Saturday, May 4, 2013

Bellah 4: A new axial age

The one we are in.

Robert Bellah's wonderful book, "Religion in Human Evolution" ends with the axial age, and a major theme is- what made that age axial? The axial age is the period of about 700 to 200 BC when most of the advanced cultures experienced a dramatic religious re-orientation that offered critiques of the statist / tribal myths that had gone before, arriving at (typically) more universalist moral positions. Confucius in China, the writers of the Upanishads, Ramayana, and Mahabharata in India, not to mention the Buddha, Socrates and Plato in Greece, the prophets of Israel, and Zoroaster of Persia are the main axial happenings.

It is an enormous topic, but he makes the case that as societies became more complex and prosperous, doubts arose about the given myths, especially about the archaic identification of the state with the priesthood and deity/pantheon. In Israel, the Deuteronomic prophets moved the theology of might is always right to a new morality whose main covenant was directly between the Jews and God, cutting the state out of the action, so to speak (similar to what Protestantism was to do again, much later). The state could be bad, and behave immorally, even if it had a leading role in the classic temple worship system. Likewise, in China, the concept of the mandate of heaven arose, where again, might didn't always make right, but sometimes right made might, by the mysterious workings of right action, the Dao, good government, a similar concepts edging dangerously close to one of popular legitimacy, though cast in very elitist terms.

India saw the most thorough renovation of its religious landscape, where Buddhism particularly renounced virtually all aspects of the old rites, old theology, and even the social caste system. Even though Buddhism eventually withered in the face of enormous Hindu conservatism and inertia in India, it had dramatic effects on Indian philosophy and practice, implanting an enduring strain of pacifism, as well as spreading widely through East Asia.

I had never thought of Greece as part of this story, but Bellah proposes Plato and his Athenian milieu as one of the purest and most interesting of the axial revolutions. In his Republic and elsewhere, Plato offers a dramatic reformulation of Greek society, from governance to religion. Naturally, philosophers are to be in charge! But more importantly, the religious myth system was almost completely discarded, in favor of Plato's fixations on ideal forms, and more intellectual mysticism, which was to be so enduringly influential in the later schools of Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, and Christianity. Bellah notes interestingly that the movement was embodied just as starkly in Greek tragedy, which subjected its ambient culture to the most searching critiques. So deep, in Bellah's view, that the people of Athens eventually couldn't take it anymore, made a scapegoat of Socrates, and retreated into superstitious mediocrity, outside the academy.
"What is truly remarkable is what the plays that followed [the rest of the religious festival in which they wer embedded] were about: they were neither patriotic propaganda, nor bland moralistic tales; rather they called into question everything in heaven and on earth. A Vernant puts it, 'tragedy could be said to be a manifestation of the city turning itself into theater, presenting itself on stage before its assembled citizens,' and doing so without fear or favor, showing its self-destructiveness as well as its grandeur." 
"And it is perhaps the tragic consciousness of the depth and confusion of the self and the need for self-understanding, however difficult, that is the axial moment provided by Greek tragedy, one almost completely missing in Homer, where things are, by and large, what they seem. It is here that Eric Voeglin finds the tragic 'leap into being,' his terminology for what I am calling the axial moment." 
"Probably only a democratic city could subject itself to such searching self-examination, and we must remember that the city never faltered in its pride and respect for its tragic poets, but the city did not heed what they were attempting to teach. Athens did gradually turn a self-defensive alliance into an oppressive, at moments brutal, empire. Though insisting on justice at home, it willingly behaved tyrannically to its subject cities. ... The voice of Plato's Thrasymachus was the voice of imperial Athens."

The resonant note for our present day is unmistakable.

But the axial philosophies, while creating enormous advances in views of the self, morality, state relations, and the role of myth, did not in general do away with religion or theism entirely. Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism came the closest, but still held onto precious mystical kernels that informed their respective systems. The final turn towards rationalism and deep psychological self-examination had to wait out an almost two thousand year haitus through a very dark age, which in the West, at least, held all fundamental criticism in thrall to the paradoxical, totalitarian Greek-Jewish theological blend of Christianity.

But finally, Western culture resurrected many precious texts of antiquity, threw off its blinders, discovered printing, and re-entered the critical plane of existence that had flourished so brightly, if briefly, in ancient Athens. Now we are in a second axial age- one with far more staying power and deep change than the first one, or so it seems. One where god is dead, and tragedy, myth, and criticism over all topics are produced as a matter of course by our novelists and other artists. One where religion continues to slink around the edges, and perpetually erupt in new age and other cultic forms, but where analytic understanding takes precedence over the ravishments of mystery.

Clearly, we are still working out the social consequences of the enlightenment. The new system of state legitimacy, by way of money popular vote by an propagandized educated populace, on Godly Christian  completely secular principles, was off to a very shaky start a couple of hundred years ago, but has taken the world by storm over the last generation, and is making inroads into even the most recalcitrant precincts of that final word of Axial monotheism- Islam.

Will a new religion seize the reigns, after this cosmopolitan age? Right now, the world is, in historical terms, a very peaceful place. The only serious trouble spots are associated with either the religion of Islam, (Pakistan, Afghanistan, Mali, Nigeria, Israel, Syria), or with drugs, as in Mexico and points south. An interesting connection, I might add.

But a crisis is certainly coming, as the resources on which our populous and peaceful world are built gradually run out. Unless we keep ahead of fossil fuel depletion with sustainable energy development, there is little doubt that the human population of earth will decline precipitously, though whether the culprit will be climate change or simple lack of fuel remains up in the air. Otherwise a new dark age is in prospect, this time taking not only humanity back into the depths of conflict, privation, and religious unconsciousness, but taking the entire biosphere with us.

"Thanks to a declining birth rate and negligible immigration, it faces a steady decline in its working-age population for at least the next several decades while retirees increase. Given this prospect, the country should save heavily to make provision for the future–and lacking the kind of pay-as-you-go Social Security system that allows Americans to ignore such realities, it does. But investment opportunities in Japan are limited, so that businesses will not invest all those savings even at a zero interest rate. And as anyone who has read John Maynard Keynes can tell you, when desired savings consistently exceed willing investment, the result is a permanent recession."
"Markets are not stable, efficient, or self-correcting"

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