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Greatest Minds and Ideas of the Western World

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The Axial Age of Karl Jaspers

The great existential philosopher, Karl Jaspers (1883-1969), first originated the term "Axial Age" his book entitled The Origin and Goal of History (published in 1949).  Rather than trying to explain Dr. Jasper's concept, let me use his own words taken from his book entitled Way to Wisdom (published 1951), pages 99-100:

" ... In the years centering around 500 B.C. -- from 800 to 200 -- the spiritual foundations of humanity were laid simultaneously and independently in China, India, Persia, Palestine and Greece.  And these are the foundations upon which humanity still subsists today. ...

" ... If there is an axis in history, we must find it empirically in profane history, as a set of circumstances significant for all men, including Christians.  It must carry conviction for Westerner, Asiatics, and all men, without the support of any particular content of faith, and thus provide all men with a common historical frame of reference.

"The spiritual process which took place between 800 and 200 B.C. seems to constitute such an axis. It was then that the man with whom we live today came into being.  Let us designate this period as the "axial age."  Extraordinary events are crowded into this period.  In China lived Confucius and Lao Tse, all the trends in Chinese philosophy arose ... In India it was the age of the Upanishads and of Buddha; as in China, all philosophical trends, including skepticism and materialism, sophistry and nihilism, were developed.  In Iran Zarathustra put forward his challenging conception of the cosmic process as a struggle between good and evil; in Palestine prophets arose:  Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Deutero-Isaiah; Greece produced Homer, the philosophers Parmenides, Heraclitus, Plato, the tragic poets, Thucydides and Archimedes.  All the vast development of which these names are a mere intimation took place in those few centuries, independently and almost simultaneously in China, India and the West. ... "