Between 800 and 200 BCE, a remarkable series of sages, mystics, and thinkers gave rise to the transcendental traditions that are known today as “world religions.” In 1949, the German philosopher Karl Jaspers identified several themes common to these traditions and described this six hundred year period as the Axial Age: “These movements were ‘axial’ because of their pivotal importance. Monotheism emerged among the Jews, the philosophical foundations of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism were laid down in northern India; Confucianism and Daoism appeared in China, while the Western intellectual tradition [i.e., Socrates-Plato] began in Greece” (Strathern 2009).
These ostensibly disparate movements had much in common. Suffering and death are central concerns. Given these concerns, it is not surprising that all devise methods for transcending suffering and death. Such transcendence, whether in this world or life or the next, becomes an ethical matter and moral issue.
Why did these related ideas appear in several places in such short order? Because these traditions arose in widely disparate places and originated among people who were not in contact with one another, we know it was not a matter of cultural diffusion or idea migration. There are several competing (and complementary) hypotheses, most of which revolve around change, dislocation, and anomie.
The few thousands of years preceding the Axial Age were an especially turbulent time in human history; warfare, urbanization, disease, and famine were operating full-tilt and on a scale never before seen. People everywhere were at a loss and legitimacy was in short supply. Under such conditions, it would be surprising if something like the Axial movements did not appear. During times of immense and protracted crisis, intellectuals will often generate new and paradigm shifting ideas.
But before such breakthroughs can occur, the ground must be prepared. Although Axial movements were innovative, they did not simply appear sua sponte. To the extent they were reformist or reactionary, they were backward looking and dependent on the past for comparative appeal. In “Ancient Mesopotamian Religion: The Central Concerns,” renowned ancient historian Thorkild Jacobsen summarizes that past by dividing it into three thematic and millennial epochs:
Fourth Millennium BCE — Famine
“Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread”
The fear at the very roots of existence that long ago, down through the fourth millennium, gave to the religious response in Mesopotamia its major direction would seem to have been a simple one: fear of starvation. Early Mesopotamian economy was unquestionably a remarkable achievement, able for the first time to provide sufficient food so that large numbers of humans could congregate in cities. But it was also a precarious and uncertain economy, for it was based on artificial irrigation, the most touchy and tricky basis imaginable, nervously reacting to vagaries of nature and man alike.
And the character of their religion as we know it bears this out. The powers to whom they turned were powers in and behind their primary economics on which life depended: fishing, herding, agriculture, as even the briefest look at the character of the chief gods of their cities will show. [T]heir cults were to insure the presence of these essential powers for fertility, produce, and food.
Third Millenium BCE — War
“Preserve Us From Evil”
As the settled areas of the country grew and joined, the protection that had been afforded by relative isolation was no longer there and fear of enemy attack, death or slavery, became a part of life ever present in the depth of consciousness. The intensity of the danger and of the fear it engendered can be gauged by the great city-walls that arose around the towns in this period and the staggering amount of labor that must have gone into them.
For a shield against danger men looked to the now vitally important institutions of collective security, the great leagues and their officers, and particularly to the new institution of kingship as it took form and grew under the pressures of these years. The new concept opening up, as it did, a possibility of approach to the element of majesty in the divine, was early applied to the gods and it profoundly influenced the religious outlook. The gods, seen as kings and rulers, were no longer powers in nature only, they became powers in human affairs — in history.
Second Millennium BCE — Guilt
“Forgive Us Our Trespasses”
[W]ith the beginning second millennium the personal fortunes of the individual worshiper, his fears of personal misfortune, anxieties in illness and suffering, begin to be voiced adding a personal dimension to the relation with the divine. [Because of famine and war, it appears this personal] god has abandoned the worshiper and lost interest in him. He realizes that the blame lies with himself-pleading, however, that no man is perfect and asks to be shown his faults, his transgressions, that he may confess them before his god and be forgiven. And the god is moved by his contrition and takes him back into favor.
There is here the beginnings of a searching of the heart: the insight gained in the preceding millennium that the divine stands for, and upholds, a moral law is now bearing fruit in a realization of individual human responsibility, but also of innate human inability to live up to that responsibility. [T]he question of man’s acceptability before his god — the problem of the righteous sufferer — led on to realization of man’s finiteness and the altogether finite character of his insights and his moral judgments.
During the first millennium BCE Mesopotamian religions stagnated, perhaps because for thousands of years they had always been concerned with that which was immanent or present in this world. If the divine was present in the world, few (other than the rich and powerful) seemed to be feeling it. It was time for something new. The stage was thus set for Axial transcendence.
Strathern, Alan (2009). Karen Armstrong’s Axial Age: Origins and Ethics The Heythrop Journal, 50 (2), 293-299 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2265.2009.00413.x
Jacobsen, Thorkild (1963). Ancient Mesopotamian Religion: The Central Concerns Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 107 (6), 473-484