The Second Axial Age: Three Paths In Need Of Synthesis

The First Axial Age

Karl Jaspers famously argued that the Axial Age, occurring between 8th and 3rd BCE, introduced the conceptual framework that has been with us since. Most notable among other discoveries was that of transcendence, and so we find The Upanishads speaking of liberation from the bondages brought about by suffering, the Presocratics like Parmenides and Empedocles showing us the mystical oneness of Reality (according to Peter Kingsley), the Buddha disclosing that there is a path leading to nirvana, the Daoists pointing to the Dao that is beyond and before all names, and so on. In fact, the conceptual and more than conceptual relationships between immanence and transcendence, the visible and the invisible, the one and the many are those we are still grappling with and trying to sort out.

To his credit, the late Ewert Cousins, in Christ of the 21st Century, suggested, as early as 1994, that we may be entering a Second Axial Age. Here, I’d like to provide the briefest of sketches of what a Second Axial Age might entail.

I. Classical Greeks: Wisdom

The Classical Athens in particular bequeathed to all of us the central question: what is wisdom? Of course, “Socrates” is the name we rightly give to this question, yet the question of wisdom was, as Pierre Hadot skillfully demonstrates, taken up by Platonists, skeptics, Epicureans, Stoics, Cynics, and no doubt beyond.

Let us say that the question of wisdom opens up a path for us today: the question of wisdom is also and at once a question about how to be wise, about how to lead a wise life.

Let wisdom be defined as exhibiting virtuous conduct that flows immediately, intuitively, and directly from the completest understanding of the cosmos. In this way, wisdom is the elegant yoking together of the good and the real; its actual exhibition or manifestation is beautiful or graceful or radiant.

This is the first path we are invited to follow, and we can devote our entire lives, as we ought, to being wise and therefore to conducting ourselves wisely with and on behalf of all beings.

II. Early Christians: Love

The Gospel is contained in former Pope Benedict’s first encyclical, which is entitled Deus Caritas Est (“God is love”). I find it very pithily and poignantly stated in Matthew 22:36-40:

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Love God and love thy neighbor as thyself. The central term, on my interpretation, is love.

The question opened up for us today is this: what is love, and how is it possible to create a global community consisting of all living beings and bound together by love?

III. Buddhists and Hindus: Liberation

Buddhists and Hindus (NB: I’m only familiar with Advaita Vedantists) both urge us to see that we are neither the mind nor the body and also that the world is unreal. The invitation is to understand, as fully and intuitively as possible, that what we really are is the Unborn, Unmanifest Reality. While they lay out different paths, they aim at the same goal: liberation from the suffering brought about by mind-concocted ignorance.

Thus, both traditions ask, “What is really real, and who, essentially am I?” And both demonstrate the answer to the first question is identical with the answer to the second. In other words, Atma (the True Self, or who I truly am) is Brahman (or Ultimatel Reality).

“What is liberation,” both ask, “and how can we free ourselves from seemingly endless delusions or vexations?” These questions are as alive today as they were when they were first posed thousands of years ago.

IV. The Need for Synthesis

The convergence we need is akin to the synthesis effected by St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas was able to synthesize the received Aristotelian cosmology (“the Greek dispensation”) with the likewise received Augustinian theology (“the Christian dispensation”).

For us, they synthesis sought must elegantly combine, while going beyond, the path of wisdom, the path of love, and the path of liberation.

What is this higher path that transcends while including all three?