From the 19th century through the 1960s and 70s, World History books were quite fair in their assessments of the varying accomplishments of all civilizations, but most authors and teachers paid more attention to the achievements of European civilization in the making of modernity and in the shaping of global politics, particularly after the European discovery of the Americas, the consolidation of Newtonian science, and the spread of Western-created industrial technology. This fairly realistic assessment was increasingly rejected from the 1960s on by historians who felt that all the peoples of the earth deserved equal attention and that it was “ethnocentric” to elevate European achievements above others. How can Europeans be portrayed as the primary players in modern world history if all the races of the world are equal and the task of liberal-minded academics is to nurture cultural harmony, overcome the belligerence exemplified in World War II, and produce “global citizens” in an increasingly interconnected world? But an obvious difficulty confronted this feeling: how can a new history of all humans—“universal” in this respect—be constructed in light of the clear pre-eminence of Europeans in so many fields?
It soon became apparent that the key was to do away with the idea of “progress,” which had become almost synonymous with the achievements of the West. In the political climate in the mid- to late ’60s, the West was at the center of everything that seemed wrong in the world: the threat of nuclear destruction, the prolonged Vietnam War, the pollution inflicted by European consumers; and the West was opposed to the brave new world taking shape: pan-Arabic and pan-African identities, the “liberation movements” in Latin America, the Black civil rights riots, the feminist struggle against patriarchy, etc.
Not to be underestimated, this was the time when a highly influential school of thought, Dependency Theory, emerged, arguing that the reason Europeans modernized, in the first place, was that they stole the resources of other civilizations, enslaved their inhabitants, and enriched themselves unfairly. The once backward West had managed to surpass other cultures, starting in the late 15th century, by positioning itself, through dishonesty, duplicity, and violence, at the center of the world economy. The “progression” of the West was predicated on the systematic exploitation of the rest of the world. Millions of students were taught that the capitalist West, in the words of Karl Marx, had progressed to become master of the world “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.” Old dead white males should no longer be praised for launching the modern world, but should instead be held guilty for holding back the development of other civilizations and creating a world capitalist system in the “core” Western world that held down the “peripheral” Third World.
Accordingly, the idea of “progress,” articulated since the Enlightenment in close association with the history of Europeans, was rejected by the late 1970s, soon to be replaced by the idea of “world history connected.” Students would now have to learn that all humans were alike as Homo sapiens, similarly capable members of the same planet, creators of different but equally worthwhile cultures. We all had a common origin in the “first” humans who evolved in Africa, migrating to the rest of the world, occupying different ecological settings and creating “richly diverse” cultures, yet interacting with each other through trade, wars, empires, and migrations, and thus making world history together. There were no separate civilizations; the history of the world had been made together by all humans in the same “mother earth.” But the aim of these equalizers was hardly that Europeans were creatively involved in the creation of Chinese, Mesopotamian, or Mayan civilization; it was that they were morally and economically responsible for the “underdevelopment” of civilizations that were once more developed than the Germanic Barbarians of the Dark Ages—while insisting simultaneously that non-Europeans were the ultimate originators or co-participators of every great epoch in Europe’s history.
But before this great fabrication was imposed on unsuspecting White students, a preparatory, though by no means identical, idea had been articulated by a German named Karl Jaspers: the notion that in ancient times, roughly between 800 and 200 BC, the major civilizations of the Old World experienced, more or less at the same time, a “spiritual process” characterized by a common set of religious, psychological, and philosophical inquiries about what it means to be “specifically human.” The argument was that humanity, at this point in history, together, came to pose universal questions about the meaning of life with similar answers. The ideological aim behind this idea was that Europeans were not exceptional, did not carve out a unique historical path beginning with the achievements of the Greeks. Rather, all humans had developed a common cultural outlook at more or less the same time, an outlook that was to shape their histories along similar trajectories, with the West only “rising” in recent times due to a combination of “unusual circumstances.” This idea of an “Axial Age” was a boon to the ideological drive after World War II to envision the history of all cultures as a “collective” undertaking between “connected” peoples. The behavior of Germany during Second War was testimony, apparently, of what happens when an otherwise modern culture decides to defend its ethnic integrity rather than join with the world of cosmopolitanism. Germany had strayed from the course of “human history” by envisioning itself as “special people” with a unique destiny for greatness. The Europeans who had defeated Germany must abandon any notion of exceptionalism and envision themselves as members of a common history.
When Karl Jaspers first articulated this idea in 1949, he saw it as an exceptional age in which the major civilizations of the world accomplished similar intellectual and spiritual breakthroughs between 800 and 200 BC. He saw this age as an example of how relatively isolated cultures had shown a common humanity in producing rather similar moral ideas and rules with universal intent. But while Jaspers believed that the civilizations of the world diverged greatly after the Axial Age, and agreed with the then general consensus that Western history was characterized by a “special quality” in the generation of far more cultural novelties, historians in subsequent decades gradually came to the view that axial-age thinking was the product of the “common” and “connected” nature of the entire history of “humanity” and that its thinking “spread and shaped thoughts and feelings in every clime and continent.”
I believe, to the contrary, that there was no Axial Age, but that instead this epoch witnessed a dramatic contrast between the revolution in thought in ancient Greece and in the other civilizations combined. This argument can be made successfully even if we restrict ourselves to the Presocratic thinkers of the sixth and fifth centuries BC and leave out the amazing intellectual and artistic originalities of the classical Greeks. The Presocratics, I will argue, were the originators of the uniquely Western idea that there is a logos in the universe, a pattern, a structure in the way all things are. This idea teaches us that humans have a faculty within their soul, or natural constitution, that can be identified as “rational,” which allows them to offer arguments about the logos of the world and “to speak” or use words in a reasoned way about the way the world and humans are structured and the way humans should live in accordance with this order. This paper will also examine the way Western scholars came to extend the Axial Age to the entire history of the world in an effort to dilute the uniqueness of Europeans generally, in the name of a “world history connected” that would suit the expectations of egalitarianism and the promotion of diversity. Finally, I will contrast the Chinese “embedded” way of seeing things to the “analytical,” and ultimately far more creative, worldly, and universal way of seeing things of Europeans.
THE GOAL OF JASPER’S AXIAL AGE
Jaspers, to this day a highly respected German philosopher, argued in The Origin and Goal of History, published in 1949 in German, a few years after the end of World War II, that Western culture was not uniquely gifted with ideas that bespoke of mankind generally and the course of history universally; other major civilizations, too, had espoused outlooks about humanity together with moral precepts with universal content.
Jaspers believed that this ability was “empirically” made possible by the occurrence of a fundamental “spiritual” change between 800 and 200 BC, which gave “rise to a common frame of historical self-comprehension for all peoples—for the West, for Asia, and for all men on earth, without regard to particular articles of faith.” Believing that these spiritual changes occurred simultaneously across the world, Jaspers called it the “Axial Period.” It is worth quoting in full Jasper’s identification of the main protagonists of this period:
The most extraordinary events are concentrated in this period. Confucius and Lao-tse were living in China, all the schools of Chinese philosophy came into being, including those of Mo-ti, Chuang-tse, Lieh-tsu and a host of others; India produced the Upanishads and Buddha and, like China, ran the whole gamut of philosophical possibilities down to skepticism, to materialism, sophism and nihilism; in Iran Zarathustra taught a challenging view of the world as a struggle between good and evil; in Palestine the prophets made their appearance, from Elijah, by way of Isaiah and Jeremiah to Deutero-Isaiah; Greece witnessed the appearance of Homer, of the Philosophers — Parmenides, Heraclitus and Plato — of the tragedians, Thucydides and Archimedes. Everything implied by these names developed during these few centuries almost simultaneously in China, India, and the West, without any one of these regions knowing of the others.
Jaspers used certain amorphous philosophical phrases to bring out what was novel spiritually about this Axial age: “man becomes conscious of Being as a whole… He asks radical questions… By consciously recognizing the limits he sets himself the highest goals. He experiences absoluteness in the face of self hood.” But in some instances, Jaspers offered more concrete sentences: “hitherto unconsciously accepted ideas, customs and conditions were subjected to examination, questioned and liquidated.” Essentially, in this Axial Age, the age of myths came to “an end.”
The Greek, Indian and Chinese philosophers were unmythical in their decisive insights, as were the prophets [of the Bible] in their ideas of God.
A number of religious figures, philosophers and prophets came to rely more on their own judgments, visions, and reasoning powers: logos was set “against mythos.” Humans were now willing to rely on their rationality to make sense of the cosmos, to draw a clearer contrast between the inner world of consciousness, reflection, and the outer of accepted norms and beliefs, subject and object, spirit and matter. Combined with this spiritual awakening, came the idea of a transcendental One God as the basis of a new ethics against unreal demons and as the locus for thinking what was morally right for all.
It is not that the philosophical outlooks of these civilizations were identical, but that they exhibited similar breakthroughs in posing universal questions about the “human condition”: What is the ultimate source of all things? What is our relation to the universe? What is the Good? What are human beings?
Prior cultures were more particularized, tribal, polytheistic, and devoid of self-awareness regarding the universal characteristics of human existence. From the Axial Age onward, “world history receives the only structure and unity that has endured—at least until our own time.”
The central aim of Jasper’s book was to drive home the notion that the different faiths and races of the world were once running along “parallel lines” of spiritual development, and that we should draw on this “common” spiritual source to avoid the calamity of another World War. The fact that these civilizations had reached a common spiritual point of development, without any direct influences between them, was likely, in his view, the “manifestation of some profound common element, the one primal source of humanity.” We humans have much in common, despite our differences.
GERMAN GUILT REQUIRES A COMMON HISTORY
This notion of an Axial Age, with which Jaspers came to be identified, and which has been accepted by many established world historians, historical sociologists and philosophers, is also a claim he felt in a personal way (as a German) in the aftermath of the Second World War. According to Jaspers, after the end of the Axial Age around
200 BC, the major civilizations had ceased to follow “parallel movements close to each other” and instead began to “diverge” and “finally became deeply estranged from one another.” The Nazi experience was, in his estimation, an extreme case of such divergence.
It should be noted, in this vein, that Jaspers, whose wife was Jewish, was the author of a much discussed book, The Question of German Guilt, in which he extended culpability to Germany as a whole, indeed, to every German, even those who were not members of the Nazi party. A passage from this book, cited upfront in a BBC documentary, “The Nazis—A Warning from History,” reads:
That which has happened is a warning. To forget it is guilt. It must be continually remembered. It was possible for this to happen, and it remains possible for it to happen again at any minute. Only in knowledge can it be prevented.
The intention behind the idea of an Axial Age was to induce in humans an awareness of themselves as beings with a profound spiritual unity, nurturing a sense of “human solidarity.” But this was only the beginning of what was soon to become a culture-wide effort on the part of Western elites to do away with any notion of Western uniqueness, by framing its history as part of a “common” historical narrative of interacting and mutually evolving civilizations. It was also the beginning of an effort to instill on European natives the belief that they were citizens of “proposition nations,” and since these propositions could be held in common by all humans, they were “citizens of the world”—and all inhabitants of the world were potential citizens of their nations. “Germanness,” in the words of Jürgen Habermas, would “no longer be based on ethnicity, but founded on citizenship.” Habermas, a keen admirer of Jaspers, would be one of countless others embracing this civic/cosmopolitan notion of citizenship.
An interesting figure drawn to the idea of a common historical experience, in the early days after the Second World War, was Hannah Arendt, a student of Jaspers. She obtained a copy of The Origin and Goal of History as she was completing her widely acclaimed book The Origins of Totalitarianism. It is quite revealing that, in a short essay titled “Hannah Arendt’s Jewish Identity,” Elisabeth Young-Bruehl traces the roots of Arendt’s cosmopolitanism to the role of the Jews of Palestine as one of the Axial Age peoples. Together with Jaspers, Arendt came to share
the project of thinking about what kind of history was needed for facing the events of the war and the Holocaust and for considering how the world might be after the war. They agreed that the needed history should not be national or for a national purpose, but for humankind.
Arendt agreed with Jaspers, Young-Bruehl writes, that the way for Westerners to overcome “the ill effects of their own prejudices and technological progress, which had made the worldwide war possible,” was to open up to the world and think in a “cosmopolitan way about the future of humanity.” In light of her Jewish identity, as one of the Axial peoples victimized by German and European prejudices, Arendt further developed the arguments of Jaspers by invoking the cosmopolitanism exhibited by the Jews in the Axial Age, both as an “antidote to tribalist Jewish thinking” and to European ethno-nationalism. Young-Bruehl continues:
It is Arendt’s Jewish identity—not just the identity she asserted in defending herself as a Jew when attacked as one, but more deeply her connection to the Axial Age prophetic tradition—that made her the cosmopolitan she was.
But what kind of history writing does cosmopolitan thinking require, given that civilizations, according to Jasper, diverged in their cultural development after the Axial Age? For Arendt, this was beside the point, she was not a historian preoccupied with the actual documentation and diverging histories of civilizations and nations. Her goal was to create a new state of mind among Europeans in the way they viewed themselves in relation to the world. She thus called upon Europeans to:
“enlarge” their minds and include the experience and views of other cultures in their thinking;
overcome their Eurocentric prejudices and encompass the entire world in their historical reflections;
develop a sense of the “human condition” and learn how to talk about what is “common to all mankind”;
learn how they are culturally shaped both by their particular conditions and the conditions and experiences shared by all humans on the planet.
THE UNIQUENESS OF THE WEST—REJECTED
This call by Arendt would coalesce with similar arguments about the “inventions of nations,” the “social construction of races,” and the idea that we are all primordially alike as Homo sapiens. Jaspers, at least in his book The Origin and Goal of History, did not go this far, but in fact retracted, in later chapters, from the general statements he made in the Introduction about the Axial Age being a common spiritual experience across the planet, acknowledging the obvious:
it was not a universal occurrence… There were the great peoples of the ancient civilizations, who lived before and even concurrently with the [Axial] breakthrough, but had no part in it.
He further noted that the Egyptian and Babylonian peoples “remained what they had been earlier … destitute of that quality of reflection which transformed mankind,” even though they interacted with the Axial cultures. As it is, Jaspers admitted that after the Axial Age, the respective civilizations traversed very different spiritual pathways, which begs the question as to why they would cease to exhibit “parallel developments” despite increasing interaction. Perhaps even more important was his recognition that there was a “specific quality” to the West in the way it exhibited “far more dramatic fresh starts,” whereas
in Asia, on the other hand, a constant situation persists; it modifies its manifestations, it founders in catastrophes and re-establishes itself on the one and only basis as that which is constantly the same.
In the end, Jaspers could not avoid the ultimate historical question about why the
West followed such a diametrically different path:
[I]f science and technology were created in the West, we are faced with the question: Why did this happen in the West and not in the other two great cultural zones?
The answer he offered was essentially the same as Hegel’s heavily Eurocentric perspective about the unique pre-occupation of Europeans with freedom and reason. He actually delimited the veracity of the Axial thesis with the observation that only the ancient Greeks came to know “political liberty,” in contrast to the “universal despotism” of the East; and that “in contrast to the East, Greek rationality contain[ed] a strain of consistency that laid the foundations of mathematics and perfected formal logic.”
Here are more special qualities mentioned by Jaspers about the West:
- “Tragedy is known only to the West.”
- While other Axial cultures spoke of mankind in general, in the West this universal ambition regarding the place of man in the cosmos and the good life did not “coagulate into a dogmatic fixity.”
- “The West gives the exception room to move.”
- In the West “human nature reaches a height that is certainly not shared by all and to which … hardly anyone ascends.”
- “[T]he perpetual disquiet of the West, its continual dissatisfaction, its inability to be content with any sort of fulfillment.”
This is the language of Spengler’s “Faustian Soul.” Some in the New Right don’t like this perpetual restlessness about the West and would prefer to see the West become one more boring “traditional culture.” But this cannot be, for “in contrast to the uniformity and relative freedom from tension of all Oriental empires”:
the West is typified by resoluteness that takes things to extremes, elucidates them down to the last detail, places them before the either-or, and so brings awareness of the underlying principles and sets up battle-fronts in the inmost recesses of the mind.
None of these substantial qualifications would matter in the end. The inquiries Jaspers started would mushroom way beyond his expectations, leading to the complete abolition of the teaching of “Western Civ” courses and the imposition of World Multicultural History. The Axial Age Jaspers had limited to the period 800–200 BC would come to be extended to the entire course of human history! A. G. Frank and Kenneth Pomeranz would announce in their best sellers, ReOrient (1998) and The Great Divergence (2000) that the cultural and economic trajectories of Europe and Asia were “surprisingly similar” up until a sudden “accidental” divergence occurred around 1750–1830. Humans are all the same, have always been connected through migrations, race mixing, trade, and cultural borrowings. We have always been part of one big family. Europeans who talk about their uniqueness and complain about mass immigration and the incredible gifts of Islamic culture to the West are ignoramuses in need of replacement.
Yet there never was an Axial Age: the Presocratics were dramatically different in their inquiries, and far more universal and original in their reasoning, than the prophets of the Old Testament, the major schools of Confucianism, Taoism, and Legalism in China, and the Hindu religions of India. As far as I know, no one has explained this seemingly paradoxical combination of extreme Western uniqueness and extreme universalism.
THE HERITAGE OF WORLD CIVILIZATIONS
The acceptance and popularization of the Axial Age has come in varying degrees and ways, but a good way to access its impact and general characteristics is to examine its incorporation in college textbooks. Many world history texts could have been chosen to show how far ahead the idea of an Axial Age was extended, but for our purposes the following two, very successful, texts, will suffice: The Heritage of World Civilizations (2003), by Albert M. Craig et. al. This 2003 publication is the sixth edition; the text was first published in 1990, and it is already in its 10th edition as of 2010. The other book I will examine briefly is the The World—A History (2007), by the internationally celebrated Fernandez-Armesto. This book was released with a huge splash, evaluated by more than a hundred reviewers from around the world and “class-tested” at 15 academic institutions in the United States. The third edition of this text came out in 2011, with another edition planned for 2015.
These two texts make for an interesting contrast between the initial phases in the acceptance of an Axial Age, as understood by Heritage, which is now seen as an outdated text written by old White men close to retirement, retired, or dead, still employing “unsound” terms like “civilizations,” and what is currently seen as a truly progressive version of the Axial Age, as understood by Armesto’s The World.
The authors of Heritage, Craig, William Graham, Donald Kagan, Steven Ozment, and Frank M. Turner, are known as relatively conservative historians in academia. Kagan has a reputation as a “neoconservative”, and Turner, no longer alive, as a “historian of the ideas that shaped Western civilization.” All in all, they are/were solid academics from a generation that has now been practically replaced by outright promoters of diversity. In the sixth edition of Heritage, they humbly write about improvements in the text, such as the consolidation of four chapters on European peoples into two chapters, thereby offering “a more balanced treatment of world history.”
We should not be surprised at their efforts to march in step with the cultural Marxist expectations of the time. In fact, not only do they follow Jaspers, but they go further in solidifying and expanding historically Jasper’s rather moderate assessment, making the following key observations about this age:
There is more than an obvious similarity between the Jewish Messiah, the Chinese sage-king, and Plato’s philosopher-king… Each would reconnect ethics to history and restore order to a troubled society… The reason is not that humans’ creativity dried up after 300 BCE, but that subsequent breakthroughs and advances tended to occur within the original [Axial] traditions … Once a cultural pattern was set, it usually endured. Each major culture was resistant to the others and only rarely displaced [my emphasis].
While they agree with Jaspers that in subsequent centuries, once each tradition was set, each culture tended to follow its own tradition, we are made to believe that they remained equally attached to the fundamental ideas of the Axial Age. Chinese thought had greater staying power than Greek thought,” as Greek thought was “submerged by Christianity,” becoming “the handmaiden of theology” until it “reemerge as an independent force in the Renaissance.” So, overall, the West more or less continued the axial-age thinking of the Greeks, with the difference that it then brought in the tradition of “the Jewish Messiah,” submerging the Greek one under it, until Greek thought managed to reemerge again in the Renaissance, leading to the rise of modern science.
To its credit, Heritage examines each of the four traditions of the Axial Age separately, bringing out some key differences, backed by solid, old fashion sources. Yet the text cannot help playing up the idea that we are all homo sapiens, who have come together historically through “globalization” and that no citizen in the West can “escape the necessity of understanding the past in global terms.” The current global course of history dictates the way we should see the past. We have always been moving towards the creation of cosmopolitan citizens, and this book hopes to contribute to this process.
THE WORLD—A HISTORY
Once we get to Fernandez-Armesto’s text, all these qualifications about divergent paths and Western dissimilarities are thrown out the window. I have already examined this text in The Uniqueness of Western Civilization and will not rehash the flagrant manner in which it deals with European history. Suffice it to say that he allocates a meager 40 pages or so to ancient Greece, Rome, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance combined, but 23 pages to the Mongols alone, whom he praises as tolerant and liberal. He then goes on to claim, for the modern era, that there were “comparable” revolutions in science, industry, and in Enlightenment thought in China, India and in the Near East. The paramount message of the text is that the history of the peoples of the earth must be presented in a “unified” or in a “global context.” This is the message right from the opening chapters on the evolution of humans. What, then, is so different about the Axial Age?
After some cheerful chapters about how “all the people that we now recognize as human” evolved in Africa, the emphasis, leading up to a chapter titled “The Axial Age, from 500 BCE to 100 CE,” is about how humans moved “out of Africa” and ended up “peopling the earth.” We hear endearing stories about how “Eve’s children” migrated out of their native “homeland” in Africa to other continents. Did you get this students? We are all immigrants … except, of course, for Africans!
Armesto then goes on to say that most cultures across the world made similar transitions to herding and farming on their own initiative, everyone developing civilizations. The old definition of “civilization” is now rightfully “discredited as a word,” for all cultures are civilizations, since any agrarian engagement with an environment is a form of civilization. As Armesto puts it in Civilizations (2000),
In reality, civilization is an ordinary thing, an impulse so widespread it has transformed almost every habitable landscape.
It became widespread through diffusion; there may have been more, but we know of only six civilizations originating on their own. Armesto imagines himself a provocateur in academia. He condemns the “crude perversion” of Kenneth Clark, who claimed “the Apollo embodies a higher state of civilization than the [African] mask.” All civilizations are equally ordinary, or no better than foraging societies.
The importance of the Axial Age is simply that “the thinkers of the time anticipated and influenced the way we think now.” Whereas Jaspers saw the Axial Age as a unique epoch, world historians nowadays see it as a continuation of past “connected” trends characterized by new intellectual trends. Whereas Jaspers observed divergent paths after this age, with the West following a “special” path, Armesto views the West as no different from the other civilizations; every place was similarly “anticipated and influenced” by “the common content of the minds” of the Axial thinkers. In the many centuries after this age, the West, just like the Rest, “added so little to it.”
Armesto, however, adds that the Axial Age was not restricted to Eurasia, but was a “worldwide story” because of the way axial-age thinking later spread and shaped thoughts and feelings in every clime and continent.
The other areas were co-participants as members of trade networks, as colonial areas, or plainly as members of the same species that migrated out of Africa, supporting the core regions in their endeavors while adding their own cultural motifs. World history is a wonderful tapestry of cultures working together.
THE GREATNESS OF ANCIENT GREECE
But anyone with some knowledge of Ancient Greece would know that the number of thinkers coming from that world was vastly greater than the number coming from all the other civilizations combined, which were each large and heavily populated. Much as Armesto tries to portray the thinkers outside Greece as saintly, lofty and exalted sages, while ignoring most of the Greek thinkers—referring to Plato as a “member of an Athenian gang of rich aristocrats” who idealized “harsh, reactionary, and illiberal” states, “militarism,” “regimentation,” “rigid class structure,” and “selective breeding of superior human beings”—the achievements of Asia cultures barely compare in originality to the Greek invention of tragedy as a literary form, dialogical reasoning, deductive method in geometry, prose, citizenship politics, the science of geography, cartography, historical writing, and other achievements.
First, the region of Persia, South West Asia, produced only one global thinker, known as Zoroaster, from the late seventh and early sixth centuries BC. In the case of India, we have Vardhamana Jnatrputra, also dated without precision to the sixth and early fifth century BC. He founded Jainism. We also have Gautuma Siddharta, who “probably” lived in the mid-sixth and early fourth centuries BC, associated with the foundation of Buddhism. Concerning the Israelites, we have “the monotheistic revolution” associated with the “Book of Deuteronomy,” the fifth book of the Hebrew Bible, dated from about the eighth to the fifth century BC. There are no clear names here other than prophets such as Hosea and Jeremiah, both roughly dated to this period. Some add Jesus to this group, Armesto for one, “as an independent-minded Jewish rabbi.”
What about the much talked about “Hundred Schools” in China? As far as we know, there were three major schools: Confucianism, Taoism, and Legalism, together with some other important figures known as “Logicians,” “Mohists,” “Cosmologists,” and “Rhetoricians.” The original great thinkers were: Confucius (born 551 BC), Mencius (370–290 BC), who offered an idealistic version of Confucian thought, Mo-tzu (470–391 BC), founder of Mohism, Lao-tzu (fifth or fourth century BC), founder of Taoism, and Sun-tzu (sixth-fifth century BC), author of The Art of War. This is an impressive list, with other less significant names.
To make the case that something very different transpire in the Western world, it will suffice to contrast China’s contribution to Greece’s contribution to Axial thinking. China is the only civilization that contributed thinkers that were actually not religiously oriented and, in this respect, China is closer to the criteria that Jaspers sets, according to which this age saw not only a brake with tribal gods and values but a new style of thinking emphasizing reason and argumentation—logos. Armesto confounds his students by placing the main ideas of the Axial thinkers under such generic terms as “Monotheism,” “New Political Thinking,” “Math,” “Reason,” and “Science.”
The number of great thinkers in the Presocratic era alone is greater than the number of all the thinkers of all the other civilizations combined. I am using primarily as my source for this list the very authoritative text, The Presocratic Philosophers, by Jonathan Barnes, backed by respected Encyclopedia links as well as Wikipedia entries. These are not obscure or secondary names. I will leave out date of birth and death, except to say that they are essentially thinkers of the sixth and fifth centuries BC. We have a total of 17 great Presocratics:
I am leaving the great figures associated with Greece’s most creative period, the Classical period, which borders with the Presocratic era but extends into the fourth century BC. The Axial Age for Greece, in truth, extends through the Hellenistic period, usually accepted to begin in 323 BC and to end in 31 BC, which produced not just the major philosophical names of Epicurus, Cleanthes, Chrysippus, Ariston, Pyrrho, and Aristippus, but the first true scientists in human history, as argued by Lucio Russo in The Forgotten Revolution: How Science Was Born in 300 BC and Why It Had to Be Reborn. What Russo argues in great detail, mind you, has long been known by classicists; for example, Marshall Clagett, in Greek Science in Antiquity (1955), calls the Hellenistic period “the great period of Greek science,” correctly identifying the Presocratics as philosophers rather than scientists, and offering an overview of the original Hellenistic writings of Strato, Aristarchus, Eudoxos, Erastosthenes, Hipparchus, and Archimedes.
It can be argued, actually, that the Greek accomplishment, which can be extended beyond 31 BC to cover the ideas of Euclid, Ptolemy, and Galen in the first two centuries in mathematics, solid and fluid mechanics, optics, astronomy, and anatomy, found no parallel in ancient, medieval, and modern China. The reasons for this lack of a breakthrough in the cultivation of a proper scientific method has been much discussed recently. I will refer here to James McClellan and Harold Dorn’s Science and Technology in World History, which sums up some of the key differences:
- Chinese society did not witness a distinct profession of scientists; there were many sciences but these were practical and there was “no notion of pure science pursued for its own sake.”
- Despite producing great algebraists, Chinese mathematicians did not cultivate a formal geometry with logical proofs.
- The Chinese style of thinking was correlative or associative, and strove to find analogies and relations between diverse things, rather than looking at nature as a separate entity working according to universal laws that could be understood in terms of cause-effect relations, self-evident definitions, and logical inferences.
The Presocratics had already come to view nature as working according to rational laws explainable through the proper employment of rational arguments. This contrast was a key difference, among others, setting the West apart as a civilization driven by the movement of reason freed from external hindrances, arguments for or against, with a dynamic of its own, producing, through the process of proving arguments and receiving criticisms, refutations, new conjectures and new-proof-generated concepts, leading to the accumulation of knowledge.
IN THE BEGINNING WAS LOGOS
To fully appreciate this immense contribution of the Presocratics, we need to go beyond the quantitative observation that Presocratic Greece produced more original thinkers than the rest of the Axial world combined; more important still is the qualitative fact that the Presocratics, and only they, invented a style of thinking capable of producing knowledge and truthfulness. Once this style was inaugurated, there was no end to the ideas Europeans could produce continuously beyond the Axial Age.
The faculty of reason is the generator of knowledge, and the more reason is freed from extra-rational constraints—and is able to rely on its own internally generated principles, axioms, and inferential dynamic—it will inevitably produce novel ideas about nature, man, and society, since there is an infinite number of things to be discovered and learned about. Novel facts engender empirical progress, corroborate existing ideas or call for new explanations. In philosophy generally, reliance on open debate, through reason’s own criteria, for and against, thesis and antithesis, in-through blind alleys and aimless meanderings, produces new ideas and ways of observing reality. This emphasis on reason has also taught Western man, through the dialogic of question and answer, that there are other forms of poetical and artistic knowledge.
There is a key word, which is sometimes defined to mean “the word,” which captures the essence of the Presocratic Revolution—logos. There is much ambiguity about the meaning of this word due to successive appropriations, misappropriations and disputations, going back to ancient times, but it seems to me that the core meaning of logos is that there is a ratio, a principle, a proportion, a measure in the world that can be accounted for by human reason through the use of words, explanations, and arguments. Humans can be cogitators of this logos, so long as they engage in reasoned, balanced, proportionate debate, in a way that is commensurate with the order of the world.
Armesto tries to sound profound and cosmopolitan by writing about how everyone in the Axial Age was asking ponderous questions about the nature of reality, the divine, the proper form of government; in reality, only the Greeks were rationally arguing about these questions, and only they managed to think universally about the nature of things and rise above ideas based on mere assertions, religious authority, feelings, or dogma. I will go over some of the arguments offered by the Presocratics to illustrate this point, comparing them to the diametrically different style of thinking of the Chinese sages.
Logos means to argue with words, not “word” as used in grammar, but in the sense of giving an account through speech, through discourse, that is, to offer reasons, engage in conversation through the use of arguments. Perhaps a key to understanding the European accomplishment in the Axial Age is to bring out standard definitions of the words “argue” or “arguing,” since these words capture what logos is about, and what non-Europeans are not about:
- give reasons or cite evidence in support of an idea, action, or theory, typically with the aim of persuading others to share one’s view;
- to present reasons for or against a thing;
- to contend in oral disagreement, debate;
- to persuade or influence (another), as by presenting reasons;
- to engage in a quarrel, dispute;
- to say or write things in order to change someone’s opinion about what is true, what should be done
The Presocratics were a group of men no longer satisfied with the taken-for-granted beliefs of their times, asking, for example, “why should we believe mythical stories about the origins of the universe.” “Do you have good reasons to believe them?” Thales offered reasons about the underlying nature of all things, arguing that water must be the primeval stuff, since water is essential for the nourishment of all things living and it is the only naturally occurring substance that can change from solid to liquid to gas. But Anaximander then went on to question Thales, countering that, if we are to find the original source of all things, there must be something that itself has no beginning, which he called the “infinite” or the “Boundless.” The Boundless “encompasses all things,” and “steers all things.” It is not water but the Boundless that is the ultimate source.
But how does the Boundless engender the many individual things we experience in the world? Anaximander offered an answer to this question, unsatisfied with simply stating, in Lao-Tzu’s fashion, “Tao is empty but inexhaustible, bottomless, the ancestor of all.” Anaximander argued that the Boundless generates the many through its own vortex motion, which results in the lightest objects moving up and the heavy ones down, leading to the ordered arrangement we see around us of fiery stars, airy sky, watery clouds, and earthly objects.
Xenophanes explicitly challenged the notion that the gods had “revealed all things from the beginning to mortals,” and the poets’ claim to divine revelation; humans must look for themselves what is true “by seeking,” by asking questions: How much can we know? How can we know it? This is epistemology, a branch of philosophy uniquely European. It involves thinking about what distinguishes justified belief from mere opinion; it is the study of knowing, of what it means to have knowledge—logos.
Heraclitus in particular uses the term logos to refer to the in-built patterns of change he discerned in the world. He argued that things become through opposing forces and conflict; everything is in a state of continuous becoming; driven by a logos wherein everything that exists results from the opposition of forces, and this is the way things must be—justice—since all things presuppose their opposite; there can be no light without darkness. This endless movement is the basic principle, the logos, the ground of all things. Only the few can apprehend it:
This logos holds always but humans always prove unable to understand it, both before hearing it and when they have first heard it. For though all things come to be in accordance with this logos, humans are like the inexperienced when they experience such words and deeds as I set out, distinguishing each in accordance with its nature and saying how it is.
Strife and opposition are not evil but part of the order of things. One can apprehend this pattern not with eyes and ears but by looking within oneself, within one’s mind, and discovering therein the logos, which is the truth, and which is common to all things. As Heraclitus once said: “I thought for myself.”
But Parmenides, known for his insistence that one must go wherever “reasoning” takes you, even if it contradicts the senses, came to the conclusion that there can be no becoming, no change, no beginnings or endings, since something that is, cannot cease to be, for that would mean that there is always a point at which it is passing into what it is not, and what is not cannot be thought, reasoned about, for it is nothing; therefore, all things that exist must be “all at once, one and continuous.” The ultimate is present in all things, and it is one, eternal, and indivisible. This led Zeno to propose his famous paradoxes revolving around the idea that motion is impossible because it contains the contradiction that something is and is not simultaneously.
THE CHINESE AND THE WESTERN MINDS
Needless to say, these summations are oversimplifications, but my aim is to outline the Presocratic argumentative style rather than the particular theories of the Presocratics, in order thereby to contrast them to the Chinese style of thinking. My estimation is that Chinese civilization produced the greatest thinkers after the West, and so a comparison—albeit very brief—is quite useful in this respect, unlike a comparison, say, with Mayan thinkers.
Discussion on the differences between Western and Asian ways of thinking are not new; one popular account is Richard Nisbett’s The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently … and Why. Nisbett observed that “East Asian thought tends to be more holistic,” that is, spread out in the way it takes account of the “entire field” without making categorical distinctions based on formal logic. East Asians take contradictions as part of the nature of things, and instead of trying to reach a precise definition, a point of certainty, they look for “multiple perspectives, searching for the ‘Middle Way’ between opposing propositions.” In contrast, “Westerners are more analytic,” using rules, including formal logic, to differentiate objects and thereby explain and “predict its behavior.”
The academic world loves this stuff—how “holistic” non-European cultures are and how cold blooded and narrow minded Westerners are. The difference, as I see it, is that the Chinese are more embedded to their surroundings, the culture they are a part of, the natural world around them, the norms, rules, and habits of their society, which they follow without critical reflection, and so their reasoning has less autonomy from the “entire field.” It is not that the Chinese have, as Nisbett wishes us to believe, a broader, more comprehensive outlook. The “multiple perspectives” they express are merely an expression of the multiple norms, circumstances, and bodily impressions surrounding them and unconsciously coalesced with their reasoning. Their minds have remained lodged in the world, trapped to their surrounding and millennial customs. The East Asian self is determined by the flux and fusion of “inside” and “outside” forces. Their minds have remained undifferentiated from the world around them.
The Presocratics realized, or made evident in their philosophies, that the soul, as Plato then articulated in The Republic, consists of various parts, bodily appetites, emotions, and reasoning; and that the reasoning part can unify the self by self-consciously acting as the legislator and master of the pursuit of knowledge, and in this way, they were able to contrast the “inside” from the “outside” field of forces and disturbances. It is not that Westerners, as the inheritors and developers of the Presocratic discovery of reason, have been unable to see the “entire field,” incapable of appreciating others perspectives.
Searching for a fixed, supra-temporal ground, an objective method, a consciousness that is cleansed of any subjective disturbances, has been a singularly Western disposition, but it has not been the only one in its dialogical search for truth. There is a sense in which Westerners came to apprehend reason as the one faculty that can be self-conscious of its own actions and understand the nature and role of other forces and surrounding circumstances. There have been Western thinkers, to be sure, since ancient times, who have questioned the powers of reason, such as Sextus Empiricus (160–210 AD), who questioned the possibility of an ultimate ground by arguing that any first principle always requires a justification, which, in turn, requires a justification through or by means of another justification, ad infinitum. But this questioning itself testifies to the restless proving, self-examination, calibration, and objectivity of Western reason, in that it never takes anything for granted, dogmatically, but takes account of many possibilities, pitfalls, refuting claims, and new ways of thinking and improving.
It is said that Nisbett’s findings challenged the prevailing assumption among psychologists that the way the human mind works is universal. This is true, but it does not go far enough. The way the European mind works is very rare, but it is also the only way to achieve universal knowledge of the cosmos, human nature, and history. It is not surprising that Nisbett is a Westerner. It is always Westerners who tell other Westerners that they have a very limited understanding of other cultures, without realizing that, in so saying, they are exhibiting a Western tendency to show a deeper understanding of other cultures. Only Westerners have the peculiar attribute of apprehending things universally, of stepping outside their culture and seeing the other in its own terms—while at the same time claiming that they are the only ones who don’t have this attribute and implying that backward cultures devoid of a rich intellectual traditions do!
The promoters of a “common history” are doing the same in proposing world histories that apprehend the histories of everyone. But as cultural Marxists, even though they are Westerners, their goal is to downplay and do away with the unique tendency of Westerners to think in universal terms by merging their histories and culture with the ways of everyone and claiming that we are “all one” in our diversity. They thus fall into the trap of cultural relativism. Leftists believe that all cultures have to be seen in their particular contexts, and yet, in so thinking, they fail to recognize that they are presuming that all other cultures are also universally capable of seeing different cultures in their own terms.
The higher interest Europeans have shown in understanding other cultures is not an expression of their relativity but of their universalism. Since the Greek invention of ethnography, through Julius Caesar’s account of the Germanic tribal ways, Westerners have always been curious about the ways of others, writing extensive traveling accounts, from Marco Polo through Margaret Mead to Napoleon Chagnon, inventing “entire fields” of knowledge, proper methodologies for each subject matter, anthropology and cultural psychology. The claim that the Chinese mind has a broader perspective is a mirage of the Western academic mind; the Chinese have been geographically trapped in their surroundings, making circumscribed maps with China at the center of the world surrounded by their neighbors without any sense of the world beyond East Asia. On the other hand, the ancient Greeks were the progenitors of the science of geography, of offering explanations about the form and magnitude of the earth, the shape and size of lands and oceans, the nature and extent of human habitation of the earth. This science culminated, in the second century AD, in the Geography of Ptolemy, who also produced the first world map, Universalis Tabula, which offered a comprehensive view of the world way beyond Greek lands, a horizon that included Rome, India, China itself, South East Asia, the British Isles.
Nisbett’s talk about the comprehensive outlook of the Chinese and the narrow specialism of the West is gibberish. But Westerners—instead of appreciating their development of the disciplinary techniques required to understand other cultures and have a comprehensive view of all peoples in the world—have turned against their unique universalism, without fully understanding it, and under the supposition that by intermixing it with the parochial ways of others they will achieve a higher form of universalism. We have a book exemplifying this tendency, dealing exactly with the subject at hand, contrasting the Chinese allusive way of thinking with the “direct” Greek/Western way, titled Detour and Access: Strategies of Meaning in China and Greece (2000). This book is authored by the French academic Francois Jullien, who lauds his immersion into Chinese thinking as
a case study through which to contemplate Western thought from the outside, and, in this way, to bring us out of our atavism.
He condemns the “ethnocentric prejudices” based “on a colonial relationship” of past accounts of China’s culture. He is voicing what hundreds of Westerners have been voicing for a long time without reflecting back on the way his own study exemplifies a uniquely Western disposition to study other cultures and then reflect back on one’s culture. Obviously, some Westerners have made judgments about other cultures without immersing themselves in them. Jullien is rather typical in wishing to relinquish his culture for the sake of others, learning about other ways while condemning his way as incomplete. Meanwhile, “the Other” is barely interested in engaging his culture, except to relish in Jullien’s submissive words that China is becoming “the greatest world power.”
But the main point I want to conclude with is that Jullien does agree that there is a difference between what he calls the “allusive,” “oblique,” “circuitous,” “diffused” Chinese way, and the “straight,” “direct,” “frontal,” “antagonistic” Western way. He observes that the Greeks face-to-face style of infantry warfare found an equivalent in the
agonistic structure … in the organization of the theater [competition for prizes and tragic accounts of conflicts], the tribunal, and the assembly. Indeed, whether in the dramatic, the judicial, or the political realm, the debate manifested itself like a force or against something, in which the upper hand was gained only by the sheer strength and number of arguments either side amassed.
Jullien does not like this antagonism, and would like Westerners to learn how to be more Chinese. He writes positively about the Chinese style for “detour,” “dodging,” “insinuating,” rather than directly stating their thoughts; we are made to think that this is a more sophisticated way, as it allows one to be “craftier,” avoiding an explicit delineation of one’s views, making it possible for one not to “exhaust” one’s views right away. There is apparently something deep in Chinese thought, latent, implicit, “endlessly” filled with alternative meanings, “Inexhaustible.” Many Westerners are, indeed, thrilled by such aphorisms as: “Tao does nothing, but leaves nothing undone.” Jullien thinks that the Western search for “essences,” for concepts that “represent” or “reproduce the real” is limited, narrow, and would stand to benefit by kneeling before the Chinese:
What if generalizations were not the goal of thought, or speech tended not to define (to build a universality of essences) but to modify itself—to reflect the circumstances? In short, what if consciousness did not strive to reproduce the real in order to ground it in transcendence (of being or of God)? And what if the purpose of speaking about the world, to make it intelligible, were not to arrive at Truth.
These questions should be answered with a strong sense of the history of Western thinking. First, the West is the one civilization to have “endlessly” originated multiple philosophical outlooks, including styles of reasoning emphasizing the social and historical contents of the structures of the experience of consciousness in an anti-reductionist, anti- Cartesian way, at the same time that it developed an experimental and mathematical method of explaining things leading to continuous innovations and discoveries.
Second, when Westerners set out to propose contextual styles of thinking, such as phenomenological investigations, they did so in full awareness of the importance of the “broader” experiences of consciousness and the limited perspective of the scientific method. It was not that they were falling back to a pre-rational world, absorbed by the world surrounding them, lacking critical distance from it, as was (and is) the case with the Chinese. As Romantics in the early 1800s expressed—as well as the proponents of hermeneutics, most fully Hans-Georg Gadamer in his book, Truth and Method (1960)—there are many truths that pertain to the nature of human experience that cannot be adequately expressed through the methods of the natural sciences. Painting, poetry, and drama have truthfulness, and they are forms of knowing, and not merely aesthetic experiences. But their modes of knowing do not meet the exactitude of the sciences, for the reason that they are about other aspects of human experience beyond the powers of abstraction.
Third, and contrariwise, the Chinese style of not facing up to the claims at hand by directly contesting them, proving or disproving them, pushing relentlessly ahead wherever the argument takes you, rather than circumventing the views of others, repeating aphorisms, without judging their claims to veracity, remaining embedded to “circumstances” and not letting reason be the judge, explains why the basic ideas of Axial China remained in place right up until the West shook its world from its circuitous slumber. It is also testimony of a typically Oriental-Asian inclination to engage in deception, not be direct, sneak their way into things that serve their interest; ergo, deceive naïve academics like Jullien, who have ceased to have the mental toughness that produce so much originality in the West, but are terrified of getting spanked by the feminists that dominate their departments.
While the Axial Age was just the beginning of Western creativity, it was the apex of Oriental creativity. The “world historians” of the modern academia are, in their way, pathologically anti-Western. Their concern is not with “what happened in the past” but with teaching a history that justifies the political goal of transforming European nations into multicultural and multiracial societies. We must overcome them if we are to re-establish our connection with the logos the Presocratics handed to us.
RICARDO DUCHESNE is a professor in the department of social science at the University of New Brunswick Saint John. He completed a BA in History at McGill University and Concordia University, Montreal.
In 1987, he obtained an MA at Concordia, where he wrote his thesis on the origins of the French Revolution under the supervision of George Rudé, one of the founders of “history from below.” In 1994 he was awarded a doctorate in the renowned multidisciplinary program of Social & Political Thought at York University. His main fields of concentration were modern European history, political economy, and the philosophy of Hegel.
He studied with one of the foremost Hegelian scholars in the English language, H.S. Harris, and with Thomas T. Sekine, a Japanese economist considered to be one of the most important theorists on the field of Marx’s theory of value. His Dissertation, “All Contraries Confounded: Historical Materialism and the Transition-to-Capitalism Debate”, was awarded the “Doctoral Prize Award for Best Dissertation of the Year,” Faculty of Arts, 1995.
In 1995, Dr. Duchesne was appointed assistant professor in the department of social science at the University of New Brunswick, where he has remained since. Dr. Duchesne has published thirty-one articles and review essays.
His publications include one book, 45 refereed articles, one chapter, 13 encyclopedia entries, and 18 non-refereed articles. His book, The Uniqueness of Western Civilization, a major work of 528 pages, was released in February 2011. Currently he is doing research on multiculturalism and the identity crisis of the West.