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Classic review: The Great Transformation

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What is remarkable about this age is not simply that profound religions were born, but that their essential teachings were so similar. At the core, in astonishingly similar language, stands the Golden Rule. In fact it was Confucius, she writes, who first articulated the rule, emphasizing the import of treating others with absolute respect.

In antiquity, religious rituals focused on the external world. But amid periods of war, intolerance, and disruptive social change, gifted individuals in diverse cultures began to seek the essence of the human being and explore the inner world.

That search spawned the struggle to rise above suffering and to go beyond egotism to empathy.

Armstrong sees a crucial element in those original teachings that she says has since been submerged or lost. Contrary to today's emphasis on doctrine, "what mattered [then] was not what you believed but how you behaved."

Indeed, seeking absolute certainty was considered ill-advised; it was only through living a compassionate life that one could hope to experience the transcendent reality one desired.

This is where contemporary faith has gone astray, Armstrong says, with the rigid adherence to doctrines that foster exclusivist thinking and a demonizing of "the other."

In this tour de force, Armstrong describes developments in four major civilizations side by side chronologically (century by century) as they pass through the Axial Age in different stages. Again and again, it becomes apparent that major breakthroughs come amid crises.

In the 9th century BCE, in revulsion against societal violence, Brahman priests in India eliminate violent elements from traditional sacrifical rites. Ritual instead becomes a reconstructive act for the individual, focusing on a changed mental state.

In the 8th century BCE, Jewish prophets insist that ritual is meaningless without ethical behavior, and call for introspection, integrity, and pursuit of justice.

Some philosophers remain skeptical of Jaspers' theory and question the categorizing of such worldviews as Confucianism as religion. Armstrong couches her discussion of such ethical systems in semi-religious language. It's easy to see, however, why individuals from other cultures might perceive some developments differently.

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