The Moral Revolution/Axial Age As Progressive Regression

Wednesday, 13 July 2016: 09:00
Location: Hörsaal 42 (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Eugene HALTON, University of Notre Dame, USA
Karl Jaspers celebrated the era of “the axial age,” the period around 600 BCE, as a triumphant breakthrough of human reflective capacities, a view echoed in Robert Bellah’s book, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age, which celebrates the emergence of “the theoretic attitude.” But as my recent book, From the Axial Age to the Moral Revolution, demonstrates, the previously unknown originator of the theory he termed “the moral revolution” in 1873, John Stuart-Glennie, took a markedly different view. Stuart-Glennie saw in it contradictions requiring further resolution in later historical development, and D. H. Lawrence, who I have shown also developed an independent theory of the phenomena twenty years before Jaspers, saw it as involving a tragic separation from the sustaining relationship with a greater bio-spiritual cosmos, a critique that has numerous implications for contemporary discussions of global sustainability as a moral as well as an ecological issue.

Drawing from these sources and from my own theory of history as involving a paradoxical contraction of mind, I propose a new way of viewing the moral revolution/axial age. History can be understood as the development of anthropocentric mind, contracting from long term evolutionary attunement to the informing properties of wild nature to a human centered outlook progressively dependent on human constructions of domesticated settlement. The axial “heightening of the specifically human in man,” as Jaspers put it, may have come at the cost of disowning the living primate animal in man and the sustaining wild habitat of the biosphere. “Reflective” civilization was enabled to take one step further from the wild, not as progress, but as progressive regression, regressive in the sense that, far from controlling nature, humans began to consume it in an unsustainable Malthusian-like trajectory whose limits are being reached in our time.