Evidence strongly indicates that during certain rare intervals in history
there have been major advances in the world's political, philosophical, and religious
systems. These major changes dominated thinking in the following centuries
and millennia 1
The sixth century BCE, in particular, was a period of
radical changes in basic religious concepts and the sudden emergence of new ideas. A radical
change in humanity’s spiritual development occurred which became a major source of
most of our
present-day faith traditions. 2
The rapid transformation cannot be satisfactorily explained by any acceptable
theory of causation. Most of the new doctrines, which concerned a worldview and
values, eventually became organized as religious systems. While many of
mankind’s traditional rituals and beliefs have been incorporated into these new
religions, it was not a question of reformulation and development of old
religious teachings; it was very much a fresh beginning. 2
In the years centering around 500 BCE, great advances in religion, philosophy,
science, democracy, and many forms of art - occurred independently and almost
simultaneously in China, India, the Middle East, and Greece. Spiritual
foundations were laid which humanity still use today. 3 In these times of social
upheaval and political turmoil, a new elite became the carrier of a new cultural
and social order. Great religious leaders rose to prominence attracting a mass
following, and many sociological, cultural, economic and spiritual changes were
In China, many individual thinkers, such as
Confucius, Lao-Tse, and Mo Tzu, began to reflect on the ethical and metaphysical
implications of human existence. From their teachings arose Confucianism,
Daoism and Jainism.
In India, the authors of the Upanishads expanded the scope of their
explorations to include metaphysical thinking in the search for the ultimate
truth and the meaning of life and death. India experienced a dramatic
socio-political and intellectual transformation, and produced the teachings
of the Buddha and Mahavira.
Like China, new teachings ran the whole gamut of philosophical schools of
thought, including even skepticism, materialism, sophism, and nihilism.
In Palestine, the prophets Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Deutero-Isaiah
made their appearance. The law and moral code of the Israelites dates back
to before this age.
In ancient Mesopotamia, cultural developments were relatively
close to those in ancient Israel. However, concepts including
the belief in a transcendent creator God, and full subservience of the
political rulers to a God did not materialize. 4
In Greece, developments were more philosophical than spiritual. Greece
witnessed the appearance of:
Thales, Xenophanes, and Heraclitus who regarded all existence to be
in a state of flux -– one cannot step in the same river twice,
Parmenides, who discoursed on the nature of permanent ‘being’ as
opposed to ‘becoming’, and
Democritus, who devised the first atomic theory of nature.
These were the philosophers whose teaching subsequently influenced Socrates, Plato,
and Aristotle. What all these thinkers had in common was a thirst for
discovering the fundamental principles of existence and the implications
they had on human life and behavior. A major break-through from pre-axial
beliefs involved their recognition of the great chasm between the
transcendental / cosmic order, and ordinary human existence. 4
Each culture questioned and reinterpreted their previous cosmologies.
Believers sought the supremely and eternally "real" that was supposed to lay
beyond the world of senses and understanding. The rapid change in beliefs then
stabilized and the implications unfolded. This became the source of major and
lasting cultural traditions, most of which enduring to the present time. Note
that complete rejection of all beliefs in gods, like complete rejection of all
contents of myths, was practically unknown in the ancient world. What was
actually rejected was the earlier concept of gods being larger-than-life human
After the Axial Age came a secondary stage of spiritual transformation, which
included the founding of the present world’s two major religions,
Christianity and Islam.
The closely timed changes in China, India, Palestine and Greece --
countries that are widely separated from each other -- seems too remarkable to
be dismissed as accidental. The only example of intellectual communication among
these countries appears to be the conjecture that in the 6th century BCE the
Greek poet Alcaeus may have known the prophecies of Isaiah. 2
Similar questions were posed by religious and ethical thinkers in the
different countries. Reason became the tool to search for the
ultimate reality and human destiny. Basic religious ideas were laid down by
which people have been living ever since. The fundamental categories within
which we still think today were created. To give a name to this spiritual
process, in 1949 the German philosopher Karl Theodor Jaspers coined the phrase
"Achsenzeit" ("Axial Age" or "Axis age" in English) 6 The idea of an ‘axial age’ is
somewhat marred by the fact Zarathustra, the founder of
Zoroastrianism, lived before the Axial Age. 7 He appeared in what is now Iran circa 1200 BCE. Also, such
prominent figures as Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad came before or after the Axial
Age. 8 This makes the
Jasper’s concept of the ‘Axial Age’ seem to be more of a helpful observation
rather than a law of human history.
Jaspers distinguished four ages: the Neolithic age, the age of the earliest
civilizations, the age of the emergence of great empires, and the modern age.
During their first and probably longest phase of their social evolution
--the Palaeolithic phase -- people lived by gathering fruit and catching
small animals; they gradually changed into hunters. These people had
primitive theories explaining nature and fire and death, and some limited
language for communication. The first major advance in human experience was the change from hunting
to agriculture and cattle-breeding. This occurred in pre-historic times. We
know very little about the social conditions that made the transition
possible. The discovery of agriculture and the domestication of animals were
possibly the most far-reaching changes in human history. They both
apparently occurred eight or ten thousand years ago, at the beginning of the
Neolithic era. There was only limited religious development at this time.
The second major advance was the building of urban civilizations,
apparently brought about under the leadership of the priestly ruling
classes. There was a remarkable degree of technological and aesthetic
innovation, which eventually began to produce a slow transformation of human
beliefs. People began searching for comprehensive religious and ethical
Urban civilization was probably superimposed upon the peasant base first in
Mesopotamia and Egypt during the fourth millennium BCE. For the next three
thousand years, the history of Western civilization concentrated in this
part of the world. People projected all authority upon the gods. The early
civilizations were permeated with religion, a theocratic institution built
around the temple of a tribal deity and ruled by a priest-king. As long as
faith in theocracy remained unquestioned, there was a remarkable display of
human inventiveness, creativity, and energy. The Summerians probably made
more important contributions to our cultural heritage than any other people
known in history. The early efflorescence was followed by a long period of
cultural stagnation – an interval of nearly two thousand years passed before
the advent of another bout of high creativity.
The faith in the theocratic principle gradually declined. At the same
time, trade and imperialism brought all the Near Eastern societies closer
together, and their frequent contacts led to religious syncretism. At first,
it was assumed that different peoples were really worshipping the same
deities, though with different rituals and different names.
intolerance did not exist: Travelers in a foreign city could participate in
local ceremonies with no feeling of disloyalty to their own ancestral gods.
However, questions about divine justice brought about the first attempts to
formulate a more enlightened morality and a greater realization of each
responsibility for their own destiny. Religion began to evolve toward
monotheism, even though the change in religious thought was inhibited by
traditional beliefs. Science and technology made little advance, and
the presence of magic and religiosity prevented arriving at any
of natural law.
According to Karen Armstrong, the interval from the beginning of the
Neolithic age to the first millennium BCE was a period of economic, social,
and cultural evolution. At the beginning of this interval, people became
capable of producing an agricultural surplus that gave an additional income.
9 The new wealth helped
to create a society with a broader perspective; the old localized approaches
to religion became seen as limited and parochial. Instead of worshipping
pagan gods the tendency developed to worship a single and transcendent
universal God. Also, people became more aware of social injustices.
The first millennium BCE saw the creation of new values and of new views
of life. Almost simultaneously, in different areas of the world, prophets
and philosophers began to preach new doctrines which:
Recognized the spiritual freedom and independence of the individual.
Asserted the unity of mankind and the universe.
Asked fundamental questions about the meaning and purpose of human
Adopted a rational view of natural processes.
Attempts were made to answer these questions rationally. The Axial Age was
All the religious and ethical thinkers did not produce identical responses to
these questions. Inner peace was the main concern in the East. The harmony of
order and freedom was particularly important in the West. Even within each
culture the spiritual responses were varied, even conflicting. However, the
trends of the responses were inherently similar.
Consequences of the Axial Age:
Many consequences of what happened during the Axial Age, and as a result of
it in its aftermath, are still in force today:
People have become conscious of themselves and of their limitations.
Their view of their position in the world changed fundamentally.
Philosophy, and science emerged. People still think within the
fundamental categories born in the Axial period.
Attempts at reordering the world developed in most spheres of human
existence, within competing worldviews.
Drastic changes in religious traditions occurred, often leading to a
collapse of previously established systems of beliefs.
The civilizations that emerged after the Axial Age engaged in
proselytizing to various degrees. This naturally led to
religious intolerance, concerning basic doctrinal
and/or ritual premises. Religious orthodoxies became established. 4
Accountability to a higher authority -- God, Divine law -- emerged. For
example, the King-God was replaced by a secular ruler accountable to some
The new abstract conceptions of deity became expressed indirectly
in allegorical or poetic language.
In the words of Henry Bamford Parkes:
"If one extends the Axial Period forwards to include the development of
Greek thought during the fifth and fourth centuries BCE,
and the preaching of the gospel ethics by the founder of
Christianity in the first century
CE, it can be affirmed that no really new ideas have been added since
that time." 2
If we add to his statement the contribution by Islam,
it appears that, during the past fourteen centuries, humanity has been living
off the spiritual capital accumulated during the Axial Age. The development of
science and technology since the seventeenth century CE led to a radical
transformation of life for most people, and caused a different type of society
to emerge in the West. However, it has not provided a radical change in material
conditions comparable in importance to the discovery of agriculture, nor has it
brought a major growth of new moral or religious ideas. 2
The great religious and cultural traditions that originated during the Axial
Age may be coming to an end. There are tree main factors that show a need for a
radical change in religious beliefs:
The rapid development of knowledge in the past few centuries in the
natural sciences, social sciences, mental and human sexuality research, etc.
Current religions beliefs are the product of millennia-old primitive
thinking. Beliefs still bear the imprint of ancient cultures. They have to
be updated to present-day realities. Unless they are overhauled, current
religious values may dissapear.
Humanity’s spiritual coming-of-age, which began during the Axial Period,
is incomplete. This is scarcely surprising if the past few millennia
are compared with the entire span of humanity’s long evolution.
According to Carl Sagan, in a million years there still will be a need for
further changes and refinements in spiritual matters.
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlink is not necessarily still active today.