November 05, 2023

Taking a Breather


I'd like to switch subjects for a moment, and take a breather from our discussion of the events going down in the Middle East, which has left most of us, I'm guessing, pretty depressed. The following essay is something I wrote a few months ago. I sent a memo about it to American and British journals, and (here's a shocker) got no reply. So I'm going to post it here. Meanwhile, my Mexican editor is going to translate it into Spanish; I'm guessing some journal in Mexico City will pick it up. But here's the original version, in any case; hope you all enjoy it.

The Never-Ending Conflict: Tribalism Versus Rationalism in Human History

"[O]pposing forces routinely coexist in biological systems."—Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score

A number of years ago I wrote an essay called “Tribal Consciousness and Enlightenment Tradition.”(1) In this essay, I was following the thesis proposed by Neal Stephenson in his novel Snow Crash, which is in turn based on the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’ concept of the meme: “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.” Less charitably, we might describe the process of diffusion as a kind of viral infection, or perhaps as brainwashing. It is essentially a blind process, an unthinking one—a tribal consciousness, as it were, which could also be compared to a trance, or medieval possession. In tribal consciousness, what counts for truth are not facts or data or any type of objective evidence, but blood, kinship relations, affinity groups, and community. McCarthyism is a good example of this (as is communism, of course), brilliantly illustrated by Arthur Miller in his play The Crucible. When the US Government sent the Rosenbergs to their deaths, for example (1951), the outcome of this trial was preordained; evidence was the least of the prosecution’s concerns. Cold War America was the “tribe” that had to be protected at all costs, and the trial was basically a sham as a result. In my own view, and that of a number of other historians (e.g., William Appleman Williams, Denna Fleming, Walter LeFeber), the Cold War could be seen as a trance that possessed the United States for decades, and it did incalculable damage to America in the process.

Stephenson’s focus, however, is not Cold War America but the mythological consciousness of the ancient world, which was tribal and pagan. There were, he says, various attempts to break out of the trance of magic/sacrifice/sun worship and so on; the most successful of these was Israelite monotheism—a counter-virus, he calls it. Judaism, he goes on, was the first rational religion, but eventually it hardened into legalism and Pharisaism—ritual without content—to be challenged by Christ. (“What comes out of your mouth is more important than what goes into it.”) Through the efforts of Paul, this eventually became the next meme, until it was in turn challenged by Martin Luther many centuries later. Centuries after that, Protestantism was rejected by New Age spirituality, which spits up Oprah and Chopra, leaders of the latest trance, who are blindly adored by millions. And so on. This is a cycle that writers such as John Gray (Black Mass) and Eric Hoffer (The True Believer) have described in exhausting detail.(2)

Mimetic thinking, of course, is the rule rather than the exception. It, not critical thinking, is the norm for the human race. Yet things shifted in a radical direction during 800-200 B.C., what has been called the “Axial Age.” This concept was the brainchild of the German psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers, who pointed out that during the centuries just noted, a number of sages arose, more or less simultaneously and independently of one another, espousing an entirely new way of thinking. This was what has been called second-order thinking: in other words, thinking about thinking (reflection, analysis). As opposed to tribal trance, in which people are immersed in their thoughts, and in whatever surrounds them, axial thinking consists of distance, perspective, and objective evaluation. Thus Socrates proclaims that the unexamined life is not worth living, and urges Athenian youth to question conventional beliefs; the Buddha formulates the practice of meditation, in which one part of the mind (the “Watcher”) observes the random thoughts that come and go when you just close your eyes, sit still, and concentrate on your breath; the Hebrew Prophets inveigh against the polytheism of the Canaanites in favor of the one and only God, Yahweh, who issues directives from on high; and Confucius promulgates societal rules and moral values—directives for living the good life. The world, Jaspers concluded, was permanently altered as a result.(3)

The result I am referring to is what I call the never-ending conflict. In recent years, the most famous illustration of this is the movie The Matrix (1999), although it was prefigured by Ira Levin in his novel This Perfect Day (1970). (Recall also Huxley’s Brave New World, in which almost the entire population is zonked out on “soma.”) The plot is that you have a society caught up in a trance, except for one individual (“Neo”), along with several others, who manage to see through the trance—i.e., achieve second-order thinking—and as a result, escape from that society.

The Matrix was lionized; it grossed over $460 billion at the box office during its first year. Why would that be? My guess is that there are many individuals in various countries who see their fellow-citizens as sheep, mechanically and unquestioningly going along with the dominant ideology (consumerism, for example), and doing whatever the government tells them to do. Or simply what everyone else is doing. They find this alienating, even repugnant, and so a movie based on the theme of escape from “sheepdom” is inevitably going to attract them. The fact is that rational thinking, when first encountered, comes as something of a shock. It is irresistible, even overwhelming, and once you are exposed to it you cannot easily forget it, and return to a state of “innocence.” Arthur Koestler gave the classic description of this type of awakening that happened to him when he came across Marxism as a critique of capitalist society: light, he wrote, seemed to pour across my skull; everything suddenly fell into place. All was clear now; everything made sense. Of course, years later he realized that Marxism was just another form of tribalism, after which, with the same intensity, he fell into the tribalism of anti-Marxism. Toward the end of his life, he declared that the curse of humanity was “devotion”—addiction to causes, i.e., memes.(4)

The metaphor of light is no accident. In Book VII of The Republic, Plato describes most people as living in shadows, in a cave, confusing the shadows on the wall with reality. Only a few manage to break through, to discover that the shadows are images thrown on the wall of the cave by a light coming from behind. These few then emerge from the cave into the light, get accustomed to it, and start to explore it. In so doing, they rise up the “noetic line” of awakening, until they attain the status of “philosopher-kings.” And awakening lies at the core of axiality: you see the light—critical reasoning—and leave tribal consciousness behind.

As it turns out, not quite. The problem (one of them, anyway) is that things are not that clear-cut. It seems that there is a dialectical relationship between tribal consciousness and rationality. They need each other, they define each other, and this is why the conflict is never-ending. Neither side is willing, or really, able, to give up its hold on the human mind. There are layers of meaning here; it’s not all black and white. In order to get a more accurate picture, we need to consider the following:

1.Critiques of Jaspers, and the concept of an Axial Age 2.The evolution of mind, as delineated by sociologist Robert Bellah and psychologist Merlin Donald 3.The dialectical relationship between tribalism and axiality

Critiques of Jaspers and the concept of an Axial Age are quite extensive, and often fairly insightful. The question we shall have to ask ourselves is whether, after the dust settles, the concept has any validity, and if so, to what extent.(5) To begin with, both the philosopher Charles Taylor and the Egyptologist Jan Assmann fault the theory for its apparent assumption that there is a universal history, a single trajectory for mankind to follow: one Truth, one Mankind. In other words, it assumes that there is a single path, running from tradition to modernity, with the latter regarded as superior. According to this theory, during the period 800-200 B.C. the human race broke through to this Truth (second-order thinking); but, says Jaspers, it didn’t really “take” in a major or conclusive way. Rather, the tendency was to chronically lapse back into pre-axiality. It's as though the West, with its particular (and narrow) definition of progress, is waiting for everyone else to “grow up” (the easterners Buddha and Confucius notwithstanding). In contrast to this assumption, Taylor argues that there are a variety of fundamentally different civilizational patterns of development, while Assmann adds that different civilizations have different turning points in their history. All of this generates a much more complex, and nonlinear, picture. Assmann concedes that there certainly is such a thing as axiality, but argues that there wasn’t an Axial Age as such.

In addition, the larger point Assmann is making is that the notion of an Axial Age is part of the theory of modernization, which is typically blind to the cultural achievements of stabilization and continuity. In that framework, he says, tradition and cultural memory are devalued; they appear merely as factors of regression or even stagnation—a very biased way of reading history.

Another problem with the theory: it is too rigid. Various civilizations exhibit degrees of axiality, and in fact elements of axiality can be shown to predate 800 B.C. Thus we have, for example, the Code of Hammurabi (an anthology of legal situations) in Mesopotamia by the eighteenth century B.C. And Mesopotamia accomplished quite a lot in the fields of political organization, statecraft, literature, astronomy, mathematics, and even historiography; and this is but one example. (The case of Akhenaten, the fourteenth-century Egyptian pharaoh, is obviously another one, as he attempted to shift Egyptian religion from polytheism to monotheism.) As Assmann says, it’s not all or nothing. Jaspers was a bit blind to the axiality that existed in nonaxial civilizations, and which existed prior to the first millennium B.C.(6)

I want to return to this discussion in a moment, but first let me say a few words about point #2, the critique of Professors Bellah and Donald. To me, this gets down to the nitty-gritty of it all. As far as the evolution of the brain, and cognitive development, goes, there is, Donald says, a kind of “layering phenomenon” of successive evolutionary stages, whereby the human race went from the Mimetic to the Mythic to the Theoretic. These three stages are categories of memory representation, and—the crucial point—they don’t replace each other. Rather, they just accumulate. Mimesis consists of imitation and repetition, and is the basis of crafts, dance, music, and tool use. This capacity is hard-wired into the brain; it goes back 4 million years. The Mythic phase is also hard-wired, although it goes back only 300,000 or 400,000 years, and it consists of speech and storytelling; narrative, in a word. It includes stories of origin, legends, allegories, and so on. And finally, with Theoretic culture, which eventually included axiality, we get writing systems, symbolic representation, analysis and reflection. In terms of evolution, this phase is not hard-wired. It is relatively recent, and has a cultural basis rather than a biological one. As a result—as Jaspers said—its hold on us is a bit iffy, rather tenuous.(7)

The crucial point here is that the modern mind is a mixture of all three of these modes, or capacities; there was really no “replacement” of one mode of consciousness by another. For we still dance, and sing, and we still tell stories, generate myths and narratives—in fact, we do both all the time. And if our mythologies are not religious, then they are secular (modern ideologies). True, analytic thinking can do things that the other two modes can’t, but these latter two “domains,” says Donald, are nevertheless

"extremely subtle and powerful ways of thinking. They cannot be matched by analytic thought for intuitive speed, complexity, and shrewdness. They will continue to be crucially important in the future, because they reside in innate capacities without which human beings could not function."

(Elsewhere I have referred to this mode of consciousness as “ontological knowing”—from the Greek word ontos, being—as distinct from intellectual knowing.)

Robert Bellah drives this point home with great clarity and incisiveness when he writes that narrative

"is more than [just] literature; it is the way we understand our lives. If literature merely supplied entertainment, then it wouldn’t be as important as it is. Great literature speaks to the deepest level of our humanity; it helps us better understand who we are. Narrative is not only the way we understand our personal and collective identities; it is the source of our ethics, our politics and our religion. It…isn’t irrational—it can be criticized by rational argument—but it can’t be derived from reason alone. Mythic (narrative) culture is not a subset of theoretic culture, nor will it ever be. It is older than theoretic culture and remains to this day an indispensable way of relating to the world." [Italics mine]

So much for Western notions of “progress,” which are narrow, limited, and superficial. The axial way of thinking, of knowing the world, is indispensable for the functioning of modern societies, but it is only a way of knowing the world; and although we cannot live without it, it may not be the most profound.

To return to our earlier discussion (point #1), we need to note that there is a class bias involved in the emergence of axiality. Donald’s Theoretic mode, second-order thinking, is mostly the province or territory of an intellectual elite—the Op-Ed crowd at the New York Times, for example. Today and yesterday, the majority of the population, worldwide, lives in the Mythic mode—Plato’s shadows. The average person is not a philosopher, and for him or her, what is right in front of them is what’s real. Nations vary, of course, but in the United States, it’s a good bet that more than 90 percent of the population would not be able to say what a metaphor is. Jaspers was right; for the most part, axiality never really “took,” at least not for the greater part of humanity. As I’ll indicate below, this has serious repercussions for our present situation.

Turning to point #3, I would argue that although tribalism and rationalism are two distinct ways of being, they are nevertheless entwined in a dialectical relationship. As already noted, they define each other, and this dialectic has never really gone away, as the biblical scholar Arvin Kapelrud points out (Baal was the Canaanite god of fertility and storms):

"[T]he relationship between Yahweh and Baal was a matter of central importance; and if we do not take account of this we get a distorted picture of the history of Israel’s religion. Although in the end Yahweh triumphed over His opponent, we ought, nevertheless, not to underestimate Baal’s importance. The conflict between Yahweh and Baal was more than an incidental historical episode. It was a conflict between [two] principles and interpretations of life which in other forms is still being waged today."(8) [Italics mine]

It would seem to be an eternal psychological dynamic. Applying the concept of axiality to contemporary American politics, for example, what do we find? The current violent divide in the United States, politically speaking, strikes me as being ultimately rooted in the archaic conflict between tribalism and rationalism. Millions adore an intellect-hater and fact-denier like Donald Trump, whose followers have no use for critical analysis and who are steeped in a tribal, Trumpian mythology. The “bubbas” who wear MAGA hats despise the New York Times, and what it stands for—the pointy-headed intellectuals who look down on them (“a basket of deplorables,” per Hillary Clinton). There is ominous talk of civil war, with 25 percent of the population endorsing violence against the government, as was evident on 6 January 2021, when a mob of Trumpites stormed the Capitol Building in Washington DC, in the tribal and misguided belief that Joe Biden stole the election from Trump.

A related example: If you know how to look at them, the presidential debates of 2016 are a perfect illustration of this conflict. Hillary Clinton was depending on fact and evidence to win the debate, and as a result came off as scripted and boring. Her opponent hadn’t bothered to prepare for the event; his weapons were mimesis (body language) and tribal mythology (invented scenarios, rhetoric, dramatic emotional expressions, and so on). At one point he even referred to Hillary as “nasty.” The result? He pretty much wiped the floor with her. As Merlin Donald tells us, this mode “cannot be matched by analytic thought for intuitive speed, complexity, and shrewdness.”

In any case, those on the axial side of this conflict are for the most part capable of critical analysis, but a rather large percentage of them have gone off the rails, channeled it into a strange place of “woke” ideology, where the focus of attention is on political correctness—an abuse of critical thinking, in my view, and a movement that has created its own form of tribalism. But the point being made here is that the axial issue is, it seems to me, a potentially fruitful way of framing the heated political conflict that is currently engulfing the American body politic. My guess is that this mode of analysis can be applied to other countries as well, such as Brazil, or Israel. The struggles going on in the US and these nations can, I believe, be seen as having their origins in the fundamental conflict between a tribal way of life and consciousness and an axial one; and the conflict, which is existential, would seem to be never-ending. With Trump, tribalism may eventually triumph in America; but the rational opposition to him will not simply go away. Many Israelis regard the Palestinians as a variety of savages, “human animals,” as the Israeli Defense Minister put it (October 2023), whereas the Palestinians view someone like Benjamin Netanyahu, with his desire to destroy Gaza, as a monster, a war criminal. It should not surprise us that there is no resolution in sight. As for Brazil, consider the contrast between Bolsonaro and Lula, and what each of them stands for. This mode of analysis may seem far-fetched; personally, I’m guessing that it contains more than a kernel of truth. At the very least, it seems to me to be heuristically valuable.(9)

Truth be told, the issue of an Axial Age never got resolved. Everyone agrees that axiality exists in a psychological or mental sense, and that we can investigate the degree of it in various societies, on a comparative basis. But did it exist historically? Was Jaspers right about there being a specific Axial Age that can be identified with the period 800-200 B.C.? On that score, opinion remains divided. There are eminent historians on both sides of the argument. Personally, I agree with the critiques discussed above, regarding modernization bias, class bias, and the problem of ignoring the vibrancy of other capacities of the human mind. But at the end of the day, I think Jaspers got it pretty much right: this period was a turning point in the evolution of human consciousness, and the sages he identifies as agents of the change were sui generis. Of course, they were not acting alone; I am not proposing a heroic version of history, and it’s a good bet that they were the products of deep-seated changes going on in Greece, India, China, and the Levant. But they may, perhaps, be likened to Hegel’s “world historical individuals,” who changed their societies because they epitomized changes that were already underway. It is rather amazing that this occurred across the board, in the absence of practically any cross-cultural influence. Once again, we might draw on Hegel for the notion of a weltgeist, sweeping across the globe in the space of a few centuries, and seemingly coming out of nowhere. Whatever the cause, this much is certain: the human race hasn’t been the same ever since.

©Morris Berman, 2023

1.“Tribal Consciousness and Enlightenment Tradition,” in A Question of Values (Charleston SC: CreateSpace, 2010).
2.See also another essay of mine, “The Hula Hoop Theory of History,” CounterPunch, 11 January 2013.
3.Karl Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History (London: Routledge, 1953; orig. German edition 1949).
4.Morris Berman, Eminent Post-Victorians (Independently published, 2022), pp. 67-79. See also Raymond Aron, The Opium of the Intellectuals (London: Routledge, 1957; orig. French ed. 1955).
5.In the discussion that follows I am borrowing liberally from Appendix III of my book Neurotic Beauty (Healdsburg CA: Water Street Press, 2019).
6.For additional critiques see Daniel Hoyer and Jenny Reddish, Seshat History of the Axial Age (Chaplin CT: Beresta Books, 2019); Ken Baskin and Dmitri Bodarenko, The Axial Ages of World History: Lessons for the 21st Century (ISCE Publishing, 2014); Iain Provan, Convenient Myths: The Axial Age, Dark Green Religion, and the World that Never Was (Waco TX: Baylor University Press, 2013); and Antony Black, “The ‘Axial Period’: What Was It and What Does It Signify?,” published online by Cambridge University Press, 15 February 2008. Regarding the Code of Hammurabi: according to two scholars of Canaanite (Ugaritic) literature, the adjudication of legal cases, particularly those involving widows and orphans, “was the ordinary task of elders and rulers in ancient Near Eastern societies.” This goes back to ca. 3,000 B.C., i.e., 1,200 years before the Mesopotamian Code. See Michael Coogan and Mark Smith, eds. and trans., Stories from Ancient Canaan (2d. ed.; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), pp. 27-28.
7.This section and what follows are also taken from Appendix III of Neurotic Beauty.
8.Arvid S. Kapelrud, The Ras Shamra Discoveries and the Old Testament, trans. G.W. Anderson (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963), pp. 55-56. Kapelrud’s assertion that we are talking about two distinct principles and interpretations of life is one that is supported by a number of scholars of axiality, notably S.N. Eisenstadt in his edited volume, The Origins and Diversity of Axial Age Civilisations (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986). These scholars refer to the shift as “the transcendentalist breakthrough.” Eisenstadt defines it (according to Alan Strathern) as the “erection of two sharply distinguished orders of reality and modes of behaviour,” which he (Strathern) regards as “a powerful way of lending coherence to the apparently disparate ancient philosophies.” See Alan Strathern, “Karen Armstrong’s Axial Age: Origins and Ethics,” The Heythrop Journal, vol. 50 no. 2 (February 2009), pp. 293-99.
9.I am not the first historian to suggest this kind of long-range influence. The biblical scholar Baruch Halpern makes a somewhat similar argument in his book From Gods to God: The Dynamics of Iron Age Cosmologies (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009). Halpern accepts Jaspers’ thesis about an Axial Age, including (unfortunately) the Western bias and modernization theory criticized by Jan Assmann, above. But leaving that aside, Halpern argues for a similarity between the axial shift that took place in ancient Israel (which gave birth to monotheism), and the cultural and intellectual shifts that took place across Europe during 1500-1800; which is to say, the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. But not just a similarity; rather, some type of connection, or influence. This is not a causal connection rippling down through the centuries, but only an argument that there is a psychological or mental pattern here that gets repeated; what Kapelrud is saying, in effect. In such a framework, I don’t feel that this is far-fetched, although Nathan MacDonald, in a lengthy review of Halpern’s book, does, and he offers a plausible critique. Clearly, the jury is out on all of this. See Nathan MacDonald, “Making the Past Present,” Journal of Hebrew Scriptures, vol. 11 (2011).