Books, Exegesis, Reviews

The Great Transformation :: Review

My latest read from Karen Armstrong, The Great Transformation, filled out my knowledge of Axial Age religious traditions. As with most history books, it was a little dry. However, I found some nuggets of information that made the read worthwhile. The Axial Age’s elitist spirituality and the way Axial epiphanies convergently evolved while remaining unique was all valuable to learn. Armstrong seems convinced that humanity needs a new Axial Age for our globalized world; I agree wholeheartedly.


Unless there is some kind of spiritual revolution that can keep abreast of our technological genius, it is unlikely that we will save our planet. A purely rational education will not suffice. (pg. xv)

Surely a study of this distant period can only be an exercise in spiritual archaeology, when what we need is to create a more innovative faith that reflect the realities of our own world. Yet, in fact, we have never surpassed the insights of the Axial Age. (pg. xvii)

Each tradition developed its own formulation of the Golden Rule: do not do to others what you would not have done to you. (pg. xix)

Axial Age religion would be conditioned by a sympathy that enabled people to feel with others. (pg. 105)

Amos and Hosea had both introduced an important new dimension to Israelite religion. Without good ethical behavior, they insisted, ritual alone was worthless. (pg. 106)

In India, priests and warriors alike were gradually moving toward the ideal of ahimsa (nonviolence). This would also characterize the other Axial spiritualities. But the Greeks never entirely abandoned the heroic ethos: their Axial Age would be political, scientific, and philosophical – but not religious. (pg. 127)

This brings us to the heart of the Upanishadic vision. … The worshipper no longer directed his attention to devas outside himself; he turned within, ‘for in reality each of these gods is his own creation, for he himself is all these gods.’ (pg. 148)

It was impossible to perceive the perceiver within oneself. So you could only say neti … neti (‘not this’). The sage affirmed the existence of the atman while at the same time denying that it bore any similarity to anything known by the senses. (pg. 153)

Human sages and gods were discovering a spiritual technology that would work only if people abandoned the aggressively self-assertive ego. (pg. 163)

The switch from the oral transmission of religion to a written text was a shock. Here – as elsewhere in the Bible – it evoked a sense of dismay, guilt, and inadequacy. Religious truth sounded completely different when presented in this way. Everything was clear, cut-and-dried – very different from the more elusive ‘knowledge’ imparted by oral transmission. (pg. 189)

…one of the essential principles of the Axial Age: people must see things as they really are. They could not function spiritually or practically if they buried their heads in the sand and refused to face the truth, however painful and frightening this might be. (pg. 199-200)

Each individual must take responsibility for him- or her-self; they were starting to discover the more interior and direct knowledge of the Axial Age. (pg. 201)

In the past, cosmology had not attempted to describe the origins of life in a literal manner. Creation myths had been designed to reveal fundamental insights about the perplexities of life on earth. (pg. 224)

In India, truth was measured not by its objective but by its therapeutic value. (pg. 226)

Yoga was a systematic assault on the ego, an exacting regimen that over a long period of time taught the aspirant to abolish his normal consciousness with its errors and delusions, and replace it with the ecstatic discovery of his purusha. (pg. 231)

Yogins did not believe that they were touched by a god; there was nothing supernatural about these experiences. (pg. 235)

They had evolved a spiritual technology that would free them of dukka [pain]. Yoga was not for everybody, however. (pg. 236)

Instead of seeing family life as an impediment to enlightenment, like the renouncers of India, Confucius saw it as the theater of the religious quest, because it taught every family member to live for others. (pg. 246)

Ren [co-humanity] was not something you ‘got’ but something you gave. (pg. 250)

Human beings do not respond to the world with logos alone; we are also emotional creatures, with a complex subconscious life. By ignoring this and cultivating his rational powers exclusively, Parmenides had discovered a void: there was nothing to think about. Increasingly, as the philosophers of the Axial Age practiced sustained logical reflection, the world became unfamiliar and human beings appeared strange to themselves. (pg. 265)

Tragedy taught the Athenians to project themselves toward the ‘other,’ and to include within their sympathies those whose assumptions differed markedly from their own. (pg. 269)

Socrates’ purpose was not to impart information, but to deconstruct people’s preconceptions and make them realize that in fact they knew nothing at all. (pg. 306)

Ever since Europeans discovered [Aristotle’s] writings in the twelfth century CE, many became enamored of his rational proofs for the Unmoved Mover – actually one of his less inspired achievements. Aristotle’s God, which was not meant to be a religious value, was foreign to the main thrust of the Axial Age, which had insisted that the ultimate reality was ineffable, indescribable, and incomprehensible – and yet something that human beings could experience, though not by reason. (pg. 393)

The Axial sages all pointed out that existence was inherently unsatisfactory and painful, and wanted to transcend this suffering. But they were not content merely to avoid distress and stop caring about anything or anybody; they had insisted that salvation lay in facing up to suffering, not retreating into denial. (pg. 422)

But at their core, the Axial faiths share an ideal of sympathy, respect, and universal concern. The sages were all living in violent societies like our own. What they created was a spiritual technology that utilized natural human energies to counter this aggression. (pg. 466)

The fact that they all came up with such profoundly similar solutions by so many different routes suggests that they had indeed discovered something important about the way human beings worked. Regardless of their theological “beliefs” – which, as we have seen, did not much concern the sages – they all concluded that if people made a disciplined effort to reeducate themselves, they would experience an enhancement of their humanity. In one way or another, their programs were designed to eradicate the egotism that is largely responsible for our violence, and promoted the empathetic spirituality of the Golden Rule. (pg. 467)

For them, religion was the Golden Rule. (pg. 468)

The test is simple: if people’s beliefs – secular or religious – make them belligerent, intolerant, and unkind about other people’s faith, they are not “skillful.” If, however, their convictions impel them to act compassionately and to honor the stranger, then they are good, helpful, and sound. … A religious teaching is never simply a statement of objective fact: it is a program for action. … Any statement about God, they said, should have two qualities: it must be paradoxical, to remind us that the divine cannot fit into our limited human categories, and apophatic, leading us to silence. (pg. 469)

The axial sages give us two important pieces of advice. First, there must be self-criticism. … Second, we should follow the example of the Axial sages and take practical, effective action. (pg. 471-472)

The Axial Age needed to craft a new vision because humanity had taken a social and psychological leap forward. … Today we are making another quantum leap forward. Our technology has created a global society, which is interconnected electronically, militarily, economically, and politically. We now have to develop a global consciousness, because, whether we like it or not, we live in one world. Even though our problem is different from that of the Axial sages, they can still help us. they did not jettison the insights of the old religion, but deepened and extended them. In the same way, we should develop the insights of the Axial Age. (pg. 475)

The Great Transformation – Karen Armstrong


Out of a violent world and ancient traditions, the Axial Age discovered spiritual principles we still use today. Armstrong guides us through the ebbs and flows of this great transformation, identifying the differences between Axial cultures as well as their profound similarities. Suffering was common among them, and through various means, they all landed on solutions which echoed each other. Facing their suffering head-on, the Axial sages found that overcoming their ego and practicing the Golden Rule was the key to spiritual enlightenment. Armstong is convinced we have not progressed spiritually since that pivotal time, and that we are due for a new interpretation of their teachings in a globalized world.


It is easy to take the Golden Rule for granted. It is usually repeated ad nauseum or assumed in all religious and ethical discussion. What I never thought too deeply about was that the Golden Rule was invented. It was discovered convergently by several different cultures around the same time, through totally different means. That is amazing. The Israelites arrived at it through written law, the Greeks through rational dialectic, the Indians through meditation, and the Chinese through ritual. All different means towards the same universal end; “don’t do unto others what you wouldn’t have others do unto you.” Its beautiful.

This knowledge fills me with hope. At least once in history we agreed that the same thing was fundamentally good. The trappings of various religious traditions are mere embellishments or dilutions of that one central principle. It was the spiritual technology that allowed us to live amongst each other, and gave us the tools necessary to live in the overwhelming population density we know today. Though Armstrong doesn’t assert this, I wonder whether our material technologies would have been possible without the spiritual technologies of the Axial Age to help us cohese.

What is exciting, and urgent, is the notion we need another Axial Age. If the Axial spritualities have given us the tools to live in the urban world, what tools do we need to live in the digital world, or the globalized world? Will the same ones suffice? How do we apply the Golden Rule to ecology or nations for example? When the “other” we are trying to apply the Golden Rule to isn’t human, how do we decide what is or is not ethical action? And crucially, how do we square those ethical demands with humanistic ethics?

Hopefully someone out there has discovered the answer. I’m going to keep looking.

One thing that struck me about the Axial sages, particularly in India, was how exclusive they were. Many did not have a universal model for salvation. Their methods were demanding and exact. It was not possible for all of society to follow their lead. In addition, there was no way for them to share their salvation or enlightenment. It had to be earned by your own spiritual practice.

Knowing these origins puts many religious and ethical traditions in an entirely new light. Catholic penance and Protestant prayers suddenly appear overwhelmingly merciful. Kant’s categorical imperitive now feels like a revolution. The Bhagavad Gita is now put in context as proundly accessible (I read it a while back and didn’t understand why Arjuna had to not care about his military duties, but now I see that if he was going to be saved in the old system he would have renounced all worldly responsibilities so saying he could do both was relatively lenient).

This leads me into structural thoughts for Terranism. I agree that different people have different spiritual capacities but I also want salvation or enlightenment (or whatever I’m aiming for) to be accessible. I think its important that people see religious salvation as accessible, but I also see value in deferrance to spiritual expertise. What failsafes would be necessary for the inevitable abuses of that spiritual expertise? How do you make salvation accessible to people without affirming an immoral way of life?

Terranism’s structure and worldview modifies how these challenges would be tackled from comprable problems in other religions. First of all, Terranism does not see divine power as flowing from the top down, but instead going bottom up. Reconciling an abuse of authority to Terra would take the form of approaching the Terranic community (We Are Terra). So what would that mean for regular checks and balances? How would a spiritual community find salvation if divine power is something they make? I’ll have to think about these questions more.

I don’t know whether this insight was due to Armstrong’s personal bias or not, but I was surprised with how theologically uninterested the Axial sages seemed to be (with the exception of the Israelites). It appears that most were invested in mythology and theology only insofar as it furthered the techniques and mindsets they were trying to cultivate. The details of their mythology were secondary to the spiritual needs of their followers. I must try to follow this example in my development of Terranic doctrine and ritual.

Further Study:

The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions – Karen Armstrong

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