Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About This Book
In the period from the ninth century to the second century BCE, the peoples of
four distinct regions of the civilized world created the religious and
philosophical traditions that have continued to nourish humanity to the present
day: Confucianism and Daoism in China, Hinduism and Buddhism in India,
monotheism in Israel, and philosophical rationalism in Greece. Later generations
further developed these initial insights, but we have never grown beyond them.
In The Great Transformation, Karen Armstrong reveals how the sages of
this pivotal erawhose ideas share the values of selflessness, empathy, and
respect for otherscan speak clearly and helpfully to the violence and
desperation that we experience in our own times and teach us to revive the
spirit of compassion that is the basis of all religious traditions.
She traces the development of the Axial Age chronologically, examining the
contributions of such figures as the Buddha, Socrates, Confucius, Jeremiah,
Ezekiel, the mystics of the Upanishads, Mencius, and Euripides. All of the Axial
Age faiths began in principled and visceral reaction against the unprecedented
violence of their time. Despite some differences of emphasis, there was a
remarkable consensus in their call for an abandonment of selfishness and a
spirituality of compassion. With regard to dealing with fear, despair, hatred,
rage, and violence, the Axial sages gave their people and give us, Armstrong
says, two important pieces of advice: that first there must be personal
responsibility and self-criticism, and it must be followed by practical,
effective action. In her opening and concluding chapters, Armstrong urges us to
consider how these spiritualities challenge the way we are religious today.
The Great Transformation revives for its readers the most wise and
sensible of ancient spiritual practicespractices that hold the possibility for
healing in our own troubled times.
At the very beginnings of the Axial Age, the Aryans of the steppes of
southern Russia developed a concept of the divine: "Humans, deities,
animals, plants, and the forces of nature were all manifestations of the
same divine 'spirit.' . . . It animated, sustained, and bound them all
together" [p. 4]. How is this concept of the holiness and interconnectedness
of all life further developed and reinforced in the other, later religions
discussed in the book?
Armstrong notes that the Axial religions all arose out of a revulsion
against violence. Zoroaster was incensed at the murderousness of cattle
raiders on the steppes [pp. 812], Israel's breakthrough "followed hard upon
the heels of a massacre" [p. 77], and in China, the horror of total war on
civilians "intensified the quest for a new religious vision" [p. 317]. How
did the thinking of the sages seek to put an end to violence? What kinds of
approaches do these religions have in common?
"In the Middle East, holiness was a power that lay beyond the gods, like
brahman. The word ilam ('divinity') in Mesopotamia referred to a radiant
power that transcended any particular deity. . . . The gods were not the
source of ilam, but like human beings, mountains, trees, and stars, they
participated in this holiness" [p. 54]. How does this generalized idea of
divinity contrast with the monotheism of the Israelites, which developed in
the same area?
Like the people of most other Axial Age cultures, the Greeks felt that
"it was impossible to achieve life and ecstasy unless you had experienced
the depths of loss" [p. 68]. How do the examples discussed from Greek
tragedy, myth, and rituallike the Eleusinian mysteries for instance [pp.
219221]illustrate this belief in the necessity of suffering for the
attainment of spiritual knowledge?
The Hebrew prophets, including Moses, Jeremiah, Amos, and Isaiah, all
demonstrate the need for a spiritual leader to tell the truth to his people
and to teach self-criticism. Why is self-criticism necessary in any
Consider the idea that life is dukkha, a word that is usually translated
as "suffering" but which also means "unsatisfactory, awry" [p. 230]. While
this is a central concept in Buddhism, in what ways do other religions also
address this problem? To what forms of suffering does dukkha refer?
Patanjali, who compiled the yoga sutras, "listed five vrittis
('impulses') that held us in thrall: ignorance, our sense of ego, passion,
disgust, and the lure of this transient life. These instincts surfaced one
after the other, with inexhaustible and uncontrollable energy. . . . [They]
had to be annihilated, 'burned up.' . . . Only by sheer mental force" [p.
232]. Do these insights into human psychology seem similar to those by later
thinkers like Freud and Jung? Does the impulse of the yogins to withdraw
from society to pursue a spiritual quest make sense? What should we make of
the fact that some paths to spiritual fulfillment are profoundly private and
While the Xunzi and the Daodejing both contain descriptions of the ideal
sage ruler, Armstrong notes the difficulty of reconciling Laozi's spiritual
ideas with political reality in China and elsewhere: "It is difficult to see
how a sage who had reached this level of 'emptiness' would ever come to
power, since he would be incapable of the calculation that was necessary to
win office" [p. 414]. Is there a fundamental discrepancy between the ideals
of Daoismlike being rooted in stillness and emptinessand the
characteristics needed for political leadership? Why does Armstrong say that
Laozi's "was an essentially utopian ideal" [p. 414]?
In discussing the Jewish rabbis Akiba and Hillel, Armstrong emphasizes
that they did not hold "orthodox" beliefs: "Scripture was not a closed book,
and revelation was not a historical event that had happened in a distant
time. It was renewed every time a Jew confronted the text, opened himself to
it, and applied it to his own
situation. . . . Nobodynot even the voice of God himselfcould tell a Jew
what to think" [p. 455]. Why is this an important idea for Armstrong? What
qualities make the rabbinical approach to God both humane and civilized?
The concept of ahimsa (nonviolence) was put into practice most
rigorously by the Jains, who believed that "the dukkha [suffering] that
pervaded the entire world was caused by the actions of ignorant people, who
did not realize what they were doing when they injured others" [p. 289].
Their desire to do no harm to any living thing was meant to "cultivate a
tenderness and sympathy that had no bounds" [p. 290]. What do you think of
the lengths to which the Jains took their desire to do no harm?
Might the Buddhist ideal of anatta or "no self" [p. 337] be thought of
as similar to the ideal of selflessness found in the early Christian Church?
Saint Paul said, "There must be no competition among you, no conceit; but
everybody is to be self-effacing. Always consider the other person to be
better than yourself, so that nobody thinks
of his own interests first, but everybody thinks of other people's interests
instead" [p. 458]. "Living beyond the confines of egotism" was promoted by
all the Axial philosophies [p. 468]. What, then, do you think of the popular
idea in Western psychological thought that developing a strong sense of self
gives one the confidence to deal with life's difficulties?
In her conclusion, Armstrong says that the Axial Age sages, who lived in
violent times, created "a spiritual technology that utilized natural human
energies to counter this aggression" [p. 466]. Discuss her belief that "the
consistency with which the Axial sagesquite independentlyreturned to the
Golden Rule may tell us something important about the structure of our
nature" [p. 467]. What is she suggesting about the human religious impulse?
Is it essentially about preserving life and living peacefully? Is it, in
part, an instinct for survival?
How does the Buddhist concept of behavior that is "unskillful"a term
that Armstrong uses throughout the bookrelate to our relations with others
and to our intentions in everyday life?
While Armstrong makes clear that the Axial Age religious traditions are
based on principles of compassion and self-abandonment, she has also said,
"very often, people don't want to be compassionate religious people. They
prefer to be right. Rarely do they want to give up their egotism. . . . They
often want religion to give them a sense of strong identity. That means they
want to be the one and only believers. This short-circuits the whole of the
religious experience" [Interview, Chicago Tribune, Apr. 25, 2006, p. 1]. Do
you agree with her sense that many people use their religious identity to
achieve a sense of self-righteousness? How often do you see or read about
religion being used today as a force of conflict or violence?
In her conclusion, Armstrong says, "The sages were ahead of us in
recognizing that sympathy cannot be confined to our own group. We have to
cultivate what the Buddhists call an 'immeasurable' outlook that extends to
the ends of the earth, without excluding a single creature from this radius
of concern. . . . If I made my individual self an absolute value, human
society would become impossible, so we must all learn to 'yield' to one
another. Our challenge is to develop this insight and give it a global
significance" [p. 475]. How might these ideas be put into practice, on an
individual level as well as on a larger scale?
"Auschwitz, Bosnia, and the destruction of the World Trade Center
revealed the darkness of the human heart," Armstrong writes. "Today we are
living in a tragic world where, as the Greeks knew, there can be no simple
answers; the genre of tragedy demands that we learn to see things from other
people's point of view" [p. 476]. Do you agree with her that the best way of
dealing with the reality of our own time is to follow Mozi in practicing "concern for everybody" [p. 475]? Discuss the ways in which this book has
made you rethink your own experience of religion, or your thoughts about
Armstrong has said, "The Axial Age sages were not interested in
orthodoxy. Orthodoxy means correct teaching. They weren't interested in
theology much at all. For them, religion was not about belief or holding
onto correct beliefs but about behaving in a way that changed you at a
profound level" [Interview, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Apr. 22, 2006,
p. B1]. She believes that practicing kindness and compassion can change
people in this way. Do you agree?
Harold Bloom, The Book of J; Walter Burkert, Greek Religion;
Roberto Calasso, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony and Ka; Mark Epstein,
Thoughts Without a Thinker; René Girard, Violence and the Sacred;
Aldous Huxley, ed. The Perennial Philosophy; Karl Jaspers, The Great
Philosophers; Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching; Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and
the Serpent; Pankaj Mishra, An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World;
Rohinton Mistry, Family Matters; Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of
Tragedy; Orhan Pamuk, Snow; Sharon Salzburg, A Heart as Wide as
the World; Colm Tóibín, The Sign of the Cross; Simone Weil, Waiting for God.
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Anchor Books.
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