Axial Age


Axial Age

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Axial Age (also Axis Age,[1] from GermanAchsenzeit) is a term coined by German philosopher Karl Jaspers in the sense of a “pivotal age”, characterizing the period of ancient history from about the 8th to the 3rd century BCE.

During this period, according to Jaspers’ concept, new ways of thinking appeared in PersiaIndiaChina and the Greco-Roman world in religion and philosophy, in a striking parallel development, without any obvious direct cultural contact between all of the participating Eurasian cultures. Jaspers identified key thinkers from this age who had a profound influence on future philosophies and religions, and identified characteristics common to each area from which those thinkers emerged.

Jaspers’ approach to the culture of the middle of the first millennium BCE has been adopted by other scholars and academics, and has become a point of discussion in the history of religion.


Jaspers introduced the concept of an Axial Age in his book Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte (The Origin and Goal of History),[2] published in 1949. The simultaneous appearance of thinkers and philosophers in different areas of the world had been remarked by numerous authors since the 18th century, notably by the French Indologist Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron.[3] Jaspers explicitly cited some of these authors, including Victor von Strauß (1859) and Peter Ernst von Lasaulx (1870).[3] He was unaware of the first fully nuanced theory from 1873 by John Stuart Stuart-Glennie, forgotten by Jaspers’ time, and which Stuart-Glennie termed “the moral revolution”.[4] Stuart-Glennie and Jaspers both claimed that the Axial Age should be viewed as an objective empirical fact of history, independently of religious considerations.[5][6] Jaspers argued that during the Axial Age, “the spiritual foundations of humanity were laid simultaneously and independently in China, India, Persia, Judea, and Greece. And these are the foundations upon which humanity still subsists today”.[7]

He identified a number of key thinkers as having had a profound influence on future philosophies and religions, and identified characteristics common to each area from which those thinkers emerged. Jaspers held up this age as unique and one to which the rest of the history of human thought might be compared.


Jaspers presented his first outline of the Axial age by a series of examples:

Confucius and Lao-Tse were living in China, all the schools of Chinese philosophy came into being, including those of Mo TiChuang TseLieh Tzu and a host of others; India produced the Upanishads and Buddha and, like China, ran the whole gamut of philosophical possibilities down to materialismscepticism 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—ParmenidesHeraclitus 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.

— Karl Jaspers, Origin and Goal of History, p. 2

Jaspers argued that the Axial Age gave birth to philosophy as a discipline

Jaspers described the Axial Age as “an interregnum between two ages of great empire, a pause for liberty, a deep breath bringing the most lucid consciousness”.[8] It has also been suggested that the Axial Age was a historically liminal period, when old certainties had lost their validity and new ones were still not ready.[9]

Jaspers had a particular interest in the similarities in circumstance and thought of its figures. Similarities included an engagement in the quest for human meaning[10] and the rise of a new elite class of religious leaders and thinkers in China, India and the Mediterranean.[11]

These spiritual foundations were laid by individual thinkers within a framework of a changing social environment. Jaspers argues that the characteristics appeared under similar political circumstances: China, India, the Middle East and the Occident each comprised multiple small states engaged in internal and external struggles. The three regions all gave birth to, and then institutionalized, a tradition of travelling scholars, who roamed from city to city to exchange ideas. After the Spring and Autumn period and the Warring States periodTaoism and Confucianism emerged in China. In other regions, the scholars were largely from extant religious traditions; in India, from HinduismBuddhism, and Jainism; in Persia, from Zoroastrianism; in The Levant, from Judaism; and in Greece, from Sophism and other classical philosophies.

Many of the cultures of the axial age were considered second-generation societies because they were built on the societies that preceded them.[12]

Thinkers and movements[edit]

In China, the Hundred Schools of Thought (c. 6th century BCE) were in contention and Confucianism and Taoism arose during this era, and in this area it remains a profound influence on social and religious life.

Zoroastrianism, another of Jaspers’ examples, is one of the first monotheistic religions. Mary Boyce believes it greatly influenced modern Abrahamic religions with such conceptions as the devil and Heaven/Hell.[13] William W. Malandra and R. C. Zaehner, suggest that Zoroaster may indeed have been an early contemporary of Cyrus the Great living around 550 BCE.[14] Boyce and other leading scholars who once supported much earlier dates for Zarathustra/Zoroaster have recently changed their position on the time when he likely lived, so that there is an emerging consensus regarding him as a contemporary or near-contemporary of Cyrus the Great.[15]

Jainism propagated the religion of sramanas (previous Tirthankaras) and influenced Indian philosophy by propounding the principles of ahimsa (non-violence), karmasamsara and asceticism.[16] Mahavira (24th Tirthankara in the 5th century BCE),[17][18] known as its fordmaker and a contemporary with the Buddha, lived during this age.[19][20][21][22]

Buddhism, also of the sramana tradition of India, was another of the world’s most influential philosophies, founded by Siddhartha Gautama, or the Buddha, who lived c. 5th century BCE; its spread was aided by Ashoka, who lived late in the period.

Jaspers’ axial shifts included the rise of Platonism (c. 4th century BCE), which would later become a major influence on the Western world through both Christianity and secular thought throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance.


In addition to Jaspers, the philosopher Eric Voegelin referred to this age as The Great Leap of Being, constituting a new spiritual awakening and a shift of perception from societal to individual values.[23] Thinkers and teachers like the Buddha, PythagorasHeraclitusParmenides, and Anaxagoras contributed to such awakenings which Plato would later call anamnesis, or a remembering of things forgotten.

David Christian notes that the first “universal religions” appeared in the age of the first universal empires and of the first all-encompassing trading networks.[24]

Anthropologist David Graeber has pointed out that “the core period of Jasper’s Axial age […] corresponds almost exactly to the period in which coinage was invented. What’s more, the three parts of the world where coins were first invented were also the very parts of the world where those sages lived; in fact, they became the epicenters of Axial Age religious and philosophical creativity.”[25] Drawing on the work of classicist Richard Seaford and literary theorist Marc Shell on the relation between coinage and early Greek thought, Graeber argues that an understanding of the rise of markets is necessary to grasp the context in which the religious and philosophical insights of the Axial age arose. The ultimate effect of the introduction of coinage was, he argues, an “ideal division of spheres of human activity that endures to this day: on the one hand the market, on the other, religion”.[26]

German sociologist Max Weber played an important role in Jaspers’ thinking.[27][28][29] Shmuel Eisenstadt argues in the introduction to The Origins and Diversity of Axial Age Civilizations that Weber’s work in his The Religion of China: Confucianism and TaoismThe Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism and Ancient Judaism provided a background for the importance of the period, and notes parallels with Eric Voegelin‘s Order and History.[11] Wider acknowledgement of Jaspers’ work came after it was presented at a conference and published in Daedalus in 1975, and Jaspers’ suggestion that the period was uniquely transformative generated important discussion among other scholars, such as Johann Arnason.[29] In literature, Gore Vidal in his novel Creation covers much of this Axial Age through the fictional perspective of a Persian adventurer.

Shmuel Eisenstadt analyses economic circumstances relating to the coming of the Axial Age in Greece.[30]

Religious historian Karen Armstrong explored the period in her The Great Transformation,[31] and the theory has been the focus of academic conferences.[32]

Usage of the term has expanded beyond Jaspers’ original formulation. Yves Lambert argues that the Enlightenment was a Second Axial Age, including thinkers such as Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, wherein relationships between religion, secularism, and traditional thought are changing.[33]

The validity of the concept has been called into question.

In 2006 Diarmaid MacCulloch called the Jaspers thesis “a baggy monster, which tries to bundle up all sorts of diversities over four very different civilisations, only two of which had much contact with each other during the six centuries that (after adjustments) he eventually singled out, between 800 and 200 BCE”.[34]

In 2013, another comprehensive critique appears in Iain Provan‘s book Convenient Myths: The Axial Age, Dark Green Religion, and the World That Never Was.[35]

In 2018, contrary to Suzuki and Provan, and similar to Whitaker, Stephen Sanderson published another book dealing somewhat with the axial age and its religious contributions, arguing that religions and religious change in general are essentially biosocial adaptations to changing environments.[36]