Um das 6. Jahrhundert v.Chr. traten in verschiedenen Kulturräumen der Welt unabhängig voneinander Philosophen und Propheten auf, die das bisherige mythische Denken überwanden: Konfuzius und Laotse in China, Buddha in Indien, Zarathustra in Persien, die Propheten des Alten Israel und die vorsokratischen Philosophen in Griechenland. Diese Zeit wurde von Karl Jaspers «Achsenzeit» genannt. Jan Assmann beschreibt, wie Historiker und Philosophen seit der Aufklärung die erstaunliche Gleichzeitigkeit der Achsenzeit-Kulturen erklärt und in der Achsenzeit die geistigen Grundlagen der Moderne gesucht haben. Die Annahme einer Achsenzeit der Weltgeschichte wurde so zu einem Gründungsmythos der Moderne. Sie hält einer historischen Überprüfung zwar nicht stand, wie das Buch anschaulich zeigt, aber an das damit verbundene Bestreben, eine eurozentrische Sicht auf die Geschichte zu überwinden, können wir bis heute anknüpfen.

A review copy arrived last month of the prize winning volume.  And prize worth it is.  Assmann, one of the finest Egyptologists and historians of the 20th and 21st centuries, takes readers on a tour of the history of an idea.  But not just an idea, an epochal idea- that of the so called ‘axial age’.  How did this idea come to be?  What are its predecessors (because nothing just springs to life out of the blue- everything comes from somewhere) and what has it done for our understanding of how history works?  These are the basic issues which this wonderfully interesting book addresses.

Assmann begins at the very beginning of the modern historical enterprise: with the 18th century’s Abraham-Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron.  His work, dated 1771, laid the foundation for Jasper’s critical work and chances are very good that very few, especially in Biblical studies, have ever heard of him.

Mind you, this isn’t a book restricted to questions of interest only to those who study the history of the Levant.  For next, Assmann looks into the theoretical work of Jean-Pierre Abe Remusat, whose primary field of investigation was the Laotian people.

The third chapter is devoted to Hegel’s historical methodology from 1827 and the fourth to Eduard Maximilian Roth’s work from 1846 and 1858.  Readers will learn both about historical method and those whose ideas formed the very ideas we take for granted and seldom question.  Which is precisely the point.  For every theory and every method itself needs to be thoroughly questioned and not merely accepted on blind faith.

The fifth chapter brings into focus the pantheistic notions of Ernst von Lasaulx, an odd man with odd views whose work continues to abide, oddly.

The sixth chapter is, for me, the most interesting.  It discusses the work of Victor von Strauss and Torney and their quest for the ‘Urreligion’ which then became the many religions.  It also contains a helpful excursus on the views of Rudolf Otto.

Theories in historical methodology abound.  The seventh and eighth chapters steep readers in the kettle of John Stuart Stuart-Glennie and Alfred Weber’s notions of the law of history and the synchronization of historical reality.

In chapter nine, the most intricate, the ideas of Karl Jaspers are discussed and dissected.  A brief biography of Jaspers and the influences which merged in his ideology are taken in course as well as the development of his belief in an ‘axial age’ as well and the ‘reception history’ of that idea.

Chapters ten through twelve then bring to the fore responses to Jaspers’ notion.  In particular, the responses of Eric Voegelin, Shmuel Noah Eisenstadt, and Robert Bellah.

A conclusion of 15 pages pulls the whole together (and should be read very carefully, as it contains the entire argument concisely argued).   There are, in conclusion, endnotes, a bibliography, and a person and subject index.

The history of ideas is history.  And history is the history of ideas.  In this volume, Assmann, the master historian, shows that he is also the master of excavating the very history which underlies ideas.  This really is a wonderful book.

But before readers take it in hand, they need to be fully informed about Jaspers’ ‘axial age’.  That is the one, and only, prerequisite for fully appreciating this genius volume.  To that end, this essay (in Psychology Today) is the ideal introduction to the subject.

Before the Axial transformation, human beings told one another myths and other stories about how they came to be. The stories were not regarded as true or false; rather, their truth did not require questioning.  Such was the state of human beings, Jaspers believed, because of a lack a self-reflective, fully conscious self-understanding.  Under such conditions, abstract truths matter not.

During the Axial-age, however, some scholars argue that dramatic shifts took place in human thought across four geographically distinct regions of the world: India, China, the Middle East, and Greece.

New ways of thinking emerged that defined the world’s psychological culture for all time since. Jaspers wrote:

What is new about this age…is that man becomes conscious of Being as a whole, of himself and his limitations. He experiences the terror of the world and his own powerlessness. He asks radical questions. Face to face with the void he strives for liberation and redemption. By consciously recognising his limits he sets himself the highest goals.

Etc.  Read the essay, and then read the book!

1 thought on “Achsenzeit: EINE ARCHÄOLOGIE DER MODERNE


    Sounds like a book worth reading.

    I once took course on 1 Corinthians with Vincent Wimbush at Union Seminary (yes, the place where they confessed to plants!), who was constantly trying to force parallels between Paul’s wording and things found in the Greek moralists. At one point, I pointed out that a particular saying of Paul, a saying that he (Wimbush) was trying very hard to assimilate to something in Seneca, was almost word-for-word the same as something found in a rabbinic work. Wimbush frowned, and then explained that the reason the rabbis could say something so similar to Paul/Seneca (!) was that all the nations of that part of the world had gone through their axial ages at the same time.

    I kept my mouth shut for the rest of the course.


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