Axial Age

By Will Baker


As I pen these lines I imagine that I am writing at the site of an horrific societal wreck, the penultimate expression of the human tale, thirty thousand odd years in the making unfolding before my eyes. "But what wreck" you ask? To this I say look about you, open your eyes, ears, hearts and minds and define the ruin in a manner that holds relevance for you.

To live alone one must be an animal or a god- says Aristotle. There is yet a third case: one must be both-a philosopher. --Friedrich Nietzsche

Well, as I have often said, inside us all dwell Gods and Cannibals, and in doing so I am attempting to express my belief that we possess the literal capacity to be both of these things simultaneously. On the surface it might appear that I am paraphrasing the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche but in reality I am not. For it seems to me that we simply can not choose to philosophize no more than a cherry can choose to be red, for I believe that it is an attribute of our humanity. But if we are hard-wired to philosophize, what purpose does it serve? To better allow us to examine the flotsam and jetsam of our age, to cry tears more bitter since they flow less from ignorance but more from guilt?

I stick my finger into existence---It smells of nothing. Where am I? What is this thing called the world? Who is it who has lured me into the thing, and now leaves me here? How did I come into the world? Why was I not consulted? --Soren Kierkegaard

Since Plato the notion of universal good, of a high ethical goodness was widespread until in the Nineteenth-century the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard argued against this tradition. He insisted that "the individual's highest good is to find his or her own unique vocation." I would argue that in terms of moral choice, objectivity fails for there is no collective rational basis for our decisions; questions of morality and truth are individual in nature. Of course, whenever it is possible clarity of reason is desirable but ultimately life's more important questions are not accessible to it. Towards the end of his life, Kierkegaard rejected a total rational understanding of humanity and history, stressing the ambiguity and absurdity of the human situation. Well here is a fact: life is absurd and we all struggle with the Ethics of Ambiguity.

The existentialist...thinks it very distressing that God does not exist, because all possibility of finding values in a heaven of ideas disappears along with Him; there can no longer be a priori of God, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. Nowhere is it written that the Good exists, that we must be honest, that we must not lie; because the fact is that we are on a plane where there are only men. Dostoyevsky said, If God didn't exist, everything would be possible. That is the very starting point of existentialism. Indeed, everything is permissible if God does not exist, and as a result man is forlorn, because neither within him nor without does he find anything to cling to. --Jean Paul Sartre

The 17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal denounced what he perceived to be the philosophical system of his day that presumed to explain God and humanity. He viewed life in terms of paradoxes: The human self, combining mind and body (Descartes’ "Ghost in the Machine"), is itself a contradiction. As an aside, in developing his ideas relating to ambiguity, absurdity and the human situation, Kierkegaard used this position as his point of departure. And it could be argued that even though his message is ultimately one of guarded optimism, the atheist Nietzsche developed ideas that spoke to a sort of "tragic pessimism" but also "life-affirming individual will." Much has been written since then challenging the existence of God, and on the importance of and our responsibility for the choices that we are evidently free to make as we go about the business of living our lives. As regards the latter, since the global culture appears to be sitting squarely on the rocks, foundering, it seems to me that among other things this freedom of cognition gives us ample opportunity to examine the wreckage-the Columbines and 911s, the injustice and hate and then perhaps respond.

I have heard it argued that Nietzsche and I suppose to a lesser degree Pascal and Kierkegaard "killed" the idea of God. That assertion aside, I would certainly argue that since Nietzsche, philosophers have vigorously explored the implications of Free Will on the individual. As if this understanding of Free Will and the ability to make choices has filled the void left by the departure of an all-knowing God with a plan. But I wonder, is Free Will somehow associated with the wreckage?

It seems to me that this Free Will does not come without a price. For the ability to make choices allows us to create our very natures. Therefore, we must accept the risk, anxiety and responsibility inherent in this dynamic and resist the temptation to play the victim. On a related note, the 20th-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger argued that this unease forces the individual to confront the impossibility of determining ultimate justification for her or his choices. He argued that we can never hope to understand why we are here; instead, we must each choose a goal and vigorously pursue it, while maintaining an awareness of the certainty of death and the ultimate meaninglessness (read: tragic pessimism) of one's life. Is it possible that since we feel anxious, being goal-driven helps to keep our mind off of our troubles and in the face of the abyss of meaninglessness feel a bit more in control?

The 20th-century French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre was overtly atheistic and pessimistic, his thesis declared that we require a rational basis for human life, however [perhaps ironically] the attempt is a futile passion. In critiquing his own philosophy he referred to it as a form of humanism that emphasized freedom and responsibility.

A student of Sartre’s, the contemporary French philosopher Jacques Derrida seeks to deconstruct all of the above to test clarity and coherence. Derrida has his students and they have had theirs and that brings us to this very day of philosophic thought: the manifestation of three hundred years of philosophical development. So with all this work why the ruin in our daily lives?

In developing these ideas this Existentialist Club often utilized an approach that came to be known as Phenomenology: its purpose being to study the appearances (read: phenomena) of human experience, with the proviso being that while doing so one must suspend all consideration of their objective reality or subjective association. The appearances/phenomena studied are those experienced in various acts of consciousness (cognitive mostly) or perceptual acts but also in such acts as valuation and aesthetic appreciation. Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt, Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Jacques Derrida, to name a few, were influenced by Phenomenology.

Phenomenology took its present shape at the beginning of the 20th century with the writings of Edmund Husserl. Husserl intended to develop a philosophical method that was devoid of all presuppositions and that would describe phenomena by focusing exclusively on them, to the exclusion of all questions of their causal origins and their status outside the act of consciousness itself. His aim was to discover the essential structures and relationships of the phenomena as well as the acts of consciousness in which the phenomena appeared, and to do this by as faithful an exploration as possible, uncluttered by scientific or cultural presuppositions.

In his original conception of phenomenology, Husserl's idea of a presuppositionless science amounted to rejecting all antecedent commitments to theories of knowledge, both those formally developed as philosophical systems and those which pervade our ordinary thinking ("the natural attitude"). He intended by this suspension, or bracketing, of extraneous commitments to go beyond the usual choices of Idealism and Realism, to "the things themselves." In his later work, however, Husserl expanded his phenomenological method to include what he called "the phenomenological reduction." In this reduction, not only extraneous opinions, but also all beliefs about the external existence of the objects of consciousness, were bracketed. This suspension of all reference to the reality of the thing experienced left the philosopher with nothing but the experiencing itself, which Husserl divided into the "noesis" (act of consciousness) and the "noema" (object of consciousness). –T.E. Wren

In utilizing a phenomenological approach, I would argue that the themes below speak to my perception of existence---and since my existence appears to be taking place among the wreckage I wonder what, if anything these ideas have to do with it all.

Existence Precedes Essence: Sartre said, "man above all things has the ability to develop his essence." I agree and would argue that the implication is that we are not born with, but develop it (our essence) during the course of our lives. We create it by virtue of the choices that we make and we are directly influenced by this reality.

Angst: I believe that we are all effected by a generalized uneasiness, a fear or dread that is not directed to any specific object. It seems to me that this Angst is the dread of the nothingness of human existence. It is perhaps part of the human condition.

Absurdity: To paraphrase Kierkegaard, "I am my own existence, but this existence is absurd. To exist as a human being is inexplicable, and wholly absurd. Each of us is simply here, thrown into this time and place---but why now, Why here?" For no apparent rhyme or reason we are just here.

Being: Being is the basis for our orientation.

Nothingness: If no predetermined essences define me (because existence precedes essence) and if then, I reject all of the philosophies, sciences, political theories, and religions which fail to reflect my existence (as a conscious being) and attempt to impose a specific essentialist structure upon me and my world, is there then no structure in my world?

Death: Perhaps death is our final nothingness, a reality that is always with us during every moment of our lives. We become filled with anxiety when we permit ourselves to be aware of this. At those moments, says Heidegger; the whole of my being seems to drift away into nothing.

Alienation/Ambiguity: Apart from my own conscious being, all else is otherness, from which I am estranged. This dynamic exists on many levels and in many forms including but not limited to: alienation relating to Absolutes which men attempt to interpret as transcending the ages, societal alienation and the alienation of the individual.

As I indicated above, it seems to me that society is in shambles yet perhaps all hope is not lost. For example, Karl Jaspers developed a theology of history. He describes an Axial Age that he places between the 8th and 2nd centuries BCE, the age in which the great religions and the great philosophers of the Orient arose--Confucius and Lao-tzu, the Upanisads, Buddha, Zoroaster, the great prophets of Israel--and in Greece the age of Homer and of classical philosophy as well as Thucydides and Archimedes. In this age, for the first time, man became aware of Being in general, of himself, and of his limits.

Perhaps our age, that of technology and science sits at the cusp of a new Axial Age that is the authentic and ultimate destiny of man, a destiny that from our perspective is unfathomable.



 (Essay Collection)




Life's meaning