The Great Transformation: The World in the Time of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah

by Karen Armstrong

Hardcover, 2006



Call number




Atlantic Books (2006), Paperback, 464 pages


In the ninth century BCE, the peoples of four distinct regions of the civilized world created the religious and philosophical traditions that have continued to nourish humanity to the present day: Confucianism and Daoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India, monotheism in Israel, and philosophical rationalism in Greece. Later generations further developed these initial insights, but we have never grown beyond them. Now, Karen Armstrong reveals how the sages of this pivotal "Axial Age" can speak clearly and helpfully to the violence and desperation that we experience in our own times. The Axial Age faiths began in recoil from the unprecedented violence of their time. There was a remarkable consensus in their call for an abandonment of selfishness and a spirituality of compassion. The traditions of the Axial Age were not about dogma--all insisted on the primacy of compassion even in the midst of suffering.--From publisher description.… (more)

Media reviews

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In our own time of "great fear and pain,"Armstrong proposes that we look to the Axial sages for "two important pieces of advice," both of which turn out to be quite uncontroversial: We should practice self-criticism (amen), and we should "take practical, effective action" against excessively
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aggressive tendencies in our own traditions (amen again). But after 400 pages of historical argument, the banality of such declarations is staggering.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member Steven_VI
Armstrong does a very good job of introducing various religious flows to the reader, guiding you through the history and remarking on similarities or differences in the evolution of religious thought. Although I liked reading it, there are a few drawbacks that bothered me.

First of all, Armstrong is
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trying to bring out the similarities between the religions, and seems to downplay or pass over the differences. She does mention these differences, but doesn't often expand on them or explain them. And even when she does, she continues to treat the different religions as following the same evolution.

Instead of giving a history of each religious family, there are four intermingled histories. I would have liked it better if there would have been a continuous story of every religion. I also feel that Armstrong should have given more attention to the reasons of these evolution, whether you consider them to be 'universal' or not.

In the finishing chapter, only Christianity and Islam are treated, as post-Axial afterthoughts to the Jewish religion. That's ok, but why are other post-Axial tendencies ignored? Renaissance humanism, leading to the scientific revolution and to modern-day exact science, is largely a continuation of Greek philosophy, and is arguably a major player in the modern Western 'religious' field.

Despite these critiques, I finished the book in just over a week - it is very well written, and appeals to the reader, not in the least by its marvelous descriptions of intellectual and religious crises.
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LibraryThing member dchaikin
Ten major modern religious went through their most critical early developments during the Axial Age, 900 to 200 BCE. These include Hinduism, biblical Judaism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism and ancient Greek religions. This period also saw the development of the ancient Greek philosophies.
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Armstrong chronicles their somewhat parallel development, 100 years per chapter. There are tons of details on the religious philosophical development, and lots of sources.

Armstrong stated purpose is that the ideas that went into developing these religions are useful for us today. She argues that few of us today find satisfaction in the existent religions, yet we seem to still have a need for religion. So, perhaps the ideas here can help lead us, as a society, to find a way to fill that need. However, this thesis isn't really developed.

What this really amounts to is an introduction into a broad range of maybe difficult and complicated religious philosophies. It is fascinating in places, such a how the (old) bible's development is chronicled, and how the four major pieces, each of different authorship and time periods, were combined together.

However, it's difficult to follow. I am frustrated with myself with how little of this book stuck. There is a lot historical and philosophical information here that was completely new to me - especially on the Indian religions and the ancient Chinese philosophies. So, there was a lot gain. But, if you asked me, after having read this, what the difference was between Confucianism, Daoism and Legalism, and what roll Laozi plays in it I don't feel like I could give a coherent answer.

I also had a lot of trouble with the language. Sentences like this threw me:

"Bhakti encouraged the worshiper to acknowledge his helplessness and need, and this experience of his own vulnerability made it possible to empathize with others. This new spirituality was, therefore, deeply in tune with the axial age"

I had to read this sentence three or four times before it made sense. It's not even that complicated a sentence or concept. Maybe I just have a very limited comprehension level, but they way it's worded throws me.

On balance I can praise the book for the immense amount of details. I think it was nice that she spent a lot of time on each concept. I thought the sort of timeslice views were interesting, although it caused some awkward breaks and juxtapositions. In general, as we look farther back in time, we tend to foreshorten the timescale. In this book, we don't do that. Each 100 years has equal weight.

I would criticize it for not spending enough time discussing the overall themes. I think each chapter could have used an summary to, among other things, place the developments within the Axial Age flow.

I guess I would conclude by saying this book opened my eyes to a lot of new ideas, but it also crossed them quite a bit.
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LibraryThing member PJWetzel
I came to be aware of this book because one day while contemplating the world's religions, I had a little epiphany that many major faith traditions started about the same time (800 to 200 BCE). I pursued this idea and started doing some research, wondering if the nascent trade routes that would
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become the Silk Road had begun a cultural exchange that early in history. Well, as I dug into it, I found out that my idea was far from original (few ever are). Karl Jaspers had the idea, and published it in `The Origin and the Goal of History' in 1953. Karen Armstrong seems to have bought into Jasper's theories "hook, line and sinker", adding little to them except to update with half a century of additional scholarly research.

The goal of my research (and thus my hopes for Armstrong's book) was to explore the unifying factors that led to this period of profound global advancement in human thought. I found that it seemed to be truly global. Jaspers and Armstrong focus only on four major hubs of civilization (Greece, Judea, India and China). What I found was that the Shinto religion began during this time frame as did the Norse theology--Odin first appears during this time. In addition, the first major cities of the Maya civilization arose, the Polynesians were at the height of their great sea migration across the south Pacific, and humans arrived in Madagascar for the first time. Clearly any unifying mechanism went beyond Silk Road trade of cultural ideas.

But Armstrong mentions none of these. In fact, her goal does not seem to be to explain why this revolution happened. Rather she focuses on a pet unifying theme (the `Golden Rule') and simply regurgitates Jaspers' thesis that the Great Transformation was a result of an interregnum between eras of war and destruction and suppression of original thought by great empires. I'm not sure I buy that, and again this is not my original thought--it is shared by other critics.

Having posited a theme for the Axial Age (as Jaspers called it), Armstrong proceeds to develop it by giving a whirlwind survey, in chronological blocks, of the historical and spiritual events in the four cultures. It turns out that the Axial thinkers (by her definition) arose sporadically, not simultaneously in most cases. In fact she concludes that Axial thinking never really took hold in Greece as it spawned the Western philosophies.

Armstrong's book reads like a series of book reports (this is what I read and here's what I got out of it). Too often her work becomes a tedious recitation of factual historical events and summarizations of ancient writings without any raison d'être. Rather, it seems, she has an obsession for completeness (demonstrated in other works of hers such as `A History of God'.) Finally, a pet peve: Armstrong has the annoying habit of using `chic' words drawn from the subject culture, such as nibbana (nirvana), ahimsa (harmlessness) and li (tradition). There are many of these. She defines them once and then expects the reader to remember them all.

As a research earth scientist I find myself wondering if human interactions with the changing global climate of the time may have contributed to this great global revolution. Psychologists may wonder if this was a result of the natural evolution of human self-awareness as we came to recognize our mind as a useful tool. Armstrong peripherally mentions (in barely a few lines) such revolutions as the smelting of iron and the domestication of the horse as contributing factors to destabilization during these times. She was silent on the Silk Road idea and the others. In the end, I was disappointed.
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LibraryThing member ShiraC
This is a must-read in any college-level world religions course. It's much better (to take a non-random example) than Huston Smith "The World's Religions". For one thing, the scholarship in Armstrong's books is about 30 years newer. For another, Armstrong is considerably more even-handed in her
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treatment of certain traditions (particularly Biblical Judaism). And Armstrong includes the Greek philosophic and artistic traditions in her analysis. Since these are one of the bases of modern Western thought, sometimes allied and sometimes in tension with religious views, their presence in this book is a huge advantage.
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LibraryThing member William345
Karen Armstrong takes great mountains, virtual Everests, of wretched scholarly prose and turns them into something highly readable. She is a first-rate disseminator and popularizer of the history of religion. The Great Transformation reviews the history of what Karl Jaspers famously termed the
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"Axial Age." During this period, roughly 900-200 B.C.E., the foundations for all of our present religious traditions were laid down: Hinduism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Jainism, Judaism, the other monotheisms, etc. For example, she follows the Aryans from the Caucasus onto the Gangetic Plain and unfolds the story of proto-Hindu culture there. Similarly, she writes of the pre-Biblical development of what would become Judaism, and so on for all the relevant faiths. These are stories I have never come across elsewhere. Leave it to Armstrong to see this gap in common knowledge of religious history and seek to fill it. What she has undertaken here is of enormous scope. To write the proto-history and then the history of all the Axial faiths is not just ambitious, it is an effort that astonishes the reader as he watches it unfold. I recommend all Armstrong's books but especially this one, The Case for God (also reviewed here) and A History of God. What marks her prose is tremendous empathy. Her portraits of the various Axial Age peoples are stunning in their range and complexity. It is a very dense book, but loaded with fascinating information for the patient reader. Armstrong believes that there is much to be learned from our religious history. Properly understood it is both a cautionary tale and an indication of how very much we need spirituality in our lives. To paraphrase Jean-Paul Sartre, without it we are left with a great "God-shaped hole" in our lives. Christopher Hitchens (R.I.P.) and Richard Dawkins want us to chuck it. I disagree. This is an integral part of our evolution as a species and we have much to learn from it. (Note: The other writer of excellence in this field I'm familiar with is Elaine Pagels. She, too, has a number of wonderful books but it is her Gnostic Gospels (also reviewed here) that is her summa.) Highly recommended!
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LibraryThing member MaowangVater
"With regard to dealing with fear, despair, hatred, rage, and violence, the Axial sages gave their people and gave us, Armstrong says, two important pieces of advice: first there must be personal responsibility and self-criticism, and it must be followed by practical effective action."
LibraryThing member Zylphan
A very enjoyable book! An excellent overview of various religious traditions. I would recommend this one to anyone interested in religious history.
LibraryThing member thcson
I was a bit disappointed by this book. It provides a broad overview of the early developments of world religions, but the author only skims the surface without reaching any interesting insights. Her attempts to draw lessons for today from her superficial analyses struck me as outright naive.
LibraryThing member ablueidol
Ever thought why all the major religious ideas have their roots in one 700-800 year period. Does this massive revolution in thought and ways of living have any relevance to day? Karen Armstrong’s book The Great Transformation traces the history of the Axial Age peoples from 1600 to 900 BCE to
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give a foundation as to why the need to transform and then traces the ideas that Greeks, Chinese, Indians and Jews came up with and why over the key 900 to 200 BCE period. She does this by looking at how the different societies address similar key ideas at roughly the same time. She also explores how this creative burst of energy comes to end and argues that Christianity and Islam were the last major shoots of this transformation. The book is published by Atlantic Books in the UK and by A.Knopf a division of Random House in the USA. This is a review of the paperback edition

Karen Armstrong is exploring the area first set out by Karl Jaspers who coined the term the Axial Age (Achsenzeit in the German language original) to describe the period from 800 BCE to 200 BCE, in his Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte (The Origin and Goal of History). He identified a number of key Axial Age thinkers as having had a profound influence on future philosophy and religion, and identified characteristics common to each area from which those thinkers emerged. Jaspers saw in these developments in religion and philosophy a striking parallel without any obvious direct transmission of ideas from one region to the other, having found no recorded proof of any extensive inter-communication between Ancient Greece, the Middle East, India and China. She works on the assumption that the developments were far less contemporaneous then he thought and that the ideas are foundations that we have to build on to day when grappling with religious and spiritual meaning. Not least because of the general blindness that the majority of the thinkers and founders have about the contributions and roles of women.

Karen Armstrong begins by exploring the fate of the Aryan or Indo-European tribes that lived on the Russian steppes around 1600 BCE to 900 BCE. Their religion was based on an immanent life force in all natural objects and a council of passive peaceful Gods that kept natural order. Balance was maintained by animal sacrifice. They were a settled pastoral people. This changed when they encountered more advanced cultures and discovered iron, horses and chariots. This spilt the tribes into warrior based and pastoral based cultures and created a period of war and massive instability as the traditional tribes were raided and torched. The warriors and cattle rustlers began to worship dynamic warrior Gods such as Indra the dragon slayer.

Out of this violence and storm of injustice is created Zoroasterism that created the notion of struggle between an evil “Hostile Spirit” and good supreme God. Ritual was linked to internal purity and an apocalyptic end time was forecast when good would restore the world to its original perfection. But the imagery was of revenge rather then non violence so it looked back rather then forward to the ideas of the Axial age. It did have a strong ethical base in looking at the right conduct of warriors. It was not popular with the Aryan tribes but gradually became rooted in the areas around Iran that formed the Persian Empire and was to have a powerful influence on the Jewish exiles some centuries later.

She then goes on to discuss how each of the cultures develop and build on or react to developments within ritual, kenosis, knowledge, suffering, empathy, concern for everyone, all for one and empire over the 700 years of the Axial age. For example In India we move from a religion based on the sacred flame to one that internalises the flame and develops the idea of Kama and a never ending wheel of birth and death. This is driven by various renouncers or ascetics but they give no hope for the ending of suffering. What arises is the Buddhist approach of being able to jump off the wheel and ending the continual rebirth into the cycle. But this and the other approaches tended to be elitist and remote from the concerns ordinary people. So the early Vedic traditions use the Kama idea to marry ritual to a personal faith in a God so producing classical Hinduism.

The explanation explores why this creative burst ceases is in part the restoration of political and social stability so a search for meaning becomes less important. And in part because the emerging empires need to have a official religion so dynamics and radical thinking slows and stops.

In the final chapter, she explores the lessons and the implications of the Axial age for us in era where religions are abandoning the insights of this period and a cycle of violence grows as we polarise into hose with the certainty of faith or no faith

I was engaged with the argument and its relevance to the lack of religion based on Axial principles to day. It is well written and balances an exploration of the ideas and the social context and dynamics for them.

My main concern with this otherwise excellent book is it does not explore the tensions between a faith for the mass of ordinary people and those of spiritual elite. This is touched on in India re the growth of classical Hinduism and in China and some of the pragmatic reactions to Confucianism but is not a central theme. In Christianity for example this conflict was fought in the early days between the proto catholic literalist tradition and the elite spiritual Gnostic tradition. To me a way for the great transformation of the 2nd axial age would be to see how the current elite spiritual ideas could be folded back into a mass movement to give us a faith that gave a purpose and meaning into our lifes as main stream religions fade into rigid armed camps.

I would strongly recommend that this book is read if you want to open your eyes to what religion can mean and should mean. And it wont be what you thought it was.
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LibraryThing member annbury
This book was something of a disappointment to me, at least compared to several other of Ms. Armstrong's works. Some of her books have been very important to me, offering understanding, knowledge, and even enlightenment. This one, however, falls short of her best efforts, perhaps because it
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attempts so much. The problem is not the quality of Ms. Armstrong's research or clarity. In discussing the evolution of four major religious/philosophical traditions (the Indian, the Chinese, the Judaic, and the Greek) in the centuries around 500 BC, she imparts an enormous amount of information without overloading or confusing the reader. Rather, it seems to me that she tries to force what she is telling us into a pre- determined conclusion; that religion in general in this period moved away from violence and towards compassion. Certainly, this pattern did appear in the emergence of Buddhism, in some Hebrew texts, and in some strains of Chinese thought. But other, contradictory elements were there as well, and the compassion she finds in Chinese thinking seems very different to me from the compassion of Buddhism, or from contemporary developments in Judaic thought -- let alone what was happening in Greece. This is an interesting and instructive book, but it lacks for me the depth of some of her other works.
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LibraryThing member MarcusBastos
The Golden Rule
This book is about the genesis of the religious ideas. It examines the different traditions and its historical development. The author seeks to understand these ideas in order to discern insights for our days. She reconstructs the various traditions and gives her interpretation. The
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task is well done. The case Armstrong makes for compassion as the pivotal value of these traditions in impressive and actually appraises religious ideas. Great reading!
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LibraryThing member mmodine
Comparative religion in doomed to fail, because religious ideas take their meaning from the systems they inhabit. With regard to the Hebrew Bible, Armstrong first follows the Chronicler, then the Deuteronomistic Historian, then Second Isaiah, then Jeremiah without admitting that she is “limping
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along between two” or three opinions. Finally, the assertion that the only or best significance of religion is for the purpose of interior spirituality is offensive and irritating. Doubtless much evil was and continues to be done in the name of religion, but abusus non tollit usum.
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LibraryThing member Jthierer
Caveat that I don't know enough about any of these religions to make any assertions about whether Armstrong is totally right or totally wrong about any of her assertions.

That said, I really enjoyed this one. I am becoming more and more interested in the historical underpinnings of Christianity and
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this book served as a great complement to some of that reading by illuminating how certain concepts like ascetism, selflessness and pacifism grew in different yet similar ways in different religious traditions. I do think this struggles from the typical affliction of a survey work where time periods are stretched/compressed in order to make a particular framing device work, but ultimately I learned enough to forgive it.
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Original publication date


Physical description

464 p.; 9.37 inches


1903809754 / 9781903809754
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