Ep. 2 Pt. 2: The Axial Age - Alphabetic Literacy and Coinage

Updated: May 1, 2021

The Upper Paleolithic period (40, 000 BCE) as discussed in the last post was a transition which involved a development in our meaning making machinery, altered states of consciousness, and the cultivation of wisdom associated with a lot of things we consider spiritual and religious today.


Around 10, 000 BCE, there’s another revolution that takes place -- the Neolithic revolution. This is the beginning of agriculture. Individuals start to live in one place for a significant amount of time which means they learn how to cultivate deeper relationships with strangers in order to peacefully coexist. Thus their sense of public and private self changes during this time.


Then comes the Bronze Age. This is a period of titanic empires. The Sumerian, Mesopotamian, and Egyptian civilizations were incredibly powerful and lasted for a long time. Yet, our connection to this time period is relatively weak. If we were to talk about literary works from the time like the Epic of Gilgamesh and Egyptian Mythology, chances are most of us have not read any. However most have read parts of the Bible, Plato, Confucius or Buddha. We somehow feel like these people are relevant to us in a way that people from the Bronze Age are not. Why?



Around 800-300 BCE came about The Axial Age. There seems to have been another great change here comparable to the change of the Upper Paleolithic transition. Something happened during this time that is deeply formative of who we are today.


When the Bronze Age collapsed it was devastating. It consisted of the greatest loss of cities, cultures and literacy in history. It is the closest thing the world has come to an apocalypse. Just like in the Upper Paleolithic transition, there is once again significant pressure on human cognition to adapt.


The psychotechnology invented here to adapt to this condition was that of alphabetic literacy. Back in the Bronze age being literate was so tough that being literate itself was a job. But with the invention of alphabetic literacy, literacy was made more accessible and shareable. Why is this important?


Alphabetic literally radically changed our sense of who we are and how we think. We could store thoughts independent of our memory. It allowed us to write our thoughts down --- to externalize them so that we can become aware of them and reflect on them.


In other words, our capacity for what Margaret Bella calls second order thinking was developed. We all have metacognition, which is knowledge and awareness of our own mind. Second order thinking is what we get when we internalize a psychotechnology (like alphabetic literacy) which improves our capacity to critically examine and correct our own thinking. Second order thinking starts to emerge because of alphabetic literacy.


What else is being invented at this time?


Kushan coinage

Money. We hardly use it as physical technology anymore which is precisely the point --- money is symbolic. The invention of money helped us to think in an abstract symbolic system. It also brought about numeracy which helped us to think mathematically.


So there were two psycho-technologies invented during this period --- alphabetic literacy that developed our capacity for second order thinking and money that trained abstract symbolic logically rigorous thought.


The second order thinking combined with this abstract symbolic thought helped us get a clearer sense of two things about our cognition ---- how much we can correct our cognition and transcend ourselves in doing so but also how flawed our cognition can be in the first place. People start to realize that although we have a tremendous capacity for self- correction, we have just as much capacity for self-deception. This changed how we see ourselves and the social world in a morally responsible sense.


Before this period, people used to think warfare, violence and chaos were just a part of the natural order of things. But after the axial revolution and with the advent of second order thinking and abstract symbolic thought, people start to recognize their personal responsibility as instigators and enablers of the chaos. They begin to become aware of their capacity for self transcendence and self-destruction. They begin to understand the double-edged sword of their own cognition.


In the next lecture Professor Vervaeke explores our capacity for self transcendence and self destruction, how that changed our understanding of the self, the world, meaning and wisdom.


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