Religion, the Axial Age, and theoretic culture

ReligionInHumanEvolutionCoverI recently read the late Robert Bellah’s ‘Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age.’  Although the title of the book seems to narrow it to just religion, in ancient societies, religion was just about everything, so the book ended up being about the development of cultures, which isn’t too surprising given Bellah’s background in sociology.

One of the topics Bellah covers is Merlin Donald‘s concept of theoretic culture, that is culture that includes thinking about thinking.  The idea is that world religions, philosophy, science, and other forms of relatively advanced thought are aspects of theoretic culture that developed during the Axial Age.

Bellah discusses different stages of cultural transmission.  Each builds on the previous ones, with theoretic being the final one.

The earliest stage, which strictly speaking isn’t really cultural transmission but it’s a crucial building block, is episodic memory, that is remembering specific events and situations and recalling them when encountering similar new events.  Episodic memory is evolutionarily ancient, going back hundreds of millions of years.  It added the ability for an animal to respond to situations outside of their instincts.

Not nearly as ancient, but still very old, is mimetic culture, the ability to observe what others are doing, learn from it, and adopt it for your own use.  Mimetic culture is most developed in social animals, particularly in primates, and of course most thoroughly in humans.  Long before language, primates observed each other and learned from their actions.  For example, in a tribe of chimpanzees, when one figures out a new way to use a stick to find food, other monkeys observe and adopt the technique, and it becomes part of that tribe’s culture.

It’s from mimetic culture that ritual arises.  And ritual forms a core aspect of Bellah’s thoughts about religion.  Ritual predates religion and, in Bellah’s conception, lies at the center of it.  Ritual is a core part of the enactive aspect of religion, the part that makes the religious beliefs feel real.  It’s also why many other ritualistic aspects of culture, such as civil ceremonies and sports events, often have a borderline religious feel to them.

On top of mimetic culture, we have narrative culture.  (Many call this “mythic culture”, but Bellah prefers the more value neutral term “narrative”.)  Narrative culture, the transmission of cultural information through stories, is almost certainly as old as spoken language.  It’s the predominate form of cultural transmission in oral cultures, that is, cultures that aren’t yet literate.

Bellah refers to pre-axial state cultures, such as ancient Egypt, Sumer, and Akkad, as archaic societies.  He emphasizes that those that had writing remained largely oral in orientation.  Reading and writing in cuneiform and hieroglyphics were complex, difficult, and reserved for a small class of professional scribes.  The majority of these cultures, even among the elite, were still oral.

(I’d never realized this until reading Bellah, but this is why virtually all of the earliest literature is poetry or chants.  Stories told in meter were much easier to remember.  The oldest sagas were almost all orally composed, including such epic poems as the Iliad or the saga of Gilgamesh, or aphoristic collections such as the Vedas.  The oldest writings were recording oral information then widely in circulation.  Prose only begins to proliferate when literacy starts to become more pervasive, at least among the ruling classes, when there is an audience that will be able to read it without having to commit it to memory.  And that only happens with the prevalence of relatively simple writing systems such as the Phoenician and Greek alphabets.)

As archaic societies developed, they began to engage in what Bellah calls mytho-speculation.  This is not just repeating and recording oral mythologies, but speculating about how the world is put together, about the attributes of the gods, and other aspects of reality.  This became prominent in the Egyptian New Kingdom with the rise of theological writing, particularly in the fascinating case of the pharaoh Akhenaten, who attempted to found a new monotheistic religion in Egypt, developing the idea of his god, Aten, in a mytho-speculative manner.

Bellah never explicitly defines mytho-speculation, but I interpret it as someone consciously pondering reality (either sincerely or manipulatively), rather than merely repeating traditional stories that evolved organically across generations and centuries.  Bellah argues that the people later retroactively defined as the pre-Socratic philosophers (that is, Greek philosophers before Socrates), were actually more engaged in mytho-speculation than theoretic culture, that the earliest pre-Socratics didn’t attempt to justify their speculation, they just engaged in it.  Given the very limited knowledge we have of these early pre-Socratics, I think we have to be cautious in categorizing them, but it stands to reason that thought would have evolved through stages.

It’s in the Axial Age that, Bellah argues, theoretic culture arises, that is, culture that thinks explicitly about how to think.  Bellah identifies the pre-Socratic philosopher, Parmenides as providing a major breakthrough in Greek culture by developing the philosophical argument.  (See Michelle Joelle’s excellent recent post about philosophical arguments.)  What Permenides introduced, Plato more fully developed, and theoretic culture was established in Greek society.

Of course, it wasn’t only in Greece that theoretic culture arose, but also in India with Buddhism, and in China with Confucianism.  This is why this period is called the Axial Age.  (That and the fact that it happens to sit at the mid-point, the axis, of written history, roughly equidistant between the development of writing and modern times.)

I’ve written before that I think the rise of simple phonetic alphabets was what led to the Axial Age, at least in the west.  I’ve read other speculation that it might have been from increases in agricultural production that led to larger surpluses than what had come before, allowing for a larger intellectual class.  I suspect there were multiple causes that reinforced each other.  But, interestingly, Bellah and other scholars seem to think that writing was a result of the Axial Age rather than a cause.  I’m not entirely sure the chronology bears that out, except possibly in India, where post-Harappan writing apparently didn’t get off the ground until after the Axial Age.

I’m also not entirely sure that we can even say that theoretic culture didn’t exist before the Axial Age.  It’s just the earliest time that we have evidence for it since it’s the time that literacy starts to become (relatively) widespread and opportunities for that evidence to be recorded become pervasive.  Who knows what the thinkers in ancient Egypt or Sumer thought, or how much the Greeks might have owed to and built upon their ideas?  It’s worth noting that although writing goes back to around 3000 BC, studying history before the Axial Age is mostly an archaeological exercise, but becomes much more about studying historical documents afterward (again, at least in the west).

But I don’t think there’s much doubt that theoretic culture became far more advanced, as the thoughts of thinkers began to be recorded, read by later thinkers, and built upon in a way far more sophisticated than was possible in oral cultures.  It ushered in a new age of human cognition.

But it’s not like we crossed the theoretic divide and achieved cultural maturity in the Axial Age.  As I’ve written about before, science in particular looks very different today than it did only 400 years ago.  We may have begun the theoretic journey c. 500 BC, but we are still definitely on it, and with the breakneck advances in communication, such as the internet, we may well be entering a new axial age.

21 thoughts on “Religion, the Axial Age, and theoretic culture

  1. Sounds like a must-have book. Great review.

    It’s great that you raised this point: I’d never realized this until reading Bellah, but this is why virtually all of the earliest literature is poetry or chants
    It’s important, and it was a towering hero of the human species who had to confront and solve the inadequacies of the method, and we live with his work every day, yet hardly anyone has ever heard of his name: Yāska.

    Here’s how I described him in a post:

    Eyes forward because the astounding part of this double-headed tale is truly quite remarkable, and it begins with an extraordinary champion of the human species; a magnificent uncle who ninety generations ago opened his mind and accidently found himself holding the formative shape of physical reality. It sounds grand, and I’ll admit only a precious few even know his name, but my accolade is by no means an exaggeration. That man was Yāska, the Vedic grammarian and author of the Nirukta; a technical treatise on etymology, lexical categorisation, and the semantics of words.

    An unlikely hero, but a hero just the same.

    Unawares of what he would soon discover, Yāska’s work began as an urgent response to a very real problem: the spoken language of his day had drifted away from the almost perfectly preserved Vedic language alive in the ancient Vedas (orally transmitted canonical scriptures, the formative creation myths of Hinduism) rendering entire passages of the hymns obscure at best and unintelligible at worst. In Yāska’s day, as noted by the Buddhist author Jayarava, there were no books, no dictionaries or grammars. “One met texts orally, and could only study them once they were memorised.” Yāska’s solution to the problem was beyond brilliant and would go on to form the foundation of contemporary studies in cognitive linguistics and semantics, including phonetics, grammar, syntax, lexicography and morphology. It was Yāska who first categorised nāma (nouns), ākhyāta (verbs), upasarga (prefixes), and nipāta (particles and prepositions). He created ontological categories to describe actions (bhāva) with past, present and future connotations. He formulated grammatical aspect, the murta, which identified perfective and imperfective situations. In all, it was Yāska who first looked at the entire lexicon of language and wrestled it into a system of understanding which we still use today.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, but it really wasn’t a review. (I’ve sworn off doing those.) If it had been, I would have felt obligated to mention the other things he discussed in the book, like the pre-contact kingdom of Hawaii which was headed for archaic society status, or his thoughts of religion being tangled up in some way with play activity.

      In truth, I’m not sure I’d recommend this book. It does have interesting information in it, but I found it long, tedious, and often maddeningly ambiguous, with key terms (such as “mytho-speculation”) often not clearly defined.

      Yāska sounds like an interesting figure. You’re right; I hadn’t heard of him, or of the sanskrit grammarians and associated controversies. I had no idea that there were treatises on language orally composed and transmitted for centuries before India had alphabetic writing.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Growth curves are often exponential due to how the current “amount” factors into the next “amount” so each growth step involves larger and larger numbers.

        It’s also the source of catastrophes, because growth curves like that require infinite room to grow, and nothing is actually infinite. There always comes a crash point. That’s what scares me about a number of social and technological growth curves today.

        There is a crash coming. The only questions are when and how we manage to handle it.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I think a crash is possible, but I don’t see it as being nearly as inevitable as you do. Of course, historically every civilization eventually falters and declines. I think it’s naive to assume ours won’t. But I also think it’s overly pessimistic to assume it’s imminent. Our civilization may have centuries of life yet. That doesn’t mean there aren’t serious challenges ahead (world population, climate change, etc).


          1. That’s right, you like the idea of the ‘S’ curve rather than a straight exponential one. Let’s hope you’re right!!

            My concern is that an asymptotic tail requires some kind of limiting factor. Animal populations will expend exponentially unless resources or predators change the balance.

            The world population curve, for example, is kind of scary. There’s absolutely a limiting factor, but it may involve the deaths of millions or billions. I just pray we somehow get smarter before that happens and find a way to slow things down.

            I think sometimes about the dinosaurs, who were around for millions of years and required an asteroid to end their reign. We’ve been around, what, about 100,000 years, and we’ve already gotten to the point of being able to kill ourselves off.

            Tool users are dangerous! 😮


          2. One of the more bleak theories of the Fermi Paradox is that maybe it’s in the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself. Carl Sagan used to discuss that scenario a lot during the Cold War when the U.S. and the Soviet Union had a zillion missiles pointing at each other in hair trigger fashion.

            There’s definitely no guarantee that we still won’t ruin or overload our environment. Only time will tell.

            Liked by 1 person

          3. Indeed. I think I mentioned that I’d queued up Poul Anderson’s Heechee series as my next read. Got the author wrong, though: Frederik Pohl. (Other than an unusual four-letter word starting with “P” that was a pretty big miss!)

            Anyway, I think it’s in that series is expressed the idea that all species who are both hierarchical and intelligent eventually kill themselves off. The Heechee dodged that bullet, IIRC (and it’s been a long while), by not being hierarchical.

            I liked their numbering system. Their numbers were expressed as sums of primes. 🙂


          4. Thanks. I hadn’t seen that one. I read Jared Diamond’s ‘Collapse’ a while back and also found it interesting.

            Having read my share of this kind of literature, I’ve concluded that there is no one cause we can point to for civilizational collapses. Societies are complex phenomena, with a lot of things that must go right (climate, military, economy, etc) for them to succeed. Eventually, one or more of those things fails badly enough to bring them down.


  2. Nice write up! I thought I’d recommend this book to my husband who’s always on the lookout for something to read, but then I saw your comment. Oh well, I’m glad you were able to extract something out of it—an interesting blog post.

    “I’m also not entirely sure that we can even say that theoretic culture didn’t exist before the Axial Age. It’s just the earliest time that we have evidence for it since it’s the time that literacy starts to become (relatively) widespread and opportunities for that evidence to be recorded become pervasive.”

    I’m with you there. It would be pure speculation on my part, but I would imagine that theoretical thinking must’ve come much sooner. It seems like oral language would require “thinking about thinking” on some level. Or maybe I’m just interpreting his definition too broadly.

    I’m sort of curious about “..his thoughts of religion being tangled up in some way with play activity.” I assume by “play activity” you don’t mean goofing around or having sex, but ritual/drama? Or maybe all three at once? 🙂


    1. Thanks! If your husband enjoys scholarly works, he might still find it interesting. As I noted above, I found interesting things in it, many of which I noted in the post, but often struggled overall to stay interested. In particular I thought the writing was far too wordy, that it could have been tightened substantially, and that despite that wordiness, many needed clarifications never happened. That said, I’ve read comments from others saying that they were immensely impressed with the work, so who knows.

      By “play”, he’s referring generally to all forms of play, that is activity not necessarily with an immediate practical purpose, done for pleasure, where the rules are often different from more serious interactions. He notes that play exists not only in humans, but throughout mammalian species. Existing that widely, it must have an evolutionary purpose, often thought to essentially be practice for more serious pursuits. I don’t recall him saying it outright, but it seems like he’s implying that religion is a form of play, although I suspect he would have disagreed with that exact wording.

      He only discusses play in the first and last chapters, expressing regret in that final chapter that, since the relationship to play occurred to him late in writing, that he couldn’t go back through the book and integrate it throughout, so it isn’t part of his analysis of specific societies.


      1. I think my husband would feel the same way as you do about it. He’s pretty critical of anything verbose and doesn’t have much patience with anything written in that style.

        I can see play having that evolutionary purpose of teaching, preparing for the future—especially when you see animals pretending to hunt each other down, children playing “house” and other role-playing games like “follow the leader”—but I’m not sure about religion in that context. In any case, that would have been an interesting topic. I wonder what religion would be a play-preparation for? Death? The afterlife? Or re-enactment of scenes that are meant to instill moral virtue?


        1. Good questions. Personally, I share your skepticism. Maybe some aspects of religion might fall into that category, but I didn’t read anything in this book to alter my feeling that religion historically meets one or more of three purposes: explain the world, support the social order, and provide existential comfort.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m not sure that simple alphabets were necessary for theoretical culture. China, during the early Confucian period and into the Legalist period, was purely ideogramatic. In fact, it remains so to this day.

    I’ve recently become interested in the Legalism of guys like Lord Shang. This could very much be a product of my own bias, but I suspect the theoretic culture you talk about was more the consequence of necessity rather than literacy. In other words, literacy was a supporting change intended to help societies survive periods of intense, existential competition. Shang’s version of Legalism (copied by the Europeans 1800 years later, by the way – we call it meritocracy) was not really born out philosophical questions so much as the Qin Dynasty’s desire/need to survive the Seven Kingdoms period. Considering that at least of these two nations could field million plus man armies, more advanced ways of thinking seem likely to be the difference between founding the first unified Chinese state and being executed in a burning Chu-state palace.


    1. Good points. You mention that main reason that I qualified my phonetic alphabet remark to the west. Of course, the phonetic alphabet itself was likely driven by the necessity of Phoenician merchants having a simple system for communication. In the west, it proliferated in the centuries leading up to the Axial Age, but I’ll admit that India and China seem to imply that it wasn’t crucial.

      I have to admit that my grasp of Chinese history is limited and to being largely ignorant of Legalism. It was often referred to as a competing philosophy to Confucianism in the books I’ve read, but none of them went into detail about it.

      But I do agree that major movements arise more out of necessity than abstract philosophy. Often the philosophy comes behind and interprets the developments.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree. Actually, China has tried and failed several times in history to make and promote alphabets for use with its neighbors. It just hasn’t been able to make them stick.

        Lord Shang might be worth your time, by the way.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. That’s interesting on the attempts of Chinese alphabet adoption. It reminds me of President Theodore Roosevelt’s attempt to simply English spelling, which he was ridiculed for. Apparently, once people have invested the time to learn the current system, they’re resistant to have that skill made obsolete.

          Thanks. I’ll check Lord Shang out.


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