The Axial Age – Lessons from our Ancient History

DSCF1570 (1)There’s a growing body of thought about the potential for developing higher levels of human consciousness – not just among individuals, but collectively, across organizations and societies. Ken Wilbur, one of those on the forefront of these discussions, suggests that we are progressing to higher stages of consciousness and are learning how to “unlock” the keys to human evolution. Others have extended this notion to businesses and organizations, exploring concepts such as “corporate consciousness” (Richard Barrett), “collective consciousness” (Otto Scharmer), and “structures of human consciousness (Robert Kegan and Linda Lahey).

I find many of these ideas compelling, and these scholars have contributed greatly to the fields of human, organizational and leadership development. However, I also have this nagging internal voice that wonders if the “the evolution of consciousness” is real or just a popular made-up concept, particularly when many of the articles and books present these neat little “maps” that show a linear progression from unconsciousness to Ghandi-like awareness and mindfulness.

With this in mind, I recently read historian Karen Armstrong’s book, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions. Armstrong takes a deep dive into the period of history from 900 to 200 BCE, which she calls “The Axial Age” because “it was pivotal to the spiritual development of humanity” (p. xvi). Along the way she discovers something really useful: this is not our first time around on the development of human consciousness. In fact, we have definitely been here before – and there may be just as much to learn by looking back into known history as there is by looking forward into the unknown future.

Armstrong’s research and writing focused on historical developments that occurred over these 700 years in four regions of the world: China, India, Israel, and Greece. With breathtaking detail and engaging prose, she describes the slow and arduous development of the world’s great religious traditions: Confucianism, Daoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Monotheism (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), and Greek philosophical rationalism. What is important to note is that these traditions and associated spiritual practices all evolved simultaneously, and in almost total isolation from each other.

There are many fascinating aspects to the book, these the key points have stayed with me:

  • The “Axial sages,” including a long list of luminaries such as Confucius, the Buddha, Socrates, and Jeremiah shared a radical vision of spirituality, far different than our current theologies. Their message for our time is stunning: They had no interest in doctrine, metaphysics or theology.
  • What mattered most wasn’t what you believed, but how you behaved. They believed that practical and effective action was more important than dogma. Axial spirituality was achieved not by “thinking” but by “doing” – and each established specific practices, such as meditation, that provided a pathway toward greater mindfulness.
  • Each tradition also developed its own formulation of the Golden Rule: “do not do to others what you would not have done to you.” This respect for the “sacred rights of all beings” was their religion Armstrong says, and “the fact that they all came up with such profoundly similar solutions by so many different routes suggests that they had indeed discovered something important about the way human beings worked” (p. 467).
  • Core to their spiritual doctrine was a deep and abiding belief in the importance of compassion. It is not coincidental that these insights were born in a time of extreme violence and human suffering, not unlike our own time. “We must continually remind ourselves,” Armstrong says, “that the Axial sages developed their compassionate ethic in horrible and terrifying circumstances” (p. 474). These men “were not utopian dreamers, but practical men” convinced that “empathy didn’t just sound edifying, but actually worked” (p. 474).
  • The insights and learning were so radical and profound that we have retreated from them over time. In fact, most of these teachings have been diluted, if not solidified into a set of inflexible and polarizing ideologies that we now think of as “religion.” In contrast, the Axial sages advised individuals to take personal responsibility, question assumptions, and not assume God is on your side.
  • Rather than being outdated, this vision is more advanced than today’s conventional and “underdeveloped” thinking about spirituality. As Armstrong says, “In fact, we have never surpassed the insights of the Axial Age” (p. xvii).

Could it be that this ancient wisdom surpasses our contemporary knowledge? Of course not in all respects. (As an example, Armstrong points out the lack of regard for women was a glaring blind spot shared by all societies and sages of this time.) But, it is somehow comforting and inspiring to know that the wisdom we seek to build more human and fulfilling organizations and societies may already be resident in ourselves.

The obvious question this raises – and why, I believe Armstrong wrote the book – is how we access this wisdom today and use it address both our daily challenges as well as the tough problems facing us across the globe.

This, I believe, is a question worth considering.


  • Armstrong, K. (2007). The great transformation: The beginning of our religious traditions. New York: Anchor Books.
  • Barrett, R. (1998). Liberating the corporate soul: Building a visionary organization. Boston: Butterworth Heinemann.
  • Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. L. (2009). Immunity to change: How to overcome it and unlock potential in yourself and your organization. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.
  • Scharmer, O. & Kaufer, K. (2013). Leading from the emerging future: From ego-system to eco-system economies. San Franscisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.
  • Wilber, K. (2007). The integral vision. Boston:Shambhala