The Axial Periods

This article by Lloyd Geering was published in the inaugural issue of the Canadian JS magazine and is reproduced here with permission.

It was the philosopher of history, Karl Jaspers, who coined the term 'Axial Period' for the era between 800 BC and 200 BC. He observed that, within that time-span, radical changes took place in human culture of such a kind that it was just as if human consciousness had taken a giant turn on its axis.

Before the Axial Period the many and diverse human cultures which had evolved were basically tribal or ethnic - their identity and cohesion rested on a common pool of blood and genes. They existed to perpetuate their own survival. They were oriented to the forces of nature. They had no nameable religion. For them, religion, 'science' and morals all formed one indivisible whole which we may call their ethnic cultural tradition. They handed this down with meticulous care and regarded all change as abhorrent.

It is all the more surprising, therefore, that, during the Axial period, there arose in some ethnic cultures, quite independently of one another, certain individuals who dared to reflect on their own tradition and hold it up to critical examination. We know them today as the Greek philosophers, the Semitic prophets (who include Jesus and Muhammad), the Iranian Zarathustra, the Indian seers (who include the Buddha and Mahavira), the Chinese thinkers (who include Confucius and Laotzu). From such people there emerged new forms of cultural tradition, such as the Buddhist, Christian and Islamic. These may also be called trans-ethnic for they linked the ethnic cultures into a common umbrella culture. They did this by refocusing human attention on superhuman realities and goals which transcended the boundaries of their tribal cultures. From the Axial Period onwards the trans-ethnic cultures spread out from their point of origin. They did not obliterate the ethnic cultures but subordinated them to a higher set of values. By the year 1900 the three most successful post-Axial cultures had carved up the world among them into the Christian West (now including the Americas and Africa), the Islamic Middle East and the Buddhist Orient. Incidentally, they made little impact on each other but spread mainly through the tribal cultures.

But already there had emerged in Western Europe a second Axial change. The traditional forms of Christianity had now come under critical examination, starting with the Protestant Reformation and continuing through the Enlightenment. This change, involving the critique of all things metaphysical, had already begun to influence the non-Christian world more deeply than traditional Christianity was ever able to do. This third phase may be called Global since it is global in its outreach and it is subordinating the traditional post-Axial cultures to values common to the whole of humankind, as exemplified in the modern concern with human rights. It may also be called the Secular phase, in that it fastens attention on this world rather than on other-worldly goals and concepts, as the Transethnic cultures did.

In this Global/Secular Phase of culture we have come to focus attention increasingly on the human species itself and are becoming aware of what all humans have in common irrespective of class, race, religion, gender, or age. We have come to acknowledge the human origin of all languages, moral codes and religious traditions; we find that, far from being absolute and eternal, they are relative to time and place.

The advent of Global/Secular culture does not render valueless the trans-ethnic religious traditions any more than they, in turn, rendered valueless the ethnic cultures they subordinated. But it does mean that they have to experience radical change if they are to continue to play a positive role in the Global Era. The Global phase of human culture presents us with new and awe-inspiring challenges which call for new forms of spiritual leadership.

Just as we have been discovering that all languages, religions and cultures are humanly created, so we now find that we are all part of the complex and ecological evolution of life on this planet. What has taken millennia to evolve, we humans now have the capacity to destroy. We can destroy quite deliberately as we so often do in warfare. We can also destroy through ignorance, by gross interference with the planetary ecology on which our life depends. The notion of salvation has taken on a whole new meaning in the Global era.

In the Christian calendar it was the birth of Jesus which cut history into two. On the global scale of cultural history it is the two Axial Periods which divide human history into three successive phases - the Ethnic, the Trans-ethnic and the Global. The two Axial Periods are proving to be the great turning points in the long cultural evolution of the human species.