Friday, February 13, 2009

The Great Transformation The Beginning of our Religious Traditions by Karen Armstrong

I haven't finished this yet.

The book starts out by explaining its purpose: to look at the peoples and trends that form what some call the Axial Age: a pivotal period (though now known not to be as dramatically short as Jaspers thought) in which 4 great religious traditions emerged: Hinduism/Buddhism, Confucianism/Daoism, monotheism in Israel, and Greek philosophical rationalism.

She starts with a fantasy about Aryans, in which the peaceful people discover horses and develop a warrior sub-group. Not a good start if she wants to be taken seriously as a historian: she goes far beyond any historical records. And one can be both a brutal warrior and a peaceful farmer: witness the Vikings, who went on raids in order to build enough wealth to buy farms. OK, some of them enjoyed raiding, but they often claimed their ambition was to farm.

At that point I decided to do a little spot checking to see what the rest of the book was about.

I read a short section on the woes of a philosopher trying to influence an ambitious Chinese king. Nicely written and very interesting. Then I read a section on prophets in Israel and the formation of monotheism and the rewriting of the Pentateuch. Um. For her the JEDP approach is gospel, and the interpretation assumes that monotheism was new. It smells a little circular.

Comparing one section on Hindu ritual with one on prophets in Israel suggested to me that she doesn't like Amos very much, but very much admires Hinduism.

Her intro bothers me, and some of the details don't match things I read elsewhere. I'm not sure how reliable a history this is.

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