What has become clear to me in recent years is that the old dream of progress, which used to be assumed, is being replaced in popular culture by visions of disaster, ecological catastrophe in particular. If, as I believe, we human beings are at least to some extent in charge of our own evolution, we are in a highly demanding situation. Never before have calls for criticism of and alternatives to the existing order seemed so urgent. It is in this context that I want to consider whether the heritage of “the axial age”—the period in antiquity that gave rise to such social critique through practices of renunciation—is a resource or a burden in our current human crisis.

Let me take a passage in Habermas’s early essay, “Toward a Reconstruction of Historical Materialism,” as a point of departure. Habermas, while accepting the validity of neoevolutionist approaches in their own terms, argues that in studying social evolution we will inevitably be governed not only by cognitive standards, but by normative ones, though I am sure he would not want to confound the two levels. Even if we can speak of societies with normatively lower and higher levels of social learning capacity, we can never assume that there is anything inevitable about attaining the higher levels. If we are going to talk about levels at all, as I am prepared to do, we must expect to find regress as well as progress and face the possibility that the human project may end in complete failure. In speaking of the transition from tribal societies organized by kinship to the emergence of the early state, Habermas writes:

Social integration accomplished via kinship relations … belongs, from a developmental-logical point of view, to a lower stage than social integration accomplished via relations of domination. … Despite this progress, the exploitation and oppression necessarily practiced in political class societies has to be considered retrogressive in comparison with the less significant social inequalities permitted by the kinship system. Because of this, class societies are structurally unable to satisfy the need for legitimation that they themselves generate.

It is true that the early state and its accompanying class system emerge in what I have called archaic societies well before the axial age and generate a degree of popular unhappiness that can be discerned in the texts we have from such societies, but the legitimation crisis of which Habermas speaks arises with particular acuteness in the axial age, when mechanisms of social domination increase significantly relative to archaic societies and when coherent protest for the first time becomes possible.

In answer to the question of where this criticism originated there has been a tendency to speak of “intellectuals,” though what that term means in the first millennium BCE is not obvious. Scribal and priestly classes come to mind, but we can assume that most of them were too tied in to the existing power systems to be very critical. It is not easy to imagine the social space for criticism in such societies. It is here that we have to consider the role of the renouncer, to take a term most often used for ancient India.

There were renouncers already in late Vedic India, particularly within the Brahmin class. What the renouncer renounces is the role of the householder and all of the social and political entanglements that go with it. Buddhism provides a radical form of the renouncer, whose initial act is to “leave home” and to be permanently homeless. If the renouncer is “nowhere” he, and sometimes she, can look at established society from the outside, so to speak. It is not hard to see the Hebrew prophets as, in a sense, renouncers, though I have also called them denouncers. They too stood outside the centers of power, attempting to follow the commandments of God, whatever the consequences. Even in opposition, they were more oriented to power than were Buddhist monastics, to be sure, but the Buddhist monks also had a radical critique of worldly power. It is easy to see the early Daoists as renouncers, and they too have a critique of power, though perhaps more satirical than ethical. But there is a sense in which the Confucians were renouncers, criticizing power from the outside—especially the greatest ones who never held office or held only lowly ones briefly, who were in principle opposed to serving an unethical lord. And finally I will argue that Socrates and Plato were, in different ways, also renouncers, who were in, but not of, the city and also criticized it from the outside.

For all the differences among what can, in most cases, only loosely be called renouncers in the several axial cultures, the one thing they shared was that they were teachers, and founders of schools or orders, thus institutionalizing a tradition of criticism. Ultimately their power was exercised through the extent to which they influenced or even controlled elite education, as, to some degree paradoxically, many of them ultimately did. And inevitably their survival depended on what they charged for their services or were freely given. But then how did renouncers garner the support that allowed them to survive in their outsider position? It seems apparent that some degree of unease about the state of the world must have been relatively widespread, even among the elite, to provide the support without which renouncers would simply have faded away into the wilderness.

If Habermas is right about the legitimation crisis of the axial age brought on by the dissonance between the developmental-logical advance and the moral-practical regression—as I think he is—I would like to illustrate the response to this legitimation crisis by referring to the utopian projections of a good society that the various kinds of renouncers offered as criticism of the existing order.

In ancient Israel the prophets sharply criticized the behavior of foreign states, but also conditions within the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. According to Amos, the rich and the rulers “trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and turn aside the way of the afflicted.” In contrast the prophets look forward to the Day of the Lord when judgment will come to the earth and justice will “roll down like the waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” The prophets admonish rulers and people alike to change their ways but look forward to a divine intervention that will finally put things right.

In ancient China, Mencius, for example, along with many Confucians before and after him, bemoaned the sad state of society, the corruption of the rulers and the oppression of the peasantry, and offered an alternative form of government: rule by moral example, by conformity with the li, the normative order, and not by punishment. The Confucian hope for an ethical ruler who would follow Confucian injunctions did not involve any idea of divine intervention, except a vague notion that Heaven would eventually punish behavior that was too outrageous, but it was in its own way as utopian as was the prophetic hope of ancient Israel.

Plato, in the Gorgias and in the first book of the Republic, is a critic of a politics where the strong could inflict harm on the weak with impunity: for him despotism was always the worst form of government. In the Republic he depicted a good society in contrast to the one he criticized, but which he knew was a “city in words,” or a “city in heaven,” and not one likely to be realized on this earth.

The early Buddhist canon describes an ideal society so different from existing reality as to be perhaps the most radical utopia of all, the most drastic criticism of society as it is.

In each axial case, what I am calling social criticism is combined with religious criticism and the very form and content of the axial symbolization take shape in the process of criticism. The Greek case is exemplary because our very term “theory”—which I, following Merlin Donald, take as diagnostic of the axial transition—first appeared there. It is not surprising that it was Plato who took the traditional term for ritual theoria and transmuted it into philosophical theoria, which is not the same thing as what we mean by theory, but is its lineal predecessor.

Andrea Nightingale in her book, Spectacles of Truth in Classical Greek Philosophy: Theoria in its Cultural Context, describes theoria before Plato as “a venerable cultural practice characterized by a journey abroad for the sake of witnessing an event or spectacle.” It took several forms, but the one which Plato took as the analogy for philosophical theoria was the civic form where the theoros (viewer, spectator) was sent as an official representative of his city to view a religious festival in another city and then return to give a full report to his fellow citizens. Nightingale notes that the traditional theoros was a lover of spectacles, particularly of religious rituals and festivals, while the philosophical theoros “loves the spectacle of truth.” Plato put great emphasis on vision, on seeing the truth more than hearing it; it is also a special kind of seeing, seeing with “the eye of the soul.” It is this kind of seeing that requires a protracted philosophical education to prepare for, but it ends with the “theoria [the ‘seeing’] of all time and being.”

I cannot here give an account of the beauty and complexity of the Parable of the Cave in the Republic, which is the locus classicus for the Platonic treatment of theory, but can allude only briefly to those aspects of it that relate to my argument. The parable begins with a person who is “at home” in his own city. Home, however turns out to be a dark cave that is in fact a prison where one is in bonds and is forced to look at shadows on the wall cast by people (ideologists?) behind one’s back projecting images by holding various objects in front of fires. Still, those shadowy images are what one is used to, so that in a situation where one is freed from one’s bonds and, in Plato’s words, “compelled to suddenly stand up and to turn [one’s] head and to walk and turn upward toward the light,” (515c) one will be confused, in a state of aporia, that is, profound uncertainty. One will have entered, in Nightingale’s words, “a sort of existential and epistemic no-man’s-land,” being able no longer to recognize the old familiar shadows nor yet to see anything in the blinding light above, so that one would be tempted to flee from the whole journey and return to the old familiar prison.

Yet the would-be philosopher does not flee back, but goes on to actually view and be transformed by the form of the good. In a good city when he returns he will be given civic office and expected to serve, even though he would rather spend his time in contemplation, yet even in office he is still a kind of foreigner in his own city. But if he returns to a bad city, his report of what he has seen will be mocked as foolish and nonsensical: he will be abused, he may even be killed. Nightingale sums up: “When he returns to the human world, then, he is atopos, not fully at home: he has become a stranger to his own kind.”

In the good city the philosophic rulers, or, as they are often called, the “guardians,” are an ascetic lot, and have been compared to a monastic order. Not only are they committed to a life of poverty (they live on what the city gives them, not on anything of their own, and can be considered in a way to be beggars), but their sexual life is so regulated that, though they have children, they have no family life, no personal household: the children are raised in common. They embody the virtue of wisdom, but they preside over a city that is characterized by the virtues of justice and moderation, and, not insignificantly, where there are no slaves.

In the Buddhist case, religious reform and political criticism also went hand in hand. The Buddhist Myth of the Cave is in an important sense the whole elaborate story of the Buddha’s life as the tradition handed it down. Just as the philosopher had to leave his city, the Buddha had to leave his kingdom. Seeing sickness, old age, and death, the Buddha wanted to leave that cave, and spent years of suffering and deprivation trying to do so. In the end, however, he found a middle way between the sensual indulgence of the world and the harsh austerities of the renouncers who preceded him, a way in which serene meditation could lead him to the vision of the truth and the release which he sought. And, giving up the temptation to withdraw completely from a world filled with lust and hate, the Buddha undertook, out of compassion for all sentient beings, forty-five years of itinerant preaching to make sure that the truth he had seen would not be lost to the world.

The great utopias served for the renouncers as stark contrasts to the actual world, and their vision of that other world could be called “theory” in Plato’s sense. But the very distance they felt from the world to which they returned made possible another kind of “theory,” another kind of seeing—that is, a distant, critical view of the actual world in which they lived. The renouncer sees the world with new eyes: as Plato says of the ones who have returned to the cave, they see the shadows for what they are, not naively as do those who have never left. One could say that the ideological illusion is gone.

Once disengaged vision becomes possible then theory can take another turn: it can abandon any moral stance at all and look simply at what will be useful, what can make the powerful and exploitative even more so. One thinks of the Legalists in China, and of Kautilya’s Arthashastra in India. Although the Hebrew prophets saw and condemned the self-serving manipulations of the rich and powerful, we can find in the Bible no example of someone arguing for such behavior in principle. Except possibly some of the Sophists, whose surviving writings are fragmentary, we have nothing quite like Han Fei or Kautilya in Greece. Or do we?

Aristotle was not an amoralist; he was one of the greatest moral theorists who ever lived. Yet in Aristotle we have the beginning of the split between knowledge and ethics that will have enormous consequences in later history. He severs the link between wisdom (sophia) and moral judgment (phronesis). Though he sees contemplation (theoria) as the best life for human beings, it is, in his words, useless. It is a good internal to itself, but it has no consequences for the world. Aristotle’s Politics, furthermore, is no utopia, but an empirical and analytical description of actual Greek society, containing ethical judgments between better and worse to be sure, but distant, in a sense disengaged. He was the founder of sociology, which Durkheim recognized when he assigned the Politics as the basic textbook for his students when he first began to teach at the University of Bordeaux. Aristotle on the whole used the word theoria in Plato’s sense, but he also used it from time to time for “investigation,” or “inquiry,” that is for the study of all things in the world, natural and cultural, to see how they worked and what they are for.

The axial age gave us “theory” in two senses, and neither of them has been unproblematic ever since. The great utopian visions have motivated some of the noblest achievements of mankind; they have also motivated some of the worst actions of human beings. Theory in the sense of disengaged knowing, inquiry for the sake of understanding, with or without moral evaluation, has brought its own kind of astounding achievements but also given humans the power to destroy their environment and themselves. Both kinds of theoria have criticized but also justified the class society that first came into conscious view in the axial age. They have provided the intellectual tools for efforts to reform and efforts to repress. It is a great heritage. I doubt that any of us would rather live in a tribal society than in one whose beginnings lie in the axial age; I know I would not. Yet it is a heritage of explosive potentialities for good and for evil. It has given us the great tool of criticism. How will we use it?

[This post is a condensed version of a keynote speech delivered at a conference on “The Axial Age and its Consequences for Subsequent History and the Present.” Held last month at the the Max Weber Center for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies (in Erfurt, Germany), the conference was sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation in cooperation with Robert Bellah and Hans Joas.—ed.]