09 October 2008

Axis All Areas

As Frank Muir apparently once said: "I've just spent six months in the south of France finishing my latest book. I'm a very slow reader...".

Well, having starting it on the train to Greenbelt, I have indeed now finished Red Mars, and immediately made a start on its viridian sibling. It was a worthy read and I could feel it doing me intellectual good throughout. I'd not recommend it for actual fun, though.

(M'learned friend Vigornian points out that they're making Red Mars into a TV series, which I can see working very well. It would definitely be a serious drama series, though -- barely even SF, as TV usually understands the genre. Depending on the choice of style, it could be pitched as something very like The West Wing, only with a big red desert instead of Washington. And much bouncier walking-down-corridors scenes.)

I've also finally finished The Great Transformation by Karen Armstrong, which I found instructive and informative, but ultimately disappointing.

I've mentioned before that Armstrong's history of ideas within individual cultures is strong and coherent, tracing clear lines of evolution and influence through many generations of Chinese, Indian, Hebrew and Greek thought. I might have added, on the basis of her earlier A History of God and The Battle for God, that her view at its broadest is also a compelling one -- a philosophy of religion which sees faith as belonging to the intuitive and internalised form of truth known as mythos rather than the external, fact-based arena of logos; true faith as coming through mystic encounters with the divine rather than through the dogma of established religion; the practices of religions as valuable only to the extent to which they preserve or allow new access to this elusive (and often seemingly counterfactual) truth; and the vital and urgent importance in the modern age of celebrating the diversity of human faith for the different lights it shines on the divine reality, rather than viewing the world through the exclusive filters of our own traditions.

None of which, you'll be unsurprised to discover, is stuff I'm likely to argue with. The problem is that both Armstrong's overarching long-range vision and her aptitude for both close-up work tend to blur her mid-field vision, resulting in books which leap from the mundane to the transcendent with very little by way of coherent chains of thought linking them.

In particular, I'd been wondering while reading The Great Transformation how Armstrong would tie together all the developments in disparate and historically disconnected cultures which she identifies as signifiers of "the Axial Age" -- the development of the Jewish prophetic tradition, Greek philosophy and tragedy, the origins of Buddhism, Jainism and the other Indian apotheistic philosophies, and what basically amounts to the entire intellectual tradition of China for a thousand years. Unfortunately, she entirely fails to demonstrate that all of these amount to anything one could coherently consider as a step-change in human thinking regarding religion.

As this review by Diarmaid MacCulloch suggests, this is particularly clear in the vagueness with which Armstrong delimits this supposed "Axial Age", excluding a number of philosophers of her given era (the eighth to third centuries B.C.E.) on the grounds that they fail to live up to her ideal of "Axial spirituality", while going on talk about the first- and sixth-century C.E. figures of Jesus and Mohammed, in whom she has a special interest, not merely as individuals influenced by the insights of the Axial era but as "late flowerings" of it.

This mid-range view becomes so blurry that it's almost impossible to derive anything clear from it. Certainly the book comes nowhere near answering those questions from the back cover blurb:
But why did Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jeremiah, Lao Tzu -- among others -- all emerge in this five-hundred-year span? And why did they have such similar ideas about humanity?
Indeed, Armstrong's conclusion when it finally arrives is predictable from the ouset: that what she sees as the key themes of the Axial philosophers -- ecstatic experience, the transcendence of the self, the outworking of faith in daily life, empathy, non-violence, the Golden Rule -- constitute genuine insights into human and divine nature, and a universal toolkit for human living.

Again, it's difficult to argue with this. That these ideas were (by presumption, although again see MacCulloch) unprecedented, and have been of great influence since, is unarguable -- but that being the case there's a strong sense that Armstrong has taken 400 pages to state, at immense length and in exhaustive detail, the obvious.

The Great Transformation is a fascinating work of parallel history, and a significant stage in the development of Armstrong's own religious thought. Expect it to educate and inform you, but don't expect to discover any great insights that you haven't already heard.

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