8/17/12 - religion, philosophy, and coins

In today's excerpt - all of the world's major religions, the principles of reasoned philosophical inquiry, and the invention of coinage all arose in multiple locations around the globe independently but within the same era -- a period known as the "Axial Age":

"The phrase 'Axial Age' was coined by the German existen­tialist philosopher Karl Jaspers. In the course of writing a history of philosophy, Jaspers became fascinated by the fact that figures like Py­thagoras (570-495 BC), the Buddha (563-483 BC), and Confucius (551-479 BC), were all alive at exactly the same time, and that Greece, India, and China, in that period, all saw a sudden efflorescence of debate between contending intellectual schools, each group apparently, unaware of the others' existence.

"Like the simultaneous invention of coinage, why this happened had always been a puzzle. Jaspers wasn't entirely sure himself. To some extent, he suggested, it must have been an effect of similar historical conditions. For most of the great urban civilizations of the time, the early Iron Age was a kind of pause between empires, a time when political landscapes were broken into a checkerboard of often diminutive kingdoms and city-states, most often at constant war externally and locked in constant political debate within. Each case witnessed the development of something akin to a drop-out culture, with ascetics and sages fleeing to the wilderness or wandering from town to town seeking wisdom; in each, too, they were eventually reab­sorbed into the political order as a new kind of intellectual or spiritual elite, whether as Greek sophists, Jewish prophets, Chinese sages, or Indian holy men.

"Whatever the reasons, the result, Jaspers argued, was the first pe­riod in history in which human beings applied principles of reasoned inquiry to the great questions of human existence. He observed that all these great regions of the world, China, India, and the Mediterranean, saw the emergence of remarkably parallel philosophical trends, from skepticism to idealism -- in fact, almost the entire range of positions about the nature of the cosmos, mind, action, and the ends of human existence that have remained the stuff of philosophy to this day. As one of Jaspers' disciples later put it -- overstating only slightly -- 'no really new ideas have been added since that time.'

"For Jaspers, the period begins with the Persian prophet Zoroaster, around 800 BC, and ends around 200 BC, to be followed by a Spiritual Age that centers on figures like Jesus and Mohammed. For my own purposes, I find it more useful to combine the two. Let us define the Axial Age, then, as running from 800 BC to 600 AD. This makes the Axial Age the period that saw the birth not only of all the world's major philosophical tendencies, but also, all of today's major world religions: Zoroastrianism, Prophetic Judaism, Buddhism, Jainism, Hin­duism, Confucianism, Taoism, Christianity, and Islam.

"The attentive reader may have noticed that the core period of Jasper's Axial Age -- the lifetimes of Pythagoras, Confucius, and the Buddha -- corresponds almost exactly to the period in which coinage was invented. What's more, the three parts of the world where coins were first invented were also the very parts of the world where the sages lived; in fact, they became the epicenters of Axial Age religious and philosophical creativity: the kingdoms and city-states around the Yellow River in China, the Ganges valley in northern India, and the shores of the Aegean Sea.

"What was the connection?*"

*The author develops the case that the Axial Age saw the first emergence of large-scale professional armies in a similar time period in all the regions mentioned above, and that the reason coins broadly emerged -- from within the context of well-developed credit systems -- was to be able to pay these armies. The continual need for large payments of coins led in turn to the need to mine gold and silver, which created the large-scale need for slaves (and near-slaves) to perform this egregious labor. The resulting system of large scale armies and huge numbers of slaves brought the moral crises that led in part to the emergence of religions around the globe in a similar time period. However, this same system of large scale armies and huge numbers of slaves proved unsustainable and inevitably resulted in the decline of these systems in all areas around the globe -- thus the fabled "decline of the Roman empire" was imbedded in the structure of the system itself. In the period after this decline -- the Middle Ages in Europe -- slavery all but disappeared and the plight of the common man improved markedly. Money largely returned to its virtual, credit form since the need to pay these large scale armies also largely abated.


David Graeber


Debt:The First 5,000 Years


Melville House


Copyright 2011 by David Graeber


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment