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Lions Roar : July 2006
SHAMBHALA SUN JULY 2006 83 On prominent display in this book are Armstrong’s usual vir- tues—wide knowledge, meticulous research, a superb apprecia- tion for the beauty and power of religious and philosophical ide- als, and general readability. Her narrative powers do fluctuate a bit, though. In matters Indian and Greek, Armstrong seems at her best. Her treatment of China is at least serviceable and sometimes lyrical. Ancient Israel, however, presents a problem. She clearly admires the Hebrew prophets and sensitively celebrates their insights. Yet their social and political backdrops remains consis- tently out of focus, probably because the actual historical data with which Armstrong had to work remain excessively murky. But the book delights far more often than it disappoints. Arm- strong provides readers with vivid and penetrating sketches of great figures like Confucius, the Buddha, Chuangzi, Jeremiah, and Socrates, and of classic texts like the Bhagavad Gita. Also arresting and memorable are her revealing portrait of the growing reaction against ritual animal slaughter in late Vedic India, her masterful genealogy of the Greek gods, her vivid evocation of the Greek sense of the uncanny and tragic, her trenchant analysis of the influential Samkhya philosophical system of ancient India, and her instruc- tive appreciation of secondary figures such as Mo Ti, the Chinese philosopher of “universal love,” and Xunzi, an important Confu- cian thinker with a knack for philosophical synthesis. And this is but the tip of the iceberg. For those who lack time for the extensive education Armstrong’s eight-century survey provides, the book’s first and last chapters will serve as a satisfying executive summary. It is also worth noting that the book’s title—The Great Trans- formation—must be taken with a grain of salt. The Axial period was not, alas, the prelude to a golden age. When it ended, his- tory rolled bloodily onward; the moral quotient of humanity-at- large had not been noticeably elevated. Nor was the Age itself a golden one. Its sages lived, taught, and died in the midst of all the world’s usual horror and fury. Their ideas did not automatically trickle down to become property in common. And for the female half of humanity the breakthroughs of the Age were something less than breathtaking. Axial visionaries seemed to share for the most part the male chauvinist assumptions of their cultures and, as Armstrong ruefully notes, there were no female Axial sages. Nevertheless, the Axial Age was a time of revolutionary propos- als in the religious life of humanity. First, it was during this era that human reason first launched its perennial struggle against mythic literalism. Everywhere the old gods and spirits were being interro- gated as to their true identity by that strange new breed of human beings—philosophers!—who suddenly appeared in critical mass. Dissatisfaction with unreflective adherence to the old stories was in the air. It was not that mythos was being asked to vacate its place in the human mind. As the rationalist Plato himself knew, stories were far too essential for that. But for the first time logos was claim- ing a significant share of humanity’s soul and a right to interpret the mythos rather than be passively subject to its bewitchments. Second, the Axial Age sages considered nonviolence a sacred value. Each of the Axial Age faiths, says Armstrong, “began in principled