THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION: The World in the Time of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah
by Karen Armstrong
Atlantic Books £19.99, 464 pages
It is natural to feel well-disposed towards Karen Armstrong as an authorial presence whose friendly prose and good intentions merit applause. It is equally natural to wish, first, that she would try not see through spectacles smudged by a desire to reinterpret everything that happens in history in religious terms, where “religion” is so vaguely conceived that it includes even its opposite; and secondly, that she would subject her immense generalisations to the scrutiny of an informed third party before letting them escape into print.
These traits would be enough to raise question marks over Armstrong’s ambitious effort to show that the period between the 10th and 2nd centuries BC in the histories of China, Greece, Israel and India are special. Armstrong says they constitute what she calls the Axial Age, borrowing the philosopher Karl Jaspers’ phrase, in which there first arose the religions that still influence most of the world. She wishes to extract from the shared original insights of those traditions a spirituality that will help us overcome the religion-inspired divisions and conflicts that dismay today’s world.
Alas, the premise that the period and places mentioned can be lumped together under a single rubric capturing their “pivotal role in the development of human spirituality” is hopeless. For one thing, of the list of “religions” in Armstrong’s sights - Judaism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Greek philosophy - only the first and third merit the label, as placing belief in one or more supernatural agencies at their core. The rest are philosophies. This fact shows that, far from being a period in which religions came to birth, the Axial Age was a period in which reflective minds were trying to break away from religion as such, and to substitute it with rational and humanist principles.
Second, there is an obvious artificiality in thinking that the first millennium BC is unprecedented in the history of the human intellect, a claim that would involve believing that there were no philosophers or sages, inquirers or sceptics in 3000BC or 10,000BC. Of course there were.
What makes the first millennium BC salient for us, artificially, is the adaptation of the then relatively recent art of writing, newly applied to recording historical events, religious convictions and philosophical speculations instead of just laws and inventories. We admire the achievements of the recently literate peoples of the period because we have some of what they wrote. If the denizens of the third millennium BC had left histories and philosophy discourses, we would indubitably have Karen Armstrongs writing about it as an Axial Age.
Third, Armstrong’s refusal to see anything in other than religious terms means she profoundly misunderstands Budd- hism and both the Greek and the Chinese traditions of thought. Ordinary Chinese were (and still are) a superstitious but very unreligious lot. There is nothing in Daoism and Confucianism that can remotely be assimilated to religion. As with the “logos” of the Stoics, the “way” of Daoism simply represents the natural order of things, taken as the norm to be complied with; no different from today’s secular attitude that, say, observing natural biological laws are our best guide to diet and health.
Confucianism is likewise a system of ethics, but also a political philosophy. There is no creator God in it who demands obedience to commandments and who punishes and rewards. “Tian” (heaven), whose mandate a ruler’s right governing preserves, is the metaphor for the natural order, taken as stipulative of what is correct. Likewise, original Buddhism, which survives in its Theravada form, is a philosophy with nothing of the supernatural in it. Take these outlooks and put them alongside the traditions of Greek thought from the 6th to the 3rd centuries BC and you have a set of distinctively philosophical, ethical, non-religious traditions, which were quelled, overtaken or abducted by the Middle Eastern “religions of the book”.
Armstrong is misleading when she treats Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism and Greek philosophy as if they were of a piece with early Judaism and Hinduism. She wants to claim that a single “spiritual awakening” was happening from Sicily to Shanghai during the eight centuries of her period. But her mixture of historical sketches and theological hermeneutics involves lumping together the unlumpable, generalising mightily and steadfastly ignoring the many deep differences.
The hermeneutical aspects of the book illustrate a pervasive problem. In writing of the unedifying texts constituting the Old Testament, with its ugly tribal deity and its litany of oppressions (and massacres) by and of the Jews, Armstrong offers an interpretation of it as the unfolding of a new religious sensibility. Is this her own interpretation, or is she reporting a consensus of biblical scholarship and theology? It seems to be the former.
On seeing that she thinks the Greeks really believed in their Olympian deities as devout Catholics believe in and worship the Madonna and saints, one begins to have serious doubts. For what Armstrong overlooks is that, whereas most people are prone to credulity and superstition, and premise their own partial understanding of a religious tradition as their working faith, educated minds tend to see as metaphorical what their brethren see as literal.
The mistaken idea throughout this account is its failure to grasp that an increase in a civilisation’s intelligence is associated with a diminution in superstition. Armstrong, in effect, argues the reverse. But to lump together four evolving civilisations over nearly 1,000 years as expressive of one “Axial Age awakening” is the generalisation that stretches credence beyond breaking point. That is the fundamental problem here, from which most of the rest follow.
A.C. Grayling is professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London.