What is Art for? Part 10.1

Zarathustra, Buddha, Confucius, and Plato were major cultural innovators whose teachings shaped the modern world, according to Karl Jaspers.

Evolution of consciousness in Europe 6: The Axial Age

Dr Charles Whitehead continues his series of blog posts on the many functions of art.

The Axial Age: How did we become “modern”?

Everything great in western civilisation comes from struggle against our origins

Camille Paglia (1990)

Orphism (Part 9) was a sure sign that Greece – in parallel with many societies around the world – was entering the so-called “Axial Age”. The term Achsenzeit (literally “Axis-time”, translated as “Axial Age”) was first brought to prominence by the German-Swiss psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers in 1949, in his book Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte (“The Origin and Goal of History”).  In his introduction, Jaspers quotes the German philosopher Georg Hegel: “All history moves toward Christ and from Christ. The appearance of the Son of God is the axis of history.” Jaspers points out that this claim can only be true for believing Christians – the axis of world history must be much broader than that. From there he goes on to show that, in the period centred around 500 BC:

“…in the spiritual process that occurred between 800 and 200 B.C. it is there that we meet with the most deep-cut dividing line in history. Man, as we know him today, came into being. For short we may style this the ‘Axial Age’. The most extraordinary events are concentrated in this period. Confucius and Lao-Tse were living in China, all the schools of Chinese philosophy came into being, including those of Mo Ti, Chuang Tse, Lieh Tzu and a host of others; India produced the Upanishads and Buddha and, like China, ran the whole gamut of philosophical possibilities down to materialism, scepticism and nihilism; in Iran, Zarathustra taught a challenging view of the world as a struggle between good and evil; in Palestine the prophets made their appearance from Elijah by way of Isaiah and Jeremiah to Deutero-Isaiah; Greece witnessed the appearance of Homer, of the philosophers—Parmenides, Heraclitus and Plato,—of the tragedians, of Thucydides and Archimedes. Everything implied by these names developed during these few centuries almost simultaneously in China, India and the West, without any one of these regions knowing the others.”

There have been many criticisms of Jaspers’ concept. There was probably more contact between east and west than he thought, and some claim there are no strict parallels between his “axial” societies. But it is pretty clear that the new modes of thought emerging during this period were reactions to the prior development of civilizations, leading to warfare, empire building, expansive trade networks, the first minted coins, and state religions which were bound to become spiritually sterile. Axial changes were attempts to restore our primordial humanity.

Christianity, Manichaeism, and Islam could be regarded as late manifestations of the Axial Age, so extending this period to a span of around 1,400 years. 

Conversion of the Achaemenid Empire to Zoroastrianism spread beliefs in free will, heaven and hell, and good versus evil. Ahriman, source of all evil, made a freely-willed decision to destroy all things good.  Left: Ahriman, in the shape of a lion, kills the beautiful primordial bull created by Ahura Mazda, who then revived it in the Moon, and created all animals from its seed. Sculpture from the Great Stairway in Persepolis, built by Darius the Great and succeeding kings from 518 BC.  Right: Fragment of a Farvahar, the main symbol of Zoroastrianism, still popular in Iran today: A guardian spirit stands in a winged and feathered torus. The expression of earnest devotion, as opposed to power and might, is quite new in art. though the winged solar disc derives from ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. From the Hall of a Hundred Columns in Persepolis.

Mani (210-276 AD) was a Persian prophet who founded Manichaeism, combining Christian, Zoroastrian, Greek, and Buddhist influences. He was a gifted artist in his own right, and created a book of pictures and text – called Arzhang – to teach his cosmogony, and so invented the art of the miniature. He also formulated the first metaphysical theory of art, equating the act of making art with god’s creation of living forms, making art experience superior to ordinary life in the material world. His work is now lost but Manichaeans continued his artistic tradition.  Left: Leaf from a Uyghur-Manichaean book of pictures in the manner of Mani.  Right: Miniature by Kamaloddin Bihzad, the most significant painter from 15th century Persia, whose brushwork, according to a contemporary, resembled that of the great Mani.

Jaspers was not aware that the Scottish barrister, folklorist, philosopher, and sociologist John Stuart Stuart-Glennie had published a more nuanced version of the same theory seventy-six years earlier, in 1873, calling this historic shift “the moral revolution”. He included changes in Egypt and Italy as well as those noted by Jaspers, and described them as “revolts against the old religions of outward observance or custom, new religions of inward purification or conscience…”. The character of Stuart-Glennie’s “moral revolution” is spelled out clearly in Isaiah I, in the Jewish Bible and Christian Old Testament:

“What good to Me is your multitude of sacrifices?” says the LORD. “I am full from the burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed cattle; I take no delight in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats…Bring your worthless offerings no more; your incense is detestable to Me—your New Moons, Sabbaths, and convocations…When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide My eyes from you; even though you multiply your prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are covered with blood…Stop doing evil! Learn to do right; seek justice and correct the oppressor. Defend the fatherless and plead the case of the widow.” (King James Version, Isaiah I:11-17, abridged)

Left: From 5th to 1st c. BC, iconic representations of the Buddha were avoided and alternative images substituted, such as his footprints, the Bodhi tree, an empty throne, a horse with no rider, or the Wheel of Dharma.  Centre: Mandalas in Hinduism and Buddhism signify a new emphasis on introspection and personal enlightenment. Aids to meditation and trance induction, a practitioner can “enter” into the mandala and trace the route from the one to the many and back, and experience disintegration and reintegration – the process of identation in Jungian psychology.  Right: Later portrayals of Buddha emphasize tranquillity and composure. This Tibetan sculpture, considered blasphemous by many Buddhists, shows Buddha with a naked woman in the “yab-yum” (father-mother) posture, representing the union of wisdom and compassion, worshipped in India, Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet. 

Jaspers lumped together everything before his “Axial Age” – all the transitions that I have reviewed from the Ice Age onwards (Parts 5-9) – into a single amorphous age in which “nothing of value” happened. There was only “a magical religion destitute of philosophical enlightenment.” Stuart-Glennie’s approach was far more sophisticated, taking account of material conditions, as well as the transition to civilization, which occurred well before the Axial Age. He recognised that the rise of supernatural beings – the gods of the earliest civilizations – could be used for social dominance. In particular, what he called “the Hell religions” could serve to legitimise the power of kings, and instil in the underclass fear, subordination, and hope in a just afterlife. The gods of civilization were instruments of the bureaucratic machine, and not just the dawn of a new self-awareness in “man”, as Jaspers believed.

Much of what we know today was not available to Stuart-Glennie at the time, but he made an insightful criticism of Edward Tylor’s concept of “animism”, published two years earlier in Primitive Culture (1871). Tylor was a founding father of social anthropology who believed that societies evolve from savagery through barbarism to civilization. The first stage in the development of religion, associated with ‘savagery’, was animism – the belief that all natural phenomena were ensouled (from Latin anima meaning mind or soul), from without, as it were. Stuart-Glennie, an avid collector of folklore from around the world, thought this was inadequate. He proposed panzoonism – meaning “all-life-ism” – as a better term. He denied that, in ‘primitive’ religion, things had minds or souls inside them – rather, all the powers and processes of nature were intrinsically alive – made of life, in effect – and worthy of worship and devotion in their own right. There was no concept of “matter” as distinct from “soul”.

I think Stuart-Glennie was right, but he has been largely ignored by anthropologists, and ‘animsm’ is the term we are stuck with. He also made some insightful predictions. For example, in 1906 he predicted that the communist revolution would occur in Russia, and not in Britain as Karl Marx supposed. He also predicted that by the year 2000 there would be a United States of Europe (the Maastricht Treaty established the EU in 1993). Stuart-Glennie’s problem was that he was ahead of his time, but also his regrettable belief in the “scientific” racism of his day – claiming, for example, that civilization began in the “Conflict of Higher and Lower Races.”

Jaspers saw the Axial Age as a great awakening of human self-awareness. Stuart-Glennie, more realistically, recognised both gains and losses in this transition – as did Karl Marx. In my next blog I will look at some more critical views.

The second commandment in the Jewish Bible bans iconic art: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” But the Jews, ever fascinated by foreign gods and cultures, and perhaps needing to compete with other religions, steadily liberalised Rabbinical interpretations of the second commandment. By the third century at least synagogues were decorated with iconic art showing Roman and Greek influences.  Left: Fresco depicting a scene from the Book of Esther, from the synagogue at Dura-Europos, c. 244 AD.  Right: King David as Orpheus taming animals with the music of his lyre: synagogue pavement in Gaza, 508 AD.

The ten commandments and the ban on iconic art were most strictly observed in Islam, leading to a vibrant flourishing of calligraphic and non-iconic art, with a strong sense of introspection and intense spirituality. Detail of Mosaic tiles from Isfahan Mosque, Iran.

To be continued…

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