Neither Tolkien nor C.S. Lewis could have devised a panorama of personages and events more fantastic than the one which befell the human race at the dawn of its recorded history. Starting around 900 B.C.
E., four separate civilizations experienced a spiritual transformation spanning some seven centuries. The peoples in the regions now called Greece, India, China and Israel developed ethical ideas so consistent with each other that their independent evolution is a matter of pure astonishment.
This cross-cultural axis of religious awakening was first discerned and described 60 years ago by the German philosopher Karl Jaspers, who believed that history possessed both a clear origin and an achievable goal. Our generation's premiere historian of religious thought, Karen Armstrong, is naturally less optimistic about humanity's course, but she feels all the more impelled to provide a direction through her own writings. At the very outset of her monumental new book, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, Armstrong articulates the dire necessity to recognize and recreate the Axial Age of the first millennium B.C.
E. Her enterprise is so urgent the global stakes could not be higher that it demands a structure both simple and tremendous: she composes a historical symphony in four movements, one Greek, one Indian, one Chinese and one Hebrew. But just as, from our perspective, the different trees of thought in these four civilizations intertwine their branches, so too do the distinct movements of Armstrong's prose symphony insinuate themselves into each other, chapter by chapter, under the headings of certain spiritual principles.
What are these radical principles of the Axial Age? First, the ability to recognize the divine in both the other and oneself, along with a likening of the other to oneself an empathy later to be called The Golden Rule. Second, the rise of introspection and self-discovery over external ritual and magic. Third, the recognition of the inevitability of suffering and the development of spiritual technologies for transcending it. Fourth, the capacity to see things as they really are a realism terribly undervalued in our own time. Fifth, the spread of knowledge, beyond the confines of an elite, to ordinary folk. Sixth, an awareness of the limitations of human knowledge. In all four geographical regions of the Axial Age, these gospels were long in coming and short in staying. What's far worse, they are so familiar to us these days particularly through the sayings of that latter-day child of the Axial Age, Jesus of Nazareth that we can recognize neither the awesome strangeness of their universality nor their potential to change the world. The Buddha and Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah were foremost among the many sages of those centuries. Could Armstrong be the first sage of a second Axial Age? It is literally up to the reader to decide. Michael Alec Rose is a music professor at Vanderbilt University.