Karl Jaspers coined the term “Axial Age” to describe a widespread, fundamental shift in ethical values that occurred in a number of societies in the mid-1st millennium BCE. It included the rise of Greek philosophy, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and the prophetic movement of Judah and Israel. All these developments were characterized by a shift from aristocratic values to democratic and universal ones that applied equally to all human beings regardless of social status.
It essentially overlapped with what Nietzsche called the “slave revolt in morality” in The Genealogy of Morals. For Nietzsche, the essence of this “slave revolt” was a shift from values based on “High” and “Low” or “Good” and “Bad” (with “good” being defined largely in terms of aristocratic values) to values based on “Good” and “Evil” (with both good and evil being universal moral values of justice by which the high could be judged for their treatment of the low).
This shift was in many cases was accompanied by a shift in the view of the afterlife, typified by that within the Jewish prophetic movement. In the older understanding, for the vast majority of human beings the afterlife was synonymous with the grave (e.g. Hebrew Sheol and Greek Hades), a “land of dust and darkness” in the words of the Epic of Gilgamesh, in which human souls survived only as dim shades with no memories of their lives on Earth. Paradise was the habitation only of the blessed gods, accompanied—perhaps—by a handful of human beings who had somehow earned the privilege of dwelling with the gods by some extraordinary feat of heroism or renown. In other words, the afterlife was reserved exclusively for the High. The Axial Age religions, on the other hand, took a much more democratic view of the afterlife. In place of Paradise and Hades, there were Heaven and Hell—places of reward and punishment, respectively—and the entire human race was to be assigned to one or the other after death, based not on social status or aristocratic standards of heroism but on moral character.
Both the Axial Age and “slave revolt in morality” coincide to some extent with the phase transition, in Eric Voegelin’s schema (presented in the multi-volume Order and History series), from cosmological civilizations to universal moralities.
Examples of cosmological civilizations, in Voegelin’s framework, were the early civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt, China and Mesoamerica. The universal moralities that succeeded them—Greek philosophy and post-Exilic prophets—were largely the same as Jaspers’ Axial Age exemplars.
The morality of a cosmological civilization is authoritarian: “as above, so below.” The arrangement of hierarchical authority on earth—the order of king, priests and nobles—is a mirror of the order of Heaven (the pantheon of gods under some chief god). And, as observed by Voegelin, the universal religions or ideologies tend to be associated with the idea of history. Cosmological civilizations are static or cyclical, with the human order mirroring the cosmic order of recurring seasons.
In particular the Jewish prophetic movement, and the Deuteronomic school of history which edited the books of Deuteronomy through Kings into their final form, saw Israel as having been called out “from among the nations,” out of the “flesh pots of Egypt,” into a special relationship with a transcendent God. For them history was a linear process, in relation to a transcendent God, culminating in some sort of fulfillment.
The royal Davidic ideology of the early monarchy, found in its most undiluted form in the Psalms, is a classical cosmological system, with symbolism comparable to that of other societies in the fertile crescent. The first god defeats the primeval chaos (represented by a serpent, a dragon, or the waters), sires a pantheon of gods, founds a heavenly dynasty, and creates the universe and humanity. Then kingship descends among men, reproducing the heavenly order on earth. And from that point the human order, once established, follows a static course of perfection modeled on the heavenly order.
The Davidic ideology, to a large extent, was an exercise in reimposing a conventional structure on the liberatory religion of the Israelite “Zomians,” which was an egalitarian religion of runaway serfs and slaves. The older themes, still preserved in bits and pieces in such forms as the Mosaic Law’s Jubilee year, provided raw material for the later prophetic movement, which —coinciding with the Axial Period—juxtaposed a universalistic moral religion against the older David interpretation of Judaism. Hence the condemnation of land enclosure by the prophets, like Isaiah in this passage: “Woe unto them who join house to house, who lay field to field, till there is no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth!” (Isaiah 5:8)
The Hebrew prophets of the exilic and post-exilic period—one of Jaspers’ chief examples of the Axial movement, along with Greek philosophy, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism—replaced this cosmological ideology with the idea of human history as something linear, with a beginning and an end, something subject to time under the transcendent rule of God and proceeding toward some final goal. The surviving remnants of the earlier cosmological civilization only show through here and there, in a Bible almost completely reworked by redactors from the prophetic movement.
The cosmological religion of the early Israelite monarchy, like the neighboring civilization of Mesopotamia, was thoroughly aristocratic. There was a Paradise, inhabited by Yahweh and his pantheon, and—at best—a handful of kings and heroes like Enoch and Elijah who had been caught up alive into Paradise. And then there was Sheol where the entire human race was destined to go. In their place the prophetic religion created Heaven and Hell, both of them open to both high and low, depending on their adherence to ethical norms.
The slave revolt in morality was frequently associated with dying god cults (Dumuzi, Osiris and Dionysos, as well as Christ) in which the god descended into human form, experienced the suffering of humanity, died a horrific death and was resurrected—in the process redeeming the poor and weak and elevating them to his level. The apotheosis of this egalitarian dying god was “Christ, and him crucified,” with the “scandal of the Cross” juxtaposed against the Olympian gods—lounging about, fornicating, and drinking nectar.
When combined with the idea of history, as in the Jewish prophetic tradition and Christianity, the messianic idea led to apocalyptic visions in which history culminated in a New Heaven and a New Earth, transformed to reflect transcendent ideals of justice.
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