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The European Idea of Progress Supersedes the Axial Age, Part I

Robert N. Bellah, theorist of the Axial Age

3,787 words

Part 1 of 4

Only European peoples have made history and discovered the idea of time, and this is why the idea of progress is uniquely European: Only European history has been characterized by progress, and there can be no conception of historical time and no history without progression or without man becoming conscious of his role in the making of history, as well as the realization that only the mind can be the adjudicator of the truth. The peoples of the Axial Age (800-200 BC – the Israelites, the Indians, the Chinese, and possibly the Persians – are the only ones who experienced some history, achieved some developments, and engendered the first inklings of historical consciousness; but only Europeans, starting with the ancient Greeks, would continue to evolve culturally beyond the Axial Age.

The Axial Age was the peak of cultural development for non-Europeans, whereas it was only the beginning of European creativity and genius in all the spheres of human life. Human creativity dried up after the Axial Age outside Europe. Subsequent changes were mere extensions of existing technologies, new territories brought under despotic rule, or mere revisions of the original cultural outlooks. Outside Europe, history became cyclical, without progression. Is it any wonder that the Chinese conception of history never developed beyond the theory of dynastic cycles, and that only Europeans learned to write historical accounts – true conceptions of history with a sense of historical time from ancient to medieval to modern times? Europeans would indeed write the history of all the other peoples of the Earth, including the history of the Earth, the evolution of animals, and the history of the universe from the Big Bang to the present.

I agree with Robert Nisbet that the idea of progress, the idea of growth, and the conception of time as linear is singularly Western. Taken in its totality, beyond Nisbet’s preoccupation with human history, and beyond the common belief that this idea is inherently Christian, this idea maintains that development is intrinsic to the very nature of things. It holds that in the course of time, from the Big Bang to the modern world, we can detect a linear sequence characterized by a movement from simplicity to complexity, from the rise of elementary particles to the formation of the atomic structures of hydrogen and helium, from the rise of heavy elements to the rise of stars and planetary organizations of matter, from the emergence of prokaryotic cells to eukaryotes with complex chromosomes, from chordates to vertebrates, from fish to amphibians, from reptiles to mammals, from primates to hominids, from Homo erectus to Homo sapiens, from the upper Paleolithic revolution to the origins of agriculture, from the Axial Age to the rise of “consciousness of consciousness.” This last stage was reached in Europe alone when men came to see themselves as the absolute ultimate for whom nothing external – not any material phenomena or religious tradition – could be deemed to be authoritative, insomuch as he had come to know that all authority can receive justification and be known through his thinking mind.

Seshat Project Workshop at Oxford (2017) held by typically PC academics inclined to view the “Axial Age” as a time when humans across ancient civilizations embraced “common values” . . . for a racially mixed future inside the West.

Rejection of the idea of progress

This idea of progress reached a high level of historical awareness in the nineteenth-century writings of Condorcet, Kant, Comte, Spencer, and – most profoundly – in the philosophy of Hegel. In the twentieth century, this idea was popularized by authors of world history texts, with their happy accounts of discoveries in science, innovations in technology, and democratic freedoms. There were always critics – Tocqueville, Burckhardt, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche – growing in numbers after the prolonged bloodbaths of the Second World War, but the incredible affluence of the post-war decades sustained this idea right into the 1970s.

Modernization theories with stages models enjoyed the greatest popularity during the 1950s and ‘60s, with their arguments that long-term trends were clearly evident in history, from traditional to modern societies, from relationships based on ascription to relationships based on personal effort and merit, from patrimonial adjudication and enforcement to universally applicable laws and rights. These theories were optimistic that Western nations could accelerate the modernization of poor societies through programs of population control, transfers of technology, investments, and diffusion of liberal attitudes and entrepreneurial skills.

But with the persistence of poverty in newly-independent countries in the Third World, the rise of dictatorial regimes rather than democracies, recurrent national and local wars, swelling populations, increasing inequalities and ethnic factionalism, modernization theories were roundly discredited. The academic world was soon taken over by a completely different outlook: Dependency Theory, or World Systems Theory. This school directly attacked notions of Western-led progression by claiming that the economic development of this civilization had been made possible through the pillage of Third World nations, the brutal enslavement of Africans, and the genocide of Amerindians. The celebrated industrial development of Europe had come along with the “underdevelopment” and destruction of Third World peoples.

1960s Leftists trying to return to a primitive lifestyle with voodoo-like feelings while living off the greatness of Western civilization.

 

This was only one school among numerous others. Soon the Frankfurt School swept the academic world, influencing the rise of the New Left, the environmental movement, and postmodernism. This school targeted Western science itself, claiming it was about the “instrumental domination” of the environment to serve the ends of capitalism. There was little to admire about the “progression” of the West, for it had entailed the reduction of heterogeneity to homogeneity, spontaneity to repetition, and individuality to sameness, all defined as the elimination of the Other. Combined with these schools and movements came a new anthropology, heavily influenced by the writings of Franz Boas, which rejected the earlier anthropological idea of stages of development in the name of the equal worth of primitive cultures, and against any grading of cultures in hierarchical systems that would have Western culture at the top.

The idea of progress would be turned on its head by the 1980s and ‘90s as new intellectual currents came to reinforce each other: post-colonial studies, history from below, third wave feminism, gay rights, deconstruction, and minority rights. Progress was an ethnocentric illusion of the Western mind. Throughout much of history, the standard of living, the quality of work, and the degree of equality had deteriorated for most of the peoples of the Earth. Hunting-and-gathering tribes were the “truest democracies” and the “original affluent societies,” the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins insisted, with better quality diets and shorter working days. While the standard of living in the advanced West had risen after the 1850s, the gap between the developed and less developed had steadily widened. According to this view, social evolution should be understood as a panorama of humans periodically being compelled to introduce new technologies in response to lowering living standards, resulting from demographic pressures on scarce resources. Europe’s high culture was a luxury for a parasitic elite without relevance for the vast majority. The moral and religious patterns that distinguished Europe’s elite were in truth ideologies of oppression which the rulers themselves disregarded, since their real interests were in plundering, taxing, and reaping profits unjustly. The real agents of history were not elites, but anonymous masses, peasants and workers, geographical factors, climatic change, infectious diseases, and ordinary humans seeking to satisfy their everyday needs.

Even those who continued to endorse the idea of scientific progress were adamant in their rejection of the idea that evolution could be equated with progress. Herbert Spencer’s observation that one could detect a progressive movement in evolution from simplicity to complexity, from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous, was dismissed. There was no pre-determined goal in evolution, no meaningful pattern or trend that could be interpreted as a movement from worse to better. The trend was toward increasing diversity of life-forms. Each life-form, announced Stephen J. Gould to millions of impressionable readers, was equally “successful.” If anything, the first organisms – bacteria – were the most successful in their adaptive capacities, “the organisms that were in the beginning, are now, and probably ever shall be . . . the dominant creatures on earth by any . . . evolutionary criterion . . . range of habitats, resistance to extinction.”

If there was to be improvement in the conditions of life, the idea of progress had to go, along with the ethnocentric notion that Western civilization was the culmination of progress. Indigenous peoples, it would be claimed, were more advanced in their ecological knowledge of nature, their egalitarian ethics, and their simplicity of life. The idea of progress was racist, propounded by the likes of Joseph Arthur de Gobineau and Madison Grant, with their claim that the Aryan race was the parent stock of the ethnic groups responsible for the progression of civilization: the Greeks, Romans, Germans, and Anglos. This idea was outrageous, responsible for the worst crimes in history.

Indeed, the conclusion would soon be reached that whites as such, on their own, with their own nations, are inherently inclined to think that their societies are better than African and Muslim societies, and thus to be racist. The only way to bring about true improvements and overcome this nasty, white arrogance would be to diversify all white nations through the integration of immigrants from diverse races, coupled with the implementation of multicultural programs celebrating the achievements of all peoples regardless of their level of cognition. Whites, with their “instrumental” mind set, would benefit from the “enrichment” of Third World cultures, with their authentic values, humbleness, and lack of racist attitudes.

“Progress” for a diverse & global humanity

The idea of progress did not disappear, however, but what remained of it was clearly demarcated from any identification with Western history. Conservatives retained a truncated version, arguing that “the West” should stand as a name for a civilization that was unique precisely in being a “universal civilization” without any ethnic identity, a civilization with values expressing the “natural” wishes of “man as man” for equal rights, the rule of law, freedom of expression, and private property. From this truncated version, it was but a small step for conservatives-turned-globalists to equate progress with a Western world open to the assimilation of immigrants to “universal” values.

But the globalist Left has been the one in charge of a totally revised idea of progress. Once they drove Eurocentrics out of academia, eliminated the teaching of Western civilization, and criminalized whites who affirmed their heritage, the globalist Left set up its own progressive shop. Leftists, after all, were supposed to be the real “improvers of humankind” since the radical Enlightenment. Some admitted there had been technological and scientific “development,” while emphasizing above all else the need for further progress in women and minority rights.

A number of discursive strategies were developed in this endeavor. From about the 1990s, world historians began promulgating a “historyforusall” – a “world history connected” – which now rules across all schools and universities in the United States aimed at viewing all developments, including the rise of modern science, the mapping of the world, the Industrial Revolution, and the Enlightenment as global affairs. Another interconnected discourse was the promotion of the idea of an “Axial Age” between 800 and 200 BC in which the major civilizations of the Old World were said to have experienced a “spiritual process” characterized by a common set of religious, psychological, and philosophical inquiries about what it means to be “specifically human.” The founding text of this idea, as I explained in “Discovering the European Mind,” was Karl Jaspers’ 1948 book, The Origin and Goal of History.

Feeling guilty about what the Germans had done in the Second World War, Jaspers, whose wife was Jewish, reached the view that any notion of European exceptionalism was tainted with supremacist impulses. The only way to overcome German supremacism was to promote the idea that European culture was rooted in a common source: the Axial Age. Europeans should see themselves as beings with a profound spiritual unity with humans across the world, and use the Axial concept to nurture a sense of “human solidarity.” Humanity, long before the Enlightenment, had posed universal questions about the meaning of life together, coming up with similar answers about the need to create polities based on the humane treatment of the population. Europeans did not carve out a unique historical path beginning with the achievements of the Greeks. Axial Age humans had developed a common cultural outlook at more or less the same time that would shape their histories along similar ethical trajectories, with the West only “rising” in recent times due to a combination of “unusual circumstances.”

The “Axial Age” is now a staple of world history texts taught in Western campuses. The beatific images of a common humanity marching together towards a racially-mixed future has proven too irresistible to credulous academics trained to believe uncritically that “diversity is our greatest strength.” Take a look at a recent workshop on “Testing the Axial Age” held at Oxford in 2017 by the Seshat Project, which claims to handle the “most current and comprehensive body of knowledge about human history in one place.”

Having examined some key texts about the Axial Age, in what follows I have decided to concentrate on the best, most researched effort defending the universal validity of this age: Robert N. Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (2011). The concept of an Axial Age has substantial merits, or so I will argue, so long as it is delimited to the non-European world. This concept is inherently incapable of grasping the superior intellectual breakthrough of ancient Greece and the fact that non-Western Axial civilizations did not manage to produce any major novelties after this age, whereas this age was just the beginnings of an exponential outpouring of Western creativity and greatness.

The basic argument of Religion in Human Evolution

Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age is a highly referenced book of 608 small-print pages, with over a hundred pages of notes, which took Bellah twelve years to write. This sweeping book frames the Axial Age within the evolutionary history of living beings and the cultural history of primitive humans. It effectively shows that human cultural development was made possible only with the emergence of “relaxed fields” in which natural selection and the struggle for existence did not “have full sway,” and in which humans became free to develop cultural conditions for their own evolution. While there is no purpose in the blind selective processes of nature, and while natural selection remains the primary mechanism of evolution, Bellah argues that the emergence of parental care among mammals created a sheltered environment once their needs for nutrition were met, in which newborns were free to play. Human play, beginning with the play of children under parental care, would move to the level of “serious” cultural play among adults in their rituals, mythical stories, and their philosophies, wherein the “full spiritual and cultural capacities” of humans would be “given free reign.” The emergence of cultural capacities cannot be explained in evolutionary terms alone.

Using the work of Merlin Donald, Bellah identifies three stages of human culture: mimetic, mythic, and theoretic. Mimetic culture, which likely began with Homo erectus some 1-2 million years ago, consists in the ability to “use our bodies to enact past and future events as well as gesture for communication” (p. xviii), including perhaps the use of dance, music, and the beginnings of some linguistic capacities. Mythic culture, which began between 250,000 and 100,000 years ago with Homo sapiens, involves a new capacity for narrative and storytelling, combined with the use of “full grammatical language.” With mythic culture, humans raised themselves above “episodic consciousness,” with a new capacity to think beyond the present and tell stories with past, present, and future tenses, rather than being locked within the consciousness of the moment. Donald emphasizes the ability to use metaphorical language as a new cognitive capacity, and defines mythical thought as “a unified, collectively held system of explanatory and regulatory metaphors.” With this new cognitive capacity, “the mind has expanded its reach beyond the episodic perception of events, beyond the mimetic reconstruction of episodes, to a comprehensive modeling of the entire human universe” (p. 134).

The emergence of theoretic culture is what the Axial Age is about. For Donald, theoretic culture really emerged in ancient Greece, and it required a “fully alphabetic writing system” – more than the mathematics and calendrical astronomy witnessed, for example, in Babylonia. It involved a capacity for “second-order thinking”; that is, “thinking about thinking,” as is evident in the geometrical proofs the Greeks offered. Second-order thinking also involves a capacity to stand back and look beyond the conventions of the time and the accepted worldviews in the name of ideas based on argumentation. While Bellah quietly acknowledges a few times that “strict” second order thinking may have been lacking in some Axial civilizations, his overall argument is that all axial civilizations developed theoretic thinking: “The beginnings of science, of a critical view of the world, of knowledge for its own sake, can be found in all the axial civilizations” (p. 595). At the same time, he broadens the definition of a theoretic culture to include the rejection of old kinship hierarchies as well “in the name of ethical and spiritual universalism” (p. xix). Axial thinkers outside Greece also took a “critical, reflective questioning” of the old mythical stories and advocated new visions for humanity in general: transcendental morals for a better future. The call for new morals beyond kinship ties, beyond the present, and beyond the pragmatics of power entailed “a standing back and looking beyond” (p. 474), which, for him, equals “thinking about thinking.”

One-third of Religion in Human Evolution covers the pre-Axial Age, starting with the origins of the universe. Bellah’s implicit endorsement of the idea of progress, coupled with his argument that cultural developments can’t be explained solely in Darwinian terms, is most commendable. Humans developed new cultural capacities over and above their evolutionary needs. The chapters on ancient Israel, Greece, China, and India are possibly the most thorough attempts to defend the idea of an Axial Age. Each of these chapters, he says, took him a year to write, and the chapter on India two years. Since I believe that the peak of cultural development outside the West was reached in the Axial Age, these chapters may suffice to grasp (if you tend to agree with me) the highest intellectual achievement of non-Europeans.

Bellah, however, backs off from an explicit endorsement of the idea of progress. He accepts the Leftist argument that history cannot be seen as a progression “from worse to better” (p. xxii); and yet he clearly wants to argue that the Axial Age was the most important turning point in human history, the time when the highest values and ideas were expressed. The view coming from his book is that progress after the Axial Age can only be measured in terms of the degree to which people have lived up to Axial ideals. There were no major cultural developments in Europe after this age, other than efforts to actualize Axial ideals.

I believe that the Europeans who invented the idea of progress continued to develop new capacities after this age, whereas the rest of humanity stagnated. The Greeks were already far ahead in their cognitive capacities, and were the only ones who became conscious of consciousness (which I take to mean more than what Merlin Donald means). The aim of Bellah, which reflects the aim of an Axial Age, is to bring Europeans down to the Axial level of non-Europeans, and thus promote the idea that Europeans are not unique, but generic members of a common humanity without any kin identity.

Who is Robert N. Bellah?

He died two years after the publication of Religion in Human Evolution at the age of 86. He was an American sociologist and the Elliott Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. A white man, he converted to Episcopalianism and was married to a Jewish woman. He was a serious scholar, the “most widely read sociologist of religion,” best known for his now classic essay, “Civil Religion in America,” published in 1967, and the book Habits of the Heart, written with four additional authors.

But we will see in this essay that Bellah is a prototypical white academic male without cultural backbone, always looking over his shoulder for fear that he may have been insensitive to non-whites, afraid to question the Cultural Marxist establishment, and sheepishly welcoming the day the United States becomes majority non-white. Listen to the interview he gave in Germany in 2012, right after Obama’s reelection. He joyfully says that the Republicans are a party of “old white males” who will likely never win an election because immigrants are replacing whites.

I am often accused of bringing politics into topics that should be judged strictly according to scholarly criteria. The reality, however, is that academic research for the last few decades has been driven by the unchallenged or inexplicit supposition that racial diversity inside the West is inherently good and superior to “white hegemony.” Ignorance of this unchallenged presupposition, of the fact that all academics today work within universities “committed” to racial equality and diversification, violates the principle of being conscious of one’s consciousness. We can’t understand the ideas of our major academics, including the ones who are not overtly political, without bringing up this supreme political presupposition permeating academic research. In the next parts, as we acknowledge Bellah’s significant contributions to the concept of an Axial Age, we will see that he can’t restrain himself from taking regular shots against “Eurocentrism” and paying homage to cultural diversity, even as he tries to defend the notion of progressive developments in history.

The fundamental flaws in Religion in Human Evolution are a result of his inability to acknowledge Western superiority due to his ingrained blindness to the very possibility that Western culture achieved far more “new developments,” because such a possibility would violate the sacrosanct, non-scholarly, purely political mandate of multiculturalism. Bellah is merely a peon in an academic world enslaved to diversity. You can be sure that the seemingly “scientific” and innocent-looking “scholarly” individuals photographed in the image above at the workshop on “Testing the Axial Age” are firm supporters of the racial diversification of England and the ethnocide of the British people. Some may have discomforting thoughts about this sinister plan, but most likely they are too afraid to question the mandates of diversification, too devoid of a critical capacity to understand it, or too opportunistically aware where the academic gravy train is moving.

This article was reproduced from the Council of European Canadians Website.

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