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.


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