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Wanted: A Few Sages And Seers

by Franz Schurmann

Today's chaotic world needs new interpreters who can work between disparate cultures and faiths

(PNS) -- In the early 1980s, rumors circulated in Moscow that the Politburo had gone to see a well-known Gypsy fortune-teller to find out when President Leonid Brezhnev would die. He died in 1982, age 76. Around that same time, Nancy Reagan consulted a different "Gypsy" fortune-teller, Jeane Dixon. The media got a lot of grist for their media mill, but little information.

The point is that a lot of people want to be able to think of both past and future. They want to believe that the past is a springboard for the future, for better or worse. But if the present is turning into chaos, they themselves can be sucked down in a vortex like bathwater once the plug is removed.

The German philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) took a different view of the past and the future. As one of the founders of existentialist philosophy -- that we individually shape our own existences -- he was astonished to find 25 centuries ago five giants of philosophy who did just that, and changed the lives of millions of people. In the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, five of the greatest founding fathers of religion and philosophy lived during the same span of 150 years -- Confucius, the Buddha, Zoroaster, Isaiah and Socrates. Jaspers called that amazing fact "axial." By "axial" he meant existential tools, like automobile axles, through which people can move in chosen directions.

All five giants lived at great distances from each other. But each knew that their present was heading into chaos. Yet each one had unshakable confidence in the future.

Confucius' passion was to save the oral traditions of a golden age, and to do so he made Chinese writing a powerful tool for change. He taught that only a return to the principles of the golden age of the Zhou Dynasty could save his small country of Lu from extinction.

Buddha and Confucius share almost the same time of birth. Buddha, after living in much richness followed by great suffering, came to the realization that this life was an illusion and that the true reality is on a higher plane. He taught that all humans can achieve the enlightenment he gained. He not only laid out procedures (dharma) to live by, but also called on his many followers to flee the towns and set up communities in the hills (sangha).

Zoroaster was the only great revolutionary among the five. He turned the bad gods into good gods and vice versa. He preached that life offers only one of two choices. Those who choose the New Evil God, for them earthly life can be quite pleasant but paradise is forbidden to them. But if they accept the New God of Light (Ahura Mazda) they will enter Paradise.

There are two Isaiahs, but only the second lived in the axial age. The second Isaiah lauded the one God who anointed Cyrus the Great and who had swept up one country after the other. He allowed the Jews to rebuild the ruined Temple of Solomon. The Jews who had been forcibly taken to the Assyrian and Median courts returned and transformed the Mosaic faith. They too became revolutionaries.

Socrates wrote nothing and only posed questions among his many young followers. But it was one of Socrates' young followers, Plato, who assembled the master's teachings into books. Of these five giants, Confucius and Socrates feared that, not far into the future, the bigger countries would swallow their small countries.

All five giants saw around themselves immense wealth, but that wealth was rotting at the core. The priests did their mumbo-jumbo and courted the merchants, who provided the wealth. From China to Greece, the past was morally dead. The present stank. And fear and terror marked the future.

Jaspers found axial phenomena throughout the world's eastern hemisphere. The Middle East, widely known as the "Cradle of Civilization," was one of the main centers of the axial age. Its peoples spoke many languages and adhered to many different religions. But all of them understood and used an important word, in Aramaic (Jesus' language) "targemana," in Hebrew "targum," and in Arabic "tarjuman." In the three languages the word has only one meaning: "interpreter." A thousand years later in another axial age, this Semitic word migrated into the European Renaissance, in a variant form "dragoman" that also meant interpreter. That shows how wandering interpreters were highly esteemed.

Good interpreters who are bilingual enjoy going back and forth between the two languages. It's more challenging when they also have to correctly convey ideas. But if it weren't for interpreters, most people in the world would still be living in isolation in peasant villages or nomadic encampments.

We know that Confucius, the Buddha and Socrates wandered far and wide. Despite limited information, we have to infer that Zoroaster and Isaiah did the same. Two thousand five hundred years ago, almost every town and many villages spoke different languages or dialects. Not only were the giants masters of many languages and dialects, they had to also explain their new ideas.

A common French expression, "je me debrouille" -- "I'll get out of this mess" -- says a lot about the growing and spreading existential crisis 2,500 years ago, or now. One way out is to reconnect past, present and future.

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Albion Monitor June 16, 2004 (

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