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Amazon Review of ‘The Axial Age and Its Consequences’, Bellah et al.
I reviewed Bellah’s new book at Amazon: it hasn’t come online yet. I gave it three stars. I think the review, despite the haste, targets the flaw in the whole methodology used.
I put the review in a comment to another review: here
I speed-read this book very rapidly today after receiving a copy by express mail: I will upgrade this review after a second reading of the book: but the basic confusions are clear almost immediately.
This book is almost a charge of the light brigade of false scholarship on the confusing question of the Axial Age and its interpretation. Despite a great deal of new academic information on the periphery of the subject the overall interpretation fails to grapple with the phenomenon at hand. It is also a blatantly dishonest book on the editor’s part because it is a painfully obvious attempt to neutralize the seminal research shown in World History and the Eonic Effect (Amazon, or online at history-and-evolution.com) showing how the Axial period is evidence of a radical discontinuity in world history, whose correct interpretation requires zooming out to see its relationship to a larger pattern of ‘axial’ intervals, including the rise of the modern. The result is so massive that it suggests a kind of macroevolutionary system demonstrating teleological directionality. This approach involves a critique of Darwinism which conventional scholarship finds unacceptable, and it is no accident this compendium opens early (chapter 3) with an essay on evolutionary psychology to lay down the paradigm law on the subject. The Axial Age makes no sense in the form given: that it is a phase in a teleological sequence resolves at a stroke the paradox. But that is academic heresy. There is no clear way to explain religion via Darwinism, and no clear way to connect the Axial Age with the Darwinian account of human emergence. The Darwinian theory requires random evolution, and the Axial Age is the clearest case we know of a non-random pattern, one that shows how non-random sequencing just might explain the confusions current on evolution.
The attempt to make evolutionary psychology the starting point is hopeless: everything in the Axial Age resists the reductionist scientism of evolutionary psychology, whose mechanization of all subjects fails to account for human consciousness, self-consciousness, ethics or religion. With this foundation nothing is going to make sense thereafter. The take on the evolution of religion is almost preposterous ostrich scholarship given the plain, thunderingly obvious take on the evolution of religion given by the data of the Axial Age: we see a macrohistorical process operating to create two world religions, Buddhism and Israelitism (to become the post-Axial monotheisms) and this stunning mystery is only the beginning, we see whole civilizations remorph in under three centuries or so, producing a new culture in China, the classic transformations in India, Greece/Rome, and the truly mysterious Axial drama of the Israelites in the period from -900 to the Exile, and the connection with Persion Zoroastrianism at just he crucial moment. The confusion here created by a kind of Weberian Iron Cage mentality is almost baffling in its wilful refusal to examine the facts of the case, which don’t yield to reductionist platitudes about ‘transcendence’ or all the other fake efforts to mumble through a sociology of religion. Despite is mythological cast, the Old Testament explicates very well the sense that something mysterious and macrohistorical was at work. There is no Darwinian perspective that can make sense of the way the Axial Age unfolds: it is a global phenomenon seeding independent transformations across Eurasia. Trying to focus on the period in question (better seen as a kind of transition from -900 to -400, with a key division point around -600, as Old Testament history, and the Indian case of Buddhism make clear) will fail to produce understanding because the phenomenon makes no sense in isolation, and is part of a larger sequence of ‘axial’ intervals stretching back into the Neolithic, with a visible transition at the end of the fourth millennium in Egypt and Sumer, and a continuation in the rise of modernity after 1500. A little systems analysis of this type will rapidly unlock the riddle of the amazing dynamical effect.
The standard view of the Axial Age sees only classics, the works of sages and prophets. The creates the failure to see that the real effect is cultural, and that the Axial transformation remorphs whole cultures in its direct path. Look carefully at the case of Archaic Greece, and it is clear that the effect is a cultural one: none of these writers quite grasp the Greek effects, from the Iliad to Greek Tragedy, and the first Scientific Revolution. In the case of India, this books analysis fails completely: Buddhism is an Axial recreation of something that existed in India millennia before in the primordial Shivaist/proto-Jain traditions. It is false to say that Indian religion pace the Gita is an Axial phenomenon. Its ‘axial’ age came millennia before, no doubt. The Axial Age is recycling an ancient tradition, and creating a world religion out of it. And the take the Bhagavad Gita is a poor study: whatever its original sources in the Vedic epic tradition, this text is we suspect (cf. Prem Nath Bazaz’s book on the Gita) a very late neo-Brahminist propaganda text attacking Buddhism indirectly, and has no Axial Age basis. The great tradition of Indian religion is only secondarily graced by the confusing Gita, which is much later. The great Indian tradition has no direct Axial Age manifestation, except in the case of Buddhism, for the simple reason that it existed already, and requires no new starting point, except precisely in the remorph of Buddhism as an offshot set to become a globalizing version of the great indigehous Indian lore. Forgotten is the case of Mahavira Jain, concluding a tradition of twenty-four Teertankers stretched over millennia, as he hands the baton, so to speak, to the new tradition starting with Buddhism.
More generally the Axial Age is directly echoed in the rise of the modern world, whose seminal transition from 1500 to 1800 is a clever clone, in disguise, of an Axial interval in a single transition, with a close resemblance to the Greek case. The failure to connect the modern to the Axial period simply sinks the whole effort here, and it is disgraceful to try and hide the clear effort in World History and the Eonic Effect to rescue the subject from its confusions. There is a lot more to be said here, for instance, the phenomena of Greek literature in the Axial Age, and the rise of Greek democracy: clearly Axial effects, but these cannot seem to make sense to those who are trying to secularize the ‘Age of Revelation’ story with scholarly bombast about transcendence. Something far more complex is at work. The question of Buddhist enlightenment,and the complex issues of ‘self-consciousness’/'consciousness’ never enter this primitive mole discussion of scholarly sophistry. Evolutionary psychology completely misses the boat here, and is junk theory. At a time of rapid transition to postdarwinism this is perhaps a last gasp effort to save the Darwin myth.
World History And the Eonic Effect: Civilization, Darwinism, and Theories of Evolution Fourth Edition, and the online text at history-and-evolution.com
A new shorter analysis is now available in Descent of Man Revisited World History: The Hidden Clue to Human Evolution, also available online at descentofmanrevisited.com
This book is a sad lesson in the way scholars with fine arrogance will try to impose paradigms on the public without really explaining what they are doing, here trying to neutralize independent sholarship on the Axial Age question, with a critque of the misuse of evolutionary psychology to enforce a brand of scientism that can’t explain human evolution or psychology. It wouldn’t have taken much to introduce a chapter on the model given by World History and the Eonic Effect, and tried to answer it if it were thought incorrect. But clearly these scholarly are afraid of anyone discovering an alternate interpretation of their bedraggled sociological muddle.