A write up of four lectures at the Collège de France given in 2004, Stroumsa’s book looks at religious transformations or mutations in the transitions from paganism to Christianity, from Roman and Greek classicism to Late Antiquity.
Stroumsa focuses on the shift from ‘burnt offerings’ to the pagan gods to a worship that is realised through interiority as opposed to external gestures, insisting that the Jewish contribution to this shift be given equal weight with the Christian. (Christianity is or was a Judaism, after all.) Sacrifice itself morphs from an external obligation, immolating the beasts and birds of the field, to an unseen sacrifice of hearts, dispositions and minds, exemplified in the Christian Eucharist.
Stroumsa gestures to the thesis associated with Karl Jaspers – that around the 8th century BCE there was an ‘Axial Age‘ which saw figures such as the Buddha, Zarathustra, the Israelite prophets and Plato embodied the beginning of transcendence.
Karen Armstrong puts it like this:
The period 800–200 BCE has been termed the Axial Age because it proved pivotal to humanity. Society had grown much more aggressive. Iron had been discovered, and this was the beginning of the Iron Age. Better weapons had been invented, and while those weapons look puny compared to what we’re dealing with now, it was still a shock.
The first Axial Age also occurred at a time when individualism was just beginning. As a result of urbanization and a new market economy, people were no longer living on lonely hilltops but in a thriving, aggressive, commercial economy. Power was shifting from king and priest, palace and temple to the marketplace. Inequality and exploitation became more apparent as the pace of change accelerated in the cities and people began to realize that their own behavior could affect the fate of future generations.
So the Axial Age marks the beginning of humanity as we now know it. During this period, men and women became conscious of their existence, their own nature, and their limitations in an unprecedented way. In the Axial Age countries, a few men sensed fresh possibilities and broke away from the old traditions. People who participated in this great transformation were convinced that they were on the brink of a new era and that nothing would ever be the same. They sought change in the deepest reaches of their beings, looked for greater inwardness in their spiritual lives, and tried to become one with a transcendent reality. After this pivotal era, it was felt that only by reaching beyond their limits could human beings become most fully themselves.
For Stroumsa, the ‘End of Sacrifice’ is at least as important, another Axial moment, because it coincides with a revelation of interiority – a search within for the deep grounds of the self. If we think of the shift from act to intention embodied in the ‘antinomies’ of the Sermon of the Mount, we can easily grasp how inner orientation becomes as if not more important than external act.
There’s a parallel narrative, exemplified by philosophers such as Charles Taylor, which sees the progressive injunction for reformation of structures and morals as deepening the relation to self. The roots of the Protestant Reformation, and secular modernity, he suggests, derive from these Axial imperatives.
This story, then, gets imprinted on the idea that we are more and more individuals.
But, is individualism, as a norm, a political ideology, and a way of structuring social and economic forces, the same as individualisation? I think not, though it’s often said to be – in effect – by social theorists such as Zygmunt Bauman, frequently in a tone of lament. We are surface selves floating on the sea of impulses, living liquid lives. Perhaps we are. I always think this is somewhat overplayed.
Stroumsa also underlines the role of ascecis as the twin of interiority. Neo-platonists, stoics, other Roman philosophers and noble men and women (and here it’s interesting to note recent scholarship seeing Gnostic thought as particularly appealing to the intellectual elites of the Empire), sought to lay bare the self. Perhaps underlying it was some form of wisdom, some cosmic fragment, a fallen star.
But for the exemplary figures of ancient and then early medieval Christianity, the martyr and then the monk, the self was to be annihilated. In that way, the self would be filled with the Divine. This is still a rich current in Orthodoxy, and has clear parallels in Buddhism and a range of other mystical traditions.
These traditions shape the way the self is lived, experienced, thought about. Remember – the prime narrative of secularisation here is that the interiorisation of the self derives from Christian religiosity, but then empties itself even of that content.
Usually we think that interiority is a good thing. Much effort is expended, and much money sometimes spent, on discovering ourselves, analysing ourselves, treating ourselves.
We also assume, and this perhaps lurks behind Jaspers’ thought, that there is a unidirectional temporality to all this – we become ever more modern, ever more secular, ever more individual.
Connectivity, I’d suggest, attunes us more to the other and to the others, or can. (Note that I am not writing normatively – I am not saying that is a ‘good thing’). Thus, we can be ever more conscious of what others and particular others are thinking, moment by moment. Is there an ascesis here? An emptying out of self, and a consciousness that’s more relational providing the content for the ascetic surface self?
Maybe the deep self was some sort of bourgeois illusion – as in the endlessly redacted introspection of the heroine and hero satirised or narrated in Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities.
Stroumsa’s virtue is that he sees that there is more than one Axial moment. I wonder if we are living, collectively, through another.