Abstraction and the ‘axial’ age

Eventually I had to deal with the infernal ‘axial’ age in my treatment of the sacred economy. What interests me here, though, is the way tribute-exchange becomes the dominant institutional form after the long economic crisis at the end of the second millennium BCE. So what relevance does the ‘axial’ age have?

While the ‘discovery’ of abstraction and the beginnings of henotheisms and monotheisms in the first millennium have been much celebrated and discussed, less attention has been given to the socio-economic conditions of such changes. As Graeber persuasively argues, this was an era of even more extensive violence than usual. Marauding bands and armies crisscrossed the land, rulers sought to extract plunder and tribute as ways of feeding larger state machines (when estates were no longer sufficient), and the logistics of providing for perpetual armies became a nightmare. In this context, coinage provides an ingenious solution to the logistics of supply, and with coinage a new type of abstraction becomes possible and tangibly real.

We need to be careful at this point, for the usual argument is that here lie the origins of the ability of human beings to think abstractly in a sustained manner. That argument goes as follows: coinage can happen and is fostered by a huge step in human abilities, specifically the ability to think abstractly. The reason is that coinage embodies an abstract value, both instituted by the state and agreed upon by those who use it. Arguments run back and forth in idealist and materialist directions: either the ‘discovery’ of abstraction precedes and enables coinage, or coinage produces the conditions for thinking abstractly. However, the problem lies elsewhere, namely, in the assumption that abstraction itself was a new step in human development. It follows that before then human beings operated in concrete, immediate terms, not being aware of mutually contradictory beliefs – for instance, the god can be a bull, a storm, or physically present in the temple or cult corner. Christina pointed out that this argument is exceedingly strange and somewhat patronizing, a projection backwards in time of assertions still made today that indigenous people cannot think abstractly since they are ‘primitive’ and ‘backward’ (for instance, Danes who work in Greenland assert this today about Greenlanders). It may be refuted simply: does not the use of language entail a process of abstraction, or the ability to plan crops or raise herds, or to distinguish between different types of animals or groups of people?

What are the implications for the changes of the first millennium, embodied physically in coinage? I suggest that this shift entails a new type of abstraction, not the invention of abstraction itself. A coin has an objective value, instituted by the monarch who punches, stamps, or presses it (simultaneously in China, India, and Lydia). It has the same objective value for the peasant who sells his produce as the hungry mercenary who purchases it and will never be seen again. In this blood-soaked era and with new forms of abstraction embodied in coinage, new forms of religious expression take root: comprehensive theological systems emerge, headed by singular gods which rule not the tribe or nome or palace-temple complex, but which lay claim to ruling the whole cosmos.


5 thoughts on “Abstraction and the ‘axial’ age

  1. You’re quite correct in making the point that abstraction was not new, but rather changed into new shapes. Those over-stressing coinage tend to forget the very elaborate weighing systems that were in existence in the LBA and before. Not that this knowledge is particular new either, it was already more or less noted by Gordon Childe in his review of Frankfort et al.’s The intellectual adventure of ancient man.

    1. Yes, for some reason we seem to be fated to repeating the same arguments from generation to generation.
      And I keep finding the assertion that coinage was singularly invented in Lydia, completely neglecting China and India.

  2. Well, in the hegelian sense, language is conceptual and therefore the most concrete. It is the material processes that are the meeting points of many conceptions, therefore making them the abstractions. So, I think your point still holds, but it cannot be refuted simply by conceptual plans for agriculture.

  3. I remember in my Maoist days (bliss was it in those days…) that I read some books by Thomson including Aeschylus and Athens, and The First Philosophers, in which he makes much use of Marx’s Capital (the early parts of volume one) in order to understand monism, monotheism, monetarism possibly other things beginning with mon. I was not convinced – he had not understood Marx’s distiction between analysis and presentation and so was more Hegelian than Marxist. Still it was good to read.

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