Published originally in Italian in 2013, this edited volume is the offspring of a research project developed at the Istituto Storico Italo-Germanico about transition as a historiographical problem. The volume asks the question of whether modernity is an “Axial Age,” a term that Jaspers introduced in 1949.1 For him, the period between the eighth and third centuries b.c. marked a major transition in the development of mankind. Its two key features were more highly developed societies (with greater control over their natural environment) and a parallel progress of multiple forms of thought (primarily in philosophy, politics, religion, and ethics).
Interdisciplinary interest in Jaspers’ Axial Age thesis has increased in the last decade, including contributions in sociology, history, anthropology, Biblical scholarship, and philosophy.2 According to Pombeni, some of the new contributions about the Axial Age downplay or simply ignore the transformative role of religion. This volume, on the contrary, emphasizes the religious underpinnings of axial transformations. Accordingly, the periodization of the epoch under analysis, 1494 to 1973, opens and closes under the influence of two Councils of the Catholic Church, Trent and Vatican II (the volume admits, however, that alternative periodizations are possible). Contributors apply this view to the modern age—understood as a Christian age—and claim that modernity constitutes a “second” Axial Age, building on a similar claim made by Eisentadt.3
Although understanding “transition” is central to this claim, no chapter offers a conceptual history of the word during the period under study. As the contributions suggest, historical actors’ self-understandings of what a “transition” is changed between the fifteenth and twentieth centuries. The analysis of historically situated self-understandings of transition is not the volume’s goal so much as to explicate the term historic transition as a Weberian ideal-type, which differs from competing terms such as historical epoch, anthropological culture, and the us circle. Historic transition is defined as “the mechanism of evolution itself within a given epoch” (3). Contributors use the term to study transitions in four arenas: culture, religion, politics, and economics. Each arena, however, receives uneven chronological treatment, since not all of them cover the entire period from 1494 to 1973.
Geographically, the contributions focus on Western Europe. Yet readers might well contend that proving modernity to be a “second” Axial Age also requires analysis on a global-history scale (Jaspers’ first Axial Age included ancient China, India, Greece, and Rome; it was a multisite global transition). The fact that none of the contributions addresses the role of science in “historic transitions” and in axial transformations during modernity is a significant absence; arguably, a key difference between the first and the second Axial Age is the rise of modern science and its complicated cohabitation with religion. Nor does any contribution discuss revolutions as pivotal moments of axial transformation (although Eisenstadt acknowledged revolutions’ influence on axial modernity in work that served as a historiographical inspiration for this volume). Instead, the volume frames transitions as somehow different from revolutions. In analyzing the shift from orality to print, Massimo Rospocher claims that this shift was less a revolution than a slow transition, during which both means of communication coexisted. Katia Occhi offers a similar interpretation of economic history, not as a clean rupture overlapping with the Industrial Revolution but rather as a gradual change spanning two centuries.
Translations of edited volumes are rara avises. Fortunately, English readers interested in the history of modernity, historical time, and periodization now have a volume that offers insightful ways of investigating historical change and continuity.
Karl Jaspers, Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte (Munich, 1949).
For sociology, see Robert N. Bellah and Hans Joas (eds.), The Axial Age and Its Consequences (Cambridge, Mass., 2012); for history, Jan Assman, From Akhenaten to Moses: Ancient Egypt and Religious Change (Cairo, 2014); for anthropology, David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years (Brooklyn, 2011); Peter van der Veer, “Is Confucianism Secular?” in Akeel Bilgrami (ed.), Beyond the Secular West (New York, 2016), 117–134; for Biblical scholarship, Iain Provan, Convenient Myths: The Axial Age, Dark Green Religion, and the World that Never Was (Waco, 2013); for philosophy, Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass., 2007).
Shmuel N. Eisenstadt, “The Secondary Breakthrough in Ancient Israelite Civilization—the Second Commonwealth and Christianity,” in idem (ed.), The Origins and Diversity of Axial Age Civilizations (Albany, 1986), 227–240.