Wednesday, November 6, 2019

In Search of Ethics

The eighth century was a period of religious transition in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and at this time we see the first stirrings of the Axial spirituality that would come to fruition there some two hundred years later.

What was this Axial spirituality?  Criticism of ritual, to be replaced by an ethically based religion.  The government of the northern kingdom was seen as corrupt, not caring for the poor.  Into this, God sent Amos – with visions of God commanding the destruction of the temple and Israel. 

Yahweh was no longer reflexively on the side of Israel, as he had been at the time of the exodus.  He would use the king of Assyria to punish Jeroboam for his neglect of the poor.

God would lead a holy war against Israel and Judah, as if He was personally humiliated by their behavior.  The Israelites saw their religion as superficial, with rituals performed by rote – they did not see through the rituals to the meaning.  The transition was at hand: sympathy and empathy would be the mark of religion. 

Amos and Hosea had both introduced an important new dimension to Israelite religion.  Without good ethical behavior, they insisted, ritual alone was worthless.

Here we are offered a glimpse of Jesus, who came not to abolish the law but to fulfil it.  The law pointed to loving God and loving one’s neighbor.  Amos and Hosea were delivering this message from God.  Israel was glimpsing the spirituality that would be exemplified in Jesus – other-serving.

Isaiah would deliver a similar message, seeing the terrifying reality behind the temple rituals.  Isaiah 6 offers God’s message: you (Isaiah) will speak, but the people will not hear; the cities will be laid waste and deserted, the countryside desolate.

Meanwhile Greece was emerging from its dark age; the most important development was the creation of the polis – the small, independent city-state, with citizens learning the art of self-government.  Trade with the east would increase, and with it the importing of traditions and gods from the east: Apollo, Ishtar, Adonis – from Asia Minor, Cyprus, and the Middle East.

But it was Homer that perhaps influenced Greek religion most of all: it was glorious to die in battle; there was joy in the comradeship; fame was more important than life itself.  In war, men lived more intensely.  This sounds nothing like the Axial Age spirit which Armstrong is developing throughout the book:

Homer seems to have nothing in common with the spirit of the Axial Age.  Yet standing on the threshold of a new era, Homer was able to look critically at the heroic ideal.

The hero had to die; there was a poignancy in the fate of the warrior.  But in the Iliad, Achilles would have none of this. 

“Don’t gloss over death to me in order to console me.  …I would rather be above ground still and laboring for some poor peasant man than be the lord over the lifeless dead.”

The violence and death of the warrior would often be presented as pointless and self-destructive in the Iliad.  Achilles, the exemplar of the warrior, would also show his other side.  King Priam would come personally to claim the body of his dead son; Achilles, astonished that the enemy king would walk into his tent and kiss his feet, wept with the king.

This experience of self-emptying sympathy enabled each to see the divine and godlike in the other.  In this scene, if not in the rest of the poem, Homer had perfectly expressed the spirit of the Axial Age.

However, where the God of Israel was showing compassion, the gods of Olympus remained indifferent.  Every Greek god had a dark and dangerous side; none was wholly good, none concerned about morality.  This cult would survive for another seven centuries. 

Despite the example of Achilles, the Greeks were militarizing the entire polis.  Sparta, the most radical example, would subjugate the individual wholly to the polis.  It was a self-surrender, but a parody – in service of military instead of service to humanity.

In China, a transition from an archaic monarchy to a unified empire.  Ancient custom replaced royal authority.  The perfection of ritual performance would mark the beginning of China’s Axial Age.  They would attempt to moderate warfare. 

The rituals strictly limited the violence permitted in battle, and forbade warriors to take advantage of the enemy’s weakness.  Warfare became an elaborate pageant, governed by courtesy and restraint.

Victory revealed the righteousness of the victor, but only if the battle was righteously engaged.  Archers would take turns firing at each other, as it would not be fair to fire twice in succession.  Status would be lost if the nobleman killed too many people.  Battle would only be engaged when the enemy was prepared.  Victory should not bring unseemly gloating.


We see in all three traditions glimpses of other-serving behavior – in word, if not always in deed.  Each advancing at a different pace, each developing in a less-than-perfect manner.  It is this consideration of other-serving behavior that identifies the age.


  1. Before the emergence of the nation state and its attendant discourse, wars were strictly affairs between rival aristocracies. No one pretended they were waged for any other reason than plunder, to become the monopoly tax authority over the contested territory. Tax rates stayed low, constrained by the constant threat of rebellion, at something like ten percent.

    As well in the ancient world, generals had no particular allegiance, frequently switching sides depending on which offered the most loot. The upside of such a discourse of war was that infrastructure and civilians were off limits - or more to the point, they were the very spoils sought by the combatants through warfare.

    The modern warfare of the nation state completely inverted this ancient discourse of war: Civilians were impressed into armies while at the same time becoming legitimate targets. Infrastructure became not only a target but a primary target. The goal of war became not the spoils of victory but the utter eradication of the competing nation state. World War II was the exclamation point on the nation state discourse of war. The American author Kurt Vonnegut explained in an NPR interview how British war planners, with cold meticulous calculation, planned the utter incineration of both Dresden's buildings and hundreds of thousands of civilian inhabitants. Wave after wave of blockbuster bombs were methodically dropped over every grid of the city in order to loosen up the wooden buildings and seal off the streets. Then incendiary bombs were dropped to burn everything up. Vonnegut, who had been taken prisoner by the Germans and quartered in Dresden, survived only because when the bombing started the Germans moved the prisoners into excavated chambers deep underground.

    1. Yes. Check out FJP Veale:

  2. Thoughtful write-up.

    I particularly enjoyed the reference to the Illiad being dovetailed with Axial Spirituality, which I never heard of prior, and the notion of serving others.

    I immediately thought of this scene in the movie "Troy" taken straight from the Illiad and the discussion between Priam and Achilles: