Book Review: The Great Transformation by Karen Armstrong

In the early sections of her monumental tome on the development of modern religious traditions, Karen Armstrong describes how intense study of the dense and sometimes contradictory rituals of the Brahmanas in India allowed priests to overcome their focus on the self and delve deeply into their atman , or soul. The ritual knowledge they obtained, she tells us “was not a notional acceptance of the metaphysical speculations of the Brahmins,” but a spiritual journey into the self–with the ultimate goal of transcending the individual personality.

Armstrong’s powerful vision of the spiritual core of what she calls the “Axial Age” guides this book throughout its analysis of over 1400 years of history. In some ways, her method is reminiscent of the ritualists she describes: piling up detail after detail in a manner that suggests that these details are less important than the ability to see the spiritual movements behind them. The litany of kings, sages and movements can be overwhelming, and the suppositions drawn from sometimes scant evidence may give the reader pause, yet the overall effect can be startling, as a picture of an over-arching Axial-Age spiritualism emerges from this historical autostereogram
For a thesis-driven historical analysis, Armstrong’s book is top-heavy with evidence and light on careful analysis. Further, the evidence she presents seems at times largely guesswork, especially in the early sections on the pre-Axial and early Axial civilizations. It may be that she takes on too much: too large a thesis and too large a body of evidence to sensibly prove her thesis. However, Armstrong does make her overall thesis clear: The Axial sages developed new ways to apprehend the self and to transcend it. They did this cultivating techniques and ideas that allowed individuals to move beyond themselves, to view their fate as one with the world.

These philosophies were not, at their best, merely an abandonment of the rest of mankind–they developed empathy and compassion for our fellow human beings and all other living things. The journey from the warring, petty gods of the old, pre-Axial religions to the compassionate visions of such figures as Buddha and Confucius and the religious traditions of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and philosophic rationalism serves as the narrative of this book. Armstrong’s narrative, while perhaps diffuse in its focus, nonetheless aptly conveys the remarkable nature this transition and makes an excellent case for its importance.

Armstrong chronicles the search for transcendence through prayer and punishment, asceticism and excess, unfathomable violence and unshakable pacifism, meditation and self-sacrifice, drunkenness and meticulous analysis. Through it all, she provides a lucid and engaging introduction to these seminal cultures and religions. Armstrong shows the kaleidoscope of human endeavor towards self improvement and self discovery, one that she cheers for and hopes to extend.