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Friday, May 1, 2020

'Prometheus Rising' and the Axial Age

An exchange on Twitter that mentions Prometheus Rising, which will be our next online reading group after Nature's God:

To understand the Tweet, I had to figure out what the "Axial Age" refers to. The answer turned out to be quite interesting.  It refers to the period from 8th the 3rd centuries BC, when most of the world's religions, philosophies and other cultural underpinnings were invented. Here is a quote from Karl Jaspers, the German philosopher who coined the term:

Confucius and Lao-Tse were living in China, time and time the schools of Chinese philosophy came into being, including those of Mo Ti, Chuang Tse, Lieh Tzu and a host of others; India produced the Upanishads and Buddha and, like China, ran the whole gamut of philosophical possibilities down to materialism, scepticism 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—Parmenides, Heraclitus 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.

Are we in a new "Axial Age"?

There's been a plethora of recent books complaining about stagnation during the last few decades, including one by Tyler Cowen and a new one by Ross Douthat.  But is their sample size too small? In the last 200 years, we've gotten railroads, air travel, the telegraph, radio, TV, and in recent years space exploration, advances in renewable energy and the internet. Entire new art forms  have been invented such as the motion picture and recorded music, and the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics have advanced our ability to understand the universe. So perhaps Robert Anton Wilson's sense of optimism is not misplaced.

1 comment:

Van Scott said...

Gore Vidal’s novel, Creation, is based on the premise that it was theoretically possible for a single person to have known Zoroaster, Socrates, Confucius, Lao Tzu and Buddha. He invents a character who does just that. Very worthwhile book. I read it years ago and it’s been on my “reread list” for a while now.