A second Axial Age: Back to the future
I am not sure many people understand what Post-Modernism is or why it matters much. Most of us think we are living in modern times. How then can we speak of Post-Modernity? This is not back to the future talk or fantasy futurism, but rather worldview language and how we hold the happenings in our lives. Nevertheless, I do want to go back in order to bring us up-to-date. Let’s start with the first Axial Age. This was the time of the great philosophers and theologians: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Prophets, the Buddha, Confucius, the Upanishads, Zoroaster. Because these thinkers and writers saw all of life integrated and of one, politics and religion, nature and man existed out of a single purpose and there was a mighty force at the center of life. All creatures, events, present and future were held together for a reason not readily understood but embraced in mystery.
The Middle Ages or Traditional Age continued this integrated whole worldview. It was not all pretty. A hierarchy of serfs and lords, natural alignments of a cosmic order were taught in universities by scholastics, always men of the church. People were born to their station, even predestined, but they could seek refuge in the monasteries which flourished. And one could argue that it was in these Benedictine orders that agriculture in the West really took off. Men were freed from serfdom to experiment with production methods, brandy being one of the best products wrought of this age! Women were protected and could be of some earthly help, not married off to die in childbirth before they were 15. It also gave us our universities and liberal arts curriculum, again all of the same origin with a Prime Mover at the center. Earth and sky were of one creation.
It was not until the Modern Age where science and its corollary reason showed that this natural preordained order of life was not as it seemed. Instead of flat, the world was round. Instead of absolute power, the church’s foundation could be brought down. And so it went through 500 years or until Modernity showed its darker side — its ability to annihilate whole populations and cites. It was out of two world wars that Post-Modernism was born, all authority/power was questioned. Orthodoxy became irrelevant and life determined tenuous and purposeless. In a Post-Modern Age all sturdy, lasting things lost their meaning. No point in the universe or in one’s life could withstand the scrutiny of relevancy. Truth became relative to something else. No absolute could lay claim to Ultimate Reality.
In review the Post-Modernism is an Age of Relativism; Modernity was an Age of Reason. How one best arrived/thrived in Modernity was through the scientific method. Before Modernity was the Age of Tradition where natural law was understood cosmically. As the planets, the sun and the moon had their seasons so did humans, plants, animals. Most everything was a mystery, but the good news was that this was not all bad either. Life was not always Hobbsian-poor, lonely, brutish, and short! There was symmetry, rhythm, a place to be.
Why write about these things? Because it is no accident that Rick Warren’s book The Purpose-Driven Life is the most popular book of this last decade. And most relevant to this author, land use and food production. Land is the most real estate we have. We agrarians know in our bones the fundamentals of a precious life lie buried in the good earth, its willingness to give up its power, to sustain and provide meaning to an otherwise wandering and searching populace. In all its earthiness, it is the most heavenly metaphor we have. Maybe it is time for a second Axial Age!
Sylvia Zimmerman is the owner of Fulton Creek Jersey Cheese in Richwood. She holds two graduate degrees and, when not working on her farm or pursuing her interest in sustainable agriculture, writes her own blog.