animalistic, zombie-like monstrosities with filed teeth, who use a helping of supernatural "darkness" on their side, including a rabid animal-like "berserker" type champion who has to be kept in chains before he is "unleashed" on the Spartan heroes. The film's narrator calls the Immortals "soulless" - an interesting metaphor. Why would strongly implied non-white troops (even their face masks look 'negroid')  be "soulless"?  But in reality, the Immortals were an elite, well-equipped, sophisticated fighting force, not beast men, and they lacked only in heavy armor and shields- which though had the upside of increasing their mobility. They served as the Imperial Guard as well as part of the central striking force or reserve. Even allowing for Hollywood hyperbole and distortion, the subtle message of the "racial other" -versus virtuous white people- is not hard to miss. Such distortion is not only confined to popular media, but can be seen in part, among some academics as well.

Miller's original depiction of Xerxes in his finery. Unlike the distorted Hollywood version, no bogus attempt is made to emphasize any alien "gayness" about the Persian as compared to allegedly more "virile" Spartans- who themselves the record shows, partook frequently in homosexual activity.

Persian leaders are also depicted as somewhat effeminate and homosexual leaning. Persian King Xerxes for example shows up with mincing, bejeweled delicacy including having his eyebrows “done” and slowly massages the shoulders of heroic he-man Spartan Leonidas during a parley. Even his voice is "modulated" and his tall physical dimensions convey awkwardness. But in Frank Miller's original depiction the bejeweled Persian king does not exude "gayness" - he is just a regal adversary, adorned in his own fashion, a man from another culture- nothing added. The "message" in the Hollywood version of course (among others) is to contrast "gay" Persia with "virile" Sparta. And to emphasize this, the film has the actor playing Leonidas dismiss the Athenians as "boy lovers" in one conversation.

But in reality, the Spartans themselves were deeply involved in "boy loving" and indulged in homosexual activity as part of their military culture. They were not the hetero "role models" touted by many. Indeed reputed white Spartan "role models" routinely indulged at hindquarters- from their system of pairing youths with older men for homosexual sex while training, to initiatory pederasty, to the common lesbian scenarios where older Spartan women exploited young girls for their pleasure. Indeed to illustrate just how "gay" the mighty Spartans were, it was not uncommon for brides to dress as young boys on their wedding nights- the "stimulas" perhaps moving their husbands to greater Spartan efforts in bed duty. As one scholar notes:

"..young boys between the ages of 6 and 16 were organized in 'packs' and 'herds' and placed under the supervision of young adult Spartans. This supervision was sometimes seen as surrogate fathering and one marker of its activity ".. was the institution of institutionalized pederasty. After the age of twelve, each Spartan teenager was expected to receive a young adult warrior as his lover."
--From: The Spartans: the world of the warrior-heroes of ancient Greece, from utopia to crisis and collapse Paul Cartledge, 69-70

Back on the 'axial' track, some world history timelines do show a period of upheaval and transformation across a huge part of the Old World. The invention of zero and a binary number system took place in India at this time for example, and a number of sophisticated religions and philosophies in Asia and the Near East were in ferment or on the march- demonstrating that the notion where everything important came out of "the West" is dubious. "Reason" and "philosophy" for example did not begin with the Greeks as popular culture and academia would have us believe. In fact credible histories show the Greeks borrowed liberally from elsewhere in a variety of areas, as would be expected from a Mediterranean trading culture. This does not at all deny their own distinctive LOCAL ARTICULATION of certain universal human concerns, or of their own subsequent innovations, angles and developments.

The notion of the Axial Age also reinforces the fact that "the West" is the beneficiary of numerous things and concepts invented elsewhere that are crucial to "civilization" - a point readily acknowledged by pro-Western historians-See Morris 2010 for example, or the magisterial work of Joseph Needham on ancient Chinese technology, or works on the Islamic civilizations, or Pomeranz et al (the Great Divergence 2000). Writing for example was not developed in "the West", nor were the primary key plant and animal domesticates that feed and clothe the most of the world at the present time.

Numerous other technologies can be named- from key types of geared, powered, pre-steam machinery,  to printing, to gunpowder, etc. Indeed China was the technology leader until well into the modern age. As far as economic output, China in the early 1800s was still producing the world's highest economic output. Even cultural products nowadays deemed "European," like the massively influential Christian religion were not invented in Europe. The general Axial concept would be a salutary caution against simplistic propaganda narratives about "the West" or specific parts such as Greece.

In the realm of geometrical astronomy for example, credible studies show that peoples of the Middle East were using sophisticated methods to calculate planetary orbits such as that of Jupiter, as early as 350BC, over a thousand years before similar calculations were accurately done in Europe. This again shows the broad sweep of knowledge in the non-European zone - and debunks simplistic claims seeing Greece as the fount of all wisdom, or knowledge. To the contrary, the Greeks borrowed heavily from other cultures of North Africa and the Middle East. See: Joel Achenbach. 2016. Clay tablets reveal Babylonians discovered astronomical geometry 1,400 years before Europeans. Washington Post January 28, 2016.

Then there is the question of practicality: As far as Greek technology for example, one scholar notes, that except for a few things like siege equipment and certain weapons, it was woefully short on practical, real world application, though long on theoretical talk, and gimmicks like distorting mirrors or theater automata.
"These technical treatises exhibit one remarkable characteristic: they include little or nothing concerning the most vital basic techniques- nothing about roofing, pottery, textiles, or agricultural work. The texts frequently describe apparatuses without any practical, everyday use: automata for theater, complex toys, gear systems that are probably unworkable and entirely theoretical, distorting mirrors for the amusement of princesses, stills for a chimerical transmutation of metals. The only apparatuses of any real importance in these texts are war machines: assault engines, tortoise-shell shields, watchtowers, mines and catapults."
--From: The Greek pursuit of knowledge. 2003 - Page 40
"Yet it remained true that Greek technology, however you measure its achievement, never explored and applied more than a small fraction of what Greek science might have made possible. It did not run machines, relieve labor of its burdens, increase man's productive capacity greatly, build a powerful industrial civilization. Why.. the heart of the matter is less in the failure of science to develop fully than in its failure to make the transition to technology. The thinking of the Greeks was done by free men and citizens; the work was done by foreigners and slaves.."
 ---Science, technology, and society 1997

Axiomatic curves?

But is it all revolving around that there "Axis" hoss?

Whether the ferment circa 600-200BC was an "Age of Transformation" in the more EXTREME sense is questionable. There were certain commonalities of forces, networks of trade, contacts, migrations, and the rise of various large-scale empires as in the Near East or Asia. Certainly very broad trends were afoot, and cultures interacting did produce partial syntheses, or at least some borrowings or exchanges all over the place, but to squeeze them into an all-defining mass called "Axial" distorts the distinctive developments in local cultures. I also think some go overboard with EXTREME or inflated "axial transformation" approaches- as a revolutionary departure in human thought- such as self-reflection. QUOTE FROM ONE APPROACH:

[i]Before a certain time, some psychologists believe, ancient peoples also differed from us by exhibiting far less capacity to monitor their internal thoughts, feelings, and motives; they engaged in little or no self-reflection, and lacked a personal identity other than a name, parentage, and a recollection of a sequence of life events.

    ...a strange veil seems to lie over the most ancient though man had not yet really come to himself...".

Below is a horizontal timeline extending from 2000 BCE to 2000 CE (today).  Crossing it vertically is an "Axis of Change" positioned at 550 BCE. This axis, according to Jaspers, divided earlier peoples from those who more closely resemble the peoples of today.  Around that axis is an era -- from about 800 BCE to 200 BCE -- designated as the "Axial Age" or "the Great Transformation."

People who lived on the early side of the axis, some scholars believe, lacked much self-reflection and lacked the concepts, ideas, and thoughts related to such awareness. People who lived on the later side of the axis were essentially contemporary in those aspects of their psychology.”

^^I question those who claim that self-reflection is such a revolutionary insertion during the Axial Age time period. Prominent Axial proponent Karen Armstrong for example claims:

"The Axial Age’s empathy rested on a new, and brutal, type of human awareness. “The Axial sages all pointed out that existence was inherently unsatisfactory and painful, and wanted to transcend this suffering... salvation lay in facing up to suffering, not retreating into denial… This facing up involves another Axial principle, kenosis, the notion of emptying the self of ego and pride."

Really now.. all that? What else we missing- love? sex? rock and roll? Again looking at Egypt, Armstrong's claims seem a stretch. Perhaps a case can be made that when the expanding Persians conquered Egypt, they brought part of the "axial ferment" circa 600 BC to that region, and of course as part of that wider Persian empire, numerous ideas and concepts were cross-fertilized across huge parts of Eurasia. Fair enough. Certainly as other scholars show Greece was also heavily influenced by Persia and the whole Middle Eastern region via trade, technology, religion and cross-fertilization of ideas.

But Egypt had plenty of self-reflection and self-awareness in its religious and philosophical traditions BEFORE the reputed "transformational" Axial period. Self-awareness, self reflection, critical consciousness etc in hymns, literature, laments, biographical inscriptions, meditations, desire for transcendence, etc etc. and of course the big religious questions are all handled in Egyptian belief and practice. The coming of the Greeks sparked SOME change of course- what else is new when conquests happen- but to claim some all-important "transformation" in human thought and psyche is quite frankly, implausible, and unsupported by the weight of history.

In fact, the detailed exposition of Professor Jan Assmann (Jan Assmann. 2008. Of God and Gods: Egypt, Israel and the Rise of Monotheism. pp 76-90) shows that Egypt had "axiality" in loads, much of it influenced by the trauma caused by political, military and economic upheaval. Where old institutions and assumptions declined, new patterns assumed prominence-  including the critical reflective changes in religion, i.e. the Judgment of the dead, and the development of Personal Piety. Ancient Egypt also played a clear part in the development of monotheism, having of course its own variant. Hence its peoples were not "static" or "unchanging" and did not need mystical "incoming Caucasoids" to spark changes in reaction to internal upheavals and troubles- which existed long before any "newcomers." Indeed there are antecedents of changes and shifts centuries prior within Egyptian tradition and history. Critical reflection and analysis at a distance is thus not something "invented" by Greeks, as some would have have it. Says Assmann: 
"However, what Voegelin was unable to see and what only Egyptology is able to bring to light is that this axial breakthrough had forerunners or foreshadowings in Egyptian history, a fact that profoundly affects the chronological implications of the Axial Age theory. These forerunners may be explained historically by breakdowns and disappointments in the political sphere, historical experiences of a rather traumatic character. The ancient Egyptian evidence invites us to modify the Axial Age theory in two respects that are of some importance in our general search for the roots of monotheism. One is the differentiation of the all-too-compact notion of an “Axial Age” into a gamut of smaller-scale transformations or into different degrees of “axiality.” Another is the possibility—and even necessity—of integrating those transformations into a larger context of historical changes and experiences. According to this theory, the separation of state and religion, or Herrschaft und Heil (Sovereignty and Salvation), has been forced upon some peoples— especially those who adopted the name “Israel”—by historical events of a traumatic nature...
During this period of anxiety and reorientation, the Egyptians put the verdict of posterity on a more stable basis in the form of a divine judgment at the court of Osiris. This is the first instance of the transposition of an idea or institution from the earthly sphere involving the social and the political to the transcendent sphere of the divine, which is the hallmark of “axiality.”
The Rise of Personal Piety... represents the most conspicuous case of such a transposition in Egyptian religious history. It concerns the rise and the final breakthrough of a religious trend Egyptologists call “Personal Piety.”11 The language of these texts has a long history.14 Many expressions can be traced back to the First Intermediate Period (2150–2000 BCE), where they describe the relationship of patron and client. During the Middle Kingdom (2000–1750 BCE) the ruling dynasty adopted this formula, together with its rhetoric, as a model for the new relationship between king and official, based on the latter’s heart, that is, his internal motivation, virtue, and sense of responsibility..."
""It concerns the rise and the final breakthrough of a religious trend Egyptologists call “Personal Piety.”11 An individual forms a special relationship with a certain deity, which in Egyptian is paraphrased in formulas such as “putting god N into one’s heart” and “walking (or acting) on the water of god N.” This new trend finds its first expression in prayers and tomb inscriptions of the fifteenth century. The language of these texts has a long history.14 Many expressions can be traced back to the First Intermediate Period (2150–2000 BCE), where they describe the relationship of patron and client. During the Middle Kingdom (2000–1750 BCE) the ruling dynasty adopted this formula, together with its rhetoric, as a model for the new relationship between king and official, based on the latter’s heart, that is, his internal motivation, virtue, and sense of responsibility. Following the breakdown of the Amarna revolution, this attitude (loyalism) was transferred to the divine sphere, where it served to describe the relationship between god and man. Typical of the rhetoric of loyalism was the opposition between wrath and mercy, involving the formulae of “putting god into one’s heart” and “walking or acting on God’s water,” and especially the stylistic device called “macarism” or “beatitude” (“Happy the man who . . . ,” “Blessed is he who . . .”), which appears at the beginning of the book of Psalms.."
 --Jan Assmann. 2008. Of God and Gods: Egypt, Israel and the Rise of Monotheism. pp 76-90

Such things are no monopoly of "Eurasia". Note the timeline of such "axial" praxis is 2000 BC, long before any Greeks showed up. The so-called "Axial Age" that came later may have incorporated these existing elements, or have brought an acceleration of general trends, and expansion of local variants, as part of a quickening upheaval age in Eurasia, but in terms of self-reflection, awareness etc it can be said that the peoples of the African Nile Valley already- "been there, done that."

The "axial thing" is sometimes pitched by liberal types as more "inclusive" history but ironically, in many respects it seems just another version of Eurocentrism- a liberal variety this time- of steady "transformational" progress towards a more politically correct historical nirvana. Oh, the heroes this time might be peoples supposedly "more in touch" with the earth, or a variety of Asiatic religions but the bottom line is the same- a steady march of progress towards the supposedly more enlightened (or imagined) Western present or past. Both the liberal and conservative versions stand wanting.

Axial Assets..

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