The Great Transformation : The World in the Time of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah, Paperback

The Great Transformation : The World in the Time of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah Paperback

4 out of 5 (1 rating)


The centuries between 800 and 300 BC saw an explosion of new religious concepts.

Their emergence is second only to man's harnessing of fire in fundamentally transforming our understanding of what it is to be human.

But why did Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jeremiah, Lao Tzu and others all emerge in this five-hundred-year span? And why do they have such similar ideas about humanity?In The Great Transformation, Karen Armstrong examines this phenomenal period and the connections between this disparate group of philosophers, mystics and theologians.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 496 pages, 24pp b/w plates, maps
  • Publisher: Atlantic Books
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: General & world history
  • ISBN: 9781843540564



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Ever thought why all the major religious ideas have their roots in one 700-800 year period. Does this massive revolution in thought and ways of living have any relevance to day? Karen Armstrong’s book The Great Transformation traces the history of the Axial Age peoples from 1600 to 900 BCE to give a foundation as to why the need to transform and then traces the ideas that Greeks, Chinese, Indians and Jews came up with and why over the key 900 to 200 BCE period. She does this by looking at how the different societies address similar key ideas at roughly the same time. She also explores how this creative burst of energy comes to end and argues that Christianity and Islam were the last major shoots of this transformation. The book is published by Atlantic Books in the UK and by A.Knopf a division of Random House in the USA. This is a review of the paperback editionKaren Armstrong is exploring the area first set out by Karl Jaspers who coined the term the Axial Age (Achsenzeit in the German language original) to describe the period from 800 BCE to 200 BCE, in his Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte (The Origin and Goal of History). He identified a number of key Axial Age thinkers as having had a profound influence on future philosophy and religion, and identified characteristics common to each area from which those thinkers emerged. Jaspers saw in these developments in religion and philosophy a striking parallel without any obvious direct transmission of ideas from one region to the other, having found no recorded proof of any extensive inter-communication between Ancient Greece, the Middle East, India and China. She works on the assumption that the developments were far less contemporaneous then he thought and that the ideas are foundations that we have to build on to day when grappling with religious and spiritual meaning. Not least because of the general blindness that the majority of the thinkers and founders have about the contributions and roles of women.Karen Armstrong begins by exploring the fate of the Aryan or Indo-European tribes that lived on the Russian steppes around 1600 BCE to 900 BCE. Their religion was based on an immanent life force in all natural objects and a council of passive peaceful Gods that kept natural order. Balance was maintained by animal sacrifice. They were a settled pastoral people. This changed when they encountered more advanced cultures and discovered iron, horses and chariots. This spilt the tribes into warrior based and pastoral based cultures and created a period of war and massive instability as the traditional tribes were raided and torched. The warriors and cattle rustlers began to worship dynamic warrior Gods such as Indra the dragon slayer.Out of this violence and storm of injustice is created Zoroasterism that created the notion of struggle between an evil “Hostile Spirit” and good supreme God. Ritual was linked to internal purity and an apocalyptic end time was forecast when good would restore the world to its original perfection. But the imagery was of revenge rather then non violence so it looked back rather then forward to the ideas of the Axial age. It did have a strong ethical base in looking at the right conduct of warriors. It was not popular with the Aryan tribes but gradually became rooted in the areas around Iran that formed the Persian Empire and was to have a powerful influence on the Jewish exiles some centuries later. She then goes on to discuss how each of the cultures develop and build on or react to developments within ritual, kenosis, knowledge, suffering, empathy, concern for everyone, all for one and empire over the 700 years of the Axial age. For example In India we move from a religion based on the sacred flame to one that internalises the flame and develops the idea of Kama and a never ending wheel of birth and death. This is driven by various renouncers or ascetics but they give no hope for the ending of suffering. What arises is the Buddhist approach of being able to jump off the wheel and ending the continual rebirth into the cycle. But this and the other approaches tended to be elitist and remote from the concerns ordinary people. So the early Vedic traditions use the Kama idea to marry ritual to a personal faith in a God so producing classical Hinduism. The explanation explores why this creative burst ceases is in part the restoration of political and social stability so a search for meaning becomes less important. And in part because the emerging empires need to have a official religion so dynamics and radical thinking slows and stops.In the final chapter, she explores the lessons and the implications of the Axial age for us in era where religions are abandoning the insights of this period and a cycle of violence grows as we polarise into hose with the certainty of faith or no faithI was engaged with the argument and its relevance to the lack of religion based on Axial principles to day. It is well written and balances an exploration of the ideas and the social context and dynamics for them. My main concern with this otherwise excellent book is it does not explore the tensions between a faith for the mass of ordinary people and those of spiritual elite. This is touched on in India re the growth of classical Hinduism and in China and some of the pragmatic reactions to Confucianism but is not a central theme. In Christianity for example this conflict was fought in the early days between the proto catholic literalist tradition and the elite spiritual Gnostic tradition. To me a way for the great transformation of the 2nd axial age would be to see how the current elite spiritual ideas could be folded back into a mass movement to give us a faith that gave a purpose and meaning into our lifes as main stream religions fade into rigid armed camps.I would strongly recommend that this book is read if you want to open your eyes to what religion can mean and should mean. And it wont be what you thought it was.

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