"Second-order" culture & the Axial Age: an overview

“Angelus Novus” by Paul Klee (1920)

Walter Benjamin, upon purchasing the print in 1921, christened this fellow “the Angel of History”. He imagined him being swept inexorably into the future on his own outstretched wings by the storm winds of destiny - only backwards, so that he must ever survey the damage of a past he could neither pause nor fix. The truth is we too are being swept inexorably into the future, and we are just as powerless to pause or fix what lies behind us in time. But unlike the Angel we are able not only to turn our heads but to move our wings even if slightly. We have a precious opportunity, if not a duty, to allow memory to serve the cause of wisdom ahead - and this is a difference that should make all the difference in the world.

With our trusty cherubic mascot by our side, Cosmos regulars John Davis, Ed Mahood, and I plan to meet this Friday June 28 at 1 PM EST to discuss a book we have been reading entitled The Axial Age and its Consequences, edited by Robert N. Bellah (author of the brilliant survey Religion in Human Evolution) and Hans Joas. The book is a collection of essays written by scholars of philosophy, religion, history, sociology, and related fields and deals with various aspects of the legacy of the “Axial Age”, a concept-label attached to the historical period between 800 and 200 BC by the German existential philosopher Karl Jaspers (The Origin and Goal of History, 1949). The book is a tome, but is set up like an anthology, so we can proceed one major thought at a time - an approach our drifting postmodern world probably needs to see much more.
We do have a focus but plan to have fun along the way, so any who did not just read the above and stifle a yawn are welcome. :grinning:

(I really hope this works…)
Cafe Zoom line: Launch Meeting - Zoom

No reading is required to join in, but if you know absolutely nothing about the Axial Age this very brief summary of the original thought by Jaspers himself might prove helpful:

The present itinerary

(subject to the lot of all plans laid by mice and men) is as follows:

A spirit-enhancing and group-building Clean Start as only our John can offer up

An exploration of ideas in religion, cultural evolution, and structures of consciousness*, focusing on selected introductory essays

[*You know us - Gebser is going to pop his head in at some point, even though he is not mentioned in this book! :laughing:]

Seed questions:

What is second-order culture? How can we use our knowledge well to “presence” the best future?
What is the Axial Age? What about this piece of the past speaks best to our situation(s) today?

Working bibliography

(These ‘may come up in discussion, may not’ - sweat not!):

-Bondarenko, Dmitri M. & Ken Baskin (2011) “Living through a Second Axial Age: Notes in the Time of an Irreversible Global Cultural Transformation”, Globalistics: Ways to Strategic Stability and the Problem of Global Governance Conference 54, Moscow, available at (DOC) Living through a Second Axial Age: Notes in the Time of an Irreversible Global Cultural Transformation | Dmitri Bondarenko and Ken Baskin - Academia.edu
-Bellah, Robert N. (2011) Religion in Human Evolution (Belknap Press)
-Black, Anthony (2008) “The ‘Axial Period’: What Was It and What Does It Signify?”, The Review of Politics, Vol. 70, #1 (Winter), pp. 23-39, available at https://www.sfu.ca/~poitras/rp_axial_08.pdf
-Donald, Merlin (1993) “Précis of Origins of the Modern Mind”, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 16, pp. 737-791, available at Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition | Semantic Scholar
-Eisenstadt, Shmuel N. (ed.) (1986) The Origins & Diversity of Axial Age Civilizations, Albany, State University of New York Press.
-Gebser, Jean (1985) The Ever-Present Origin, Athens, Ohio University Press.
-Graeber, David (2014) Debt: The First Five-Thousand Years, London, Melville House, in particular Chapter 9 “The Axial Age”.
-Bellah, Robert N. & Hans Joas, (eds.) (2012) The Axial Age and its Consequences, Cambridge, Harvard University Press.
-Kripal, Jeffrey J. (2019) The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge, New York, Bellevue Literary Press.
-Löffler, Davor (2018) “Distributing Potentiality: Post-capitalist Economics and the Generative Time Régime”, Journal for Politics, Gender and Culture, Vol. 15, #1-2, pp. 8-44.
-Wendt, Alexander
(2003) “Why a World State is Inevitable”, European Journal of International Relations, Vol. 9(4), pp. 491-542.
(2015) Quantum Mind and Social Science, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.


I don’t feel nearly prepared to join you today, but I appreciate the discussion you’re opening up, and the fact that you have prompted me to read Jaspers’ seminal essay. If I may so venture: My understanding of the ‘Axial Age’ is that it has something to do with the opening up of transcendental space. By this I mean roughly the intersection of the logos, the mental (as Reason), and pure consciousness (allowing for infinite abstraction).

Everything seems to become possible in transcendental space (hence every kind of philosophy, ideology, and faith; correlate of Aurobindo’s ‘Overmind’)—but in the pure opening, we do not yet have an understanding of world history—nor cosmic time, which we gain over millennia of embodied, reincarnational experience and becoming transparent to the presence of the future and the past.

I love that Jaspers describes the Axial Age as “something like a summons to boundless communication.” He writes:

To see and to understand others helps us toward the greatest clarity concerning ourselves, help us to overcome that narrowness which is the danger in every self-enclosed history, and to make a leap into the distance. this venture in boundless communication is once again the secret of achieving humanity, not in the prehistoric past but in ourselves.

That sounds to me like a rallying cry for our humble little adventure in Infinite Conversations! Wishing you the best in your exploration today, looking forward to hearing the recording…


Great input, Marco, and please feel free to join us whenever able. The open mind with which you ponder related issues is all the “preparation” you (or anyone else) need!

On the difference between “self-enclosed history” - which can lead to a Second World War, among other things (though of course not all by itself) - and a “venture in boundless communication”:

Toynbee’s implicit emphasis on structures and interdependencies is explicit in the broadly conceived World History of the Most Recent Times by J. R. von Salis [^], who introduces a well-founded yet entirely new kind of historical writing. From von Salis’ mode of expression it follows that for him history is not, as previously conceived, a temporal stream and course of events, but a manifestation of interrelated and combined events whose effective interrelationships form history. In this approach the stuctural elements of nations and cultural regions are considered to the same extent as the sociological and spiritual structures. This work initiates a universal-integral writing of history. It is world-open, and to a great extent rejects the mere linear presentation in favor of a many-faceted description of the whole event. Thus it assists the irruption of the new consciousness structure in one of the most difficult and crucial areas.

Gebser, EPO, p. 432

^ @achronon Was Weltgeschichte der neuesten Zeit ever translated, to your knowledge? (If not, that might explain why my exhaustive but Anglophone survey of academic world historians makes no mention of him, whereas Spengler and Voegelin are mentioned…)

To all: If anyone comes across any Radio Zurich programs from the late 1940s on the internet, holler! LOL!


I have a couple of books by Voegelin, gathering dust, which I have yet to read. Maybe now is the time to dust them off!

Here is the poem I read today.

Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavor end?
Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes
Now, leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build – but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.

Source: Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose (Penguin Classics, 1985)

Thanks again to everyone for making this project happen and look forward to viewing the video. We discovered a lot of common ground.


That is very interesting, TJ. It sounds to me like, in this view, history can be seen a narrative whole, where the parts make sense in relation to each other, in a way which could be read forward, backward, or in multiple directions. I imagine axial history being interpreted as a kind of open-ended super-novel of stories within stories, struggles and emergences, perpetually being rewritten—a zone of experience and mode of being-in-the-world, which is in some way about itself and yet reflexively also about the participant-observer (reader), in the same way a novel is.

A smattering of (mainly contemplative) questions:

Does the Axial Age take us out of history in some sense? Does it inaugurate history by transcending it? When ‘in history’ do we arrive at Origin? Where is Axis in relation to Origin?


Thanks for making this conversation happen.


And I just lost this week’s pool… :laughing:

I echo this! It was productive, thought-provoking, and fun - i.e., everything I’ve come to expect from the internet, done Cosmos-style.
A shout out and big thank you to @Douggins, our absent yet ever-present friend and technical wizard, for everything you do.

Musings (not mull-ings) on great questions:

In the sense of asking (or trying to ask) new questions, yes.

Yes again. The “Axial Age” itself is a thing to ponder and debate today because a fellow named Jaspers had an idea. As we discussed, there is the past and then there is the meaning of the past - which is always an arena where ideas struggle.

Much deeper and tougher… I’m kind of watching Jaspers and Gebser duke it out on that for now… :grin:


Not to my knowledge. You can get a German copy at Amazon.ca for about 135 CDN + shipping, and I found three listings online at German/Swiss antique-book dealers for between €30 and €60 plus shipping, so my guess is that it is out-of-print in the meantime.

von Salis was professor at the ETH in Zurich who died in 1996. There are Wikipedia pages on him only in German and French, though I found one (Swiss) Italian page on him. I don’t think he ever got the recognition he perhaps deserved.

My advice to all of you: never get old. :roll_eyes: The radio program was not from Zurich, it was from Basel, on January 8, 1954 in relation to (John’ll love this) the 1st international Conference on Parapsychological Studies; iboth Karl Jaspers and the biologist Adolf Portmann (with whom Gebser deals rather extensively) were on the program.

Now I was wracking my brain during our talk as to where I had read that, and now I know. See EPO, p. 451, note 25. :grimacing: (At least I remembered it must have been in relation to the notes I was making on Gebser and Jaspers.)


I do love this, I am aware that many worked in taboo subjects in strange places. I hope we can re-cohere in our current post-truth, free floating factoid era, to come up with some new recipes for a brave new world. A brave, weirder world than we can possibly imagine. Our world is stranger than science fiction. And as Timothy Morton says, a fact is not like a barcode you can scan easily. They don’t work like barcodes.

After decades of trying to read Heidegger’s impossible prose, I came across his correspondence with Jaspers, which was revelatory. Martin drops his obfuscation and talks real. They both speak directly from a shared reality that they both created together in a terrible moment in human history. Privately, he admits failure, which he never did in public communications. It is poignant. I have come to value correspondence as a medium of exchange that gives us a lot more insight into history than the official documents and giant tomes. If you really want to know a thinker, read their letters, Which is different from their emails. We need, as Nora Bateson says, more warm data.

As we explore in our conference call , blending first person accounts as we wrestle with facts and meanings, is messy and in a perpetual muddle. Perhaps the messy middle is ever present. That is what I learned, when I was twelve years old, researching a strange word, homosexual, in a quiet library, the only air-conditioned space in my junior high school. Cool and quiet. I decided to create my own curriculum. I accepted that my life would not be conventional as I crossed over into the taboo areas of the culture I was being indoctrinated into, gripped in a low level consensus trance state. Culture comes from cult. We can break the trance, I learned, and create a different trance. Escaping trance states all together seems unlikely. Reading and writing produce intense trance states. And conversation, like the one we had, produces intense mutual learnings. After watching the video I was amazed by the tones and the overtones. So much unheard music. I registered a subtle, grounded euphoria. Complex but not chaotic. An order emerges spontaneously, as we balance at the edge of chaos. I think we should stay at the edge, rather than fall into it. We can tune into that radio signal, tell stories around the campfire, and become servants of truth, servants of understanding. You are your own metaphor.

Maybe we should stop trying to exclude that messy middle. We need a language for the logic of phase spaces, the spaces of possibility. I imagine we are working this out in our study of the Axial Age. Fasten your seat belts!

Jaspers ( who had a Jewish wife) was a good guy and took risks compared to Martin who was a master of Nazi self deception. He even admits this in his private moments, with his old friend, Karl. I wonder if Gebser has any correspondence floating around? It might be fun to contrast and compare with his other publications.

A weird dream. While re-reading EPO a few years ago, Gebser came to me in a dream. He said," You need to learn how to listen with the third ear."

I am still working on that. Gebser invites intensification. And I believe as we study history together, we enter liminal zones, full of tricksters, archetypes, threshold figures, strange attractors.


My Feeling-Vision of your words John😜



I really like reading writers’ correspondence also! Not sure if you’d be interested, John, but Elizabeth Bishop’s letter-writing is wonderful and out of this world - an utterly distinctive and original voice.


Many underestimate correspondence … at their own peril.

There was a time when letter writing – not even remotely comparable to email – was the only medium of exchange and interaction. Whatever is still available and accessible deserves our attention … or at least that’s how this hermeneuticist reads it.


So it’s not all that wayward to go with what you know.

Well, you’re not interested in excluding, John, and I don’t think TJ is even remotely dedicated to including it, and Michael certainly hasn’t shown a lot of interest in making sure it’s not there; and I could care less if anyone insists that there be one or not. So, let’s just acknowledge some think that middle is messy and jump right in an cavort. Who’s to tell us not to?


Count the ‘historiographer’ in as well. The past speaks in many ways - we need to listen from the margins, from the messy middle, from the top, from the bottom… and when we think we have it figured out to remember that we don’t. LOL


Thank you three for organizing this discussion . . . and to @Michael_Stumpf for pumping up the conversation with your “body work” :muscle: The recording is being processed (sInce I have no official home internet connection beyond the tiny screen browsing on my phone which I loathe . . . I was surprised to discover that I can use my phone now to download and upload the recording(s) . . . this is third-order technology in the works!) and I plan to edit out the first few minutes before the conversation begins.

Definitely only scratched the surface of this topic. As the servants of truth, understanding and clarity I greatly appreciate this slowing down. I cannot say I directly learned any new definitions of what the Axial Age is or should be; I didn’t learn a new term nor did I receive a power point list of what is to be expected from this exploration, yet I learned more about culture, history, interpretation and the flesh than I would have gotten from any reading done alone. Bravo!! I thought I knew what the Axial Age is/was before listening to the recording, now (which happens so often after our conversations) I am oriented within the unknown, though with a deeper sense of this unknown. Where will this Axial exploration go?

After listening to the four of you talk, I have many vague questions that resist articulation at the moment. I ask one below that was rekindled by this conversation, one that has been nagging at me for some time and one I feel should have been answered by now (but perhaps I have been negligent of the answers that may present themselves right in front of me as I read or talk about Gebser and the integral):

Does the integral structure come after mental?

Or more specific: is or will there be or won’t there be or shouldn’t there be another structure of consciousness between the mental and integral? Wilber has his own interpretation of the various stages beyond green (postmodern) that are more or less integral…but what does Gebser say about this? Did I miss something in my reading of Ever-Present Origin?

We have magic which has its own sense of the integral . . . we have mythic which includes magic/archaic and has its own sense of the integral . . . we have mental which includes mythic/magic/archaic and has its own sense of the integral . . . Can it be said that the territory between the mental and the integral is what is being explored in the phrase “second axial age” or even “second-order culture”? Is this what we are exploring? What you intend on exploring in these axis conversations?

Is it that we cannot imagine . . . or cannot fully imagine beyond the mental? When we glimpse the integral, or perhaps when I glimpse the integral, I realize that I am already “there” . . . no further structuring required. But something tells me that we will not just break through and “master” the integral . . . we will just enter something beyond the mental which may have a deeper grokking of the integral that is beyond the mental’s version of the integral.

@achronon, @patanswer, @johnnydavis54, @madrush (the resident Gebsperts, though I appreciate anyones response . . . it really has been nagging me for the past few months) . . .any thoughts? And again, it goes with saying again and again, thank you for this project!


I am a big fan of Bishop. I’m glad to know you like her, too.


I so agree. I just read some correspondence between two distinctive literary figures, Owen Barfield and Saul Bellows. I was amazed by their courtesy and detailed responses to one another. They were not driven by hype and factoids. And their disagreements were handled with utmost decorum. So, different from our rough and tumble rushed culture.


I am sure there is a lot of oscillating between structures, Doug, and each person is complex. And there is comedy, satire, parody, slapstick, farce. If you read one novel you may not know what a novel is. When you read ten novels you may have a better idea of what is meant by novel. When you have read fifty novels you can start being critical, and aware of what you value in reading novels. It is more like listening to a singer who can sing behind the music rather than in front of it. When we are in symbiotic relationships, we can find a rhythm that is not manufactured in a pregiven way, nor cut off from other structures by an arbitrary, thick line drawn by dominant mental. In symbiotic relationships it is not easy to discern where I begin and end. Self and Other are apart of and apart from. There are many wrong ways of reciting a poem but there is no right way. We can constantly revise from moment to moment and when necessary we can regress in service of the ensemble. We can be aware when we get stuck in the regression. It is not like scanning a barcode and getting a fixed price. It’s messy, there is a sliding scale of intensity. And I am sure this is not a good answer to your question as there may be something very subtle I have missed. We can get caught up in labeling others and putting them into structures and this is a trap, Each of us is very idiosyncratic. That we can acknowledge this without falling into postmodern drift is a sign that the Integral might be around the corner but I am not sure which corner. We can tolerate intensity without blowing a fuse. We are willing to take that risk. And when we are at the edge of our maps we are curious. We know we are a performance by the territory. It is fun to be around others who are aware of this, too. I can’t say what Integral is but I can imagine what it might be like. That twist in the Mobius strip, that open-closure of the Klein bottle. Sort of like that. We act " as if "


I am not a Gebspert, at least not currently, but I do think an “integral” level of consciousness is a very real experiential…thingamajig (the technical term). I experience the integral through, among many other aspects, a deeper capacity to see others without distorting what or who is seen too much with various swirling assumptions, nebulous expectations, and prepackaged ideas. To actually just see and deeply accept someone, regardless, or because of, differences - I think that’s integral - not a “color-blindness” but a vivified appreciation of the incommensurable dignity of each human soul (and, beyond that, every sentient being). Of course, such an acceptance is by no means a wispy thing, and does not (and should not) preclude critique and discernment. Listening, being able to truly listen, is also, I’d say, something integral-y, whether to the sea, another person, or one’s own inward heart (I do not live anywhere close to a sea, but I am a poet, so hopefully can be excused for my sea-induced Midwestern wanderlust!)


Your Wave & I enjoy Hearing,Feeling &Seeing your Words Alive😜