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Issue Date:  October 27, 2006

By Karen Armstrong
Knopf, 469 pages, $30
Forging the antidote to greed and unkindness


Karen Armstrong’s brilliant and challenging new book has a straightforward theme: Prior to the birth of today’s major religions, various sages concluded that the only way to end the depressing cycles of savage warfare was to adopt a version of the Golden Rule.

The period known as the Axial Age, from 900 to 200 B.C., was “one of the most seminal periods of intellectual, psychological, philosophical and religious change in recorded history.” In India, China, Greece and Israel, “all the sages preached a spirituality of empathy and compassion; they insisted that people must abandon their egotism and greed, their violence and unkindness.”

Karen Armstrong is well qualified to tackle this subject. As one of today’s most astute observers of religious history, she has written more than a dozen books about spiritual seeking and practice.

This latest book is not light reading. Dense in parts, it skips back and forth among four cultures and among scores of prophets over a period of several hundred years. Yet there is a clear, consistent theme: Various sages, physically separated by thousands of miles, each realized that the old ways of atrocity and retribution were hurting everyone, including the “victors.”

The sages proposed a new path based on nonviolence and love of neighbor. They believed there was an “immortal spark” at the core of each person -- “a discovery of immense importance” that “would become a central insight in every major religious tradition.”

India was especially fertile ground for the new spiritual thinking. Its religious history is particularly relevant because two of today’s four major religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, were born there.

Karen Armstrong vividly portrays Jainism, a relatively small but still active Indian religion that taught absolute respect for all life, including plants and animals. Jains “rigorously suppressed every hostile thought or impulse, while, at the same time, they made a conscious effort to fill their minds with love and kindness toward all creatures.”

The Chinese philosopher Confucius was the first to preach the Golden Rule -- people should do unto others what they would have others do unto them. His thinking gained adherents, but after his death China descended into a period of unbridled warfare that included the killing of women, children and the infirm.

Israel’s Pharisees, among others, preached loving kindness and compassion for all people. And in Greece, philosophers, including Socrates, concluded that people could develop ethical principles without relying on the gods. Socrates was sentenced to death for his views.

Before this worldwide period of enlightenment, life was based on superstition and fear of angry, vindictive gods. Firstborn children sometimes were regarded as the property of a god and were returned to him in human sacrifice.

Religious traditions born in the Axial Age concluded that suffering is inevitable in life: “Indeed, to acknowledge it fully was an essential prerequisite for enlightenment.” Various sages, notably the Buddha, said that suffering often is caused by attachment and a grasping ego. The antidote was asceticism, meditation and mindfulness.

These enlightened teachers were not sitting in ivory towers when they developed their philosophies but were reacting to terrifying warfare that regularly led to mass killings: “They spent as much creative energy seeking a cure for the spiritual malaise of humanity as scientists today spend trying to find a cure for cancer.”

Because Ms. Armstrong covers the period before the birth of Jesus and Muhammad, she comments only briefly on the founders of the world’s two major faiths, Christianity and Islam. She cites Jesus’ compassion for the downtrodden and Muhammad’s injunction to Muslims to give a portion of their income to the poor.

After recounting the spiritual breakthroughs in these four ancient cultures, Ms. Armstrong’s brief conclusion is rather tepid. She asserts that there is much we can learn from Axial Age wisdom, but she offers little guidance about how to get there.

Ms. Armstrong surely is correct about the significance of this ancient wisdom, but is anyone listening? We can only hope that her book will inspire at least some secular and spiritual leaders to ponder the message of deep compassion advanced so long ago as an antidote to aggression and bloodshed.

Bill Williams is a retired editorial writer and religion book reviewer for The Hartford Courant in Hartford, Conn.

National Catholic Reporter, October 27, 2006

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