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Jan Assmann’s Critique of the Axial Age

Assmann2 [1]1,425 words

Translations: French [2]Spanish [3]

In his new book, From Akhenaten to Moses: Ancient Egypt and Religious Change [4] (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2014), Egyptologist Jan Assmann argues that philosopher Karl Jaspers’ concept of the Axial Age is “not a theory but a scientific myth” (p. 94).

According to Jaspers, the centuries between 800 and 200 BCE are a turning point in world history. During this Axial Age, Biblical monotheism and Zoroastrianism emerged in the Near East; Buddhism and Jainism emerged in India; Homer and the first schools of Western philosophy emerged in Greece; and Taoism, Confucianism, and other philosophical schools emerged in China.

According to Jaspers, these mutations of consciousness took place independent of one another, but the Axial Age set mankind on the road to a common global civilization. Axial civilization was characterized in such terms as increased “reflexivity, individuality, interiority . . . , distancing from the world, progress in abstraction and intellectuality, ‘theory,’ critique of tradition, differentiation, ‘transcendental’ concepts or visions . . .” (p. 94). The ideas of the Axial Age also claim global or universal significance and validity.

The religions and philosophies of the Axial Age are still with us today, while those of the pre-Axial world are lost. Because of the discontinuity between the Axial Age and what came before, “the pre-axial world sank into the darkness of intellectual inaccessibility” (p. 79).

As one of the world’s leading Egyptologists, Assmann has a vested interest in dismantling the idea of a radical discontinuity between pre-axial and axial civilizations. Not only has Assmann showed that we can understand a great deal about The Mind of Egypt [5] — proving the ancient Egyptians far less “alien” and “primitive” than one might think — in such works as Moses the Egyptian [6] and Religio Duplex [7], he has also demonstrated convincingly that Egyptian religious ideas are alive today, transmitted from the Greco-Roman world through the Hermetic tradition down to the present day.

Assmann does not deny that the history of thought can be characterized in terms of relative reflexivity, individuality, interiority, intellectuality, criticism of myth, etc. But he does deny that these traits emerged in a single Axial Age. He also remarks that these changes are not irreversible, although Jaspers would presumably argue that German National Socialism represented resistance to the Axial tendency toward a global civilization, a resistance that is now as global as globalization itself.

Assmann argues that “axiality” has to be understood in the context of the history of literacy. Assmann claims that writing is first confined to the cultural sectors in which it was originally invented, such as record-keeping. The second stage in the history of writing is characterized by the production of literary texts with culture-wide circulation. These texts succeed memorization and oral transmission as the medium for the preservation and propagation of the culture’s deepest values and self-understanding. This process emerged in Mesopotamia in the latter half of the third millennium BCE and in Egypt at the beginning of the second millennium BCE.

Assmann claims that the emergence of cultural literacy is a significant step toward “axiality,” insofar as it coincides with the emergence of a sense of the difference between the present age and the past, which for ancient peoples is characterized as a Golden Age, in which men dwelt nearer to the gods, an age to which later men can turn to find models of conduct. With the passage of time, spoken languages evolve but written texts do not. Sometimes literary and vernacular dialects diverge so widely that they become, in effect, two languages.

These two processes pave the way for the idea of a cultural and textual “canon.” A literary or religious canon is a body of texts that, once created, cannot be altered by addition or subtraction. Assmann divides canonization into primary and secondary forms, and claims that primary canons are still “culture-specific” and thus lack “the global claims typical of axial movements” (p. 87). Axial movements emerge with the second form of canonization.

Herodotus is acclaimed the father of history, but he and Plato claimed that the Egyptians invented written history. When history is written down, a distinction emerges between written and oral reports. Written history is, in principle, superior, because oral histories are more susceptible to lapses of memory and transformations in retelling. Written history is, therefore, essential to the Axial distinction between critical, reflective history and myth, a distinction mirrored in the philosophical distinction between truth and opinion.

Like history, religion is also fundamentally transformed by writing, and for Assmann, this transformation is the valid core of the idea of the Axial Age. As with history, when religious texts came to be written down, writing was proclaimed more authoritative than memory-based oral traditions. But not all sacred texts are equally authoritative, thus distinctions must be drawn between authoritative and non-authoritative texts, and more or less accurate versions of the authoritative texts. This is the second form of canonization, in which we are dealing with texts claiming to offer universally valid truths about matters of ultimate concern.

As Assmann remarks:

All world religions–Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Confucianism, Taoism–are founded on a canon of sacred scriptures that codifies the will of their founder and the superior truth of his revelation. This step of canonization was invented only twice in the world: with the Hebrew and the Buddhist canons. (p. 88)

By world religions, Assmann seems to mean religions that claim to be universally true, not religions that are open to all of humanity, for Judaism would be excluded on that criterion. The idea that a canon of sacred texts is absolutely and universally true “changed the world in a truly ‘axial’ way” (p. 88), setting “a new religion off against other religions, including the culture’s own past religions, which now become excluded as paganism, idolatry, heresy, and error” (pp. 88-89). Assmann suggests that:

Some elements of this pathos of distinction and exclusion seem to me to be still present in Jaspers’s concept of the Axial Age, which in this respect appears to me as a secularized version of the religious distinction between paganism and true religion. His idea of axial civilizations puts the pre- and extra-axial world in a position similar to the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic construction of paganism. (p. 89)

Assmann points out that the “great individuals” who announced “transcendental visions” of “absolute and universal” truth associated with the Axial Age cannot be confined to 800-200 BC. The chronology stretches back to Akhnaton in the 14th century BC and to Zoroaster and Moses, if he lived at all, a few centuries later. The chronology must also reach forward to include Jesus and Muhammad.

Assmann remarks that such individuals can exist in any age. Thus what is essential is not their existence and teaching, but the transformation of their teachings into canonical texts at the foundation of living religious traditions. Assmann dates the creation of the great canons — “the Confucian, the Taoist, and the Buddhist canons in the east, and the Avesta, the Hebrew Bible, and the canon of Greek ‘classics’ in the west” — to the period 200 BCE to 200 CE (p. 93). It seems odd that he does not extend the frame into the 4th century CE, when the New Testament canon was established, since that breaks down Jaspers’ account even further, or even to the creation of the Muslim canon centuries after that.

Assmann concludes that the Axial Age, to the extent that it even existed at all, is a “media event,” a product of the social development of writing and canonization. “The Axial Age is nothing else but the formative phase of the textual continuity that is still prevailing in our western and eastern civilizations” (p. 93).

However, in the last 200 years, there have been significant strides in translating and interpreting ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian literature and in rediscovering or re-establishing continuities between the present day and pre-Axial traditions. Thus the pre-Axial age is emerging from obscurity.

One objection I have to Assmann’s argument is that he makes no mention of his concept of the Mosaic distinction [8], the idea that entered the world with Akhnaton and became the foundation of a still-living tradition with Moses, namely that if one religion is universally true, all other religions must be false. This distinction is operative in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but it does not appear to be operative in the other canonical religions he mentions: Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, and Taoism seem to have had no problem blending with the religions that came before them, or with one another, whereas the Abrahamic religions have a long history of wars of extermination against one another and against the pagan religions that they would replace.