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Karl Jaspers, Max Weber and the Axial Age

Jaspers' The Origin and Goal of History was published in 1949; to Hannah Arendt, he had described his ideas on the Axial Age as 'a presumptuous project' (Arendt and Jaspers 1992: 109). In the English-speaking world, the debate was launched by a publication in Commentary (Jaspers 1948). Of less importance were the essays on great philosophers that included works on Socrates, the Buddha and Confucius (Jaspers 1962 [1957]). The subtitle of the Commentary article - 'A Base for the Unity of Mankind' - adequately captures the moral purpose of his 'presumptuous project'. In many respects Jaspers was writing against the legacy of Hegel arguing that the notions of history, criticism, transcendence and humanity were already highly developed well in the Axial Age before the rise of the modern world. While Jaspers is obviously the author of the concept of an Axial Age, Hans Joas (2012: 17) proposed that Weber has to 'figure prominently' in any debate about the Axial Age, noting in passing that in Economy and Society Weber (1978 [1928]) made various comparative references to Greek and Indian parallels to the prophets of early Judaism. Indeed for Weber the age of prophets constitutes 'the crucial event in the history of religions'

Jaspers is important for my interpretation of the history of the sociology of religion, because his work is directly influential in Bellah's approach to the evolution of religion and specifically to the religions of China. Bellah's Religion in Human Evolution falls into two sections. In the first section, his interests and approach are distinctively Durkheimian. Following the work of Merlin Donald (1991) in his Origins of the Modern Mind, Bellah developed the idea of religion passing through three stages or themes: the mimetic, the mythic and the theoretic. This scheme owes something to Durkheim's focus on early rituals as elementary forms. The idea that as modern religions evolve they shed their mythological forms probably grew out of Jaspers' encounter with Rudolf Bultmann who was at the time working towards his idea of the de-mythologization of Christianity (Jaspers and Bultmann 2005 [1953-4]). According to Bellah in the mimetic stage, it was through play and associated rituals that early humans began to develop religion, but it was only in the Axial Age that these warm-blooded mammalian creatures became recognizably human (through their religious and critical collective conscience). The second half of the study is indebted to Weber, being concerned primarily with religious responses to violence (in the shape of war and politics). It is in this second section that the theme of acosmistic love comes into its own as basic to the Axial Age. It is in Bellah's analysis of Confucianism that Durkheim and Weber were finally reconciled in a macrocomparative history of religion in the course of human history.

For Jaspers the Axial Age was the transformative period of the prophets and religious leaders such as Confucius and Lao-Tse in China, the Buddha in India, Zoroaster in Iran, the prophets of ancient Israel, and finally the poets and philosophers of ancient Greece. Through the idea of revelation, the prophets offered humanity a notion of a different superior world beyond or one distinctively contrasted with the mundane world of the here and now. Through reason and revelation, these leaders developed ethical codes of conduct that established norms of virtuous behaviour and that constituted a breakthrough in human history. These early religio-ethical movements therefore established a division between a spiritual sphere and the everyday world of violence, need and interest. These prophets and philosophers established 'the age of criticism' (Momigliano 1975: 9). For example, Plato looked towards Socrates the philosopher as the kingly personality and not to military heroes such as Achilles.

In China it was Mencius who championed the legacy of Confucius as the wise official whose political vision promised peace and stability. In South Asia, it was the Buddha who challenged the legacy of caste and preached the supreme doctrine of non-involvement through a spiritual path. Finally the prophets of ancient Israel condemned the corruption of the monarchy and the temple priests in the name of a single transcendent God. In summary these religious leaders separated the spiritual world of self-development from the mundane callings of kings and warriors through critical worldviews that were revolutionary. In so doing, they set up a lasting tension between the political and the religious.

These religious movements emerged on the basis of important social and economic changes. Axial Age worldviews came into existence against a background of growing literacy, complex political organizations, early urbanization and advances in metal technology. There was a transition from bronze to iron, and importantly the emergence of coinage. The Axial Age was characterized by both rising prosperity and constant warfare between small states and occasionally by the rise of powerful empires. While these factors in the rise of the Axial Age have been challenged by historians, the work of Jaspers has been important in shaping modern historical sociology. As Bellah (2011: 271) has pointed out, although it is difficult to discover overt references in Weber's sociology to an Axial Age, there is a reference to the 'prophetic age' (Weber 1978: 441-2). For Weber, religious or charismatic movements for social change depend on a conflict between secular and religious values or between this-worldly and other-worldly orientations. The idea of 'religious orientations' to the world, conflicting with dominant economic and political realms, was pivotal to his analysis of the significance of 'world religions'. In both Judaism and Christianity, Weber found the roots of an ethic of brotherly love in opposition to this-worldly greed, selfishness and violence. Generally speaking, Weber did not see Islam in the same light despite the theme of suffering in both Sunni and Shi'ite traditions (Turner 1974). This sociological vision of an ethical realm standing over and against politics was tragic in the sense that love (agape not eros) is always compromised in this world. In a secular age, the best that ethically-driven people can achieve is a calling in science or politics wherein they might exercise some vestige of virtue.

Bellah's sociology of religion is exceptional in terms of its evolutionary framework and its large-scale perspective. Eisenstadt was perhaps the only other figure in modern sociology to have worked on such a wide ranging comparative scale. Eisenstadt (2000, 2002) has played an important critical role in the Axial-Age debate by exploring an alternative notion of 'multiple modernities' or what we might call 'second wave Axial Ages'. Heiner Roetz (2012: 253) observes that modern social science has abandoned the normative features of Jaspers' thesis in favour of a descriptive account of religious change, and he went on to claim that 'what Weber offers is a sociologically enriched reformulation of the same Hegelian view of non-Occidental cultures that Jaspers attacks'.

The idea of historical breakthroughs driven by religious ideas was at the heart of Weber's comparative sociology and hence he thought that the 'Asian religions' especially Hinduism and Confucianism, lacked both universalism and a sense of transcendence. As we have already observed, he regarded Confucianism as a moral code rather than a religion. In this respect Bellah, building his argument on Herbert Fingarette's Confucius: The Secular as Sacred (1972), rejected Weber in arguing that there was an important sense of transcendence in Confucianism and therefore Confucian ideas cannot be interpreted as merely a secular ideology. While Weber regarded this worldly asceticism as the driving force behind religious universalism, Bellah adopted an alternative approach to Weber's sociology of religion, namely from the perspective of 'an object-less life-denying love' (ein object-ldsen Liebesakosmismus) to recognize Confucianism as a genuine world religion, that is a religious tradition with a strong sense of transcendence.

The Axial Age was defined by a growing appreciation of the unsatisfactory nature of the empirical world and in response the prophets and philosophers conceived of a transcendental and universal realm as an alternative to the grim humdrum routine reality of human existence. They conceptualized a world in which humans could flourish if they were once freed from the shackles of profane reality. More importantly, this world-to-come was in principle available to all human beings. The goal of history was to convert this moral vision into a social reality. However in The Axial Age and its Consequences, there is scepticism about the value of the general architecture of the theory. This sceptical reservation is summarized by Jan Assman (2012: 398): 'I cannot bring myself to believe in the "Axial Age" as a global turn in universal history occurring grosso mondo in the middle of the first millennium BCE. These "breakthroughs" occurred in different civilizations at different times and to different degrees under different conditions and with different consequences.'

The Axial-Age thesis has been much criticized in contemporary research (Boy and Torpey 2013). There are three basic objections to the Axial Age thesis. The first problem is the matter of chronology. It is striking that Jaspers and Momigliano identified the end of the Axial Age as occurring before both Christianity and Islam emerged. Was the Sermon on the Mount, to take one example from the New Testament, fully anticipated by the prophetic message of the Israelite prophets, or was the vision of justice in the Qur'an fully worked out in the original Axial-Age principles ? It is not entirely convincing to suggest that the prophetic message of Jesus and Muhammad contributed nothing to the stock of ideas that had appeared between 800 and 200 BCE.

The second issue, which is important in the work of Weber, concerns the 'religion of China' and especially Confucianism, and the status of the 'religion of India', namely the Vedic and Brahminical movements of spirituality. The tendency of modern scholarship is to question the whole notion of 'the world religions' and scholars argue that what we now know as 'the religions of Asia' arose out the encounter between the west and Asia in the age of imperial expansion. Thus what we now know as 'Hinduism' was created in British India by the administrative difficulties of creating a census. It has been argued that there was no notion of 'religion' in Japanese culture until the fateful collision between Japan and the west when American warships appeared off the Japanese coast on 8 July 1853. As Americans began to demand the right to practice religion freely in their trade agreements with the Japanese courts, Japanese intellectuals had to develop a notion of religion (Josephson 2012). By contrast, neither Weber nor Durkheim confronted this epistemological criticism of 'essentialism'. The constitutive principle of Weber's comparative sociology of religion is that 'religion' implies some systematic tension with empirical reality of 'the world'. Religions that compromise their values and practices under pressure from economic and political institutions begin to lose their status as religions, becoming instead useful ideologies that legitimize hegemonic systems of power (from kings to modern presidents). As we have seen, Durkheim's generic definition of religion was aimed to overcome narrow understanding of religion in terms of supernatural beings that would have ruled out early Buddhism. Durkheim ends up treating the social and the religious as co-terminus; therefore religion is universal. I shall return to this problem in my conclusion.

Despite criticisms, the Axial-Age thesis remains important for us today. Firstly Jaspers' work and its legacy sought to avoid any notion of western supremacy and therefore the selection of religious leaders (the Buddha, Confucius, Socrates and Jesus) was overtly eclectic and global. This selection and Jaspers' general approach indicates the fact that the tradition of humanities in Germany was not invariably Orientalist in denying the value of the religions and philosophical systems of Asia. On the contrary, Jaspers put Confucianism and Buddhism on the same moral and civilization plain as Israelite prophecy and the philosophy of Plato and Socrates. Jaspers (1962 [1957]) described Socrates, Buddha, Confucius and Jesus as 'paradigmatic individuals'. However, in making this point, we have to keep in mind the problem in his version of world history that it did not engage with either the Americas or Africa. Jaspers' legacy - the quest for the bases of the unity of mankind - was an antidote to the idea of a deep and inevitable clash of civilizations. The Axial Age points to a common origin to religions in human evolution and therefore this debate has an important moral dimension. Despite their global significance, for Jaspers and subsequently for Bellah, the religions and philosophies of the Axial Age with their theme of acosmistic love were failures in the sense that they ultimately offered no satisfactory answer or practical solution to the institutionalized presence of violence in human societies. What connects Weber, Jaspers and Bellah then is a moral vision of the evolutionary dilemma of humankind faced with the failure of the Axial Age religions to resolve the deep fissure between the ethic of brotherly love and the political necessity of violence. This dilemma was presented in Bellah's study of evolution through the story in the Mahabharata of the encounter between Krishna and Arjuna before the battle of Kauravas, when Arjuna recognized that to fulfil his obligations in the warrior caste he would be forced to kill members of his own kith and kin. There was therefore an inevitable conflict between the dharma, the way of the religious ascetics of Hinduism and Buddhism, and the political power of the princes (Bellah 2011: 561).

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