The Axial Age concept was first coined by Karl Jaspers. It is bounded at by the appearance of The Buddha, continues through the development of Classical Hinduism, Confucianism, Second Temple Judaism and Christianity and closes with the death of Mohammed. Its unity derives from a set of parallel developments that occurred in and around the great empires of classical Eurasia, from China through South Asia and the Arabian Peninsula to the Mediterranean basin. These developments included:
- 1) the postulation of a transcendent or supra-mundane reality that was superior to, and discontinuous with, the sensible and the mundane;
- 2) the emergence of a new class of priestly intellectuals who had considerable material and symbolic autonomy from the state and its rulers;
- 3) the emergence of trans-local religious movements that crosscut existing ethnic and political boundaries.
As Max Weber - and Thomas Mann - recognized over a century ago, the Axial Age breakthrough shattered the ontological unity of the world, above all, the unity of state and cult, thereby introducing a deep and irresoluble tension between politics and religion that is one of the fundamental features of the last two millennia of world history. The depth of the tension derives from the fact that religious and political elites and institutions have much to gain by allying with one another and will therefore be inclined to engage in quid pro quos of one sort or another: legitimation for protection, for instance. The irresolubility of the tension derives from the fact that their means and their ends are fundamentally at odds with one another: ultimate truth and otherworldly salvation, on the one hand, physical violence and worldly power on the other.
To say that the tensions are logically irresoluble does not mean that they are practically irresoluble. Indeed, Weber identified one, relatively stable equilibrium point, which he referred to as an “organic social ethics.” They involved folding a vertical social imaginary (e.g., “feudalism”) into an enchanted cosmic imaginary, such that the distribution of power and the division of labor within society were aligned with religious vocations and duties. The Medieval Christian formula of the three orders - laboratories, oratores et bellatores - represents one example.
The Tension Refigured: Secularism, Civil Religion and Religious Nationalism
In modern societies, however, the equilibrium of the organic social ethic is no longer viable. Vertical social imaginaries have been discredited and supplanted by the horizontal social imaginaries of the democratic polity and the national community. Vertical cosmic imaginaries have been supplanted by unmediated religions of personal faith and inner experience... SSRC Home SSRC Blogs Blog Home