Chapter 5: Axial Existence

The Structure of Christian Existence
by John B. Cobb, Jr.

Chapter 5: Axial Existence

A number of observers have noted that in the middle part of the millennium before Christ a new type of thinking arose, reflecting a new type of existence. What is most striking is that this occurred independently in five parts of the Eurasian continent at more or less the same time. During the sixth century before Christ, lived Confucius and Lao-tzu in China, Gautama Buddha in India, and Zoroaster in Persia. In the same century, Thales and Pythagoras were founding Greek philosophy, and the prophetic movement in Israel reached a climax in Second Isaiah.

Karl Jaspers has proposed that we extend the period of our attention to the six centuries from 800 B.C. to 200 B.C. and call this the "axial period." (The Origin and Goal of History. p. 1. Jaspers’ choice of this term for this period is intended as criticism of the Christian view that the center of universal history is Jesus Christ. In what follows it will become clear that the adoption of the term here does not entail agreement with Jaspers’ view of the historical role of Jesus.) The basic modes of thought and existence that even today compete for our attention and loyalty, he argues, arose in that period.

Jaspers’ view requires correction in several directions. He presents this change in man’s existence as if it were wholly unparalleled, whereas it was, in fact, the crossing of a new threshold in a succession of threshold crossings. He focuses attention on what was common in the axial existence of the several cultures in such a way as to neglect the diversity, whereas that diversity is just as important to our understanding of our present situation as is what was common. He stresses the unity of the change also in such a way as to conceal the successive stages within some of the axial revolutions. He closes the period before the rise of Christianity, wheras this too constituted a further threshold in the history of man’s existence. He presents axial man in such sharp contrast with preaxial man that the continuity of the historical process and the numerous foreshadowings of axial man in the preceding centuries are obscured.

Despite all this, Jaspers is correct in seeing the developments of the first millennium before Christ as of utmost importance for human existence. New structures of existence did come into being during that period. Furthermore, despite their diversity, at a certain level of abstraction one can also note their common features. Jaspers’ term "axial" is useful for referring to this common element of structure, and it is this common structure that I propose to describe in this chapter. Later chapters will describe selected examples in their distinctness from one another.

What distinguished axial man was the new role of rationality in the structure of his existence. This newness, with its consequences, was so great that we can appreciate the sense of marvel which Jaspers communicates to his reader in his account of it. Nevertheless, we can understand its continuity and discontinuity with the ancient civilizations that preceded it as fully analogous with the continuity and discontinuity of these civilizations with primitive man. The reflective consciousness, through thousands of years of civilization, became increasingly rational in widening areas. There were many individuals who came to be increasingly at home in this world of rational consciousness and increasingly estranged from the mythical world that still controlled their situation. Finally, men appeared who, from the perspective of this strengthened rationality, could effectively destroy the power of the mythical world not only for themselves but for many others as well. This drastic break with the mythical age constituted the axial period. The new kind of existence that it expressed and created constituted axial existence. The cultures and religions to which this new existence gave rise are the axial cultures and religions, which still dominate the world. The axial men who embody this existence and participate in these cultures are ourselves.

To explain more precisely what occurred in the crossing of this threshold, a new category is required. Thus far we have distinguished the unconscious, receptive consciousness, and significantly organized consciousness. In man we have seen that symbolization superseded organization by signals as the predominant mode of significantly organized consciousness, and that this constituted reflective consciousness. The categories of reflective consciousness were influenced by the unconscious and by the receptive consciousness. This structure is common for all men. The change that occurred with the rise of civilization was that the influence of the receptive consciousness on the symbols of the reflective consciousness grew stronger, but without destroying the overall dominance of the unconscious.

The new category now required is that of the "seat of existence." The psychic life as a whole continued to be primarily unconscious and had its own centers of organization that remained unknown to consciousness. But reflective consciousness gained a unity of its own. This unity was achieved around some center or some determining perspective, and it is this center that is the seat of existence. This center can be either in consciousness or in the unconscious. When it is in the unconscious, then the rational activities of reflective consciousness are incorporated into the whole life of the psyche only in terms of mythical meanings. When it is in reflective consciousness, then the products of the unconscious appear as strange and alien powers to be feared and obeyed or examined and analyzed.

The locus of the seat of existence in reflective consciousness does not guarantee its control over all that takes place within that consciousness. It may continue to be relatively impotent. What is altered is the meaning of that impotence. It is now an experience of being overcome by an alien and greater power. The Jungians interpret a great deal of myth as expressing this shift of the seat of existence into reflective consciousness and the intrapsychic struggles that ensue.

My thesis is that by the axial period the shift of the seat of existence to the reflective consciousnesss was occurring in influential segments of the community. This led to the progressive rationalizing of reflective consciousness, as well as to its strengthening. Finally, rational consciousness was prepared to assert its full autonomy from, and its power over, the mythical symbolization by which ancient civilization had lived. The power of mythical thinking was broken, and a new structure of existence emerged.

This newness can be seen in the individuality and freedom of axial man. This does not mean that men who had always been individual and free finally came to see this fact about themselves. Instead, it means that individuality and freedom arose. The next pages will be devoted to an attempt to explain the newness of axial existence first as individuality and then as freedom.

Of course, men have always been individuals in some sense. Ontologically speaking, every entity is individual. Furthermore, men have always had an important measure of individual identity through time. In contrast to the higher animals, among which the successive dominant occasions of experience are primarily bound to the present condition of the body and only secondarily constitute a unity through time as they are joined together into a psyche, human experience has always had considerable autonomy. For it, the relation to its own past and future is more determinative than the relation to the changing condition of the body. Ontologically, therefore, not only is each occasion of human experience an individual, just as is each animal experience as well, but also the series of such occasions has a continuity and a cumulative character that constitute it as an individual series.

In primitive man, however, this individuality was located in the unconscious, and although it must be emphasized when we compare human experience with that of animals, it was not what we think of as individuality today. When I think of myself as an individual, I think of that thread of consciousness that I can recall from the past and anticipate in the future and with which I can identify myself. To a large extent my conscious decisions are made on the basis of memories of past conscious experiences and anticipations of future ones. Thus I bind together this sequence into a chain that began with birth and ends with death. As an individual, I am that chain, and I perceive myself as clearly distinguished and sharply separated from all other individuals.

Because the identity by which I am constituted is primarily a unity of conscious experience, this sharp division of myself from all others is real. My conscious relation to my conscious past and future is drastically different from my conscious relation to the consciousness of other individuals. This relation to others is indirect and even inferential rather than immediate and constitutive. Nevertheless, I believe that even for the highly conscious individual there are other relations to other individuals in the unconscious dimensions of experience. Our total experience in each moment is a selective synthesis of the whole world as it gives itself to be experienced. Important elements in that world are the past experiences of the individual in question, but the experiences of other men are also there to be appropriated. One’s own past may outweigh the others in importance, but it does not exclude them. Hence, our experience as a whole is far more a social product than we ordinarily realize.

Even axial men sometimes receive dim intuitions of the social character of their experience. They sense a greater immediacy of psychic presence of their fellows than their usual theories can explain. Extrasensory communications of various kinds occasionally enter consciousness to disturb our rationalistic systems based on the supposed primacy of sensory experience. Nevertheless, this dimension of experience is too trivial within our conscious lives to play more than a peripheral role. In the unconscious, on the other hand, its importance is far greater.

This means that when the seat of existence was located in the unconscious, individual identity through time was far less exclusive than it became with the axial shift of center to consciousness. Each moment of human experience was certainly deeply affected by its predecessors in the life of the individual soul, but it was also deeply influenced by the psychic life of other members of the tribe. The unconscious experience of each contributed to the unconscious experience of others in such a way that the group or tribe constituted a unit of psychic life quite inconceivable for axial man.

Consciousness also played an important role in the life of primitive man. But so long as the seat of existence was in the unconscious, the relation of the conscious element of one experience to those of others was mediated by the unconscious. In this situation, the symbolic content of consciousness expressed the unconscious life and thus, primarily, the shared psychic life of the group.

Primitive man understood himself as constituted by his participation in a larger whole, rather than conceiving of the whole as composed of individual men who are the final agents of action, decision, and real individuality. I am suggesting that this understanding corresponded with the reality of his situation. Hence, I am arguing also that the emergence of axial man was not only the emergence of a new understanding of man as individual, but of a new individuality. When the seat of existence shifted effectively to reflective consciousness, a new type of continuity between successive occasions of experience arose as well as a new separation of the individual thus constituted from all other individuals.

We can also describe the appearance of axial man as the emergence of freedom. In one sense, every occasion of experience enjoys some freedom in forming itself into whatever it becomes in its moment of actuality. But it is better not to use the term "freedom" quite so broadly. The great majority of what we ordinarily mean by freedom is absent from subhuman modes of existence. What is present is some element of spontaneity and self-determination, an element that has increasing importance as we ascend the scale of life.

Self-determination is fully characteristic of unconscious experience. That does not mean, of course, that it is the primary factor in such experiences. It only means that the process of self-determination by organizing and synthesizing the data from the past mostly occurs unconsciously. Consciousness is possible at all only after this process has progressed to a very high level. Hence, unconscious self-determination is quantitatively primary, even for the most rational man. But it will be best for us to reserve the term "freedom" for something quite different, something much more distinctive and rare.

Where reflective consciousness occurred, there the self-determination present everywhere played a much larger and wider role. Nevertheless, as long as the symbol system was determined by the unconscious, it did not alter the fundamental character of unconscious self-determination.

With the rationalization of reflective consciousness and the shift of the seat of existence to the rational consciousness, a new element appeared, namely, conscious control of symbolization and, thereby, also of action. In axial man this possible conscious control was extended in principle to the whole gamut of human action and thought. One no longer need do and think just what had been done and thought, and the mythical meanings by which man had lived so long were now problematic rather than simply given. At this point, we can and should speak of human freedom as something of utmost importance and distinctiveness in relation to mere unconscious self-determination. In this very important sense, the appearance of axial man was the emergence of freedom in the world.

In this discussion of both individuality and freedom, I have contrasted only primitive man and axial man. Here the contrast is sharp and clear. But between the tribal consciousness of primitive men and the rise of the axial individual lay many centuries of Neolithic culture and high civilization. This period may be subsumed under the heading of the mythical age, but it is important to recognize the great extent to which it was a time of transition. Rational consciousness played an ever greater role, and we must assume that, for greater or lesser parts of their lives, civilized men found the seat of their existence within this consciousness. Thereby, civilized men found themselves more and more cut off from the unity of group life and thrown into lonely isolation. The experience of individuality and freedom, therefore, was not altogether new in the axial period.

However, it is in the description of axial man and not of civilized man in general that the discussion of freedom and individuality belongs. That which constituted civilized man in his distinction from primitive man did not, in itself, bring with it freedom and individuality. It only provided the conditions within which that gradual development could begin which led to the emergence of axial man. Just as before the rise of civilization, those factors which went into the making of civilized man were already present without gaining adequate expression to alter man’s basic situation, so during the course of civilization, those factors arose which went into the making of axial man without transforming the basic character of civilized existence.

Thus we may say that the rise of rational consciousness as an important new factor, which constituted the threshold crossed by civilized man, prepared for the possibility that the seat of existence shift into this consciousness. Where this possibility existed, it undoubtedly was actualized from time to time, and with increasing frequency. This shift in its turn further strengthened the rational consciousness, and finally man was able, from this new seat of existence, to assert conscious control over the whole of consciousness. The effective success of this effort, transforming the whole of existence, is to be found in the first millennium before Christ and is the defining mark of axial man.

I have been speaking as if primitive man, civilized man, and axial man each constituted a single type, recognizing that they shaded off into each other; but we must also recognize that the variations among groups and individuals belonging to each are very great. Yet in the case of the first two, for our purposes, these varieties could be neglected. When we turn to axial man, the situation changes. Here the possible range of diversity is still greater, and some consideration of this diversity is essential to the understanding of our own situation and of Christianity. Hence, the following chapters are discussions of several types of axial existence.