Compactness and Differentiation

I suggest the culture of Voegelin’s cosmological, compact civilizations as well as Jaspers’s pre-axial ones could in some respects and for some purposes be designated with the term early pantheism. This seems legitimate not least since according to Voegelin the central differentiating experience – through philosophical speculation, in the sense of higher vision, in the case of Plato, or through what was presented as revelation, in the case of Moses and the subsequent prophets – is an experience through which the ‘all’ (pan), or ‘everything’, including nature, the state, worldly power, was no longer considered to be ‘God’ (theos), to be divine, as in a certain sense it had been in these civilizations.

Again, it has to be pointed out that the validity of Voegelin’s account of compactness is limited to only some Near Eastern civilizations, and that Jaspers’s account of pre-axial civilization – on the contrast of which the whole analysis depends – must to a considerable extent remain purely speculative. My argument therefore, as well as for other reasons, does not involve the acceptance of the implied view of Voegelin, for instance, that Greek philosophy and Israelite revelation represent unique and historically unsurpassed levels of human insight into the nature of transcendence and thus of human and social reality in relation to it, although I of course accept that the process of differentiation in the extended sense I will focus on here developed in a particular way and produced specific concrete results in the West (something which can hardly be exhaustively explained by the nature of the experience of transcendence as such).

I am therefore inclined to regard the account of the compact and pre-axial age more as a typological one which must be applied more flexibly and selectively to other civilizations than the ones Voegelin focuses on as differentiated, and to other ages than the ones Jaspers describes as axial. Yet the partial truth of both accounts is important enough to warrant extesive use of them in the historical and other analysis not only of the development of the consciousness of personality but also of classical idealism and biblical religion themselves.

It is certainly true to say about some of the civilizations Voegelin studies that while early pantheism as found there is not characterized by the absence of all of the differentiated opposites or polarities, the consequences of the decisive spiritual experience, this experience itself seems to have been relatively fragementary and undeveloped. They are therefore present only in compact form. The distinctions characteristic of differentiations have not yet been fully or clearly made because of the lack of the requisite religious or spiritual, and concomitant moral and intellectual, experience.

The chief characteristic of the axial age was the opening of a space for individuation, and this was also one of the results of the differentiational experience. The individual was dissociated from the pantheistic unity with society, with the necessary, cosmic, holistic, traditional order. The individual and society or the state were differentiated, in the ordinary sense which is also an extended sense of the term as used by Voegelin.

Experienced as situated between transcendent perfection and immanent imperfection, in what Voegelin calls, with Plato, the metaxy, the ‘betweenness’, the individual was also experienced as free to a decisive extent. As finite and imperfect, two opposite directions were open for him to take, and he was responsible for this and related moral choices. Distanced from the closed cosmic-social unity, the individual was capable of critical judgement on the contingencies of immanent and historical human and social reality. In pre- and non-differentiational society, the dictates of the divine king, the laws, and the customs tended to be always sanctioned by the pantheistic and mythological worldview. Perspectives which would have made an appeal to a higher authority possible were not available.

With differentiation, the individual had access to a new conceptual framework, which allowed him to assert such an authority. When world and self were separated, he even became himself the seat of some real authority, by virtue of his relation to God, his own nature, and his rational conclusions as corresponding to a higher order or reality. The philosopher could question, compare, and rationally assess different social and political systems, and the prophet could denounce the king on the authority of the revealed Word of God. The moral law, it was discovered, derived from divine transcendence; it was superior to and independent of physical nature, community, worldly power, the human self, and human choice. With reference to its new standard of right and wrong, it was possible to reconsider and criticize the worldly state of affairs.

Both philosophical idealism and prophetic monotheism thus promoted individual liberty. In time, it became clear to Western philosophers that for freedom in the strict sense to exist, the individual must not be reducible to a closed, causally determined order of nature. But before that, the moral space for the exercise of freedom had already to some extent been opened. Thus freedom and necessity were differentiated.

The new focus on the individual did not imply that the superhuman divine and moral order was denied or that it receded into the background. Quite the opposite. The new experience of transcendence being the central differentiating experience, such order was affirmed in stronger terms. It was just that the relation between this order and the immanent realities was seen in a new light. The new distance of the individual from the worldly order, his new, higher, and larger perspective, the possibility of deliberation, the criteria of judgement – they all derived precisely from his new and deeper awareness of transcendence and its order of values. The social institutions and their history, the existing structures and relations of power, the forms of worship of the gods, were no longer direct expressions of or identical with the all-inclusive, absolute, necessary, divine order. What is and what ought to be – and, in this sense, facts and values – were differentiated.

1 Response to “Compactness and Differentiation”


  1. 1 John Anngeister November 29, 2011 at 7:14 am

    In addition to a characterization like the above, I think the ‘coming’ of the axial age must have a spiritual explanation and not simply an evolutionary cause.

    I notice that the personalities responsible for the axial age aren’t much in evidence until after the destruction of Israel’s army at Meggido (609) which starts the chain of human events leading to the fall of Jerusalem and end of the temple, and the captivity of Israel’s culture in Babylon.

    If we imagine God’s eye-view of the matter, is this not the story of Israel at least temporarily blowing its ‘franchise’ as light-bearer? Even if God is able to see the final issue of the captivity, what emerges from the pressures of this period among the captives is not the Word in its purity but the haughty Priestly code, the ‘Pentateuch’, and the new rites and attitudes which characterize second temple Judaism as different from the old Hebrew culture.

    And yet all the while that Israel is meeting and living her doom (Megiddo to second temple c.450) we find this astonishing and sudden flourishing of spirituality in Greece (Thales to Plato), in India (Budda and the Jain), in Persia (Zoroaster) and in China (Lao-Tse) during Israel’s period of darkness.

    Is the axial age the cultural flowering of God’s investment of himself in a ‘hedge’ against the possibility of Israel’s failure?

    When you write:

    “The philosopher could question, compare, and rationally assess different social and political systems, and the prophet could denounce the king on the authority of the revealed Word of God”

    I would suggest:

    “The philosopher [and the Buddha and Zoroaster and Lao-Tse] could question … AS the prophet HAD PREVIOUSLY denounced (and etc.)…”


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Jan Olof Bengtsson D.Phil. (Oxon.)

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"A Self-realized being cannot help benefiting the world. His very existence is the highest good."
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