Monthly Archives: September 2013

Book Review: Karen Armstrong’s “The Great Transformation”


Karen Armstrong‘s The Great Transformation is a thrilling read. She shows the inner workings of the Axial Age without focusing solely on its major players like many others are wont to do. The story begins with some speculation on the Aryan migration and the possible roots of Zoroaster, the founder of Zoroasterianism, and then branches into four distinct groupings; the Greeks, the Hebrews, the Chinese, and the Indians. Each chapter progresses chronologically with a subchapter committed to each group so that you follow the transitions as they are happening all over the world, instead of just reading the story of one group in isolation.

The section on China is fascinating, possibly because it is all new material to me. I knew very little about Chinese religion before Confucious’s time. China went through a long period where warfare was so structured and orderly that it became absurd. It was more socially acceptable to lose, otherwise you might seem overly prideful. Imagine a Soldier waiting patiently while his enemy reloads in order to give him a fair chance. That didn’t last forever ofcourse, as most people are more familiar with the period of warring states that birthed Confucianism, and its rival Daoism. Armstrong uncovers a second rival to Confucianism, Legalism, which was a more secular approach to problem solving and was later enhanced by Daoist philosophers who appreciated the pragmatic.

The Hebrews were a very bloody people and Armstrong confirms much of what I have read elsewhere. She discusses at length the spiritual repercussions of the Hebrew’s defeat by Assyria, a subject often glossed over right before the Babylonian exile takes place. Her impressions are supported by numerous references from the Hebrew prophets of the time. Often Old Testament verses are taken from the Bible and applied to modern times, or to Jesus’s time, with no thought to their actual historical context. Armstrong provides the background to much of the prophets’ political and social motivations. She also explains the roots of rabbinical Judaism as a result of the Jews continual displacement and the descruction of the temple by the Romans in 70 CE.

The Greeks were so far ahead of their time. The sophists seem to have had a true grasp on what was important before Socrates and Plato besmirched the sophists’ reputations. The legendary conflicts between Persia and the Greeks are described along with the spiritual milieu that flavored them. Major political transitions are seen as complimentary to the shifting goals of the philosophers. Armstrong also explains the importance of the theatre and drama in Greek thought. This section I found extremely interesting. Tragedy was used to heal wounds and help the Greeks see outside themselves.

Indian spirituality has a unique history and importance. The first to be truly introspective, the yogins seem to have gone a completely different spiritual route than any other group. Fed up with complex external rituals and meaning, they looked inward and found an entire world of purpose and light. The Jains and Buddhists are the true inheritors of his Axial Age gift. That gift was later borrowed and adapted into Hinduism. The Bagavad-Gita was a major step forward for Hinduism. Armstrong explains the breakthrough of Bhakti Yoga and how important it is to the working class, unable to commit their lives to more internal efforts, like Jhana Yoga or asceticism.

Armstrong sometimes writes as if she was there. It is important to remember that this is her impression and view, an erudite informed view though it is (Eliade’s as well ofcourse). However, she references sources supporting most every assumption she makes, almost inviting the reader to follow up on her and challenge her opinion. She is one of my favorite authors and The Great Transformation is a book I will need to purchase for myself someday.

Armstrong’s underlying message is the importance of compassion in each othe Axial Age religious revolutions. Euripides, Confucius, Hillel the Elder, Jesus of Nazereth, Krishna/Vishnu, they seemed to all have the same message about what was most important; the Golden Rule. They all stated it in one form or another. Hundreds of years later and compassion seems to be the least important aspect of religious observance or doctrine.

A movement to replace traditional religious community building with a secular form has taken root in major cities in the Western world. It is called Sunday Assembly by the founders although the media has labled it “Atheist Church.” It will be interesting to find out what type of message the assembly espouses and how successful it can become. Hopefully they got Karen Armstrong’s message and will learn from the Axial Age thinkers that all discovered the Golden Rule during times of extreme hardship and strife.


Arizona Living

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When I was young Arizona was a mysterious place. I grew up on the East Coast, or really just the east, we only rarely went to the coast. Arizona was far removed from South Georgia. It was an unfamiliar and under-represented state. California I knew, it was in all the movies, it was a glamorous place and that was where rich porn stars lived. But Arizona was different. People from Arizona were happy and successful, not angered easily, and perpetually busy with some revolutionary green technology. There was also a very spiritual (gasp) element to Arizona, or perhaps just the desert in general. I’m sure that if every bit of media that I encountered growing up could be studied the cause for this illusion could be discovered. Perhaps a few characters from movies I’d seen had been Arizonians and so I applied their traits to the entire state. Either way, I had maintained a very idealistic impression of Arizona.

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I’ve come to find that Arizona doesn’t seem to be all that different from most other places, although it has better scenery. Sierra Vista is infested with the same line-up of ignorant locals as any other place I have lived, although Bisbee shows promise as being a memorable place. I have yet to get to know Tucson. It is a little further away than I had thought. The drive isn’t terrible but I’d need to plan a day’s worth of things to do before driving up there. I’d need lists and plans, and right now I have plenty to do here.

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So Arizona might not be the spiritual mystery it once was, but I like it. It is growing on me a little more every day. And yes the locals leave something to be desired, but I haven’t met everybody yet, so I’ll stay optimistic. Part of my disappointment had to do with Seoul. I was around wonderful friends all the time in a city that never ceased to be interesting. Arizona will be more of a challenge.

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This is one of the Matisse paintings I am considering for the living room. Nice framed prints aren’t really that much and it would look really nice I’m sure.



Well I’m here now.

Since showing up in Arizona I have been camping, driven out to visit my sister in LA, acquired a decent place to live, and begun working with a new band. I have also read three largish books, constructed a dozen lego sets, and taken up Korean cooking. My social calendar was kept very full in Korea and I am having trouble filling the time.

So, what should I do? Make new friends? OK, working on it, but I’m kind of a snob and I don’t like wasting my time with people that won’t challenge me somehow. Either they have to be unreadable and therefore interesting or they have to be interesting for some other reason, like maybe they speak four languages or know everything a person can know about beets.

I got together with a local group of similarly godless atheist types last week and had a good time. Although, now that I’m a single guy, and seeing as how the group mostly consisted of several couples, I don’t see how we can socially connect beyond out distaste for organized religion. We’ll need something more substantial than that.

I have also been out boozing it up with a new friend from work. It has been a lot of fun both times, but the hangover the next day is a heavy toll to maintain a friend. (It did not help that I ate fruit with Tabasco sauce all over it or whatever a “school bus” shot is).

I guess the most interesting thing happening right now is my soon-to-be-complete application to a graduate program I didn’t think I’d ever find. New Mexico State University offers a MA in Sociology! And they have an option to take it almost entirely online. I will need to go to the campus at some point and touch base with the professors, but that is only a few hours away and I am more than willing to do that in order to have the opportunity to study what I really want to study.

Oh! My daughter is coming to visit in two and half weeks. I’m very excited and I miss her very much. My son can’t fly without an adult yet but I will see him in December, which seems so far away… Part of the reason I have to stay busy is to escape the ever approaching wall of sadness and despair that sets in when I am alone and realize my children are so far away. A really smart person told me once that no matter what, if you have kids, you will feel guilty about something. At least I can feel guilty about being so far away and not being as big a part of their lives as I’d like to be, instead of one day feeling guilty for having lived with them and neglected or ignored them during their most precious and influential years.

Let’s end on a good note! Syria! Woohoo…