I first came across Karen Armstrong when I read her inspirational A Short History Of Myth. Well known as an author of books on religion (she herself was a Christian, albeit with controversial views), she has addressed most of the main religions in a series of influential works.
In The Great Transformation she looks at the change from polytheistic, often nature-inspired religions in regions such as Mesopotamia, the Middle East and China to religions that we might recognise today: the Abrahamic religions, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism etc. She also looks at how Greece changed during this period (which for her runs from about 1600BC to around 300BC). Other scholars have named this the Axial Age, a convention she adopts.
The book is essentially a history of four regions – Greece, China, the Levant and India. Armstrong goes into a lot of detail here, naming historical figures and developing their lives in times of violence, change and social distress. It is these conditions, she contends, that made certain individuals think about the nature of life: suffering, collectivity and individualism, redemption. She focuses on Buddha, Confucius, Jeremiah and Socrates in this work, but also investigates Lao Tzu, Plato and Aristotle, and various other kings and misfits along the way.
I would have liked a little less history and a little more analysis. The fabulous and inspirational final chapter, for all its brilliance, seems tacked onto the end of dry history. I would have preferred much more of this and fewer ancient tales. But the book is still excellent, and well worth reading for those interested in the human condition. Of course, Armstrong, a believer, is essentially relating the history of imaginary stories told by people to themselves and one another, but it is vitally important that all atheists and humanists uncover the reasons for such stories. Therefore her work has merit.
In a way, this book is a history of the change from one method of explaining things people didn’t understand to another. In an ironic conclusion, she observes that after the sixteenth century our leaders changed from those mentioned above to Einstein, Freud and Newton. I do agree with her criticisms of the global change from mythos to logos (one of the subjects of my as yet unpublished Woodland Revolution), but Armstrong lacks the insight to take another step back from mere faith into understanding. Though she grasps the importance of understanding suffering and pain, she believes the experience of the transcendent is a real experience, not an imaginary one. In this regard, her book fails. Yet it is a success too. Humanity can always learn from reality, if it wants to. We could make the effort to learn from where we have gone wrong. One of the sad lessons of this book is that such education takes a lot of effort, and most people, religious or atheist, can’t be bothered with that.