Axial Age reloaded

Saturday, August 4th, 2012 | Uncategorized

I just finished a Deep Dive Presencing Workshop with a group of mostly government leaders here in Zhejiang in China. It has been fascinating to work with this group, first at MIT and now here in a China. Two insights from this week:

One. Some 2,500 years ago, when Lao Tsu and Confucius lived in China and the Siddhartha Gautama Buddha resided in India, in Greece some pre-Socratic philosophers started what later evolved into Western philosophy and science. What’s so interesting is that all of these thinkers lived more or less around the same time, and the four major streams of thought that originated with them have shaped human civilization over millennia. The German philosopher Karl Jaspers called this time the Axial Age (Achsenzeit).

Today in China we see these four streams coming together in more and more intentional ways. We see the same thing happening in the West and in other civilizations. It feels as if we are at the beginning of another Axial Age with another set of endings and beginnings.

Two. On the last morning in Zhejiang each of us captured our own experience of the Presencing Retreat in a poem. We heard some very moving poems. Unfortunately, I can’t share them since I only heard them through the translator, who was whispering the English translations in my ear. But here is the one I can share, since it has been composed in English. It reflects on my experience with Earth as a living system during our solo time in nature:


You are holding me
You are breathing me
I am part of You
You are born in me
I am no longer ‘I am’
I am You.

We also went to Mt Putuo one of the four Buddhist mountains in China. We visited, among others, the 33-meter-tall statue of Nanhai Guanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion.

Guan Yin

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4 Comments to Axial Age reloaded

Waverli Neuberger
August 4, 2012

Great experience! And the idea of AXIS seems perfect! I hope it is the end of fragmentation era!

Sebastiaan van Tongeren
August 5, 2012

I’m thankfull that I life in this time. Crises are one of the signals that there are big staps made in evolution of mind, heart and Will. I want to thank you for sharing your insights with me by your blog and book. You give us the language to speak in and about new precence.

Kobus van Zyl
August 5, 2012

Dear Otto, very interesting ….where can I read a bit more about the 4 streams and also the ..hmmm…convergence? All the best from the Rainbow Nation…

Adam Yukelson
August 7, 2012

Otto –

I want to push the thinking around ‘another Axial Age’ a bit farther, as there seems to be a hidden connection between these intellectual streams, and current conversations around re-imagining finance, economics, and money itself…

David Graeber, in his book Debt, observes that the core period of Jasper’s Axial age (Pythagoras, Confucius, Buddha) corresponds almost exactly to the period in which coinage was invented. Moreover, he says, “the three parts of the world where coins were first invented were also the very parts of the world where those sages lived.” What’s the connection?

To summarize his argument briefly…

In the Axial Age, coins and markets sprung up above all to feed the machinery of war. The armies around this time were huge, and for the first time, included administrators and paid full-time soldiers. Armies were inevitably accompanied by traders, servants, and so on. Soldiers were paid generous wages in a form they could carry – small metals – and markets may have originally taken form via the exchange between soldiers and these service providers.

Coinage made possible the creation of markets in forms that were largely impersonal – much different from credit systems, based on trust and morality between people. Evidence suggests that, contrary to Adam Smith’s beliefs, credit systems pre-ceded coinage. In other words, exchange was always historically based on trust between people – borrowing from neighbors; accumulating a debt. Transactions between people were not, until coinage developed, impersonal.

The rise of impersonal markets also gave rise to materialist philosophies that the ultimate end of human existence is the accumulation of material wealth. Philosophers reacted by exploring ideas of humanity and the soul, attempting to find a new foundation for ethics and morality.

About the connection between coinage and the sages, Graeber then says:

“To put the matter crudely: if one relegates a certain social space simply to the selfish acquisition of material things, it is almost inevitable that soon someone else will come to set aside another domain in which to preach that, from the perspective of ultimate values, material things are unimportant; that selfishness – or even the self – are illusory, and that to give is better than to receive. If nothing else, it is surely significant that all Axial Age religions (Graeber defines Axial Age to end around 600AD, thus including the rise of today’s major world religions) emphasized the importance of charity, a concept that had barely existed before. Pure greed and pure generosity are complementary concepts; neither could really be imagined without the other; both could only arise in institutional contexts that insisted on such pure and single-minded behavior; and both seem to have appeared together wherever impersonal, physical, cash money also appeared on the scene.”

Personally, I find it especially interesting that, as the Axial Age thoughts come together now, perhaps for a new Axial Age, we are also having critical conversations around the nature and role of money in our society.
Might our current financial crises be fueling the integration Axial Age streams of thought? Or is it the other way around? Or both? What is the connection? And how might a better understanding of such a connection point us to greater leverage points for change as our current global systems collapse, and new ones emerge?

I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.

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