The transition period between the conventional and personal stages

Most documented history belongs to this period. Its beginning can be traced back to the 6th century B.C.E. (that philosopher Karl Jaspers called an ‘axial age'). Karen Armstrong, who can be credited for providing a balanced, informative and yet accessible account of the history of monotheism, describes this period as follows:

All the chief civilisations developed along parallel lines, even when there was no commercial contacts (as between China and the European area). There  was a new prosperity that led to the rise of a merchant class. Power was shifting from king and priest, temple and palace, to the market place. The new wealth led to intellectual and cultural florescence and also to the development of the individual conscience.' (1993, p.36)

Within a very short time, all the major directions of human civilisation were laid (which can be compared, in its magnitude, to the Cambrian explosion in biological evolution). K'ung-Fu-tzu and Lao-tzu developed their teachings in China (known as Confucianism and Taoism, respectively). In India Siddhartha Gautama founded Buddhism, and Mahavira Jina, an early rebel against the caste system, Jainism. In the Middle East, Zoroaster created the first monotheistic religion (or, at least, it became prominent at that time). The greatest of the Hebrew prophets, Deutero-Isaiah appeared, and (while in Babylonian captivity) the Jews transcribed and compiled the Torah, the foundation of the Old Testament. The movement towards the belief in a single spiritual reality coincided with the search of Greek thinkers for a single principle to explain the material world. This was the start of classical philosophy (with the three Milesian ‘natural philosophers', Thales, Anaximenes and Anaximander, and a little later Pythagoras). Although the evidence is sketchy, it seems that a ‘paradigm shift' occurred at that time in central America too (the earliest Maya temple-pyramids were built then)[5].

Not all of them, however, chose the same direction. In fact, practically all the conceivable paths were attempted. For example, it looks like that the pre-Columbian civilisations of Latin America tried to skip the development all together and reach immediately for transcendence. This shift can be recognised in the fact that they had highly sophisticated art, architecture and astronomy - but not technology that remained on the stone-age level. They did not have metallurgy or use wheels (although they knew how to make them for toys, not transport). Physical existence was secondary and, not surprisingly, (self)sacrifice became prominent. This had disastrous consequences when the content and meaning of such practices were lost and only a form (a ritual) remained, as later on with the Aztecs, leading to an obsession with sacrificing others on a massive scale. The other main directions can be linked to the dimensions of development. Buddhism focused mainly on the experience and found a solution in going back into an undifferentiated state (similar to the state life came from). It is a truly rebellious doctrine denying the One and the universal purpose (although acknowledging other, lesser deities). Confucianism, at the same time, concentrated on the development of self-control, which led to emphasising stability and remaining where the society was at that point. The first Greek philosophers and Jewish scholars favoured thinking and discourse (developing the rings) which appeared to be the most conducive to this transition. This is not to say that other civilisations did not pay attention and contribute to the advancement of intellect (nor that the occidental cultures completely neglected experience and intent). Science and technology thrived in India and China too. The decimal numerical system and so-called Arabic numbers, commonly used nowadays, were Indian inventions (passed on by Arabs). The conceptualisation of zero, accepted in Europe only in the 15th century, is attributed to India too. The Chinese were using paper, gun powder (mostly for fireworks) and print much before Europeans. However, the West created relatively coherent frameworks (societal rings), which allowed  the assimilation of invaders and integration of disparate groups, while the affinity towards discourse accelerated the process. In comparison, Buddhism, for instance, with its emphasis on experience and the inner world, managed to ascend to the status of an official doctrine and act as the means of social organisation only for a brief period (during the reign of king Asoka), and Hinduism took over again. Buddhism is nowadays practically wiped out in India and is the state religion in varied forms only in a few South East Asian countries and Tibet, after being heavily modified by the indigenous cultures. Confucianism produced a fortified culture (occasionally punctuated by invasions and rebellions), which contributed to stability but not to the evolving of the society. For example, although a Chinese fleet of 63 ships sailed as far as Africa in the 15th century, China remained relatively isolated (but tolerant, allowing foreigners to build their churches, temples and mosques).

For these reasons, in an attempt to summarise some general characteristics of the transition between the conventional and personal stage, the focus will be mainly on the occidental culture, spreading from the Middle East and Mediterranean Europe. This, by no means, implies its superiority (in fact, as the above indicates, some dimensions may have been better developed elsewhere). However, for better or worse, the occidental culture has been evidently the most influential. The Americas and Australia are practically its extensions. The political system in China is based on the ideology of a German philosopher, and the legacy of the British in India is ubiquitous from politics to sport.

In this period, that lasted almost until the 20th century, manufacturing and merchandise became the dominant economic forces. They encouraged innovation, exploration, discovery and interest in the new (which contributed to spreading the occidental culture to India, the Far East, and Americas). Time was seen as an arrow, so the future could be contemplated - not as a repetition, but something different (the book of Daniel being possibly the first written example).

Thinking became gradually a dominant faculty, which led to the development of philosophy. Philosophy in turn, enabled freedom from custom and convention. In the view of philosopher Martha Nussbaum, it promised to ‘create a community of beings who can take charge of their own life story and their own thought' - a community, in other worlds, of autonomous individuals (Jenkins, 2002, p.17). Personality and with it personal responsibility (epitomised in equality before the law) emerged, and guilt took over from shame:

The ‘old commitment' in more stable, traditional cultures depended on maintaining a role in relationships, putting the good of the group above the good of the self, and avoiding punishment from the group for deviating from social expectations. The ‘new commitment' depends more on the individual's decision-making about a given relationship... [it] is experienced more by the individual as coming from within and not from societal pressure. (Lund, 1991, p.213)

Consequently, the personal (inner, psychological life) became important. Sociologist Durkheim claims that individuality was not prized and the individual, in a certain sense, did not exist in traditional cultures; only with the emergence of modern societies and, more particularly, with the division of labour, did it become the focus of attention (in Giddens, 1991, p.75). In fact, the major changes in this period were usually initiated by an individual standing against society and social norms: Socrates is one of the first examples, but this trend continued with Jesus, Mohammad, Copernicus, Bruno, Luther, Nietzsche and Marx. What they all have in common is a move from action that is prescribed to action by choice. Such a trend also brought the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century and later on further orientation towards the personal, pluralism in values, and separation (this time between individuals - with the ensuing feeling of ‘loneliness in the crowd').

This shift is reflected in art too. Greek dramas, for example, do not have personal conflicts (arguably, the only exception can be found in Agamemnon when Cassandra, a king's lover and slave, predicts that she will be killed if she enters the house, hesitates for a moment and turns back, but nevertheless enters out of duty). On the other hand, great dramas from the later periods are dominated by personal conflicts and dilemmas (e.g. Shakespeare's Hamlet or Ibsen's A Doll's House). Epics are another example. For Milton (in comparison to Homer) true epic action occurs in the mind (where, when and how we make decisions). Joyce takes it to an extreme in Ulysses - rejecting any structure - it is an epic about events of the human psyche, not external events.

In religion, the whole period is marked by the gradual prevalence of monotheism over polytheism, which was an essential step towards the third stage. Armstrong writes:

The personal god has helped monotheists to value the sacred and inalienable rights of the individual and to cultivate an appreciation of human personality. (1993, p.242)

It is suggestive that even in strictly polytheistic societies many individuals whose own development superseded the conventional one reached this point. For instance, in Ancient Greece, a number of great thinkers and artists including Socrates, Plato and Aristotle had monotheistic tendencies. Xenophane, for example, wrote:


One god, alone among gods and alone among men, is the greatest,
Neither in body does he nor in mind resemble the mortals.
Always in one place he abides: he never is moving;
Nor is it fitting for him to change now hereto, now thereto.
Effortless he moves the world by thought and intention.
All of him is sight; all is knowing; and all is hearing.


Monotheism is not only about reducing the number of gods, it is a qualitative shift. Religious belief gradually replaced religious observance, deity became transcendent rather than immanent. Mythology is banished in favour of theology. God became more and more distant and less interfering (which is to be expected with the increase of independence). The after death reality was split in two (Heaven and Hell) to accommodate choice and personal responsibility and, of course, to maintain social control. Significantly, it was not any more a mere shadow of the material world, but became an aim, something to look forward to, so the future became important.

This transition period is, however, a relatively slow process that has many steps, which can be illustrated by the development of monotheism through various religions.

  • [5]. There is no data indicating that any significant developments happened in Sub-Saharan Africa at that time, even if several great cultures arose later on. It can be speculated that living in a highly hostile environment led to emphasis on quantitative development rather than a qualitative change (reflected, for example, in the achievements of the Bantu people in coping with disease, climate and topography).