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The "Axial Age" (700-200 BC) was the intellectual culmination of the non-Western world, but only the beginning of the unsurpassed achievements of Europeans who were already way more advanced mentally in ancient Greek times, unique in their "consciousness of consciousness," which would allow them to originate a continuous sequence of novelties in all the fields of human endeavor through Roman, Christian medieval times, Renaissance, Age of Discovery of the World and Cartographic Revolution, Modern Science, Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution...leaving the Rest scrambling for meaning in their aged and irrelevant Axial Age ideas.
The Axial Age, a period stretching from about 800 to 200 BC, is now
recognized as a new chapter in the history of humanity,” the first epoch
in world history when the spiritual foundations of humanity were laid
simultaneously and independently in China, India, Persia, Judea, and
The founding text of this idea is Karl Jasperss 1948 book, The
Origin and Goal of History.
Jaspers believed that this epoch was character-
ized by three interrelated novelties in humanitys understanding of itself
and the universe:
There was an increasing reflexivity involving the ability of
humans to use their reason to examine their own thoughts and mo-
tives: hitherto unconsciously accepted ideas, customs and condi-
tions were subjected to examination, questioned and liquidated.
Religious figures, philosophers, and prophets came to rely more on
their own judgments, visions, and reasoning powers: logos was set
against mythos.”
There was an increasing awareness of historical time, what hap-
pened in the past, what was happening in the present, and what
could happen in the future. This historicity involved an increasing
capacity by humanity to reflect consciously about their own tem-
poral location and to conceptualize future historical changes
The first quote is from Bjorn Wittrock, “The Meaning of the Axial Age,” in Johann
Arnason, S. N. Eisenstadt, and Björn Wittrock (eds.), Axial Civilizations and World History
(Leiden & Boston, Brill 2005), 51.
The second quote is from Karl Jaspers, The Way to Wisdom: An Introduction to Philoso-
phy (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003 [orig. published 1950]), 98.
Karl Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965
The Occidental Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 3, Fall 2019
through their own agency,” their own conscious actions. Humans
became aware of themselves as makers of their own history.
There was an increasing capacity to transcend the immediately
given world, to make a distinction between the mundane world of
daily survival, and a transcendental world of ideals. This transcen-
dentalism” involved the formulation of universal ideals for hu-
manity”—in opposition to the conventional political orderings and
particularized norms of the day.
I will argue below that missing in the Axial Age idea is a simple ques-
tion: why was it the case that this Age was followed throughout the East
by centuries of dogmatic fixation, stagnation, and religious traditional-
ism, whereas the ancient Greeks would engender a Western civilization
characterized by continuous increases in reflexivity, historicity, and tran-
scendentalism? Jasperss claim that from the Axial Age onward world
history receives the only structure and unity that has enduredat least
until our own time
is belied by his own words
and by the salient reality
that Axial Age thoughts endured without subsequent progression in the
East, whereas this age was the beginning of centuries of progression in
the West. It is no accident that Europeans alone would conceive the idea
of progress, because only they experienced progression, and they experi-
enced progress because only the ancient Greeks made a substantive tran-
sition from mythos to logos.
The Israelites, the Indians, the Chinese, and possibly the Persians did
experience the first inklings of historical consciousness, reflexivity in the
These claims are contained in Jaspers's The Origin and Goal of History; however, later
scholars were responsible for formulating them in a clearly demarcated and explicit way;
see Johann Arnason, S. N. Eisenstadt, and Björn Wittrock (eds.), Axial Civilizations and
World History.
Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History, 12.
Although there is a sentence in Jaspers’s Origin and Goal of History in which he says
that “when the [axial] age lost its creativeness, a process of dogmatic fixation and level-
ling-down took place in all three cultural realms” including the Greek world (5), Jaspers
addresses in this book the “specific quality” of the West, the “far more dramatic fresh
starts” witnessed in this civilization (29), leading to the creation of a scientifically ori-
ented culture. His many Eurocentric statements include the rather revealing observation
that in the West “human nature reaches a height that is certainly not shared by all and
to which … hardly anyone ascends” (64). I bring up Jaspers’s Eurocentrism in “Discov-
ering the European Mind.” The National Policy Institute Research & Analysis (June 1, 2016).
Axial Age advocates like to bring up the passage about the “dogmatic fixation and lev-
elling-down” supposedly experienced in all post-Axial civilizations while ignoring Jas-
pers’s thoughts about the unusual creativity of the West after the Axial Age.
Duchesne, “The European Idea of Progress”
articulation of their ideas, and transcendental moral precepts beyond the
conventions of their time. In the degree to which this was the case, I will
defend the Axial Age idea. But human creativity dried up after the Axial
Age outside Europe. Subsequent changes were mere extensions of exist-
ing technologies, new territories brought under despotic rule, or mere re-
visions of the original Axial Age outlooks. History became cyclical, with-
out progression.
Is it any wonder that the Chinese conception of history
never developed beyond the theory of dynastic cycles, and that only Eu-
ropeans learned to write historical accounts with a sense of time from an-
cient to medieval to modern times? Europeans would discover the idea of
time itself,
and would write the history of all the other peoples of the
earth, including the history of the earth, the evolution of plants and ani-
mals, and the history of the universe from the Big Bang to the present?
I agree with Robert Nisbet that the idea of progress, the idea of growth,
and the conception of time as linear are singularly Western.
Taken in its
totality, beyond Nisbets preoccupation with human history and beyond
the common belief that this idea is inherently Christian, this idea main-
tains that development is intrinsic to the very nature of things. It holds
that in the course of time, from the Big Bang to the modern world, we can
detect a linear sequence characterized by a movement from simplicity to
complexity, from the rise of elementary particles to the formation of the
atomic structures of hydrogen and helium, from the rise of heavy ele-
ments to the rise of stars and planetary organizations of matter, from the
emergence of prokaryotic cells to eukaryotes with complex chromosomes,
from chordates to vertebrates, from fish to amphibians, from reptiles to
mammals, from primates to hominids, from Homo erectus to Homo sapiens,
from the upper paleolithic revolution to the origins of agriculture,
the Axial Age to the rise of modernity with its many revolutionary novel-
ties in all the spheres of life. The key to the Axial Age, I will argue, is the
rise of consciousness of consciousness, which involves true reflexivity
and a capacity to transcend the immediacy of a consciousness preoccu-
pied primarily with mere survival. Ancient Greece alone achieved the
I address “change without progress” in the East in: Ricardo Duchesne, The Unique-
ness of Western Civilization (Leiden: Brill, 2011).
Stephen Toulmin and June Goodfield, The Discovery of Time (Chicago: The Univer-
sity of Chicago Press, 1965).
Robert Nisbet, History of the Idea of Progress (New York: Basic Books, 1980).
Harold J. Morowitz takes it as far as the origins of agriculture in: Harold J. Morowitz,
The Emergence of Everything: How the World Became Complex (New York: Oxford Univer-
sity Press, 2002).
The Occidental Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 3, Fall 2019
beginnings of true reflexivity when men discovered their own minds and
came to see their thinking minds as the absolute ultimate for whom noth-
ing external, not any material phenomena or religious tradition, could be
deemed to be authoritative, insomuch as they had come to know that all
authority can receive justification and be known through the thinking-
Proponents of the idea that humanity reached a common level of intel-
lectual development in the Axial Age have ignored altogether the
uniquely European idea of progress. In fact, the Axial Age was conceived
in conscious opposition to self-congratulatory claims by Europeans
about their superior mode of societal rationalization.” These words come
from Axial Age advocates, who further acknowledge that this Age was
conceived as a move beyond the opposition between a rationalizing Oc-
cident and other civilizations that lacked this potential,” a means of
broadening the debate about modernity, of making it less Eurocentric.
The Axial Age idea actually spread in the 1980s, in no small part through
the work of Shmuel N. Eisenstadt.
This was around the same time as a
new generation of academics was substituting the idea of progress with
the idea that Europes development was driven by a whole host of acci-
dental occurrences, borrowings from older Asian civilizations, and ex-
ploitation of Africa and the Americas. With the liberation of the non-West-
ern world from European imperialism, the argument would emerge, also
pushed by Eisenstadt, that the classical theories of modernization,
which prevailed in the 1950s and 1960s, with their focus on the Western
experience as a model for the rest of the world, were fundamentally
wrong in ignoring the multiple modernities occurring outside the West
with deep roots in the Axial Age.
Peter Wagner, The Axial Age Hypothesis, European Modernity and Historical
Contingency,” in Johann Arnason, S. N. Eisenstadt, and Björn Wittrock (eds.), Axial
Civilizations and World History, 9091, 101.
Wagner recognizes that the Axial Age idea arrived “in its most forceful expression
after the end of Nazism and the Second World War” (Ibid., 90).
Robert N. Bellah, in the book we are about to examine, writes that Eisenstadt, an
Israeli sociologist, “has done more than anyone to make the axial age central for com-
parative historical sociology.” Revolution in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the
Axial Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 271.
S. N. Eisenstadt, “Multiple Modernities,” Daedalus 129, no. 1 (2000). According to
Google Scholar, this article has been cited 2,877 times.
Duchesne, “The European Idea of Progress”
The idea of progress reached a high level of historical awareness in the
nineteenth century writings of Condorcet, Kant, Comte, Spencer, and,
most profoundly, in the philosophy of Hegel. In the twentieth century this
idea was popularized by authors of world history texts with their happy
accounts of discoveries in science, innovations in technology, and the rise
of democratic freedoms. There were always critics, such as Tocqueville,
Burckhardt, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, and these grew in number af-
ter the prolonged bloodbaths of World War II, but the incredible affluence
of the post-war decades sustained this idea right into the 1970s.
Modernization theories with stage models enjoyed the greatest popu-
larity during the 1950s and 1960s, their arguments centering on the idea
that long-term trends were clearly evident in history, from traditional to
modern societies, from relationships based on ascription (where status
such as aristocrat or commoner is socially imposed and hereditary) to sta-
tus based on personal effort and merit, from patrimonial adjudication and
enforcement to universally applicable laws and rights. But the academic
world was soon taken over by a completely different outlook, depend-
ency theory and world systems theory.”
These schools directly at-
tacked notions of Western-led progression by claiming that Western had
been made possible through the pillage of Third World nations, the en-
slavement of Africans, and the genocide of Amerindians. The celebrated
industrial development of Europe had come along with the underdevel-
opment and destruction of Third World peoples.
Soon the Frankfurt School swept the academic world, influencing the
rise of the New Left, the environmental movement, and postmodernism.
This school targeted Western science itself, claiming it was about the in-
strumental domination of the environment to serve the ends of capital-
ism. Around the same time a new anthropology emerged influenced by
the writings of Franz Boas, which rejected the earlier anthropological idea
of stages of development, in the name of the equal worth of primitive cul-
tures, against any grading of cultures in hierarchical systems that would
have Western culture at the top.
The idea of progress would be turned on its head by the 1980s and
1990s, as new intellectual currents came to reinforce each other: post-co-
lonial studies, history from below, third wave feminism, gay rights, de-
construction, and minority rights. Progress was an ethnocentric illusion
of the Western mind. Throughout much of history, the standard of living,
The leading figures in these two extremely influential schools were two Jewish ac-
ademics, A. G Frank and Immanuel Wallerstein, respectively.
The Occidental Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 3, Fall 2019
the quality of work, and the degree of equality, had deteriorated for most
of the peoples of the earth. The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins insisted
that hunting and gathering tribes were the truest democracies, the
original affluent societies,with better quality diets and shorter working
While the standard of living in the advanced West had risen after
the 1850s, the gap between the developed and less developed had steadily
Even those who continued to endorse the idea of scientific progress
were adamant in their rejection of the idea that evolution could be
equated with progress. Herbert Spencers observation that one could de-
tect a progressive movement in evolution from simplicity to complexity,
from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous, was dismissed. There was
no pre-determined goal in evolution, no meaningful pattern or trend that
could be interpreted as a movement from worse to better. The trend was
toward increasing diversity of life forms. Each life form, announced Ste-
phen J. Gould to millions of impressionable readers, was equally suc-
cessful.” If anything, the first organisms, bacteria, were the most success-
ful in their adaptive capacities, the organisms that were in the beginning,
are now, and probably ever shall be ... the dominant creatures on earth
by any ... evolutionary criterion ... range of habitats, resistance to extinc-
The idea of progress did not disappear, however. But what remained
of it was clearly demarcated from any identification with Western history.
It is within this sweeping ideological movement against the West that we
need to understand the consolidation of the Axial idea that the major civ-
ilizations of the Old World experienced a spiritual process character-
ized by a common set of religious, psychological, and philosophical in-
quiries about what it means to be specifically human. We see this ideo-
logical drive right from the beginning in Karl Jasperss The Origin and Goal
of History. Feeling guilty about what the Germans had done in World War
II, Jaspers, whose wife was Jewish, reached the view that any notion of
European exceptionalism was tainted with supremacist impulses. The
only way to overcome German supremacism was to promote the idea that
This idea was celebrated throughout academia as an incredible finding about the
superior economic life of hunters and gatherers; see Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Econom-
ics (New York: de Gruyter, 1972). Sahlins descended from a rabbinical family in Russia.
Quoted in Robert N. Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the
Axial Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011) 58.
Duchesne, “The European Idea of Progress”
European culture was rooted in a common Axial Age. Western culture
was not uniquely gifted with universal ideals based on rational reflection;
other major civilizations, too, had espoused outlooks about humanity to-
gether with moral precepts with universal content. This ability was em-
pirically made possible by the occurrence of a fundamental spiritual
change between 800 and 200 BC, which gave rise to a common frame of
historical self-comprehension for all peoplesfor the West, for Asia, and
for all men on earth, without regard to particular articles of faith.
According to Jaspers, Europeans should see themselves as beings with
a profound spiritual unity with humans across the world, and they should
use the Axial concept to nurture a sense of human solidarity. Human-
ity, long before the Enlightenment, had posed together universal ques-
tions about the meaning of life with similar answers about the need to
create polities based on the humane treatment of the population. Europe-
ans did not carve out a unique historical path beginning with the achieve-
ments of the Greeks. Axial Age humans had developed a similar outlook
at more or less the same time that would shape their histories along simi-
lar ethical trajectories, with the West only rising in recent times due to
a combination of unusual circumstances.
The Axial Age is now a staple of world history texts taught in West-
ern campuses. In this article I will be addressing Robert N. Bellahs recent
book, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, pub-
lished in 2011.
This is the most comprehensive, ambitious, and scholarly
study of the Axial Age thus far.
Against Bellahs defense of this Age, I
will acknowledge that the concept of an Axial Age has substantial mer-
itsso long as this Age is conceptualized in light of the uniquely Euro-
pean idea of progress, and so long as we appreciate the superior intellec-
tual breakthrough of ancient Greece, and the fact that non-Western Axial
civilizations did not manage to produce any major novelties after this
Age, whereas this Age was just the beginnings of an exponential outpour-
ing of Western creativity and greatness.
Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History, 1.
Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution.
In addition to numerous reviews in journals and the mainstream press, this book
was the subject of a symposium in Religion, Brain & Behavior 2, no. 3 (2012), with six
commentaries and a reply by Bellah. The book was also a New York Times Book Review
Editor’s Choice, an ABC Australia Best Book on Religion and Ethics of the Year, and
Distinguished Book Award from the American Sociological Association.
The Occidental Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 3, Fall 2019
Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age is a
highly referenced book of 608 small print pages with 100+ pages of notes;
it took Bellah 12 years to write it. This sweeping book frames the Axial
Age within the evolutionary history of living beings and the cultural his-
tory of primitive humans, without rejecting altogether the idea of pro-
gress. It effectively shows that human cultural development was made
possible only with the emergence of relaxed fields in which natural se-
lection and the struggle for existence did not have full sway and in which
humans became free to develop cultural conditions for their own evolu-
While there is no purpose in the blind selective processes of nature,
and while natural selection remains the primary mechanism of evolution,
Bellah argues that the emergence of parental care among mammals cre-
ated a sheltered environment, once their needs for nutrition were met
an environment in which newborns were free to play. Human play, be-
ginning with the play of children under parental care, would move to the
level of serious cultural play among adults, in their rituals, mythical
stories, and their philosophies, wherein the full spiritual and cultural ca-
pacities of humans would be given free reign.” The emergence of cul-
tural capacities cannot be explained in evolutionary terms alone.
I will elaborate further on the importance of play and rituals in Bellahs
argument. Reviewers have failed to connect Bellahs focus on play with
his interest in the transcendentalism and reflexivity of Axial cultures.
They think this book is essentially a study of the evolution of religious
beliefs, with some peculiar observations about play and a concluding sec-
tion on the Axial age, without realizing that Bellahs decision to go back
to the history of mammals and primates, hunting and gathering societies,
play and rituals in early cultures, is part of his effort to trace the primor-
dial origins of the transcendental outlook of the Axial period.
Using the work of Merlin Donald, Bellah identifies three stages of hu-
man culture: mimetic, mythic, and theoretic.
Mimetic culture, which
likely began with Homo erectus some 12 million years ago, consists in the
ability to use our bodies to enact past and future events as well as gesture
Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 77.
Donald offers a succinct analysis of his three stages in relation to the Axial Age in
Merlin Donald, “An Evolutionary Approach to Culture: Implication for the Study of the
Axial Age,” in Robert Bellah and Hans Joas (eds.), The Axial Age and Its Consequences
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).
I will be relying on Bellah’s interpretation of these stages, and point out differences
in the way he appropriates Merlin Donald’s stages.
Duchesne, “The European Idea of Progress”
for communication, including perhaps the use of dance, music, and the
beginnings of some linguistic capacities.
Mythic culture, which began
between 250,000 and 100,000 years ago, with Homo sapiens, involves a new
capacity for narrative and storytelling combined with the use of full
grammatical language.” With mythic culture, humans raised themselves
above episodic consciousness,” with a new capacity to think beyond the
present, and tell stories with past, present, and future tenses, rather than
be locked within the consciousness of the moment. Donald emphasizes
the ability to use metaphorical language as a new cognitive capacity, and
defines mythical thought as a unified, collectively held system of explan-
atory and regulatory metaphors.” With this new cognitive capacity, the
mind has expanded its reach beyond the episodic perception of events,
beyond the mimetic reconstruction of episodes, to a comprehensive mod-
eling of the entire human universe.
The emergence of theoretic culture is what the Axial Age is about. For
Donald, theoretic culture really emerged in ancient Greece, and it re-
quired a fully alphabetic writing system, and more than the mathemat-
ics and calendar-based astronomy witnessed, for example, in Babylonia.
It involved a capacity for second-order thinking, that is, thinking
about thinking, as is evident in the geometrical proofs Greeks offered.
Second-order thinking also involves a transcendental capacity to stand
back and look beyond the conventions of the timethe accepted world
viewsin the name of ideas based on reflexive argumentation. While Bel-
lah quietly acknowledges a few times that strict second order thinking
may have been lacking in some Axial civilizations, his overall argument
is that all axial civilizations developed theoretic thinking. The begin-
nings of science, of a critical view of the world, of knowledge for its own
sake, can be found in all the axial civilizations.
At the same time, he
broadens the definition of a theoretic culture to include as well the rejec-
tion of old kinship hierarchies in the name of ethical and spiritual uni-
Axial thinkers outside Greece also took a critical, reflective
questioning of the old mythical stories and advocated new visions for
humanity in general, transcendental morals for a better future. The call
for new morals beyond kinship ties, beyond the present, and beyond the
Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, xviii
Ibid., 134.
Ibid., 595.
Ibid., xix.
The Occidental Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 3, Fall 2019
pragmatics of power, entailed a standing back and looking beyond,
which, for him, equals thinking about thinking.
One third of Religion in Human Evolution covers the pre-axial age, start-
ing with the origins of the universe. Bellahs implicit endorsement of the
idea of progress, coupled with his argument that cultural developments
cant be explained solely in Darwinian terms, is most commendable. Hu-
mans developed new cultural capacities over and above their evolved
mechanisms that reflexively respond to the environment. The chapters on
ancient Israel, Greece, China, and India are possibly the most thorough
attempts to defend the idea of an Axial Age. Each of these chapters, he
says, took him at least a year to write, and the chapter on India two years.
Since I believe that the peak of cultural development outside the West was
reached in the Axial Age, these chapters may suffice to grasp (if you tend
to agree with me) the highest intellectual achievement of non-Europeans.
Bellah, however, backs off from an explicit endorsement of the idea of
progress. He accepts the leftist argument that history cannot be seen as a
progression from worse to better,
and yet he clearly wants to argue
that the Axial Age was the most important turning point in human his-
tory, the time when the highest values and ideas were expressed. The
view coming from his book is that progress after the Axial Age can only
be measured in terms of the degree to which people have lived up to Axial
ideals. There were no major cultural developments in Europe after this
Age other than efforts to actualize Axial ideals.
I believe that the Europeans who invented the idea of progress contin-
ued to develop new capacities after this age, whereas the rest of humanity
stagnated. The Greeks were already far ahead in their cognitive capacities,
the only ones who became conscious of consciousness (which I interpret
to mean more than what Merlin Donald means). The aim of Bellah, which
reflects the aim of an Axial Age, is to bring Europeans down to the Axial
level of non-Europeans, and thus promote the idea that Europeans are not
unique but generic members of a common humanity without any kin
Ibid., 474. Donald writes that “with the possible exception of China, … it is debata-
ble whether the claims of true Theoretic Culture existed anywhere but [Axial] Greece.”
See Donald, “An Evolutionary Approach to Culture: Implication for the Study of the
Axial Age,” 70. I will return to this question below.
Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, xxii.
Duchesne, “The European Idea of Progress”
Bellah died two years after the publication of Religion in Human Evolu-
tion at the age of 86. He was an American sociologist and the Elliott Pro-
fessor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. A White man,
he converted to Episcopalianism and was married to a Jewish woman. He
was a serious scholar, the most widely read sociologist of religion,” best
known for his now classic essay, Civil Religion in America published
in 1967, and the book Habits of the Heart, written with four additional au-
But we will see in this essay that Bellah is a prototypical White aca-
demic male without cultural backbone, always looking behind his shoul-
der for fear that he may have been insensitive to non-Whites, afraid to
question the cultural Marxist establishment, sheepishly welcoming the
day the United States becomes majority non-White. I would encourage
readers to listen to an interview he gave in Germany in 2012 right after
the Obama re-election. Starting around the 7:08 mark, he joyfully says that
the Republicans are a party of old white males that will likely never win
an election because immigrants are replacing Whites.
I have been accused of bringing politics into topics that should be
judged strictly according to scholarly criteria. The reality, however, is that
academic research for the last few decades has been driven by the unchal-
lenged or implicit supposition that racial diversity inside the West is in-
herently good and superior to “White hegemony.” Ignorance of this un-
challenged presupposition, of the fact that all academics today work
within universities committed to racial equality and diversification, vi-
olates the principle of being conscious of ones consciousness. We cant
understand the ideas of our major academics, including the ones who are
not overtly political, without bringing up this supreme political presup-
position permeating academic research, particularly in the social sciences
and humanities. In the next sections, as we acknowledge Bellahs signifi-
cant contributions to the concept of an Axial Age, we will see that he cant
restrain himself from taking regular shots against Eurocentrism and
paying homage to cultural diversity, even as he tries to defend the notion
of progressive developments in history.
Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, Steven M.
Tipton, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, with a New Pref-
ace (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).
Interview Robert N. Bellah, DAI Heidelberg (December 11.2012).
The Occidental Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 3, Fall 2019
The fundamental flaws in Religion in Human Evolution are a result of his
inability to acknowledge Western superiority due to his ingrained blind-
ness to the very possibility that Western culture achieved far more new
developments.” Such a possibility would violate the sacrosanct, non-
scholarly, purely political, mandate of multiculturalism. Bellah is merely
a peon in an academic world enslaved to diversity. He is not alone in this
attitude. We saw above how the idea of an Axial Age was consciously
articulated in opposition to Eurocentrism. This attitude continues to
this day among Axial scholars. The seemingly scientific and otherwise
scholarly looking articles I have read take it as a given that the West must
not be allowed to claim any cultural superiority. In fact, recent objections
to this Age are coming from academics who feel that this Age is not inclu-
sive enough because it leaves out Mesopotamia and Egypt, with some
even arguing that in privileging cognitive developments it leaves out
the souls of black folks.
Religion in Human Evolution has been called a work of extraordinary
ambition.” It is. After prefatory remarks, it opens with the Big Bang some
13.5 billion years ago, gradually taking us to the Axial Age, as the culmi-
nating point in the development of new capacities. Bellah gets into the
novel features of the first unicellular organisms, prokaryotes, their incal-
culable contribution to other forms of life in creating an oxygen-rich at-
mosphere and recycling nutrients, and the continuing role of such bacte-
rial organisms in aiding digestion. He then outlines how eukaryotes rep-
resent a significant increase not only in size but in complexity compared
to prokaryotes, in having an internal nucleus with DNA and leading to
the evolution of the three major divisions of multicellular organisms,
fungi, plants, and animals.
He elaborates when he reaches warm-
blooded mammals and the development of parental care,” a capacity
that correlates with several other developments that have enormous po-
tentiality in making possible increasing intelligence, sociability and the
ability to understand the feelings of others.
For Bellah, only those capacities that bespeak of softness, caring, and
empathy are worthy of attention, because these capacities are the basis for
what will eventually allow humans to reach the beatific thoughts of the
John Boy, “The Axial Age and the Problems of the Twentieth Century: Du Bois,
Jaspers, and Universal History,” The American Sociologist 46, no. 2 (2015).
Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 5960.
Ibid., 68
Duchesne, “The European Idea of Progress”
Axial Age. It is not that Bellah is unaware of the darker side of evolution
(competition, jealousy, nastiness). He thinks that parental care, nurtur-
ance and emotional care, although adaptive in origins, had the unin-
tended consequence of new possibilities, new behaviors, such as play, co-
operative breeding, and family life, which made possible advanced em-
pathy among humans, which cannot be seen as merely adaptive, but has
resulted in natural selection pressure being relaxed, with the result that
other endsculturally chosen ends and eventually transcendental aims
come to influence the evolution of humans.
He focuses on the emergence of animal play as an activity that cant be
fully explained in terms of the struggle for existence. Relying on Gordon
Burghardts book, The Genesis of Animal Play (2005),
he observes that the
longer period of parental care afforded the young a relaxed period in
which they sought some form of expression or occupation to avoid bore-
dom, leading to playful activities.
While play involves behaviors di-
rectly functional to the pursuit of survival, such as fighting, chasing, and
wrestling, play also entails actions and attitudes performed for their own
playful sake. They are pleasurable activities, spontaneous and volun-
tary, end in themselves, which animals engage in after they are ade-
quately fed, healthy, and free from stress”—when the animal is in a re-
laxed field freed from evolutionary pressures.
Play is also uniquely egalitarian in that players try to neutralize ine-
qualities in size and age in order to make it fair (bigger dogs will gnaw
and wrestle without hurting smaller dogs), with role reversals being the
norm (the squirrel doing the chasing is then chased, the cat on top is then
at the bottom). Play brings out a sense of self, an ability to predict and
sense what is going on inside the mind of the other players, as well as
mutual intentionality insofar as there can be no play unless players vol-
untarily agree to play.
Play is thus said to anticipate the preoccupation
with fairness and justice advocated by Axial Age thinkers.
Another major transition with important consequences was the
emergence of cooperative breeding among hominids several hundred
thousand years ago.
This is a capacity by infants to connect selflessly
with the lives of those around them, rather than paying attention only to
Gordon Burghardt, The Genesis of Animal Play (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005).
The idea that play is an essential condition of the generation of culture was first
articulated, as Bellah acknowledges, by Johan Huizinga in his well-known book, Homo
Ludens: The Play-Element in Culture (London: Routledge, 1944; orig. published 1938).
Ibid., 7483.
Ibid., 85.
The Occidental Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 3, Fall 2019
their needs and seeing others primarily in terms of their usefulness for
survival. Great ape babies exhibit a capacity for a kind of emotional re-
lation to their mothers,” though this emotional state wears off as they age,
and is restricted to the mother-infant relation. By the time we reach Homo
sapiens, however, we observe advanced empathy expressed in human
babies who are not only cared for by their mothers but by their grand-
mothers, aunts, and older female siblings, with babies retaining their
emotional attachment into adulthood and beyond their mothers. Children
are capable of understanding the feelings of others.
In contrast to apes, who barely apprehend the mental states of other
apes, human babies show, in the cited words of Frans de Waal, a superior
grasp of their place in the world and a more accurate appreciation of the
lives of those around them.
It was through their parental caring expe-
rience and emotional attachments therein that humans developed a ca-
pacity to become self-awareaware of their own feelings, perceptions,
and thoughts in relation to the feelings and thoughts of others. The origins
of this capacity, as well as the capacity for play, which entails shared
intentionality and requires voluntary cooperation, were laid down in the
parental care first exhibited by mammals. Although Bellah fails to make
this connection explicitly for the readers, the book as a whole is an attempt
to show how this capacity, including play, foreshadowed the eventual
ability of Axial thinkers to transcend or envision ideal polities beyond the
immediately given world of political hierarchies and conventions.
However, as much as Bellah defends the idea of new emergent capac-
ities, he continually tries to reassure his academic audience that he does
not believe in progression from better to worse.” In the first 70 pages, he
Ibid., 69. Italics added.
Despite the major importance Bellah assigns to play and other emergent capacities,
reviewers have ignored their role or have failed to see the connection Bellah is trying to
establish between these emergent capacities, cultural creativity, and the transcendental
ideals of the Axial Age. Quite a few reviewers and commentators think his book is yet
another study about “what role did religion play in human social evolution?” without
grasping Bellah’s identification of religion as a realm of life exhibiting transcendence
from the mundane world of Darwinian pressures.
Turchin is of the view that if you can identify the physical, scientifically measurable
cause of something, the rise of Axial religions or philosophical outlooks, you have
thereby understood their intellectual content. The Axial Age was occasioned by the mil-
itary pressures of Iranian mounted archers, therefore studying these Iranian archers and
their effects on the civilizations of the time is the key to revealing the religious content
of the Axial Age.
Peter Turchin “Religion and Empire in the Axial Age,” Religion, Brain & Behavior 2,
no. 3 (2012).
Duchesne, “The European Idea of Progress”
refers six times to Stephen Jay Goulds opposition to the idea of progress
in evolutionary history and his unhappiness with talk of higher and lower
forms of life,
agreeing with Gould that bacteria are the most successful
beings in the history of evolution. In the concluding pages, Bellah actually
begs his readers not to accuse him of being a believer in the idea of pro-
gress merely because he writes about evolution in the sense of increasing
and because he focuses on the new capacities exhibited in the
Axial Age, without paying as much attention to pre-Axial cultures. I did
not disparage pre-Axial cultures, but tried to show the inner value and
meaning of each of them,” he writes humbly,
and then dutifully cites,
yet again, Goulds warning against Europeans who think they are better
than bacteria.
These acts of subservience are unbecoming. What makes Bellahs book
interesting is precisely its argument that new capacities were made pos-
sible in the degree to which humans sheltered themselves from selective
pressures without behaving like bacteria preoccupied solely with adapta-
tion. This important book challenges the increasingly dominant idea that
human behavior and culture can be explained in Darwinian terms alone.
Evolutionary psychologists are very good at explaining cultural univer-
sals”—answering why certain cultural practices, patterns, traits, or insti-
tutions are common to all cultures.
But they cant explain why humans,
once the necessities of survival are met, spend so much time and resources
on cultural activities with no overt Darwinian purpose: philosophy, mu-
sic, and dance.
Darwinian explanations, it seems to me, become weaker when we ex-
amine the highest expressions of these cultural universals, not their com-
mon, basic levels. Why did the Greeks invent true competitive sports
the Olympic gamesrather than the Egyptians or Mesopotamians?
Why are Europeans responsible for the invention of most of the sports we
Ibid., 66. The six references to Gould occur on pages xxii, 58, 59, 63, 66, and 67.
Ibid., 602
Ibid., 600.
Psychology departments produce the highest number of conservatives because this
discipline is heavily influenced by evolutionary psychology. Outside this discipline,
which cares about scientific evidence, the prevailing idea in the university faculties of
arts and other social sciences generally is that humans are fundamentally shaped by so-
ciety rather than nature.
Stephen G. Miller, Arete: Greek Sports from Ancient Sources (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1991).
The Occidental Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 3, Fall 2019
play today?
Evolutionists can speculate about the adaptive functions
of dance and sports, but they dont have much to say about the evolution-
ary dimensions of each specific form of dance, or about the unparalleled
history of Western choreographic notation.
Predation and mating needs
cannot account, on their own, for the incredible variety of classical com-
positions, and the fact that Europeans are responsible for all the greatest
music. Only by reducing art forms to their lowest common denominator,
in order thereby to delineate their supposed adaptive functions, as Steven
Pinker does,
can Darwinians handle cultural accomplishments, without
knowing why Europeans invented almost all the schools of painting in
The idea that cultural creativity (as well as the reflexivity to come in
the Axial Age) requires relaxation from the necessities of life is hardly
new. However, the growing success of Darwinian evolution has made
this idea more difficult to sustain. Hegel refers to Aristotles observation
that humans start to philosophize when the necessities of life have been
met.” He continues:
Philosophy is a free, not a self-seeking activityfree, because the
anxiety of desire is gone; a strengthening, uplifting, and fortifying
of the spirit in itself; a sort of luxury, in so far as luxury means
those enjoyments and occupations which are not part and parcel of
external necessity itself.
But Hegel does not mean only that philosophy becomes possible the
moment humans have the luxury to spend time thinking. More is
Mary Bellis, “The History of Sports, from Ancient Times to Modern Day,”
ThoughtCo (May 25, 2019).
Ann Hutchinson Guest, Choreo-Graphics: A Comparison of Dance Notation Systems
from the Fifteenth Century to the Present (London: Routledge 2014; orig. published1989).
Steven Pinker “Art and Adaptation” in Brian Boyd, Joseph Carroll, and Jonathan
Gottschall (eds.), Evolution, Literature, and Film: A Reader (New York: Columbia Univer-
sity Press, 2010), 126.
In his four-volume work, The Social History of Art (London: Routledge and Kegan
Paul, 1962), the Marxist Arnold Houser felt no hesitation portraying Europeans as the
most creative painters in history. Before the 1980s Marxists were not under a multicul-
tural mandate.
G.W.F. Hegel, Introduction to the Lectures on the History of Philosophy, trans by T.M.
Knox and A.V. Miller (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 2003), 26.
Duchesne, “The European Idea of Progress”
required, and this is missing in Bellah. Philosophy is only possible when
thinking has vanished everything foreign to itself and the spirit is ab-
solutely free from external necessities, no longer mixed up with much
that is particular and sensuous, free from all natural determinants,
the heart, our impulses, feelings, and free from fear of mysterious,
theocratic and despotic rulers.
Philosophys history begins where thought comes into existence in
its freedom, where it tears itself free from its immersion in nature,
from its unity with nature, when it constitutes itself in its own eyes,
when thinking turns in upon itself and is at home with itself.
It was only in ancient Greece that philosophy first became possible.
While the spirit does arise
in the East, it arises intermixed with nature;
the Indians and Egyptians, for example, had in animals their conscious-
ness of the divine. Moreover, they had this consciousness in the sun, the
Hegel continues:
On the one hand there are natural powers and forces which are per-
sonified and worshipped by Eastern peoples; on the other hand, in-
asmuch as consciousness rises above nature to an infinite being, the
chief thing is fear of this power, with the result that the individual
knows himself as only accidental in the face of this power.
When they do not fear these natural powers, and the spirit crystallizes
itself to a higher degree, it is a spirit characterized by the emptiest ab-
straction, pure negativity, nothingnessthe sublimity of abandoning eve-
rything concrete.
This was particularly the case among Indian mystics
who spent years in expiations ... mortifying every pain ... contemplating
the tip of their nose without locating in this exercise any thoughts or in-
terest in consciousness but simply persisting in this inmost abstraction,
this perfect emptiness, this stillness of death.
Ibid., 5556, 63, 80, 163, 169.
Ibid., 164.
Ibid., 167.
Ibid., 36.
Ibid., 170.
The Occidental Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 3, Fall 2019
Where free political institutions do not exist, philosophy cannot
emerge. The emergence of philosophy implies the consciousness of free-
and the fact that such freedom is recognized beyond the caprices
of a despotic ruler. The thinking subject, the individual, has to be a person
recognized as free, otherwise the subject is submerged in a state of slav-
ishness and fear. Philosophy begins within the culture of freedom of the
Greek city-states. The Greeks were the first who preoccupied themselves
with thought itself; the first to apprehend the thinking I, to confront their
own thoughts as objects of investigation, and thus to establish a self-re-
lation wherein the subject confronted its own thinking as an object of
thought, rather than allowing something externalthings without rea-
sonto dictate its thinking. It is thought that produces the universal con-
cepts by which nature is comprehended, and these universals do not arise
from any outside source but only from thinking itself.
The world of material things is always subject to external necessities
and causal relationships; on the other hand, consciousness has the poten-
tial to decide what is the essence of things, what is the universal in the
particular, and to legislate for itself its own beliefs and actions, and thus
become the source of itself rather than a product of something alien. It
was only in ancient Greece that thoughtconsciousnessstarted to ex-
hibit this potentiality to make itself explicitly the object of its own reflec-
tions and its own activity. Philosophy, as defined by Hegel did not
emerge in other Axial civilizations.
Hegel writes that in development nothing emerges but what was
there originally in germ or in-itself.
He agrees with Aristotle that all
things are continually striving to express what is highest in them, to make
explicit what is implicitly highest in them. The seed for man’s aspiration
to freedom and the seed for man’s apprehension of himself as the only
being that can become aware of his capacity to self-determine himself are
already there inside man as such. But Hegel knows that this implicit ca-
pacity only started to become explicit and actual with the ancient Greeks.
It never manifested itself anywhere else. Why?
Hegel senses that it all began in the Western state of nature, which
he defines as a primordial time when barbarian European aristocrats
fought to the death for pure prestige,” at times in reckless defiance of
their Darwinian impulses. The attitude of the individual who risks his life
for prestige is that of being-for-self or self-assertiveness. But while this
Ibid., 166.
Ibid., 72.
Duchesne, “The European Idea of Progress”
attitude, which I identify with the unique culture of Indo-European aris-
tocratic chiefdoms, involves fighting for purely human ends above the
appetitive part of the soul, it is not a conceptual attitude, but an attitude
rooted in the thymotic part of the soul. This thymotic side of man is the
source of anger in the face of dishonour, assertiveness in the face of oppo-
sition, rebelliousness in the face of oppression, defiance in the face of des-
potism. This part reached its highest intensity among Indo-Europeans
with their horse-riding, pastoral, dairy-meat diet, and their aristocratic
obsession with honor as members of a lineage and as individuals. Before
the rise of democratic citizenship in ancient Greece, Indo-European soci-
eties enjoyed consuls where aristocrats could voice their differences with
the leading aristocratic ruler, which was the original ground for the rise
of city-states in Greece and republican forms of government thereafter.
In case this Hegelian perspective is misunderstood as pure idealism,
Darwinian dynamics are always at play since humans are bodily crea-
tures, and the strategies they pursue must have positive evolutionary con-
sequencesthe Indo-Europeans, after all, conquered a vast area in Eu-
rope and Asia. But humans are not imprisoned to one cultural strategy;
varying cultural options are available in the struggle for lifehumans are
“flexible strategizers”
; and, in the case of Indo-Europeans, they opted
for an aristocratic lifestyle in the environment of the Pontic steppes, which
intensified their thymotic, Faustian souls. This aristocratic man exhibited
the primordial attitude of a free spirit, not in the mothering atmosphere
Bellah idealizes, but in its being-for self, in its willingness to risk life for
the sake of ideals.
There is truth to Camille Paglias observation that if civilization had
been left in female hands, we would still be living in grass huts.
mothering side of life is important, necessarily essential to building
strong bonds, caring for ones family and ethnic in-group. But we cant
look into the feminine side of life to explain the energy required to make
history, even if longer parental caring was an important development
connected to the relaxation of Darwinian pressures, the rise of a field of
play with its attendant cultural innovations. Bellah is obsessed with egal-
itarianism, identifies development with this ideal, at times equating
The phrase “flexible strategizers” is from Richard Alexander, Darwinism and Hu-
man Affairs (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979).
Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson
(New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 38.
The Occidental Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 3, Fall 2019
Merlins concept of a theoretic culture with the development of critical
ideas against the inequalities of power structures.
From his argument that play among humans occurs during the long
period of parenting, Bellah goes on to argue that rituals are the cultural
activity, in mimetic and mythic forms, in which a sense of moral equality
was exhibited among humans in all societies before the philosophical re-
flections of the Axial Age. Tribal members would experience a sense of
communal solidarity temporarily "freed" from the hierarchies of family
lineages during ritual ceremonies. Once Bellah takes us beyond simple
horticultural societies into complex chiefdoms, he has difficulties show-
ing how these egalitarian impulses continued. The chief and other lineage
heads were "obsessed by a thirst for prestige and power, and a hunger for
land, and ready to resort to violence to secure their ends."
But Bellah still
senses an egalitarian atmosphere in these hierarchical societies in the re-
distribution of goods by chiefs, and in the temporary suspension of hier-
archical rules and the instinct to dominate during orgiastic ceremonies
involving dancing, ritual bathing, and drinking.
In Uniqueness, rather than following Marxist strictures about equality,
I emphasized instead the unsocial sociability of humans, a term coined
by Kant, encapsulating a well-established, if now forgotten, argument in
the Western canon about how self-interest, ambition, and vainglory
have been the driving forces of progress.
Looking at the wide span of
history, Kant concluded that without the vain desire for honor and status,
humans would have never developed beyond a primitive Arcadian exist-
ence of self-sufficiency and egalitarian passivity.
There can be no high
culture without conflict, aggression, and pride. There is a biological basis
for this behavior, selected by nature for its enhancement of the survival of
tribal groups. But the primordial identity of Western civilization cannot
be accounted solely in materialistic terms, notwithstanding the im-
portance of Darwinian pressures, and the significant role the material life-
style of Indo-Europeans played (their horse-riding, nomadic way of life,
vital diet of daily products and meat, in contrast to the heavy grain diet
of the inhabitants of Near Eastern cultures).
The unsocial sociability of humans, which is primarily a male attrib-
ute, assumed a more intense expression among the Indo-European
Ibid., 189.
Ricardo Duchesne, The Uniqueness of Western Civilization (Leiden: Brill, 2011).
Immanuel Kant, “Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View”
(1784), in Lewis White Beck, (ed.), Kant On History (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Co.,
Duchesne, “The European Idea of Progress”
speakers who stormed out of the Pontic steppes starting in the fourth mil-
lennium, as a result of their uniquely aristocratic lifestyle, which afforded
individual warriors the opportunity to strive for pure prestige through
the performance of heroic acts in a state of freedom from their appetitive
instincts. This competitive aristocratic culture, which is already visible in
their early chiefdom stages, continued among Europeans as their societies
evolved into complex hierarchical chiefdoms. Leaders in complex Euro-
pean chiefdoms were first among equals rather than increasingly des-
potic, as was the case in non-European chiefdoms, where there was no
true aristocracy, but a rather ruling class slavishly bowing to a paramount
chief increasingly claiming for himself a divine status.
Bellahs account wrongly assumes that the development of hierarchical
chiefdoms with increasingly despotic rulers was a general tendency in the
evolution of societies across the world. Like every other academic, he
makes no distinctions between the ruling classes of Indo-European cul-
tures and non-European cultures. In Marxist fashion he identifies all ar-
istocracies as mere exploiters of commoners. In contrast, I use the term
aristocratic to refer only to the ethos of being-for self or self-assertive-
ness and defiance which characterized the ruling class at the top of Indo-
European chiefdoms. From this perspective, there were no aristocracies
outside the Indo-European world. This term should be used exclusively
for aristocratic men who view their leaders as first among equals, too
proud to prostrate in front of anyone, and too dignified to behave slav-
ishly in front of their gods. Indo-European gods were elegant and human-
like sky gods in the sight of which nobles were not in a state of fear and
submission, but in a state of confidence, elevated by their gods, strength-
ened in their courage and their actions.
I hope in the future to contrast the dark, secret cult-like nature, fertility
and earthly oriented, sometimes gross and debasing gods, of non-Euro-
pean chiefdoms, with the beauty and grace of Indo-European sky-gods. I
will suggest now that there were two basic types of chiefdoms emerging
in the world: the group-oriented chiefdoms of the non-White world and
the individualizing chiefdoms of the Indo-European world.
In the for-
mer there was greater emphasis on centralizing-collective activities aimed
at integrating the population in the performance of irrigation agriculture
and the building of temples and monumental architecture at the behest of
This section draws on Duchesne, The Uniqueness of Western Civilization, 380418.
The Occidental Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 3, Fall 2019
paramount chiefs increasingly taking on a divine character. In the latter
there was greater emphasis on the personal status and prestige of ruling
aristocracies, less communal and public construction. The aristocratic
chief with his retinue of warriors was the focus of economic activity, and
the units of production were not communistic estates but individual farm-
steads. Individualizing chiefdoms were dominated by wealth finance
or prestige goods economies, whereas collective chiefdoms were dom-
inated by staple finance and tributary systems.” Staple chiefdoms were
regulated by vertical relations of production and exchange in the sense
that chiefly authorities obtained their sources of income by extracting sta-
ple goods from the commoners to finance public works, to pay the per-
sonnel attached to the chief, and to trade with other chiefdoms. Prestige
chiefdoms were characterized by horizontal relations whereby aristo-
crats obtained their income by controlling exchange networks, supplies of
prestige goods, and decentralized units of rain-fed farming communities.
The rise of complex chiefdoms in Europe starting at about 1500 BC was
linked to an ideological and military complex of aristocratic warriors in
control of long-distance elite exchange in prestige goods that spread from
the Mycenaean area through central Europe and Scandinavia. The agrar-
ian system of these chiefdoms was based on husbandry of free grazing
herds and rotating fields in an open landscape. Prestige goods were used
as political currency to reward followers and enhance ones status. The
ethos of individual heroism was the engine behind the prestige goods
economy, since the status of the chiefs was individually associated with
the pursuit of prestige in warfare. The acquisition of prestige objects was
not the means to acquire status. Rather, the possession of luxurious weap-
ons and personal items symbolized that one had achieved high status in
The aristocratic ethos of companionship and equality is the most im-
portant trait of individualizing chiefdoms. Despite increased hierarchiza-
tion, individual warriors were able to attract a retinue of followers
through sheer personal initiative. The chiefs sought to attract followers
and win the loyalty of lesser aristocratic warriors by giving gifts. The for-
mation of voluntary war bands held together by oaths, camaraderie, and
a common self-interest was a characteristic of these chiefdoms. Ones sta-
tus and rank as a noble were still openly determined by ones heroic deeds
and by the number of followers and clients one could afford. Despite the
principle of loyalty and companionship, there was always competition for
power, and endless personal rivalries. This was not a rigidified structure
in which men lost their individuality and vitality, as was the case in staple
Duchesne, “The European Idea of Progress”
chiefdoms. It was free and open, and therefore prone to constant disrup-
tions of violence.
Citizen warrior states and republican governments have emerged only
out of prior individualizing chiefdoms. In group-oriented chiefdoms, au-
thority became increasingly concentrated in the hands of one supreme
chief from whom wealth and power were seen to flow vertically to the
majority at the bottom as well as to the few aristocrats under the sub-
servience of the supreme despotic chief. While paramount chiefs faced
competition from upstarts seeking to upstage him, and while status en-
hancement through the performance of deeds was still a factor in social
mobility, the opportunity to achieve renown and prestige was increas-
ingly difficult and rare as non-White chiefdoms became centralized. It is
only among the individualizing chiefdoms of Indo-Europeans that one
finds true tales of personal heroism in such poems, sagas, and myths as
Beowulf, Lebor na hUidre, Njals Saga, Gisla Sage, and The Nibelungenlied.
These were tales of an aristocratic cultureof the meetings, games, and
feasting of chieftains, clients, and warriors. The culture of Indo-Europeans
was tightly connected to these stories, recounted by poets, singers, and
musicians. None of the staple chiefdoms produced any heroic epic litera-
Bellah completely ignores the unique cultural expressions of aristo-
cratic societies, preferring to write about the egalitarian rituals and carni-
val-like orgies of non-European chiefdoms. We can say, however, that the
field of relaxation from Darwinian pressures achieved within Indo-Euro-
pean chiefdoms took on the form of a struggle to the death for pure pres-
tige over and against the most powerful biological drives humans have
for self-preservation and comfort. To be an aristocrat one had to demon-
strate ones capacity to be free by struggling for immaterial ends without
submitting to the basest instincts. It is not that they acted against selective
pressures, but that they created a cultural field of action that was self-cho-
sen by them rather than being a function of adaptive pressures only.
This aristocratic spirit continued in the more advanced archaic civiliza-
tions of Europe, such as Mycenae during the second millennium. The po-
litical structure of Mycenaean Greece was one of autonomous feudal war-
lords surrounded by aristocratic retainers under the nominal overlord-
ship of the city of Mycenae. For Bellah, however, Mycenae was just an-
other archaic civilization, to which he pays no particular attention other
than to identify it (erroneously) as Eastern.” He focuses on the archaic
civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, and Shang/Western
The Occidental Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 3, Fall 2019
Zhou China. Unfortunately, through this chapter (and the following long
chapters on the Axial civilizations), Bellah ceases to write explicitly about
the ways in which these civilizations exhibited egalitarian cultural prac-
tices (and thus proto-transcendental inclinations) within a relaxed field
of play and ritual. The whole discussion about play and rituals suddenly
ceases. It is only later, in the conclusion of the book, that he tries to connect
cultural developments in archaic and Axial times to the concept of re-
laxed fields.” Suffice it to say now that the main drift of his argument is
that in archaic and Axial civilizations the trend towards inequality, divi-
nation of rulers, and subjection of the commoners, intensifies. So, what
happened to the development of an egalitarian field of play? His thesis is
that the Axial Age sees the birth of a universal egalitarian ethic based on
second-order thinking. This ethic, articulated by prophets and philoso-
phers, is the form in which humans during the Axial Age escaped the
Darwinian struggle for existence.
Archaic civilizations were characterized by monumental architecture,
wide networks of trade, some form of writing, cities, intensive agriculture,
a centralized bureaucracy, and rulers with an exalted status reaching di-
vinity or close to it. Bellah emphasizes in particular how kinship by itself
was no longer the basic principle governing the relationship between the
state and the commoners. Religion now-co-exited with an exalted and dis-
tant form of kinship. Kin relations obviously still played a role in the
close-knit families out of which the ruling officials emerged, and within
the extended families prevalent everywhere, but something new in the
religious realm appears in archaic societies: gods and the worship of
gods, with kings having a singular relation to the gods, or frequently
considered to be gods themselves.
Obligations and prohibitions had lit-
tle to do with universal ideals of morality. The orders of Mesopotamian
kings came about without discussion, without protest, without criticism,
in a perfect and fatalistic submission.
The pharaoh in Egypt was seen
as the incarnation of god with his commandments accepted accordingly.
The invention of writing in these archaic civilizations should not be
equated with a literacy revolution.” In Mesopotamia writing was used
mostly for administrative purposes and the enactment of bureaucratic or-
ders; repetitions of myths or hymns were the norm in the literary texts;
these civilizations remained largely oral cultures throughout their his-
In Egypt, too, texts were limited to administrative matters and
Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 212.
Ibid., 223.
Ibid., 226.
Duchesne, “The European Idea of Progress”
temple ritual. The Middle Kingdom period (20401650 BC) sees some
wisdom texts, hymns and tales, in which fathers imparted moral advice
to their sons, as well as royal inscriptions about order, justice, and truth,
but their language was restricted to the finite interests and customs of
Egypt, without aiming at the construction of universal principles for hu-
mans as such. In the Coffin Text from the Middle Kingdom there is an
emphasis on equality and an incipient concept that all humans are alike,
which may be identified as proto-axial, but the religious community
was still dependent on kinship ties, and the idea of a common humanity
was not really crystallized. The notion that there was a deep unity be-
tween God and king precluded the idea of a God standing above the king
with independently enacted moral commandments with a universal im-
In the New Kingdom (15501070 BC) a writing that seems to involve
conscious reflection on religion emerges, but there was no theoretic dis-
course in ancient Egypt; the thinking remained mythical, although, ac-
cording to Bellah, it was bordering on theoretical reflection. The centrality
of the king in every dimension of religious practice (performance of
cult, construction and maintenance of temples, responsibility for mainte-
nance of the cosmic order), precluded any real discourse, as would hap-
pen in Axial times, when a group of itinerant intellectuals would carry a
persistent assault on the culture of ritual and myth, while searching for
more universal answers about the meaning of life and the best forms of
The state in Shang China was essentially an extension of the rulers
court, in unison with lineages from members of the court. While it had
bureaucratic attributes, a variety of appointed civil and military officers
under the king, such positions were mere extensions of the patrimonial
rule of the king. In fact, lineage was so pervasive in Shang China that an-
cestor worship was the central practice of religion, leaving a permanent
legacy for all later Chinese culture.” It was difficult to create solidarity
among all classes and regions, because even though archaic societies were
territorially extensive and included millions of unrelated inhabitants, the
rulers were a close-knit group connected by kinship ties without univer-
sal values connecting them to the people. No moral philosophy or texts
were put forward from which to criticize unjust rulers based on notions
about a universal God, a Mandate of Heaven, or the best form of govern-
ment for humans as such.
What about archaic Mycenaean civilization? Bellah discusses this civi-
lization when he deals with Axial Greece, as we will see below, he insists
The Occidental Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 3, Fall 2019
it was Eastern.” I believe that Homers poems reflect the central aristo-
cratic values of the Mycenaean age. While the leader was now a king, ra-
ther than a chief of a tribal society, he did not have despotic powers, but
ruled together with feudal warlords who were identified as the compan-
ions of the king. The Iliad captures this aristocratic relationship when it
has Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, surrounded by free, prideful men
who are always deliberating and debating their actions rather than sub-
serviently following the commands of an autocratic king. Agamemnon
was no pharaoh ruling by divine right. Most of the Iliad consists of
speeches by aristocrats arguing over strategy, and debating the kings
proposals over the conduct of war. As I explained at length in Uniqueness,
there is no literature from the East, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, that por-
trays a world of aristocratic freedom. The ruler depicted in Gilgamesh, a
king of Uruk or Erech, a city of Mesopotamia, appears as a typical des-
potnot an admirable heroic figure, but as an insolent character yearn-
ing and weeping for everlasting life. This is in contrast to the heroes of the
Iliad who reject a long life without memorable deeds for a short life with
immortal deeds.
The Axial Age idea is the most concerted effort to retain aspects of the
idea of progress while disallowing Western civilization from claiming to
be the most progressive in the sciences, technology, cultural creativity,
and forms of state organization. This idea has historical merits. The period
between 800 and 200 BC did see major intellectual developments in vari-
ous parts of the Old World that came to shape the subsequent historical
paths of millions of humansthe rise of Confucianism, Hinduism, Bud-
dhism, Judaism, and Greek philosophy. But academics cant hide the fact
that the Axial Age includes a very select group. The continents of North
America, South America, Africa, and Australia saw no Axial revolution.
Some academics, including Jaspers, include Zoroastrian Persia, but Bel-
lah, and many others, include only ancient Israel, ancient Greece, China,
and India.
In recent years, noticeable attempts have been made to include not only
the civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt, but also the civilizations of
the Americas and the souls of Black folks.” In our age of equality any-
thing goes. The Axial idea, after all, was driven by an egalitarian idea:
disallowing the West from claiming to be the progenitor of rationalism
and modernity. Yet, the lowering of the bar involves the inclusion of peo-
ples without writing, without books, without major intellectual-religious
Duchesne, “The European Idea of Progress”
revolutions, and, to be sure, without a theoretic culture. This is why most
academics have accepted Jaspers cases,
for otherwise the Axial concept
would become meaningless.
Bellah claims to be following Merlin Donald in saying that the axial
age breakthrough involved the emergence of theoretic culture.
makes a distinction between first-order theory (which involves rational
exposition of ones ideas, including, for example, mathematics and the
beginning of algebra in Babylonia), and second-order theory (which is
what Donald has in mind, and involves explaining how one’s rational ex-
position is possible, as well as explaining the grounds for thinking that
ones exposition is true). But, in the end, Bellah makes the mere presence
of first-order thinking a sufficient condition for Axial status outside
Greece. Sometimes he realizes this, but sometimes he seems unsure what
the term theoretic culture means.
He also seems to prefer another criterion for inclusion into this age: the
emergence of new egalitarian outlooks that were critical of existing
mythical practices and oppressive rulers. Combined with this, he likes to
play postmodernist games with his White students, arguing that the sup-
posedly theoretic culture of the Greeks, the philosophies of Plato and Ar-
istotle, were no different in their mythical visions than Taoism and Bud-
dhism. This strains his entire conceptual edifice, but he seems compelled
to move in this direction, to lower the bar, because he doubts that any
non-European culture ever produced any reason-based accounts of the
order of things.
What Bellah wants above all else is an Axial Age in which new proph-
ets emerged, Confucius, Buddha, the Hebrew prophets, and the Greek
philosophers, who called for a re-making of the world order on the basis
However, there is growing pressure to include Egypt on the strength of Jan Ass-
mann’s contribution, “Axial ‘Breakthroughs’ and Semantic ‘Relocations’ in Ancient
Egypt and Israel.” I am not persuaded by Assmann’s grandiloquent claim that the Egyp-
tian invention of the judgment of the dead was a pathbreaking idea in human history.
Apart from being one of the first people to create a civilization, which involved the ge-
neric use of plows, intense irrigation works, a writing system, pottery, glassmaking and
metalworking, the Egyptian contribution to mathematics and geometry was practical
and elementary, without a single contribution to philosophy, political theory, literature,
music, law, and theoretical science. After the Bronze or Archaic Age, Egyptian culture
remained stagnant until it was shaken by the Hellenistic Greeks, and even then, only the
Greeks in Alexandria made contributions in the sciences.
Jan Assmann, “Axial ‘Breakthroughs’ and Semantic ‘Relocations’ in Ancient Egypt
and Israel,” in Johann P. Arneson, S. N. Eisenstadt, and Björn Wittrock (eds.), Axial Civ-
ilizations and World History (Leiden: Brill, 2005): 3953.
Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 273.
The Occidental Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 3, Fall 2019
of transcendental-egalitarian values grounded in reflexivity or argu-
mentation rather than acceptance of mythical accounts handed from the
I dont see how the mere articulation of a moral critique of the ex-
isting order implies the presence of second order thinking. I agree with
Donald that a theoretic culture first came about in Greece in unison with
their fully alphabetic writing; and with Eric Havelocks argument that the
written word was an intrinsic component, not the historical cause as such,
but an essential attribute of the Greek shift from mythical thinking toward
The written word induces a new form of thinking in which the knower
is able to make a distinction between his thinking mind and the known
object. Only the Greek mind evolved to create an alphabet with a level of
abstraction necessary for intellectual interrogation, and for a type of uni-
versal thinking in which one is able to apprehend essential aspects of the
nature of things beyond mere sensory experiences.
I have argued else-
where that only the Greeks exhibited the beginnings of a capacity to eval-
uate the nature of things without allowing extra-rational motivations to
interfere with the judgments of reason.
My focus below will be on
demonstrating that Israel, India, and China did not develop second order
thinking, even though these civilizations can be identified as Axial in pro-
posing novel ways of thinking that fundamentally shaped their subse-
quent history. Bellah makes an excellent case showing that new visions
Without emphasizing “egalitarian values,” Eisenstadt elevates the “transcenden-
talism” of the Axial Age above any other novelty. He writes that Axial religious figures
were responsible for creating a basic tension between otherworldly religious values and
the mundane world of everyday politics. These transcendental values were critical re-
flections about the injustices of the old kinship order, a longing for a new ordering of
social life. The flaw in this elevation of religious transcendentalism into the supreme
contribution of Axial times is that in ancient Greece there was no clear religious distinc-
tion between a transcendental religious sphere and a mundane sphere of politics.
My sense is that Eisenstadt, who is Jewish, was mostly concerned with giving the tiny
ancient Israel a grand civilizational status akin to other ancient civilizations in the East,
and the Axial Age concept of transcendentalism was the way to this enhanced status.
Bellah tries to retain Eisenstadt’s concept of transcendentalism without excluding Greece
by recasting Greek philosophers as religious-mystical figures, as I will argue below.
Johann Arnason, S. N. Eisenstadt and Björn Wittrock, “Introduction: History, Theory
and Interpretation,” in Johann Arnason, S. N. Eisenstadt and Björn Wittrock (eds.), Axial
Civilizations and World History, 1518.
Christopher Lyle Johnstone, Listening to Logos. Speech and the Coming Wisdom of An-
cient Greece (Columbia: The University of South Carolina Press, 2009).
Ricardo Duchesne, “The Immense Revolution of the Presocratics,” Council of Euro-
pean Canadians (July 16, 2019).
Duchesne, “The European Idea of Progress”
about the relation between gods and rulers, about the meaning of life,
about the criterion of truth and falsehood, emerged in India, Israel, and
Right from the start, Bellah has to admit that thinking about thinking
was not an Israelite concern. He adds that, nonetheless, ancient Israel
clearly meets the standard for ... preoccupation with and criticism of text,
and the conscious evaluation of alternative grounds for religious and eth-
ical practices.”
He shows how Israelites, beginning in the eighth century
BC, articulated a new covenant between God and humans over and above
the relationship between king and subjects. The Israelites may be subor-
dinated to a worldly ruler, to the kings of Assyria, but Yahweh is not sub-
ordinate to any earthly ruler, and the ultimate moral obligation of the Is-
raelites is to God.
I have no difficulties accepting Bellahs view that the Israelites at-
tempted real argumentation in making their case for a new covenant,
however unsystematic in presentation.”
There is some form of first-or-
der argumentation in the claim by Israelites that their covenant with God
supersedes kings, and that God is in the Word, and that if people abide
by the Word they will be in right relation to God, regardless of whats
going on in the world of men. The Israelites did articulate reasons why
Yahweh is the only God there is, and they did conceive argumentatively
a transcendent God as the ultimate moral legislator above any state
power. But second order thinking is a different matter, and involves a
conscious awareness of the procedures one is using to make a distinction
between true and false statements. It also means awareness of a faculty of
reasoning that makes up its own criteria for truth and is not dependent
on any external mythology, godly authority, or self-interested inclina-
tions. This is not to say that the Israelite idea of a covenant was not a new
vision radically different from the old mythical conceptions between ruler
and ruled.
Revealingly enough, when it comes to the one Axial case where one
witnesses the discovery of the mind, Bellah warns White students (right
from the opening page) that being Eurocentric or Westerncentric is no
longer acceptable. The extreme enthusiasm of older days for this
Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, 283.
Ibid., 314.
The Occidental Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 3, Fall 2019
civilization has been countered with serious debunking.” Greece will be
treated as just one of four axial cases.
But, in truth, Bellah treats Greece
as a special case by applying Donalds criteria for a theoretic culture in
a far more stringent manner. He recognizes that Anaximanders account
of the origins of the cosmos
appears to be both naturalistic and rational: everything is explained
by impersonal forces, not only the origination of the universe, but
the workings of the heavenly bodies, the weather and other natural
phenomena. The Olympian gods are nowhere to be mentioned.
Nevertheless, he cant help saying that Greek science, by rejecting ex-
periment, never amounted to much.
One can agree that the value of
experimental research never became a central objective of the Greeks
while saying that this statement can only be designated as willful igno-
rance on Bellahs part about the impressive observations Aristotle carried
in zoology, the empirical investigations in harmonics of Aristoxenus and
Ptolemy, and the scientific work in geography of Eratosthenes, Strabo,
and Ptolemy, not to mention many other names associated with the pe-
riod from the late fourth to the late second century BC when Greece wit-
nessed an explosion of objective knowledge about the external world.
We are told that Heraclitus believed that the truth (logos) is common
and available to all,
and that when Parmenides consciously defined
the form of argument that could lead to truthhe is thinking about
thinking, he is giving a method ... for finding the truth.
Yet, Bellahs
immediate assessment is that these two did not bring about an Axial
breakthrough, and that only with the arrival of Plato and Aristotle can we
speak of a breakthrough. He has nothing to say about Aristotle other than
to ask rhetorically whether he was the first who reflected on the meaning
of our representations in just about every field of knowledge.
And the
only relevant point he makes about Plato is that he was the first to distin-
guish between myth and logos, and that in his later dialogues Plato
Ibid., 324.
Ibid., 367.
Ibid., 324.
Lucio Russo, The Forgotten Revolution: How Science Was Born in 300 BC and Why it
Had to Be Reborn (New York: Springer, 1996).
Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 376.
Ibid., 379.
Ibid., 365.
Duchesne, “The European Idea of Progress”
expressed the idea that every human, at least potentially, is a citizen of
the universe.” Not only does he apply a higher standard of theoretical
thinking to Greece, but he also focuses on what remained mimetic and
mythological in the Greeks. Since the Axial breakthrough does not mean
that the mimetic and the mythic per se disappear (they never do), it is easy
for Bellah to bring out the mythical aspects of Axial Greece.
Here and there, he recognizes institutional traits that were uniquely
present in Greece, that Greece was not a despotic polity even before the
rise of democratic rule, but a society in which aristocratic warriors voiced
their own views, and in which heroic prowess and eloquence in debate
was the basis of leadership.
Nobles viewed themselves as equals and resisted domination by
any particular family. They competed for excellence and virtually
created the culture of athletics as we know it today.
But Bellah does not know what to make of this, how to connect this to
the unique aristocratic nature of archaic Mycenaean Greece. He knows
that the polis is a unique Greek institution, but says no more. He does
not link the aristocratic culture of Indo-Europeans and Mycenaeans to the
rise of the polis. He brings up G. E. R. Lloyds well known argument that
the Greeks of the classical age, unlike the Chinese, never sought ancient
authority for their arguments, but were always trying to outdo and criti-
cize their teachers with original lines of inquiry. But, again, he notes this
in passing only. He forgets that this culture of open debate was pervasive
in Greece, manifested in the invention of competitive sports, the heated
debates in assemblies open to all adult male citizens, the competitions to
have ones play performed in the theatre.
What we get from Bellah, actually, is a malicious effort to misguide
White students into believing that ancient Greece, from 1200 to 600 BC,
was part of the East, not a European culture. He has no clue that Indo-
Europeans founded Mycenaean civilization, but says instead that this civ-
ilization was indelibly part of the East. While he cant deny that the
Greeks eventually created a civilization of their own, he cant help con-
cluding that they would never have achieved what they did if they had
been isolated.
No kidding. If Bellah had been isolated in the woods
Ibid., 335.
Ibid., 338.
The Occidental Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 3, Fall 2019
without access to books written by Whites and universities invented by
Whites, he wouldnt have known the word Axial.”
The ideas of the Milesian thinkers (the first Greek philosophersTha-
les, Anaximander and Anaximenes) were possible, so he says, because the
city of Miletus was a cosmopolitan city embedded to the East. He never
makes similar observations about the other axial cases. This is how the
White academic mind operates: constant self-effacement, constant at-
tempts to argue that the West has always been connected to the rest of the
world and that Whites would have amounted to little without the cul-
turally enriching contributions of non-Whites. The question that aca-
demics refuse to ask is this: If all cultures are connected, why do Europe-
ans always turn out to be the achievers of most of the great things in his-
I have a long article criticizing Heiner Roetzs book, Confucian Ethics of
the Axial Age.
Bellah relies heavily on this key book, so I will avoid points
already made. He opens this chapter with the words that axial China was
as stunningly innovative as the ancient Greeks.
More than this, since
he follows Roetzs argument that China reached the highest stage of post-
conventional moral reasoning, which Europe reached only in the Enlight-
enment era, we have Bellah interpreting such flimsy Chinese phrases as
society is men treating each other as men”—as if they were almost
Kantian,” almost the same as the categorical imperative Kant introduced
in his 1785 Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.
Rather than demonstrating in a rational manner that China was al-
ready reaching the universal principles we identify with the Enlighten-
ment, Bellah cannot even demonstrate that China reached Donalds theo-
retic culture. Just because the Chinese wrote about the humaneness of
the gentlemen, and about the cultivation of ones entire personaesthetic
and moral sensibilities, posture and comportmentas a model of how of-
ficials of the state should strive to become, it does not mean the concept
of humaneness was articulated through second-order thinking. Bellah
knows this, and deals with this problem by lowering the Axial Age stand-
ards for China, as he did for Israel.
Ricardo Duchesne, “On The ‘Unreflected Substantiality’ of the Chinese Mind,”
Council of European Canadians (February 22, 2019).
Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 400.
Duchesne, “The European Idea of Progress”
First, it is strange that the same China that cultivated a human ethics
characterized by a remarkable lack of ethnocentrism, with a Mandate
from Heaven calling upon the Chinese to love all the people, and with-
out distinctions, was the China that never abandoned a concern, in his
words, with ancestors, and so with lineage,
In all societies that move
beyond the tribal stage, beyond chiefdoms, there is a decline in the signif-
icance of hereditary lineages, and China did create a state open to merit
based on a rigorous examination process. But, as Bellah had to recognize
in an earlier chapter,
the Shang emphasis on lineage left a permanent legacy for all later
Chinese culture, of which the Confucian emphasis on kin relation-
ships was an expression. Ancestor worship, so central in Shang cult,
has continued at the domestic level to this day.
Confucius inaugurated the axial age, we are told. Yet, Bellah cant
deny that ritual is at the center of the thought of Confucius,
and that,
indeed, the highest ethical term in Confucian thought, Ren, refers to the
good-feeling a virtuous gentleman experiences when being altruistic. This
term is not theoretical. ... It is performative, enactive, mimetic, though it
gives rise to thought.
He cant deny that the Analects is an aphoristic
book, at best anecdotal. [It is] ... not a systematic work. ... [It] does not ever
develop systematic connections between its key terms.
While he mentions Mozis relentless logic, he cant deny that formal
logic never became central in Chinese thought.
While he imitates Roetz
in rejecting Webers argument that in China there was a lack of tension
between a transcendent world of ideals and the mundane world of eve-
ryday politics, he cant barely demonstrate that Confucianism set up a
transcendent normative standard with which to judge existing real-
because he cant deny that Confucianism became something like
an official ideology,
and that all Chinese thinkers demanded that each
rank of society observed its own appropriate rituals, and that the ritual
Ibid., 422, 429430.
Ibid., 250.
Ibid., 403.
Ibid., 412.
Ibid., 416.
Ibid., 412.
Ibid., 477.
Ibid., 426.
The Occidental Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 3, Fall 2019
order was intended to reinforce the social hierarchy.
The Daoists did
criticize the Confucian order, but only in the name of the natural way
in which children behave. Daoist texts, he admits, move from insight to
insight rather than through systematic reflection.
In short, the only way Bellah manages to make a case for Axial China
is by lowering the bar considerably lower than for ancient Greece. The bar
is set even lower for India.
There is no evidence for writing in India before the third century BC,
and yet Bellah claims there was an Axial breakthrough in the late Vedic
period with the Upanisads, a collection of ideas that were probably con-
ceived between 800 and 500 BC, and passed down orally before they were
put into writing much later, and interpolated and expanded over time; no
one really knows who the authors were. Late Vedic society of about the
sixth century BC sees the first cities in the Ganges, irrigation agriculture,
considerable population densities, and wide networks of trade, combined
with a shift from a society linked by kinship to a society of differentiated
roles cutting across tribal boundaries. Bellah detects the breakthrough in
the fact that we can now read from the written versions that the ideas of
the Upanisads were conveyed in dialogue form, a tradition of question-
ing and debate.” Bellah also cites older hymns from the Rig Veda, which
he claims has some continuity with the Upanisads in asking big meta-
physical questions, such as:
Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it? Whence was it pro-
duced? Whence this creation? The gods came afterwards, with the
creation of this universe. Who then knows whence it has arisen?
Whence this creation has arisenperhaps it formed itself, or per-
haps it did notthe one who looks down on it, in the highest
heaven, only he knowsor perhaps he does not know.
Another supposed breakthrough is that the lively discussions de-
picted in the Upanisads were not limited by caste or gender barriers,
although Bellah cant deny that these barriers would not be crossed later
in all subsequent Indian history until much recently. He notes as well an
Ibid., 472.
Ibid., 449.
Ibid., 511.
Ibid., 511.
Duchesne, “The European Idea of Progress”
incipient level of abstraction that moves beyond narrative into concep-
tual thinking; theory begins to emerge in the Upanisads.” But he has to
admit that it does not do so by way of systematic reasoning. ... It is re-
vealed in metaphors.
He tries to argue that teaching about the identity
of brahman and atman is absolutely universal in content, citing an expert
explaining what makes these ideas universal:
The true self is not the individual self, but rather the identity that
one shares with everything else. There is no true distinction among
living beings, for they all emerge from being and retreat to it. All
things animate and inanimate, are united in being, because they are
all transformations of being.
I would agree there is universal content in these expressions insofar as
they speak about being as such, not about any particular being, and about
the individual self as such. These expressions may be said to exhibit the
beginnings in India of thinking about the absolute, not as a definite con-
ception, but as an indeterminate and abstract conception, since we are not
told anything concrete about the way being unites the particular within
the individual self, but only that they are all transformations of being. It
can also be said of the earliest Pre-Socratic ventures into the ultimate
source of all things that they dealt with very abstract, indeterminate con-
cepts devoid of any concrete differentiation. Anaximander wrote about
how the processes of change we see in the world are expressions of a uni-
versal, undefinable, limitless, divine Nature. He did this in writing, but
Bellah excludes him from the Axial Age.
Moreover, with Heraclitus we have someone who does not obliterate
the self within an undifferentiated universal being, but argues that the
logos of human speech can express the logos which lies in the nature of
things; speech (logos) is a manifestation of the logos of the universe; the
logos of the universe discloses itself in human speech. In its deepest na-
ture, the mind is a logos; it has the capacity for apprehending the regular-
ity and patterns of things. The mind is rational and therefore it can grasp
the rational order of the cosmos through its rational speech. The psyche
of man and the cosmos are one, but the mind is the highest expression of
the one. The cosmos discloses itself through the rational mind of humans.
While Heraclitus did not have a concept of subjective freedom, Greeks
Ibid., 513.
Ibid., 515.
The Occidental Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 3, Fall 2019
were moving in this direction in creating institutions in which Greek male
citizens were equally free and capable of participating in politics.
By contrast, Indian philosophy would never rise above the early ab-
stractions of the Upanisads. As Hegel argued, the notion of brahman
would fail to reconcile the universal, the absolute, with the finite or indi-
vidual. The concept of brahman would always subsume all finite things,
including the self, which would remain incapable of ever understanding
the nature, the rationale, of the brahman. The independent self in India
would indeed be obliterated in substance, in the indefinite oneness of a
Being that would remain aloof and beyond reason.
Bellah has to admit that the concept of dharma in the Bhagavad Gita, gen-
erally accepted to be a second-century BC text, which prescribes the right
way of living in terms of duties and rituals, does not speak about humans
in general, but about the way of life appropriate for members of each
caste. This discussion of dharma leads inevitably to the vexed problem of
Bellah is not happy dealing with the issue of caste, because of
its pejorative implications.” He is afraid he will be liable to the accusation
of Orientalism.” But he cant deny that caste remained basic to Indian
social organization until recent times.
So how does one square this ob-
servation with the idea that India made a breakthrough into a universal
At this point, Bellahs mind turns mushy, as he goes on to write that
there was a breakthrough in religious thought while the premises of so-
ciety remained non-axial.” Even though he believes the actual society re-
mained non-axial, he insists he cant be charged with viewing “‘Oriental
societies as inegalitarian.” As a morally praiseworthy person, Bellah de-
scribes Chinese civilization as profoundly egalitarian, and is con-
vinced that Islamic societies were also profoundly egalitarian.” However,
he then adds that he is not describing these societies in actuality, but re-
ferring to their ideologies. No society has been egalitarian since primitive
times. He also warns his students that the United States has been one of
the most oppressive societies in history in its treatment of people both
Gino Signoracci, “Hegel on Indian Philosophy: Spinozism, Romanticism, Eurocen-
trism,” Ph. D. dissertation (Albuquerque: The University of New Mexico, July 2017). This
is a thorough study but its argument that Hegel was not fair to India’s contribution to
philosophy does not persuade me for the simple reason that this argument is driven by
the notion that there is something wrong with Eurocentrism. In fact, Eurocentrism is the
inevitable result of the higher level of philosophical reflection found in European phi-
losophy and in European studies of lower levels of reflection.
Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 521.
Ibid., 523.
Duchesne, “The European Idea of Progress”
within and without.
Even if one were to accept the lunacy of these
statements, why is Bellah trying to hide the fact that the most sacred and
important text of Indian philosophy, the Bhagavad Gita, which supposedly
advocated an egalitarian ethics, was suffused with the notion of caste?
Many Whites looking for meaning in their confused, globalist-con-
trolled-lives, love to praise Bhagavad Gita or Gita.” Stephen Mitchell, in
his new translation, acts as if he was one of the blessed ones writing
about the inconceivable depths of reality of the Gita.
He tells his
White students that reading his translation is a matter of the gravest ur-
gency, a battle for authenticity, the life and death of the soul, ... the
struggle against greed, and ignorance, against ingrained selfishness.” The
Gita presents some of the most important truths of human existence.”
But Mitchell knows that however powerful its thinking, its intention is
not to be a treatise but a psalm, a hymn or poetic song.
It is not a phil-
osophical work.
Brainwashed academics who barely read can understand the Gita, be-
cause for all the inconceivable depths of reality it pronounces, the ideas
are very simple precisely because they are unthinkable and do not require
one to grasp them mentally. From its amorphous sounding phrases, easy
meanings and conclusions can be generated with ease and without expla-
nation. Mitchell is impressed by the tolerance and inclusiveness he
finds in Gita.
In the end, Bellahs case for India leaves us with the claim that Bud-
dhism certainly completed the axial transition.
He cites an author
who says that it is the man who practices Buddhist precepts to their ut-
most who has the highest status, not the man who is born a Brahmin.
Within Buddhism, dharma is available to all people, regardless of status
or ethnicity.
But in what ways is Buddhism a product of systematic thought, and in
what ways does it engage with second order thinking? This criterion is
relegated to the margins. What matters is that Buddhism engendered
communities that attempted to exist as parallel societies, as alternative
ways of life characterized by ethical universalism, independently of cri-
teria of kinship and lineage. Dhamma, the truth told by Buddhism, was
Ibid., 524.
Stephen Mitchell, “Introduction,” in Stephen Mitchell (ed.), Bhagavad Gita: A New
Translation (New York: Three Rivers Series, 2000): 1330, 15.
Ibid., 16, 23, 25.
Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 531.
Ibid., 537.
The Occidental Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 3, Fall 2019
about good behavior towards slaves and servants, obedience to parents,
generosity to friends and relatives, abstention from killing living beings.
These are nice thoughtswell embraced in primary schools. Is that all
there is to the Axial Age?
These words are from Friedrich Schillers On the Aesthetic Education of
Man (1795). Some may wonder why Bellahs discussion of the emergence
of relaxed fields in human culture does not come up in the sections just
presented about the Axial Age? Bellah drops this discussion until the con-
cluding chapter. Here he first draws a clear connection between play and
the rise of second order thinking during the Axial Age.
I did not shy away from the fact that natural selection is the primary
mechanism of evolution, biological and cultural, but I was con-
cerned with the emergence of relaxed fields in animal play and
human culture, where the struggle for existence or the survival of
the fittest did not have full sway, where ethical standards and free
activity could arise, forms that in many cases did turn out to be se-
lected, as they had survival value, though they arose in contexts
where the good was internal to the practice, not for any external
He brings up Schillers contrasting words between the sanction of
need, or physical seriousness and the sanction of superfluity, or physi-
cal play.” In Bellahs words, play can move to the level of aesthetic play
in which the full spiritual and cultural capacities of humans can be given
free reign.
He cites Schiller (with emphasis): Man plays only when he
is in the full sense of the word a man, and he is only Man when he is playing.”
To me, this is the most substantive and original component in Bellahs
book. Evolutionary psychology pays attention to those cultural universals
it can directly connect to the struggle for survival, while tending to dis-
miss as inconsequential luxuries (similarly to Marxist theory) ideas, ar-
tistic expressions, musical compositions, and philosophies that do not
lend themselves to Darwinian explanations. Bellah astutely interprets,
within a grand historical narrative, the ritual practices of cultures, the
dancing, feasting, music, and sense of moral equality that the ritual gen-
erates, as moments of relaxed play foreshadowed in the egalitarian
Ibid., 600.
Ibid., 568.
Duchesne, “The European Idea of Progress”
rules of animal play.
He continues this interpretative line even for rit-
uals in advanced chiefdoms in which ritual ceases to be egalitarian but
takes place in walled temples.” He looks for relaxed fields in chief-
doms during those ritual times when all the people devote themselves
to feasting, mockery, obscene and satirical singing, and, above all, to
dancing, including the violation of rules of deference to superiors.
In the over 300 pages he spends on the Axial civilizations, he does not
try to establish a link between play and Axial philosophies. He waits for
the conclusion. Yet, when he addresses in the conclusion cultural expres-
sions within times of relaxation, he does not look at rituals, probably be-
cause he knows that rituals, by this time in the evolution of societies, had
become too tied to the existing power structures. He looks instead at the
social criticism entailed in the universal egalitarian ethics articulated by
Axial Age philosophers. We saw major weaknesses in Bellahs effort to
portray Indian and Chinese philosophy as universalist. Chinese and In-
dian philosophies were heavily preoccupied with the appropriate rituals
required to maintain the existing social order. In India, the Buddhists
withdrew into their own world without caring to subject to criticism the
pervasive presence of caste divisions in their society. Nevertheless, Bellah
has a point that Axial thoughts contain an element of play in envisioning
improved worlds in which the pressures of the struggle for existence are
suspended in an imaginary world of non-violence, social justice, plentiful
harvests, and peaceful contemplation of the divine.
But there is a fundamental flaw in Bellahs conception of play in the
assumption that humans exhibit their highest talents, best ideas, artistic
and philosophical expressions, in the articulation of egalitarian ideals.
Firstly, in the realm of Darwinian necessity, humans can express incredi-
ble feats of perseverance, physical prowess, and talents that bespeak of
greatness. Secondly, Bella’s conception of play is restricted to its egalitar-
ian, fair-play ideals. He thus laments the fact that play among the Greeks,
and in Western-American civilization generally, became tied with the
promotion of inequality, because concern with winning became its major
preoccupation. This concern with winning, apparently, pulled play away
from its initial relaxed context. I have another view, which follows from
what I have said about the aristocratic culture of Indo-Europeans.
It is commendable that Bellah recognizes the presence of a more intense
agonistic ethos among Europeans, which found expression in their higher
Ibid., 570.
Ibid., 571.
The Occidental Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 3, Fall 2019
concern with winning. But if we are to understand the origins of this
Faustian ethos, we need to examine its origins in the aristocratic way of
life of Indo-Europeans. This agonistic ethos, as I tried to explain in Unique-
ness and Faustian Man,
found expression in the infinite drive, the ir-
resistible trust, the rational restlessness of the West. It is the drive that
took the West way beyond the Axial Age. Whereas placid Indians, con-
formist Chinese, and spiritually lethargic Amerindians accepted the dic-
tates of nature, the agonistic Europeans long exhibited a highly energetic,
goal-oriented desire to break through the unknown, supersede the norm,
and achieve mastery of nature. Unlike the Daoists and Hindus who re-
nounced life and suppressed their desires in a state of withdrawal and
defeat in the face of the Darwinian struggle for existence, Europeans were
driven by an intense urge to transcend the limits of existence, to employ
the agonistic nature of life for their own immaterial ends, transcending
their biological existence. The adamantine will to overcome and break
all resistances of the visible,
in the words of Spengler, is what allowed
Europeans to understand the very laws of nature, the theory of natural
selection, to rise above an existence controlled by unknown forces.
Thirdlyand this is another fundamental flaw, why would our
thoughts have to be about the promotion of egalitarian fantasies rather
than the expression of the highest talents possible by men as artists, mu-
sicians, and scientists, including philosophers who have realized that the
pursuit of egalitarianism actually destroys what is exceptional about hu-
mans? This may explain why Bellah stops at the Axial Age, and likes re-
peating that the European philosophical tradition is a series of footnotes
to Plato,
and he brings up Aristotle, this late in the game, only to view
him as a someone interested in theoria as contemplation, together with
Plato, in order to make them seem similar to the Daoists and Buddhists
with their renunciation of the Darwinian world of everyday politics to
live a life of egalitarian contemplation? Not only does he want to hide the
first truly systematic act of thinking about thinking that is contained in
Aristotles logical works, combined with his empirical studies of living
things, but his aim is to give White students the impression that the West
reached its intellectual peak in Greece, only to then fall into a state of
Duchesne, The Uniqueness of Western Civilization; Ricardo Duchesne, Faustian Man
in a Multicultural Age (Budapest: Arktos, 2017).
Oswald Spengler, Decline of the West, vol. 1: Form and Actuality (New York: Alfred
A. Knopf, 1988; orig. published 1918), 18586
Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 582.
Duchesne, “The European Idea of Progress”
homeostasis like the non-Western world, which barely rose above the Ax-
ial Age.
What is the point of insisting, I do believe in evolution in the sense of
increasing capacities, but then hiding all the new capacities Europeans
exhibited in developing almost all the varieties and highest forms of mu-
sic and dance, almost all the sports, almost all the inventions in technol-
ogy, almost all the ideas in science, philosophy, and all the disciplines
taught in our universities? Instead of writing about these new develop-
ments, Bellah actually suggests in the closing paragraphs that the White
invention of racism has been responsible for lack of progress in the ac-
tualization of Axial Age ideals. He says that European modern history,
the racist creation of empires, calls not only for apology, but for repara-
tions for those who are still suffering from the results of what we have
He then brings up multiculturalism and calls for a dialogue
across differences as a way of fulfilling Axial ideals. In short, he wants
Whites to hand over their lands to hordes of foreign immigrants.
This is how pathological White academics have become. Even the most
educated dont have the courage to liberate themselves from opportunis-
tic Darwinian pressures, fear of ostracism, but instead would have their
White students believe that their civilization never developed beyond the
Axial Age, never mind the Roman rational system of law, the invention
of universities and mechanical clocks during the Middle Ages, the
twelfth-century renaissance, the Portuguese discovery of the geograph-
ical contours of Africa, the European discovery and mapping of the entire
the Italian Renaissance, the Newtonian Revolution, and many
other achievements in art, philosophy, and technology during every cen-
tury of the modern era, while the rest of the world languished in the same
pre-industrial state of development they had inhabited for centuries with
ever more intensive Malthusian cycles wiping out millions of their starv-
ing inhabitants until Western benevolence brought them scientific indus-
trial techniques combined with the proper reflexivity to articulate the idea
of an Axial Age.
Ibid., 599.
Boies Penrose, Travel and Discovery in the Renaissance (London: The Folio Society,
2001; orig. published 1952]); John Noble Wilford, The Mapmakers (New York: Alfred A.
Knopf, 1981).
The Occidental Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 3, Fall 2019
... This was the accomplishment of the modern age, and we can thank Henrich for emphasizing the indispensable role of the Catholic Church in demolishing (consciously, as I argue) the re-strengthened kinship ties brought onto the center of Western civilization by the Germanic tribes that conquered the Roman world. 28 For a discussion of the Axial Age achievements of ancient Greece in comparison to the Axial civilizations of China, India, Israel and Persia, see Duchesne (2019). 29 Herodotus was one of the first ethnographers in history (Skinner, 2012). ...
... For an assessment of the Axial Age contributions of ancient civilizations, in comparison to the Greek contributions, see my article "The European Idea of Progress Supersedes the Axial Age"(Duchesne, 2019). ...
Full-text available
This essay acknowledges Joseph Henrich's landmark analysis of how medieval Europeans were already psychologically distinct from the kinship-oriented peoples of other civilizations long before the rise of modern science and liberal thought. It then shows that Europeans already exhibited WEIRD psychological traits in ancient Greek times, along with monogamous nuclear families, civic citizenship, and a relatively high level of literacy long before the Protestant emphasis on reading. The early Christians of the Hellenistic period were already advocating a WEIRD sexual morality before the Catholic Church intentionally-not "unintentionally"-abolished the polygamous kinship norms of early medieval Germanic peoples. The creation of nation-states in the modern era was an alternative form of community created by WEIRD Europeans consistent (in principle) with their liberal values. Despite his emphasis on "cultural evolution", Henrich misses the extent to which Europeans were the most creative cultural species in history.
The Immense Revolution of the Presocratics
  • Ricardo Duchesne
Ricardo Duchesne, "The Immense Revolution of the Presocratics," Council of European Canadians (July 16, 2019).
Religion in Human Evolution, 531. 105 Ibid
  • Bellah
Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 531. 105 Ibid., 537.