Ancient History & Civilisation



(c. 450 to 398 BCE)

In Israel, the Axial Age was drawing to a close. By the second half of the fifth century, Jerusalem was a small, damaged city in an undistinguished corner of the Persian empire. The Great Transformation usually occurred in regions that were in the vanguard of change and development. Israel and Judah had suffered greatly from the imperial powers, but these empires had brought intimations of broader horizons and a wider world. Israel’s Axial Age had reached its crescendo in Babylon, the regional capital. In Jerusalem, the returning exiles were no longer in the forefront of world events, but lived in obscurity; the struggle for survival had taken precedence over the search for fresh religious vision. A few chapters in the book of Isaiah may express the preoccupations of the community after the completion of the second temple.1 The old dream of Second Isaiah had not died. People still hoped that Yahweh would create “a new heaven and a new earth” in Jerusalem, where there would be no weeping and the pain of the past would be forgotten.2 Others looked forward to the time when the city of God should open its gates to everybody—to outcasts, foreigners, and eunuchs—for Yahweh had proclaimed, “My house will be a house of prayer for all the peoples.” One day he would bring these outsiders into the city, and allow them to sacrifice to him on Mount Zion.3 But in fact a more rigidly exclusive attitude heralded the end of the Axial Age.

In about 445, a new governor was appointed as the Persian representative in Jerusalem. Nehemiah, a member of the Jewish community in Susa, the Persian capital, had held the post of cupbearer to King Artaxerxes I. He had been shocked to hear that the walls of Jerusalem were still in ruins and begged the king to allow him to go to Judah and rebuild the city of his ancestors. He arrived incognito, and went out secretly one night for a ride around the old, desolate fortifications, “with their gaps and burnt-out gates.” At one point, he could not even find a path for his horse. When Nehemiah made himself known to the elders the next day, the citizens, mounting a massive cooperative effort, managed to build new walls for the city in a mere fifty-two days. But relations between the Golah, the community of returned exiles, and their neighbors had deteriorated so badly that it was a dangerous task. Throughout his mission, Nehemiah had to contend with the determined opposition of some of the local dynasts: Sanballat, governor of Samerina, in the territories of the old northern kingdom; Tobiah, one of his officials; and Gershon, governor of Edom. The new walls were built in fear and tension: “Each did his work with one hand while gripping his weapon with the other. And as each builder worked, he wore his sword on his side.”4

It is very difficult to date this period. Our chief sources are the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which consist of a number of unrelated documents that an editor later attempted to string together. He assumed that Ezra and Nehemiah were contemporaries, and made Ezra arrive in Jerusalem first. But in fact there are good reasons for dating Ezra’s mission much later, during the reign of Artaxerxes II.5 Nehemiah did a great deal to revive the fortunes of the city. He managed to increase the population to about ten thousand citizens, and tried to prevent the suppression of the poor by the nobility. But it is significant that his first act in Jerusalem was to build a wall. In his second term of office, which began in about 432, Nehemiah made new legislation to prevent members of the Golah from marrying into the families of the local population, even those Israelites who had not been taken into exile. He expelled the chief priest, Eliashib, because he was married to Sanballat’s daughter. In exile, some of the priests had warned against assimilation with foreigners. Now the Golah was forbidden to marry people who had once been members of the Israelite family, but were now regarded as strangers and enemies.

During the exile, the laity had been encouraged to adopt the purity laws of the priests, and this meant that ordinary Jews had to be instructed in the intricacies of the ritual law by experts. One of these was Ezra, who had “devoted himself to the study of the law of Yahweh, to practising it, and to teaching Israel its laws and customs.”6 He may also have been the minister for Jewish affairs at the Persian court. At this time, the Persians were reviewing the laws of the subject peoples, to make sure that they were compatible with the security of the empire. As a legal expert in Babylonia, Ezra could have worked out a satisfactory modus vivendi between the Torah and the Persian legal system. His mission was to promulgate the Torah in Jerusalem and make it the official law of the land.7 The biblical writer saw Ezra’s mission as a turning point in the history of his people: he described his journey to Judah as a new exodus and presented Ezra as a new Moses. When he arrived in Jerusalem, Ezra was appalled at what he found. Priests were still colluding with the am ha-aretz, and the people continued to take foreign wives. For a whole day, the inhabitants of Jerusalem had to watch in dismay as the king’s emissary tore his hair and sat down in the street in the posture of deep mourning. Then he summoned all the members of the Golah to a meeting: anybody who refused to attend would be cast out of the community and have his property confiscated.

On New Year’s Day, Ezra brought the Torah to the square in front of the Water Gate; standing on a wooden dais and surrounded by the leading citizens, he read the Torah to the crowd, expounding on it as he went along.8 We have no idea which text he actually read to them, but it was certainly a shock to the people. Religious truth always sounded different when written down and read aloud, and the people burst into tears, shocked by the demands of Yahweh’s religion. Ezra had to remind them that this was a festival, an occasion for rejoicing, and recited the text that commanded the Israelites to live in special booths during the month of Sukkoth, in memory of their ancestors’ forty years in the wilderness. The people rushed into the hills to pick branches of olive, myrtle, pine, and palm, and soon leafy shelters appeared all over the city. There was a carnival atmosphere: each evening, the people assembled to listen to Ezra’s reading of the law.

The next assembly was a more somber occasion.9 It was held in the square in front of the temple, and the people stood shivering as the torrential winter rains deluged the city. Ezra commanded them to send away their foreign wives, and women and children were, therefore, expelled from the Golah to join the am ha-aretz. Membership in Israel was now confined to the descendants of those who had been exiled to Babylon and to those who were prepared to submit to the Torah, the official law code of Jerusalem. The lament of the outcasts may have been preserved in the book of Isaiah:

For Abraham does not own us

And Israel does not acknowledge us;

Yet you, Yahweh, yourself are our father. . . .

We have long been like people who do not rule,

People who do not bear your name.10

Suffering and domination had led to a defensive exclusion that was alien to the unfolding spirit of the Axial Age in the other regions.

But that cold, rainy scene was not the end of the story. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah comprised only a small part of the Hebrew Bible. Their perspective was shared by many of the people but it was not the only viewpoint. During the fifth and fourth centuries, the Bible was compiled by editors and the more inclusive traditions of Israel and Judah were also represented. The traditions of P, who had insisted that no human beings were unclean, dominated the first three books of the Pentateuch and qualified the more exclusive vision of the Deuteronomists. Other books reminded Jews that King David himself was descended from Ruth, a woman of Moab. And the book of Jonah showed a Hebrew prophet being compelled by Yahweh to save the city of Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian empire, which had destroyed the kingdom of Israel in 722. When Jonah had remonstrated with God, Yahweh had answered in words that could have been endorsed by many other sages of the Axial Age—especially, perhaps, the Jains: “Am I not to feel sorry for Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, to say nothing of all the animals?”11

The first phase of the Axial Age of Israel was over, but, as we shall see in the final chapter, it would enjoy a second flowering: Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam would all build on Israel’s Axial insights, and create a faith based upon the Golden Rule and the spirituality of “yielding,” empathy, and concern for everybody.

As they entered the second half of the fifth century, despite the apparent success of their city, some of the older Athenians felt uncertain about the future. Pericles had led the polis to the zenith of its power. The new buildings on the Acropolis were a triumph; sculptors were creating astonishing work, and the great tragedians continued to present their masterpieces at the City Dionysia. In 446, Athens and Sparta had negotiated a truce for thirty years, dividing the Hellenic world between them: Athens would control the Aegean, while Sparta, a land power, held the Peloponnesus. Athens could look forward to a period of peace and prosperity, and yet Pericles built long defensive walls, enclosing the city and the port of Piraeus. Many Athenians still felt vulnerable, grimly aware that the subject poleis resented their imperial rule. In 446 they had sustained heavy losses in Boetia; cities had tried to defect from the Delian League, and there was war on Samos, in which the Persians threatened to intervene. Athens was not a major world power but only a small, overextended city-state. How could forty thousand fighting men rule the whole of Greece? But the younger generation did not appreciate this. Born after the battle of Marathon, they had known only easy success. They were becoming impatient with Pericles, who was now sixty years old, and were ready to listen to the new ideas that had the city buzzing during the 430s.

There was a major intellectual shift during these years. People had started to feel frustrated and even baffled by the philosophers, whose work was becoming increasingly abstruse. Zeno (b. 490), the disciple of Parmenides, had tried to demonstrate the validity of his master’s controversial ideas by formulating a series of mischievous paradoxes. Parmenides had claimed that despite the evidence of our senses, everything was immobile. Zeno illustrated this by stating that an arrow in flight was actually motionless. At each second it occupied a space that was exactly equal to itself and was therefore always at rest, wherever it was. “What is moving is moving neither in the place in which it is, nor in the place in which it is not.”12 Again Zeno argued that it was impossible for Achilles, who ran faster than anyone else, even to begin the race of the Panathenaea: before he could complete the course, he had to travel halfway; before he reached that point, he had to get a quarter of the way there. But this line of reasoning could continue ad infinitum: before Achilles covered any distance he had to cover half of it.13 It was, therefore, impossible to talk sensibly about motion, so it was better, as Parmenides advised, to say nothing about it at all.

Zeno wanted to demonstrate the logical absurdity of common sense and had discovered that motion was really a succession of immobilities in a way that would fascinate later philosophers. Chinese logicians, as we shall see, would evolve similar conundrums. But many of Zeno’s contemporaries felt that reason was undermining itself. If it was impossible to formulate any truth, what was the point of these discussions? The Sicilian philosopher Empedocles (495–435) tried to reinstate the normal world, while holding on to some of Parmenides’ insights. He argued that the four elements were indeed unchanging, but that they moved about and combined to form the phenomena we see. Anaxagoras of Smyrna (508–428) believed that every substance contained parts of every other substance, even though their presence could not be discerned by the naked eye. It followed that because it contained the seeds of all that exists, anything could develop into absolutely anything else. Like the Milesians, he tried to find the source from which everything developed. He called it nous (“mind”). This cosmic intelligence was divine, but not supernatural; it was merely another form of matter. Once nous had set everything in motion, there was nothing more it could do. Impersonal, natural forces took over, and the process continued without guidance. Democritus (466–370) imagined innumerable tiny particles careering around in empty space. He called them “atoms,” the word deriving from atomos (“uncuttable”). The atoms were solid, indivisible, and indestructible, but when they collided with one another, they stuck together, and created the familiar objects that we see around us. When the atoms dispersed, things fell apart and apparently died, but the atoms went on to create new forms of being.14

These philosophers were not lonely thinkers, shut away from the world in ivory towers. They were celebrities. Empedocles, for example, claimed that he was divine, wore a purple robe, a golden girdle, and bronze shoes. Crowds flocked to hear him speak. With hindsight, we can see that some of the intuitions of these philosophers were remarkable. Democritus’s atoms would be developed by modern physicists; and Empedocles imagined a cosmic struggle between Love and Strife, which was not unlike electromagnetism and Big Bang theory.15 But they had no way of proving their theories, so however insightful, they remained fantasies. Philosophy was becoming too remote for ordinary people. These fanciful cosmologies answered no human need and ran counter to basic experience. If you could not trust the evidence of your senses, how could you reach any conclusions at all? Why should anybody believe the extraordinary ideas of Parmenides or Democritus, when they could produce no sound evidence to support them? As common sense was relentlessly dismantled by these logicians, many began to feel disoriented. Science has continued to disturb the public in this way. The hypotheses of Copernicus, Galileo, and Charles Darwin all caused disquiet when they were first proposed. Increasingly, these natural scientists (physikoi) began to have a similar effect on their Greek contemporaries.

In about 460 Anaxagoras arrived in Athens, and he immediately became a controversial figure. This was the first time that Athens, a very religious polis, had been directly exposed to the new ideas. Many were intrigued, but others were dismayed. Anaxagoras became interested in astronomy, and was said to have predicted the fall of a meteorite in Thrace in 467. He could not have achieved this feat, but may well have been excited by stories of large, blazing rocks falling from the sky. At all events, he concluded that the sun was a stone and the moon a mass of earth. The heavenly bodies were not gods, but red-hot rocks; instead of worshiping them, people should keep out of their way.16 This kind of remark may have been commonplace in Ionia, but it was not acceptable in Athens.

A new circle of intellectuals tried to bring philosophy down to earth and make it more relevant. They had a profound effect on Athenian thinkers, but many found them just as distressing as the scientists.17 They were called Sophists (“wise men”). Later Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle would criticize them quite savagely, and as a result, the word “sophist” is used today to describe somebody who uses specious, fallacious arguments. But this is not fair to the original Sophists, who were seriously seeking truth in their own way, and believed that they had an important mission. They argued that philosophy had taken a wrong turn. Gorgias, a Sophist from Leontinum in Sicily, parodied the convoluted logic of the Milesian and Eleatic physikoi thus:

•                  Nothing whatever exists.

•                  If it did exist, it would be impossible to explain what it was.

•                  If this were possible, it would be impossible to communicate it to anyone else.18

What was the point of denying common sense and the utility of language? Instead of creating incredible fantasies, it was time to develop a philosophy that would actually help people.

The Sophists set themselves up as educators. Democracy had made it possible for any gifted man to make his mark in the assembly, if he could speak eloquently and persuasively. But the ordinary curriculum did not help young men to acquire these skills. Greek boys learned reading, writing, sport, and a great deal about Homer, but their education finished when they were fourteen years old. The Sophists stepped in to fill the gap, offering a higher education to anybody who could pay the required fee. One of the most notable Sophists was Hippias of Elis, a regular polymath, who gave courses in arithmetic, mnemonics, surveying, history, music, poetry, and mathematics. Like Empedocles, he was a celebrity. He recited his poems at the Olympic games and lectured to huge crowds. He was also a craftsman, and made all his own clothes and shoes. This self-sufficiency underlined his philosophy. People must rely on their own insights. Instead of undermining common sense, Hippias and his colleagues tried to give their pupils confidence in the workings of their minds. They could never know absolute truth, but once they realized that all thought was subjective, they would at least be free of delusion. Their ideas were as good as anybody else’s, so they should regard their own thoughts as sovereign and autonomous.

The Sophists touched on many themes of the Axial Age: the desire for liberation, autonomy, individualism, and the ability to reach out to ordinary people, instead of confining knowledge to a small elite. But there was a fundamental difference. So far the Greeks had shown no desire for radical transformation, such as that sought by the yogins. They had a strong sense of their potential as human beings, but little interest in where this might take them. They concentrated on what they were rather than on what they might become.19 Focused on the present, they were chiefly interested in techne, a technology that would make them more effective here and now. The Sophists did not want a techne that would take them out of this world; they had no ambition to create a different kind of person, but simply wanted to enhance their pupils’ mundane skills. Instead of renouncing possessions, the Sophists were keen to make money. Other philosophers despised this, but the Sophists were not sordid mercenaries. They sincerely believed that they were performing a valuable service in helping ordinary citizens to take advantage of their new opportunities, regardless of birth and status.

Some of them gave lessons on rhetoric and the art of persuasion. Gorgias, for example, wrote several handbooks on public speaking, and taught his pupils that it was possible to argue any case. He once wrote a famous defense of the indefensible Helen of Troy, and was himself an electrifying lecturer. When he arrived in Athens as an ambassador for Leontinum in 427, Gorgias became an overnight sensation, and young Athenians crowded into his classes. One of his students was Alcibiades, the nephew of Pericles, who once soundly defeated his uncle in an argument about democracy, using Sophistic methods. Alcibiades became a brilliant speaker in the assembly, and as we shall see, this had terrible consequences for Athens. Some of the Sophists’ pupils certainly abused the skills that they had learned, but this was not the Sophists’ fault. Gorgias believed that effective oratory kept freedom alive. Somebody who truly understood how to marshal an argument could defend the innocent and advance his polis. In a democracy, the Attic orator Antiphon once observed, “Victory goes to him who speaks best.”20 This was not necessarily a cynical observation, but a statement of fact about the way democracy worked. If victory did indeed go to the person who argued most convincingly in the assembly, the Sophists’ skills could indeed ensure that the right prevailed.

Not all Sophists concentrated on public speaking. The most prominent Sophist was Protagoras of Abdera, who had little interest in rhetoric. His specialty was law and government, but he also wrote about language and grammar, and produced a philosophical treatise on the nature of truth. He arrived in Athens during the 430s, and became a friend of Pericles, who commissioned him to write the constitution for the new settlement at Thurii in Italy. Protagoras taught his students to question everything. They must accept nothing on hearsay or at second hand, but test all truth against their own judgment and experience. There must be no more self-indulgent speculation about the cosmos, unsupported by hard evidence. Naïve reliance on traditional mythology was also unacceptable, if it contradicted the laws of common sense.

The Sophists taught systematic doubt at a time of deepening anxiety. They had traveled widely. They knew that other cultures had different customs that worked perfectly well and concluded that there were no absolute verities. Where Parmenides and Democritus had castigated subjective conviction, Protagoras embraced it. One person’s truth would be different from his neighbor’s, but that did not mean that it should be dismissed as false. Every man’s perception was valid for him. Instead of seeing truth as a remote reality that was inaccessible to ordinary mortals, Protagoras claimed that everybody had a share. He simply needed to look into his own mind. “The measure of all things is man,” he wrote in his epistemological treatise, “for things that are, that they are; for things that are not, that they are not.”21 An individual must rely on his own human judgments; there was no transcendent authority, and no Supreme God who could impose his view upon humanity.

Some Athenians found this liberating and would discover that this habit of questioning basic assumptions opened new doors and gave them fresh insights about religion. One of these was the playwright Euripides (c. 480–406), and it was at his home that Protagoras read his notorious treatise on the gods. “Concerning the gods,” he began, “I have no means of knowing whether they exist or not, nor of what form they are; for there are many obstacles to such knowledge, including the obscurity of the subject and the shortness of human life.”22 Without adequate information, he could make no statement about the divine. He had simply applied Parmenides’ rule to theology. The reality of the gods was not demonstrable, and could not, therefore, be a proper object of either knowledge or conversation.

The treatise caused an uproar. In 432, the city passed a law that made it illegal to teach such impiety, and Protagoras and Anaxagoras were both expelled from Athens. But the new skepticism remained, eloquently expressed in the tragedies of Euripides, who constantly asked difficult questions about the gods: Did they exist? Were they good? If not, how could life have any meaning? He was strongly influenced by the Sophists. “Do you think there are gods in the heavens?” he wrote at about this time. “No, there is no such thing, unless someone is determined foolishly to stick with the old fairy tales. . . . Think for yourselves: don’t just take my word for it.”23 His personal experience cried out against the old theology. Tyrants killed and plundered, but they fared better than people who lived decent lives. His hero Heracles, son of Zeus, was driven mad by the goddess Hera, and in this divinely inspired frenzy murdered his wife and children. How could anybody accept such a deity? “Who could pray to such a god?” Heracles asked Theseus, king of Athens, at the end of the play. “These tales are simply the wretched myths of poets.”24 But Euripides did not completely reject the divine. By ruthlessly questioning the ancient stories, he was beginning to evolve a new theology. “The nous[mind] in each one of us is a god,” he maintained.25 In Trojan Women, he made the bereaved and defeated Hecuba, wife of Priam, pray to an unknown god: “O you who give the earth support and are by it supported, whoever you are, power beyond our knowledge, Zeus, be you stern law of nature or intelligence in man, to you I make my prayers; for you direct in the way of justice all mortal affairs, moving with noiseless tread.”26

In 431, Euripides’ Medea was presented at the City Dionysia. It told the story of the woman of Colchis who married Jason, helped him to find the golden fleece, but was then cruelly rejected by her husband. In revenge, she killed Jason’s new wife, his father, and—finally—the sons she had borne to Jason. But unlike former heroes, Medea was not acting under the orders of a god; she was driven by her own stringent logos. Arguing against her powerful maternal instincts, raising objections to her abominable plan only to demolish them, she realized that she could not truly punish Jason unless she murdered their boys. Reason was becoming a frightening tool. It could lead people to a spiritual and moral void, and, if skillfully used, it could find cogent reasons for cruel and perverse actions. Medea was too intelligent not to find the most effective revenge and too strong not to carry it out.27 She could have been a pupil of Gorgias.

The exercise of logic was an essential part of the catharsis of tragedy. Aristotle would later claim that the “ability to reason well” was a sine qua non for the purifying emotion of pity.28 Without analytical rigor, you could not see the other’s point of view. For the Greeks, logic was not coolly analytical, but fraught with feeling. The arguments in the courts and assemblies were as passionate and dramatic as those in the theater, and here too citizens learned the ekstasis of “stepping out” of themselves and moving toward a different perspective.29 Reason could compel an audience to feel compassion for people who might seem to have no claim on their sympathy. Euripides continued the tragic tradition of reaching out empathically to the “other,” even toward Medea and Heracles, who had committed such unspeakable acts. At the end of Heracles, Theseus offered the polluted, broken man his sympathy. When he led Heracles offstage, the two heroes had their arms around each other in a “yoke of friendship,” and the chorus lamented “with mourning and with many tears. . . . For we today have lost our noblest friend.”30 These words instructed the audience to weep too. This was Dionysian ekstasis, a “stepping out” of our ingrained prejudice and preconceptions to an act of compassion that, before the play, might have seemed impossible.

When Euripides presented Medea, he told the story of a woman who had argued herself into a terrible crime. His audience might have seen a reference to the prolonged debate in the Athenian assembly, which, after some highly dubious political maneuvering, had thrust the Greek world into the Peloponnesian War. In 431, while the audience watched the play, preparations for this offensive were in progress. Pericles’ plan was to save the empire at the expense of Attica. He ordered all the country folk to move into the city, and a hundred thousand people from the rural districts crowded within Athens’s long walls. There they stayed, while the Spartans burned and looted the Attic countryside and the Athenian fleet ravaged the Peloponnesus. In 430, an outbreak of plague made the overcrowded city a living hell. Some twenty thousand people—25 percent of the population—died. In their fear and grief, as they watched the devout suffering alongside unbelievers, many Athenians lost all faith in the gods. They also lost confidence in Pericles, who was stripped of office. Although he was reappointed a few months later, he would die in the autumn of 429. Meanwhile, as the plague raged in Athens, the war had reached a stalemate. Athenians and Spartans pillaged each other’s territories, but rarely met in pitched battle, so neither side could claim decisive victory.

A few months after Pericles’ death, Sophocles presented Oedipus the Tyrant at the City Dionysia. The play opened in Thebes, which had been stricken by plague because the murder of King Laius, Oedipus’s father, had not been avenged. Oedipus launched an inquiry and, of course, discovered that not only was he himself the unwitting slayer of his father but, without realizing who she was, he had married his own mother. The Sophists had claimed that man was free and independent, and could take control of his own life. But was an individual entirely responsible for his actions, as the law of Athens claimed? Even when a person carefully considered a plan, did not the full meaning and origin of his deeds elude him? Did they not remain opaque? All his life, Oedipus had tried to act rightly and had constantly taken the best advice available. Through no fault of his own, he had become a monstrous figure, the polluter of his city, hopelessly defiled by actions whose significance he had failed to grasp at the time. He was guilty and innocent, agent and victim.

Oedipus had a reputation for wisdom. He had once saved Thebes by guessing the riddle of the Sphinx. It has been suggested that his name may have derived from oida: “I know.” But it turned out that he was the opposite of what he had believed himself to be. He had been lethally ignorant. The truth was insupportable, and—in a horrifying gesture that Sophocles added to the original story—when he learned what he had done, he gouged out his eyes.31 Despite his famed vision (oidos), he had in fact been blind to the truth. His self-mutilation took Oedipus to the limits of knowledge, beyond speech and perception—almost in a parody of mystical insight. He began the play as a king revered by his subjects as divine; he ended as a contaminated criminal, who had brought the miasma of death and sickness to his city.

But his journey was not over. Oedipus’s blindness brought him a wholly new emotional vulnerability.32 His speech now larded with wordless exclamations (“Ion . . . ion! Aiai . . . aiai!”), Oedipus learned pathos. When he reached out to Ismene and Antigone, his distraught daughters, Oedipus forgot himself in sympathy for their plight. The chorus too was filled with terror, their dread so great that at first they could not look the mutilated man in the face. But gradually this spectacle of unspeakable suffering taught them compassion, their fear dissolving as they struggled to understand the depth of Oedipus’s pain. They begin to speak tenderly to him, calling him “my friend” and “dear one.”33 As usual in the tragic genre, their sympathy issued a directive to the audience, instructing them to feel compassion for a man who was guilty of crimes that would normally fill them with disgust. The audience too would experience transcendence, as they left their former assumptions behind in the ekstasis of empathy.

When Oedipus finally retired from the stage and disappeared into his palace, he had learned the lesson of suffering that the tragedians wanted to teach. But it is difficult to define this new knowledge. What the characters and the audience learned was a sympathy that brought a purifying catharsis. Oedipus had to abandon his certainty, his clarity, and supposed insight in order to become aware of the dark ambiguity of the human condition. The sagacity that had brought him such prestige had to be dismantled. With great courage, he accepted his punishment, even though he had not deserved it. He was now irrevocably cut off from other human beings. In the ancient logic of Greek religion, he had become taboo, a figure separate, apart, and therefore holy. In Oedipus at Colonus, a play that Sophocles wrote at the very end of his life, Oedipus would be exalted—almost deified—at death and his grave would be a source of blessing to Athens, which had given him asylum.34

During the 420s, while the Peloponnesian War dragged on and one atrocity succeeded another, a new philosopher became a well-known personality in Athens. Unlike the smart Sophists, he cut a rather shabby figure. He had no interest in making money, and would have been appalled at the idea of charging his students a fee. An ugly man, with protruding lips, a flat, upturned nose, and a paunch, Socrates was the son of a stonecutter. He had, however, been able to afford the weapons that admitted him to the hoplite army and was a veteran of the Peloponnesian War. Despite his humble origins, Socrates attracted a small crowd of disciples from the best families in Athens, who were fascinated by him and revered him as a philosophical hero. Socrates would talk to anybody. Indeed, he needed conversation, yet he was also capable of profound abstraction. During a military campaign, he once astonished his fellow hoplites by standing motionless all night long, wrestling with an intellectual problem. On another occasion, on his way to a dinner party, he fell into deep study, lagged behind his companions, and finally spent the evening lost in thought, on a neighbor’s porch. “It’s quite a habit of his, you know,” one of his friends explained; “off he goes and there he stands, no matter where he is.”35 But his thought was deeply practical: Socrates was convinced that he had a mission to bring his fellow Athenians to a better understanding of themselves.

Conversation with Socrates was a disturbing experience. Anyone with whom he felt an intellectual affinity “is liable to be drawn into an argument with him; and whatever subject he starts, he will be continually carried round and round by him,” said his friend Niceas, “until at last he finds that he has to give an account of his past and present life; and when he is once entangled, Socrates will not let him go until he has completely and thoroughly sifted him.”36 Socrates’ purpose was not to impart information, but to deconstruct people’s preconceptions and make them realize that in fact they knew nothing at all. The experience was a milder version of the kenosis endured by Oedipus. You did not receive true knowledge at second hand. It was something that you found only after an agonizing struggle that involved your whole self. It was a heroic achievement, a discipline that was not simply a matter of assenting to a few facts or ideas, but that required the student to examine his past and present life to find the truth within.

Socrates described himself as a midwife: he was bringing the truth to birth within his interlocutors. They usually began a conversation with clear, fixed ideas about the topic under discussion. Laches, an army general, for example, was convinced that courage was a noble quality. And yet, Socrates pointed out, relentlessly piling up one example after another, a courageous act was often foolhardy and stupid—qualities that they both knew were “base and hurtful to us.” Niceas, another general, entered the conversation and suggested that courage required the intelligence to appreciate terror, so that animals and children, who were too inexperienced to understand the danger of a situation, were not truly brave. Socrates replied that in fact all the terrible things we feared lay in the future, and were, therefore, unknown to us; it was impossible to separate the knowledge of future good or evil from our experience of good and evil in the present and the past. We say that courage was only one of the virtues, but anyone who was truly valiant must also have acquired the qualities of temperance, justice, wisdom, and goodness that were essential to valor. If you wanted to cultivate one virtue, you also needed to master the others. So at base, a single virtue, such as courage, must be identical with all the rest. By the end of the conversation, the three hoplites had to admit that, even though they had all endured the trauma of the battlefield and should be experts on the subject, they were quite unable to define courage. They had not discovered what it was, could not decide what distinguished it from the other virtues, and felt deeply perplexed. They were ignorant and, like children, needed to go back to school.37

Socrates had invented dialectic, a rigorous dialogue designed to expose false beliefs and elicit truth. By asking questions and analyzing the implications of the answers, Socrates and his colleagues discovered the inherent flaws and inconsistencies of every single point of view. One definition after another would be rejected, and often the dialogue ended with the participants feeling as dizzy and stunned as Laches and Niceas. Socrates’ aim was not to come up with a clever or intellectually satisfying solution. The struggle usually led to the admission that there was no answer, and the discovery of this confusion was far more important than a neat conclusion, because once you had realized that you knew nothing, your philosophical quest could begin.

Socrates’ dialectic was a Greek, rational version of the Indian brahmodya, the competition that attempted to formulate absolute truth but always ended in silence. For the Indian sages, the moment of insight came when they realized the inadequacy of their words, and thus intuited the ineffable. In that final moment of silence, they had sensed the brahman, even though they could not define it coherently. Socrates was also trying to elicit a moment of truth, when his interlocutors appreciated the creative profundity of human ignorance.

The knowledge thus acquired was inseparable from virtue. Unlike the Sophists, Socrates did not believe that courage, justice, piety, and friendship were empty fictions, even though he could not define them. He was convinced that they pointed to something genuine and real that lay mysteriously just out of reach. As his dialogues demonstrated, you could never pin the truth down, but if you worked hard enough, you could make it a reality in your life. In his discussion with Laches and Niceas, he was interested in courage as a virtue, not as a concept. Knowledge was morality. If you understood the essence of goodness, you were bound to act properly. If you were confused or your understanding of goodness was self-serving or superficial, your actions would fail to meet the highest standards. For Socrates, the purpose of philosophy was not to propound abstruse theories about the cosmos; philosophy was about learning how to live. Why was there so much evil in the world? It was because people had inadequate ideas about life and morality. If they recognized the depth of their ignorance, they would be better placed to know how to behave.

It is difficult to know exactly what Socrates said or thought, because he wrote nothing down. Indeed, he disapproved of writing, which, he thought, encouraged a slick, notional conception of truth. Our main sources are the dialogues written by his pupil Plato years after Socrates’ death. Plato attributed many of his own insights and attitudes to Socrates, especially in the middle and later works, but the early dialogues, such as Laches: On Courage, probably give us an accurate idea of the way Socrates operated. We see that his main preoccupation was goodness, which he believed to be indivisible. Socrates’ conception of the Good was, therefore, not unlike Confucius’s ren; he seemed to have been reaching toward a transcendent notion of absolute virtue that could never be adequately conceived or expressed. As we shall see in the next chapter, Plato would make the Good the supreme, ineffable ideal.

Socrates may have hoped to advance further than the perplexity and confusion that marked the end of each of his recorded discussions, but this seemed to be as far as he got. By rigorous use of logos, he had discovered a transcendence that he deemed essential to human life. However closely he and his companions reasoned, something always eluded them. Socrates took pride in the ignorance that he had discovered at the heart of each firmly held opinion, no matter how dogmatically maintained. He understood just how little he knew, and was not ashamed to encounter the limitations of his thought again and again. If he did feel that he had an edge over others, it was only because he realized that he would never find answers to the questions he raised. Where the Sophists had taken refuge from this ignorance in practical action, Socrates experienced it as an ekstasis that revealed the deep mystery of life. People must interrogate their most fundamental assumptions. Only thus could they think and act correctly, see things as they truly were, get beyond false opinion, and arrive at intimations of that perfect intuition that would make them behave well at all times. Those who did not do this could only live expediently and superficially. As he explained in one of the most memorable utterances attributed to him: “The life that is unexamined is not worth living.”38

To fail to think deeply about meaning was a betrayal of the “soul” (psyche). The discovery of the psyche was one of the most important achievements of Socrates and Plato. Unlike the atman, the psyche was separate from the body; it had existed before the birth of the individual and would survive his or her death. It enabled human beings to reason and inspired them to seek goodness. The cultivation of the soul was the most important human task, far more crucial than the achievement of worldly success. The soul was damaged by wrong action but benefited from right and just deeds. “We ought not to retaliate or render evil for evil to anyone, whatever evil we may have suffered from him,”39 Socrates said at the end of his life. It was tempting to respond in kind but retaliation was always unjust; it was, therefore, essential to turn the other cheek. This was a dramatic departure from Greek custom, which saw vengeance as a sacred imperative, but Socrates insisted that this was the only path to happiness, because forbearing behavior to everybody—friend and foe alike—was beneficial to the soul.40

These ideas were not presented as dogmas. When Plato came to record his master’s teaching, he had to invent the literary form of the dialogue. Like Confucius, Socrates taught by discussion, and never proposed a definitive thesis. Each person had to work out what was just and good for himself in conversation with another. In the course of this agon, they would experience an illumination in which they woke up to themselves. The people who came to Socrates usually thought that they knew what they were talking about, but by systematically making them aware of their ignorance, Socrates led them to discover an authentic knowledge within, which had been there all along. When this finally came to light, it felt like the recollection of an insight that had been forgotten. This illuminating, almost visionary discovery, Socrates believed, would inspire right action.

Like any kind of oral transmission, the Socratic dialectic was not a purely cerebral exercise. It was an initiation. Plato’s account of these Socratic dialogues was pervaded by profound emotion that informed the ideas at every stage of the argument. Participants became aware of an aspiration that brought them to the heart of their being. There was a sense of constant striving without fanaticism or dogmatic certitude. Instead, there was a receptive, eager openness to the absolute. In the Platonic dialogue, we sense the effect that Socrates had on others. Alcibiades, the nephew of Pericles, seemed to have fallen in love with Socrates, whom he saw as a mysterious figure, appearing just when one least expected to find him. He was like the little effigies of the satyr Silenus, which, when unscrewed, had a tiny statue of a god inside. He was like the satyr Marsyas, whose music propelled the audience into a trance and made them yearn for union with the gods. But Socrates did not need a musical instrument. His words alone stirred people to the depths. “Whenever I listen to him, my heart beats faster than if I were in a religious frenzy and tears run down my face,” Alcibiades confessed. He never had this experience when listening to his uncle Pericles. When Socrates spoke, he made Alcibiades realize “that I am still a mass of imperfections.” He was the only person in the world who could fill him with shame. Socrates seemed to be a buffoon, fooling around, joking, falling in love with young men, and drinking all night long. But, Alcibiades said,

I doubt whether anyone has ever seen the treasures that are revealed when he grows serious and exposes what he keeps inside. However I once saw them, and found them so divine and beautiful and marvellous that, to put the matter briefly, I had no choice but to do what Socrates bade me.

The logoi of Socrates filled his audience with the same kind of “frenzy” as a Dionysian initiation; the listener felt “unhinged” (ekplexis), as though he were on the brink of illumination.41

Not everybody was enraptured by Socrates, however. At this time of anxiety and war, people did not want to be confused, stirred to the depths, and made hyperconscious of their imperfections. They wanted certainty. In 423, Aristophanes produced a satirical portrait of Socrates in his comedy Clouds. The play showed a profound unease with the relativism of the Sophists, who could make a convincing case for the most impossible propositions. Socrates was no Sophist, but Athenians who had not experienced his method would probably have been unable to distinguish between his relentless undermining of received opinion and the Sophists’ denial of absolute truth. Aristophanes presented Socrates in his “logic shop,” where, arguing that wrong was right, he instructed people to worship the clouds instead of Zeus. Eventually the protagonist, a loyal Athenian citizen, was so outraged that he burnt the school down. The comedy turned out to be prophetic in a way that Aristophanes could never have imagined.

By this time, Athens faced defeat in the Peloponnesian War. Many saw this imminent catastrophe as a divine punishment for the irreligion of the philosophers. They regarded Socrates’ teaching as blasphemous, even though he was traditionally devout and attended the public rituals as scrupulously as he performed his military service. But anxiety was about to turn into hysteria. In 416, Alcibiades made an emotional speech in the assembly, arguing that Athens should go to the aid of its ally Segesta, in Sicily, which was being attacked by the nearby city of Selinus. The general Niceas (Socrates’ sparring partner) was against the expedition, but Alcibiades and the younger generation carried the day. It was a disastrous decision, since most of the citizens who voted for the war had no idea of the size and power of Sicily. Just before the fleet disembarked, somebody vandalized the Herms, the phallic statues of the god Hermes that were placed throughout the city to protect streets and houses. Nobody knew who was responsible, but the incident shook Athens to the core. People were convinced that this blatant sacrilege would call down divine vengeance. There were witch hunts, suspects were executed, and eventually Alcibiades himself was recalled from Sicily to answer charges of blasphemy.

There ensued a series of disasters. The Athenian navy was blockaded in the harbor at Syracuse, and the troops were incarcerated in nearby stone quarries. At a stroke, Athens lost about forty thousand men and half its fleet. In 411, a pro-Spartan cabal overturned the democratic government in Athens. The coup was short-lived, and democracy was restored the following year, but it was a sign of Athens’s new vulnerability. The war with Sparta continued until 405, when the Spartan general Lysander forced Athens to surrender. Yet again, an oligarchy was established under a government of thirty pro-Spartan aristocrats, who killed so many citizens in the ensuing reign of terror that it was overthrown, and democracy reestablished after only a year. Athens had regained its independence, its democracy, and its fleet, but its power was broken, the empire dismantled, and Pericles’ great defensive wall demolished.

Against this terrifying backcloth, two great tragedies were enacted in Athens. Just before Athens conceded defeat in 406, Euripides died, and his final dark, bitter plays, lurid with a sense of looming catastrophe, were performed posthumously. The last was The Bacchae, presented in 402.42As the play opened, the god Dionysus arrived incognito in Thebes, the city that had rejected his mother, Semele, when she had fallen pregnant, and had consistently prohibited his cult. But now most Thebans were enchanted by the fascinating stranger who had suddenly turned up in their midst. The women of the city, who had not been properly initiated into the Dionysian mystery, abandoned themselves to unbridled frenzy, roaming through the woods, clad in animal pelts. The young king Pentheus tried to restore order, but to no avail. Eventually he allowed himself to be dressed in women’s clothes so that he could spy on these revels unobserved. But in their hysteria, the women tore him to pieces with their bare hands, thinking that they had killed a lion. Agaue, Pentheus’s mother, triumphantly carried her son’s head into Thebes at the head of a demented procession.

The tragic dramas had often depicted the slaying of kinsfolk, but by making Dionysus, the patron of tragedy, responsible for this unnatural murder, Euripides seemed to be calling the entire genre into question. There was no glimmer of hope at the end of the play. The royal house had been shattered, the women reduced to animals, enlightened reason defeated by savage mania, and Thebes—like Athens at this juncture—seemed doomed. What had been the value of the annual release of emotion in honor of a god who killed, tortured, and humiliated human beings without giving any plausible explanation?

Athens was beginning to grow beyond tragedy, and in so doing, was also parting company with the Axial Age. The play warned the polis that it was dangerous to refuse admittance to the outsider. In Oedipus at Colonus (406), Sophocles had shown Athens receiving with honor the polluted, sacred figure of the dying Oedipus, an act of compassion that would be a blessing for the city. But in The Bacchae, Pentheus rejected the stranger and was destroyed. Not only was it politically disastrous, but individuals also had to recognize and accept the stranger that they encountered within themselves during the mystery celebrations. By giving Dionysus his due in the annual festival, Athens had given the alterity that he represented an honored place in the heart of the city; but over the years it had failed to respect the inviolable separateness of the other poleis, had exploited and attacked them, and in the process had fallen prey to hubris.

In this last play, Euripides approached the heart of the Axial vision. The chorus of Maenads, the regular worshipers of Dionysus, had been correctly initiated into his cult; they experienced a vision of peace, rapture, and integration. But the women of Thebes, who were unschooled in the disciplines of transformation, were simply out of control, driven mad by the darker regions of their psyche that were unknown to them. As she entered the city, holding aloft the ghastly trophy of her son’s head, Agaue did not achieve ekstasis, but was enchanted only by her own achievements:

Great in the eyes of the world,

Great are the deeds I have done

And the hunt I’ve hunted there.43

The apotheosis of this barren selfishness was an act of unspeakable, unnatural violence.

In this play, Euripides also presented one of the most moving and truly transcendent Greek experiences of the divine. Dionysus might seem amoral, cruel, and alien, yet he was incontrovertibly present onstage, and could neither be willed nor driven away. In his human disguise as the stranger, he seemed uncanny. Dionysus had always been the masked god—the mask a constant reminder that he was other than he appeared. His supreme epiphany was not an anthropomorphic apparition but a sudden disappearance when, hiding himself from all who believed only in what they could see, he vanished abruptly from the stage. A great silence immediately descended upon earth, in which his presence was felt more strongly than ever before.44 The older Olympian vision was reaching beyond itself to the ineffable reality behind the symbols.

The second great tragedy of this period was the death of Socrates in 399. At his trial, he was accused of failing to recognize the gods of the state, of introducing new gods, and of corrupting the young. The young Plato was at the trial, and it made a profound impression upon him. From a legal point of view, Socrates’ defense was inept. He could not have corrupted the young, he said. He did not know enough to teach anybody anything. He had worked for the good of Athens, but the polis had failed to appreciate this. Yet he could not abandon his mission. The very best thing a man could do was “to let no day pass without discussing goodness and all the other subjects about which you hear me talking.”45 He failed to convince his judges and was condemned to death.

Socrates had long been the object of suspicion and fear. Some of his associates, such as Alcibiades, had been involved in Athens’s military disasters, and Socrates became a scapegoat. He had said the right things at the wrong time. Devoted to Athens, he obeyed its laws to the end, refusing to escape from prison, even though the sentence was unjust, and turning down the option of exile: he was almost seventy years old, he said simply, and did not wish to live anywhere else. He was a champion of truth, and would die a witness (martys) to the untruth that was currently in the ascendant. Yet he died without anger or blame. There was nothing tragic about death, he told his pupils. Nobody knew what it was; it might even be a great good. Throughout his life, he believed that he had been accompanied by a daimon, a divine presence, which had spoken to him at crucial moments. It had never told him what to do, but had only warned him against a particular action. He found it encouraging that his inner voice had not spoken to him during his trial. He must be on the right track and going to the Good.

His friends gathered around his bed while he drank the prescribed poison. Before he took the hemlock, Plato says, he washed his body, to save the women the trouble after his death. He thanked his jailor courteously for his kindness, and even made some mild jokes about his predicament. He was able to look death calmly in the face, forbade his friends to mourn, and quietly and lovingly accepted their companionship. Instead of destructive, consuming sorrow, there was a quiet, receptive peace. Throughout the Axial Age, sages had been preoccupied with death. Socrates showed that it was possible for a human being to enjoy a serenity that transcended his circumstances, in the midst of pain and suffering.

Shortly after the death of Confucius, China entered a disturbing and frightening era, which historians call the period of the Warring States. It marked a decisive transition in Chinese history. In 453, three families rebelled against the prince of Jin, and created three separate states in Jin territory: Han, Wei, and Zhao. This was the real end of the long-declining Zhou dynasty: hitherto all the rulers of China had been enfeoffed by the Zhou king; these new states, however, were established simply by military force, and the Zhou king could do nothing about it. From this moment the larger and more powerful states were engaged in a desperate struggle for the sole domination of China. The chief contenders were the state of Chu in the south, which was only half Chinese; Qin, a rough, warlike state in western Shensi; the rich, maritime kingdom of Qi; the “three Jin”—the new states of Han, Wei, and Zhao; and Yan, near the northern steppes. At first the little principalities in the central plain tried to preserve themselves by diplomacy, but in the course of the next two hundred years, they were eliminated, one by one, and absorbed into the larger, more competitive kingdoms.


The Warring States era was one of those rare periods of history when a succession of changes, each reinforcing the other, accelerates the process of development, and leads to a fundamental alteration of society.46 When these struggles finally came to an end in 221, the political, religious, social, economic, and intellectual life of China was entirely different. But in the early years of the Warring States, most people would only have been aware that life on the central plain had suddenly become more violent than ever before. The horror of this experience intensified the quest for a new religious vision.

Warfare itself had been transformed.47 There were no more ritualized confrontations between courtly charioteers, each vying to outdo the others in generosity and courtesy. The militarized states fought to gain new territory, subjugate the population, and wipe out the enemy. Campaigns lasted longer and went farther afield. The fighting was characterized by deadly efficiency, which demanded unity of command, strategy, trained troops, and abundant resources. Warfare was now masterminded by military experts, and order, discipline, and effectiveness were far more important than honor and prestige. In the old days, nobody would have dreamed of killing women, children, the wounded, or the infirm. But now “all who have or keep any strength are our enemies even if they are old men,” said one of the modern generals. “Why should we refrain from wounding a second time those whose wounds are not mortal?”48

Already in the late sixth century, the states had started to develop a new military technology. Specialists constructed mobile towers and wheeled ladders to attack city walls; they dug mines and underground passages, and devised bellows to drive smoke into the tunnels of the enemy. The landscape itself was mobilized for warfare: Chu and Qi built the first defensive walls in Honan and Shantung; Qin fortified the dikes of the Yellow River. Fortresses were built along frontiers and manned by professional garrisons. More land was drained, and the first canals were dug in order to increase agricultural production to fund these expensive campaigns.

More and more of the population was mobilized. In the old days of courtly feudal warfare, the peasants had been peripheral players, taking no real part in the action. Now hundreds of thousands of peasants were drafted into the infantry, which had become the most important part of the army. The defunct state of Jin had been the first to use infantry troops, in the late sixth century, when fighting in mountainous regions that were unsuitable for chariot warfare. Yue and Wu, whose swampy territory had too many lakes and waterways for chariots, followed suit. Gradually the warrior-peasant became a major factor in social and political life. The aristocratic chariot teams were phased out, and soldiering became a lower-class activity. The military specialists learned from the nomads of the steppes. In the fourth century they would introduce cavalry, which were more mobile than the cumbersome chariot armies, and could sweep down on a community in a surprise attack with devastating results. The new warriors also used the nomads’ weapons: the sword and the crossbow, which was more accurate than the old retroflex bow and could kill at a distance of half a mile.

The kings of the large, aggressively expanding states had thrown aside the ideals of moderation and restraint. Funerals once again became cruel, lavish displays. One king buried vast riches with his daughter, and sacrificed troops of dancers and boys and girls of common stock.49 Modern rulers now had colorful, extravagant households, filled with women, musicians, dancers, jugglers, clowns, and gladiators. Sophists, who had originally advised princes and vassals about the ritualized court palavers, now developed clever debating skills and gave advice on public relations and diplomacy. Impoverished wandering shi also clustered around the courts, showing off their talents in the hope of a job. Some of them were scholars. Duke Wen (446–395) of the new state of Wei became a patron of learning, supporting a circle of literati to advise him on matters of protocol and ethics. These kings no longer trusted the aristocrats, who had become their competitors, and turned increasingly for advice to these “men of worth.” One of Duke Wen’s protégés was Confucius’s disciple Zixia.

But in these pragmatic times, the rulers tended to find Confucians too idealistic, and they turned increasingly to the xie, the bands of peripatetic military experts who, like other members of the shi class, had lost their foothold in the cities and roamed the countryside in search of employment. By the Warring States period, however, many of the xie were recruited from the lower classes. They were mercenaries, prepared to fight in any army, as long as they were rewarded adequately. Unlike the more aristocratic Confucians, they were aggressive men of action. According to a historian of a later period, “Their words were always sincere and trustworthy, their actions quick and decisive. They were always true to what they promised and without regard to their own persons they would rush into danger, threatening others.”50

But toward the end of the fifth century, one of the xie turned his back on this militancy and preached a message of nonviolence. His was called Mozi, “Master Mo” (c. 480–390). We know very little about him, because the dialogues recorded in the book that bears his name are far more impersonal than the Analects, and Mozi the man disappears behind his ideas.51 He headed a strictly disciplined brotherhood of 180 men.52 Unlike Confucius’s loosely organized band of disciples, Mozi’s school resembled a sect. It had strict rules, followed a rigorously egalitarian ethic, and its members dressed like peasants or craftsmen. Instead of fighting as mercenaries, Mohists intervened to stop wars and defend cities in the smaller and more vulnerable states.53 Nine chapters of the Mozi deal with the techniques of defensive warfare and the construction of equipment to protect city walls. But Mozi was also a philosopher. He did not stop at disciplined action, but traveled from court to court, preaching his highly original ideas to the rulers.

From the evidence of the Mozi, it seems that Master Mo could originally have been an artisan or craftsman. He used the imagery of a working man, comparing Heaven’s organization of the world to the compasses and L-square of the wheelwright and the carpenter, who employed these instruments “to measure the round and the square throughout the world.”54 Unlike the graceful style of the Analects, Mozi’s prose was somewhat humorless and ponderous, suggesting that he may have been a self-educated man who took up the pen with difficulty.55 Despite his impressive grasp of tradition, a residual awkwardness of style indicates that Mozi was not wholly at ease with the high culture of the nobility. Mo and his followers were arrivistes, impatient with the aristocracy’s preoccupation with prestige and status. He wanted a uniform control of expenditure, a curbing of extravagance, and a society that reflected the more frugal ethos of his own class.

Mozi was, for example, highly critical of the Zhou dynasty and had little time for Confucius’s hero the duke of Zhou. He had very little interest in the Zhou ritual, music, and literature, which was so inspiring to Confucius. The poorer folk had never taken part in these elaborate court ceremonies, and the li seemed a complete waste of time and money to the Mohists. Mozi was deeply religious and believed that it was important to sacrifice to Heaven and the nature spirits, but he was disgusted by the extravagance of the elaborate ceremonial rites in the ancestral temples. He was especially incensed by the expensive funerals and the long, three-year mourning period. This was all very well for the idle rich, but what would happen if everybody observed these rites? It would ruin the workingman, bring down the economy, and weaken the state.56 Mozi took a strictly pragmatic view of ritual. Rulers spent an inappropriate amount of money on these ceremonies, when the ordinary people did not have the wherewithal for food and clothes. The li did not elevate the soul; the ritualists had simply retreated from the problems of their time, taking refuge in the discussion of arcane ceremonies and abandoning all hope of redeeming the world.

The situation had already changed dramatically in the short time that had elapsed since Confucius’s death. In the fourth and third centuries, as we shall see, Confucians would agonize about the plight of the poor and work indefatigably for the reform of society. But in Mozi’s day, some of the ritualists might have been so shocked by the rapid changes in the great plain that they withdrew from public life in the way that Mo described. Mozi, however, was extremely distressed by the predicament of the peasants, who were dragged off to fight in wars, conscripted into the corvée, and impoverished by heavy taxation. It was essential to supply their basic need for shelter, clothing, and security. Mozi was not a revolutionary. He did not want to topple the ruling class, but he was convinced that Chinese values needed radical revision. Mozi believed that the sage kings had been content with the bare necessities of life. There must be a return to the ideals of Yao, Shun, and Yu, who had not lived lives of sophistication, luxury, and showy display at the expense of ordinary folk. They had built their houses just high enough to keep out the damp; their walls were just thick enough to keep out sleet and rain, and their inner partitions just high enough to segregate the sexes.57 Mozi’s favorite was Yu, who, despite his lofty status and great wealth, had spent his life developing a technology to control water distribution and prevent flooding, working practically for the good of the people.

Mozi’s message was utilitarian and pragmatic, yet he nurtured utopian dreams. He believed that it was possible to persuade human beings to love instead of hate. As with Confucius, the single thread that held his philosophy together was ren, but he believed that Confucius had distorted this compassionate ethic by limiting it to the family. In his view, the clan spirit of the aristocracy was at the root of many of the current problems: family chauvinism, competitions for prestige, vendettas, and sumptuary expenses. He wanted to replace the egotism of kinship with a generalized altruism.58 Everybody must feel toward all others exactly what he felt for his own people. “Others must be regarded like the self,” he said; this love must be “all-embracing and exclude nobody.”59Reform must come from the rulers: the only way to stop the Chinese from killing one another in these appalling wars was to persuade them to practice jian ai.

Jian ai is often translated as “universal love,” but this is too emotive for Mozi’s utilitarian ethos.60 Mozi did not expect the Chinese to develop a warm affection and tenderness for everybody. He was more interested in justice than feelings. Ai was a deliberately cultivated attitude of benevolence, so that you wished everybody well, even—and perhaps especially—those who did not belong to your immediate community. Jian ai was based on a strong sense of equity, fairness, and an impartial concern for all human beings without exception. This, Mo was convinced, was indispensable for peace and security. At present, rulers only loved their own state and felt no qualms about attacking their rivals. But if they were taught to have as much concern for others as for themselves, this would be impossible. “Regard another’s state as you regard you own, another’s family as you regard your own, and another’s person as you regard your own,” Mo urged. “If the lords of the states are concerned for each other they will not go to war.” If brothers had no respect for each other, they would quarrel; if the lords had no jian ai, they would summon their armies. “In all cases, the reason why the world’s calamities, dispossessions, resentments and hatreds arise is lack of jian ai.61

Mozi’s version of the Golden Rule may have been less elegantly expressed than that of Confucius, but it was immediately regarded as more radical. Instead of seeing the family as the place where you learned to love other people, Mozi argued that, on the contrary, jian ai, “concern for everybody,” made it possible to love your family or state appropriately. If people did not cultivate benevolence toward the whole human race, family love and patriotism would degenerate into collective egotism. In his view, the Confucian family was simply a special-interest group. Even criminals loved their families and robbed other people in order to enrich their kinsfolk. If people did not reach out beyond their family or nation, they became guilty of the potentially lethal selfishness that was the cause of the world’s ills.

Jian ai led directly to nonviolence. In the chapter of his book entitled “Rejection of Aggression,” Mozi carefully weighed the cost of war against its benefits. War ruined harvests, killed multitudes of civilians, wasted weapons and horses, and left the ancestors with no descendants to sacrifice on their behalf. Rulers argued that conquest benefited the state, but the capture of a small town could result in thousands of casualties at a time when men were desperately needed to farm the land. How could that be good for their kingdom? The larger states thought that they would gain by conquering the territory of their smaller neighbors, but their wars benefited only about five people out of ten thousand. Some chapters of the Mozi, probably written by later generations of Mohists, permitted warfare in self-defense; they included instructions for the defense of a city during a siege. But Mozi himself was probably a strict pacifist, who opposed all violence and traveled from one state to another to persuade rulers to break the cycle of warfare that was beginning to engulf all the states of the great plain.62

Many of the Chinese, for whom family values were sacrosanct, were shocked by Mo’s ideas, so he developed a method of arguing rationally in support of his beliefs. This is why the Mozi contains the first Chinese essays in logic and dialectic; some of the later chapters, dating from the third century, show a sophisticated grasp of the principles of systematic argumentation, definition, and precise grammar. The approach was entirely different from the impressionistic style of the Analects. Confucius assumed that the junzi would acquire his insights and understanding intuitively after a long period of study and reflection. But Mozi’s “men of worth” (xian) were men of action and argued their way to truth logically.63 They excelled “in their virtuous behavior, and their skill in argument.”64 Their remarks must be precise in order to convince their opponents of the importance of jian ai at this desperate moment in history. The Mohist was more interested in doing good than being good. For Confucius, ren was primarily an interior virtue, but the “men of worth” were outwardly directed to the external world. Mohists were not interested in the slow process of self-cultivation, but wanted to put their practical skills, logic, and willpower at the service of society.

Mozi summed up his vision in ten theses, each of which was presented as a proposition. Should people have “concern for everybody”? Should they “reject aggression”? What did Mohists think about extravagant funerals, liturgical music, and the will of Heaven? Were people’s actions determined by fate? How should Mohists approach their superiors? Each proposal was weighed against three criteria. Did it conform to the practice of the sage kings? Was it supported by common sense? And—most important—would it benefit the human race? If it failed any of these tests, it must be rejected. Lavish funerals and music did not benefit society, so they had to go. Nobody had ever seen “Fate,” so the determinism that made the Confucians believe that they could not change the world was not a proper attitude for true men of worth.

Mozi’s ethical vision was strictly utilitarian. An act was virtuous if it enriched the poor, prevented unnecessary death, increased the population, and contributed to public order. People had to be argued out of their selfishness; human beings were natural egotists, so they had to be convinced by irrefutable arguments that their well-being was entirely dependent upon the welfare of the whole of humanity and that a fair and just “concern for everybody” was essential for prosperity, peace, and security.65 Mohists must convince rulers that aggression was not in their best interests. Warfare made their own subjects suffer; it ruined the economy; and victory stirred up hatred and jealousy. They would get the wealth, happiness, and success that they desired only if everybody behaved toward one another with equity and transcended self-interest. Rulers had to “learn not to be concerned for themselves alone.”66

If they were selfish and violent, they would incur the wrath of Heaven. Unlike Confucius, who preferred not to speak about Heaven, Mozi backed up nearly every one of his arguments with a reference to the High God. Heaven loved all human beings without distinction and was the exemplary model of jian ai. “Heaven is all embracing and not selfish,” Mozi insisted.

Heaven is generous and ungrudging; Heaven’s understanding is eternal and never declines. . . . Heaven displays its love of all men by giving them all life and sustaining them. If one flouts Heaven, Heaven will inflict calamities. Because the sages made Heaven their standard, all their actions were effective.67

The aristocracy had long been moving toward an impersonal conception of the divine, but Mozi probably expressed the beliefs of the ordinary people, who still saw Heaven as a personalized deity. Yet despite his strong, literal-minded beliefs in God and the Spirits, Mozi had very little religious feeling. Unlike Confucius, Mozi felt no awe or wonder in the presence of Heaven. His theology was as grimly practical as his ethics. Heaven was useful. Heaven could pressure people into the belief that they must cultivate a concern for everybody, or suffer the consequences.

If everybody could be persuaded to respect others as they did themselves, there would be peace and harmony throughout the world. Nobody could raze a city to the ground or massacre the population of a village if he practiced jian ai. Mozi was at his most eloquent when he described this utopia:

Now if we seek to benefit the world by taking jian ai as our standard, those with sharp ears and clear eyes will see and hear for others, those with sturdy limbs will work for others, and those with a knowledge of the Way will endeavor to teach others. Those who are old and without wives and children will find means of support and be able to live out their days; the young and orphaned who have no parents will find someone to care for them and look after their needs.68

Mozi did not believe that this was an impossible dream. Throughout this chapter, he repeatedly exclaimed: “When all these benefits may be secured merely by taking jian ai as our standard, I cannot understand how the men of the world can hear about this doctrine and still criticize it!”69 The sage kings had founded an empire based on universal altruism; the ideal had worked in the past, and could do so again. It was possible to change the world, he argued, and men of worth must rise to the challenge.

During the Warring States period, Mozi was more widely revered than Confucius, because he spoke directly to the terror and violence of his time. As he watched the whole of China mobilizing for war, it seemed that human beings were about to erase themselves from the face of the earth. If they could not curb their selfishness and greed, they would destroy one another. The only way they could survive was by cultivating a boundless sympathy that did not depend upon emotional identification but on the reasoned, practical understanding that even their enemies had the same needs, desires, and fears as themselves.

Toward the end of the fifth century, a kshatriya from the republic of Sakka, in the foothills of the Himalayas, shaved his head and beard, put on the saffron robe of the renouncer, and set out on the road to Magadha. His name was Siddhatta Gotama, and he was twenty-nine years old. Later he recalled that his parents wept bitterly when he left home. We are also told that before leaving he stole into his wife’s bedroom while she was asleep to take one last look at her and their newborn son, as though he did not trust his resolve should she beg him to stay.70 He had begun to find his father’s elegant house constricting: a miasma of petty duties weighed him down. When he looked at human life, Gotama could see only the grim cycle of suffering, which began with the trauma of birth and proceeded inexorably to “aging, illness, death, sorrow and corruption,” only to start again with the next life cycle. But like the other renouncers, Gotama was convinced that these painful states must have their positive counterparts. “Suppose,” he said, “I start looking for the unborn, unaging, deathless, sorrowless, incorrupt and supreme freedom from all this bondage?”71 He called this blissful liberation nibbana* 4 (“blowing out”), because the passions and desires that tied him down would be extinguished like a flame. He had a long, arduous quest ahead, but he never lost hope in a form of existence—attainable in this life—that was not contingent, flawed, and transient. “There is something that has not come to birth in the usual way, which has neither been created and which remains undamaged,” he insisted. “If it did not exist, it would be impossible to find a way out.”72

He believed that he did find it, as did the monks who followed his teachings and transmitted them orally, until they reached their present form about a hundred years after Gotama’s death. They called him the Buddha, the “enlightened” or “awakened” one. These Buddhist scriptures were composed in Pali, one of the Sanskrit dialects of northeast India, and are our main source of information about the Buddha’s life. As in most of the new schools that were springing up in the eastern Ganges plain, Buddhist teachings and practices (dhamma)* 5 were based on the life experience of the founder, and the Pali texts therefore emphasize those aspects of his biography that would help others to achieve nibbana. If people wanted to become enlightened, they too had to leave home and family, as well as all their preconceptions, far behind, just as the Buddha had done.

Later Buddhists told a mythical story that brought out the deeper significance of Gotama’s departure. When he was born, his father invited some Brahmins to examine the baby and tell his fortune. One of them predicted that Gotama would see four disturbing sights that would convince him to become a renouncer and discover a new spiritual truth. Gotama’s father had more worldly ambitions for his son, so to shield him from these painful spectacles he posted guards around the palace to keep all distressing reality at bay. Thus, even though he lived in carefree luxury, the boy was a virtual prisoner. Gotama’s pleasure palace is a striking image of a mind in denial. As long as we persist in closing our hearts to the sorrow that surrounds us on all sides, we remain incapable of growth and insight. But when Gotama was twenty-nine years old, the gods, who needed the Buddha’s dhamma as much as human beings, decided to intervene. They sent four of their number past the guards, disguised as an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and renouncer. Gotama was so shocked by these images of pain that he put on his yellow robe and left home that very night. Once the suffering that is an inescapable part of the human condition has broken through the cautionary barricades that we have erected against it, we can never see the world in the same way again. Gotama had allowed the knowledge of dukkha to invade his life, and his quest could begin.

As he walked down the road to Magadha, Gotama probably hailed other renouncers in the usual way, asking who their master was and what dhamma they followed, because he was looking for a teacher to instruct him in the rudiments of “homelessness.” First he studied in Vaishali with two of the greatest yogins of the day, Alara Kalama and Uddalaka Ramaputta. He was an excellent pupil, and to the delight of his teachers soon achieved the very highest states of trance, but he could not accept their interpretations of these experiences. They followed the teachings of Samkhya, and believed that once they had entered these peak planes of the psyche, they had liberated the purusha from the bonds of nature. But Gotama, all his life, had been skeptical of metaphysical doctrines: How could this trance be the unconditioned and uncreated purusha when he knew perfectly well that he had manufactured it for himself, by his yogic expertise? Further, when he returned to himself, he found that there had been no real transformation. He was still his unregenerate, greedy, yearning self. His trance was not nibbana, because nibbana could not be temporary. Gotama had no problem with yoga, but he would not accept interpretations that did not coincide with his own experience.73

Gotama left his teachers and joined a group of ascetics. With them he practiced severe extremities that gravely damaged his health. He lay on a mattress of spikes, ate his own urine and feces, and fasted so rigorously that his bones stuck out “like a row of spindles . . . or the beams of an old shed.” At one point, he became so weak that he was left for dead beside the road.74 But all to no avail. However severe his penances—perhaps even because of them—his body still clamored for attention, and he continued to be plagued by the lust and cravings that bound him to the grim cycle of rebirth. There was no hint of the peace and liberation he sought.

Nevertheless, Gotama did not give up. Henceforth he would rely only on his own insights. This would become one of the central tenets of his spiritual method. He constantly told his disciples that they must not accept anybody’s teachings, no matter how august, if those teachings did not tally with their own experience. They must never take any doctrine on faith or at second hand. Even his own teachings must be jettisoned if they failed to bring followers to enlightenment. If people relied on an authority figure, they would remain trapped in an inauthentic version of themselves and would never attain the freedom of nibbana. So in a moment of mingled despair and defiance, his health broken down by excessive penance, and at a spiritual dead end, Gotama resolved to strike out on his own. “Surely,” he cried, “there must be another way to achieve enlightenment!” And as if to prove that his declaration of independence was indeed the way forward, the beginnings of a new solution declared itself to him.75

He suddenly recalled an incident from his early childhood. His nurse had left him under the shade of a rose apple tree while she watched the ceremonial plowing of the fields before the spring planting. The little boy sat up and saw that young shoots of grass had been torn up by the plow, and insects had been killed. Gazing at the carnage, Gotama had felt a strange pang of grief, as though his own relatives had died.76 The surge of selfless empathy brought him a moment of spiritual release. It was a beautiful day, and the child had felt a pure joy welling up within him. Instinctively, he had composed himself in the yogic position, and entered a tranced state, even though he had never had a yoga lesson in his life.

As he looked back on this childhood event, Gotama realized that the joy he had felt that day had been entirely free of craving and greed. “Could this,” he asked himself, “possibly be the way to enlightenment?” If an untrained child could achieve yogic ecstasy and have intimations of nibbana, perhaps the liberation of moksha was built into the structure of our humanity. Instead of starving his body into submission, and making yoga an assault on his psyche, maybe he should cultivate these innate tendencies that led to cetovimutti, the “release of the mind” that was nibbana. He should foster helpful (kusala) states of mind, such as the disinterested impulse of compassion that had surfaced so naturally, and at the same time avoid any mental or physical states that would impede this liberation.77

Like the Jains, Gotama realized that the traditional five “prohibitions” of the “unhelpful” (akusala) states of violence, stealing, lying, intoxication, and sex must be balanced by their positive counterparts. Instead of merely avoiding aggression, he must behave gently and kindly to everything and everybody, and cultivate thoughts of loving-kindness. It was important not to lie, but also crucial to ensure that whatever he said was “reasoned, accurate, clear, and beneficial.”78 Besides refraining from stealing, he must rejoice in possessing only the bare minimum. From now on, he was going to work with his human nature and not fight against it. For the first time in months, he took solid food and started to nurse himself back to health. He also began to develop a special type of yoga. First came the practice of “mindfulness” (sati), in which, as a prelude to meditation, he scrutinized his behavior at every moment of the day, noting the ebb and flow of feelings and sensations, together with the fluctuations of his consciousness, and making himself aware of the constant stream of desires, irritations, and ideas that coursed through his mind in the space of a single hour. This introspection was not designed to induce a neurotic, self-regarding guilt. Gotama was simply becoming acquainted with the workings of his mind and body in order to exploit their capacities and use them to best advantage, in the same way as an equestrian seeks an intimate knowledge of the horse he is training.

Like many other renouncers, Gotama was convinced that life was dukkha, and that desire was responsible for our suffering. The practice of mindfulness made him even more acutely aware of the impermanence and transitory nature of human existence and of its countless frustrations and disappointments. It was not simply the big traumas of old age, sickness, and death that made life so unsatisfactory. “Pain, grief and despair are dukkha,” he explained later. “Being forced into proximity with what we hate is suffering; being separated from what we love is suffering; not getting what we want is suffering.”79 He also observed the way one craving after another took possession of his mind and heart, noticing how he was ceaselessly yearning to become something else, go somewhere else, and get something that he did not have. In this endless stream of desire, it seemed as though human beings were continually seeking a new kind of existence—a new life, or rebirth. He could see it in his physical restlessness, the way he constantly shifted his position or set off for another part of the forest. “The world, whose very nature is to change, is constantly determined to become something else,” he concluded. “It is at the mercy of change, it is only happy when caught up in the process of change, but this love of change contains a measure of fear, and this fear is itself dukkha.80

These were not simply logical reflections. Gotama was a very skilled yogin, and practiced this mindfulness with the disciplined concentration that enabled him to see these truths more “directly,” without the filter of self-protecting egotism that distorts them. But he did not stop at contemplating these negative truths; he also fostered the more “skillful” (kusala) states while performing his yogic exercises, sitting cross-legged, and practicing the breathing rituals of pranayama. He was not only eliminating hatred from his mind, but making sure that it was also “full of compassion, desiring the welfare of all living beings.” He was not only freeing him-self of laziness and inertia, but cultivating “a mind that is lucid, conscious of itself, and completely alert.” By systematically banishing one anxious thought after another, he found that his mind became “calm and still . . . had outgrown debilitating doubt,” and was no longer plagued by “unprofitable [akusala] mental states.”81 If performed at sufficient depth, in the yogic manner, these mental exertions could, he believed, transform the restless and destructive tendencies of the unconscious and conscious mind.

In later years, Gotama claimed that this yogic mindfulness brought to birth a different kind of human being, one that was not dominated by craving, greed, and selfishness. He had almost killed himself by undergoing excessive mortification, and was convinced that disciplined, systematically acquired compassion could take the place of the old punitive asceticism, and give the aspirant access to hitherto unknown dimensions of his humanity. Every day, while practicing yoga, he entered into an alternative state of consciousness, fusing each successive trance with a feeling of positive benevolence toward the entire world.

He called these meditations “the immeasurables” (appamana). At each stage of his yogic journey into the depths of his mind, he deliberately evoked the emotion of love—“that huge, expansive and immeasurable feeling that knows no hatred”—and directed it to the four corners of the world, not omitting a single plant, animal, friend, or foe from this radius of sympathy. It was a fourfold program. First, he cultivated a disposition of friendship for everything and everybody. Next he learned to suffer with other people and things, empathizing with their pain, as he had felt compassion for the grass shoots and insects under the rose apple tree. In the third phase of his meditation, he summoned up a “sympathetic joy” that delighted in the happiness of others, without envy or sense of personal impairment. Finally, when he entered the deepest trance of all, so immersed in the object of his contemplation that he was beyond pain or pleasure, Gotama aspired to an attitude of total equanimity toward others, feeling neither attraction nor antipathy. This was extremely difficult, because Gotama had to divest himself completely of the egotism that constantly looks to see how other things and people might benefit or detract from the self. Where traditional yoga had built up in the yogin a state of impervious autonomy, Gotama was learning systematically to open his whole being to others, and thus transcending the ego in compassion and loving-kindness to all other creatures.82 When these positive, skillful states were cultivated with yogic intensity, they could more easily take root in the unconscious and become habitual. The “immeasurables” were designed to pull down the barricades that we erect between ourselves and others in order to protect our fragile egos. As the mind broke free of its ordinary, self-oriented constriction, it felt “expansive, without limits, enhanced, without hatred or petty malevolence.”83 If taken to the very highest level, this yoga of compassion brought the aspirant the “release of the mind,” or nibbana.84

We have no idea how long it took Gotama to recover his health and attain the supreme enlightenment after he had devised this regimen. The Pali texts give the impression that it was a speedy process, but Gotama himself explained that it could take as long as seven years to achieve this incremental transformation. Gradually, the aspirant would learn to live without the selfish cravings that poison our lives and relationships, and would become less affected by these unruly yearnings. As he became aware of the ephemeral nature of these invasive thoughts, it became difficult to identify with them, and he became increasingly adept at monitoring the distractions that deprive us of peace.85 The texts depict Gotama attaining enlightenment in a single night, because they wanted to show the general contours of the process and were not interested in the historical details of the journey. But Gotama’s enlightenment was, almost certainly, no instant “born again” experience. He later warned his disciples that “in this method, training, discipline and practice take effect by slow degrees, with no sudden perception of the ultimate truth.”86

The traditional story has Gotama sitting down under a bodhi tree in a pleasant grove near the city of Uruvela, beside the Neranjara River. The Pali scriptures tell us that in the course of a single meditation, he gained an insight that changed him forever and was convinced that he had liberated himself from the cycle of rebirth.87 But there seems little that is new in this insight, usually formulated as the Four Noble Truths. Most renouncers would have agreed with the first three: that existence was dukkha, that desire was the cause of our suffering, and that there was a way out of this predicament. The fourth truth may have constituted the breakthrough: Gotama claimed that he had discovered the path that leads from suffering and pain to its cessation in nibbana. This path, traditionally called the Noble Eightfold Path, was a plan of action, consisting of morality (the cultivation of the “skillful” states), meditation, and the wisdom (panna) that enabled the aspirant to understand Gotama’s teaching “directly” through the practice of yoga and integrate it with his daily life. Gotama never claimed that the Noble Truths were unique, but that he was the first person in this historical era to have “realized” them and made them a reality in his own life. He found that he had extinguished the craving, hatred, and ignorance that hold humanity in thrall. He had reached nibbana, and even though he was still subject to physical ailments and other vicissitudes, nothing could touch this inner peace or cause him serious mental pain. His method had worked. “The holy life has been lived out to its conclusion!” he cried triumphantly at the end of his meditation under the bodhi tree. “What had to be done has been accomplished; there is nothing else to do!”88

What was nibbana? The word, as we have seen, implies that Gotama, on achieving enlightenment, had been “snuffed out.” After his enlightenment, he was often called the Tathagata (“gone”), implying that “he” was no longer there. But this did not mean personal extinction. What had been extinguished was not Gotama the man but the fires of greed, hatred, and delusion. By tamping out the “unhelpful” states of mind, the Buddha (as we must now call Gotama) had achieved the peace of complete selflessness. This was a state that those of us who are still enmeshed in the toils of egotism cannot begin to imagine. That is why the Buddha always refused to define nibbana: it would be “inappropriate” to do so, because there were no words to describe this state to an unenlightened person.89 The Buddha would still suffer; he would grow old and sick like everybody else, but by assiduous meditation and ethical effort, he had found an inner haven, which enabled a man or woman who put this regimen into practice to live with pain, take possession of it, affirm it, and experience a profound serenity in the midst of suffering. Perhaps Socrates had discovered something similar through his lifelong discipline of passionate honesty, which made him capable of equanimity while undergoing an unjust execution. Nibbana was thus found within each person’s inner being, and was an entirely natural state. It was a still center that gave meaning to life. People who lost touch with this quiet place within could fall apart, but once they had learned to access this oasis of calm, they were no longer driven hither and yon by conflicting fears and desires, and discovered a strength that came from being correctly centered, beyond the reach of selfishness.

The Buddha was convinced that though nibbana was not a supernatural reality, it was a transcendent state because it lay beyond the capacities of those who had not achieved this inner awakening. There were no words to describe it, because our language is derived from the sense data of our unhappy existence, in which we cannot conceive of a life entirely devoid of ego. In purely mundane terms, nibbana was “nothing,” because it corresponded to no reality that we could recognize. But those who had managed to find this sacred peace discovered that they lived an immeasurably richer life.90 Later monotheists would speak about God in very similar terms, claiming that God was “nothing” because “he” was not another being; and that it was more accurate to say that he did not exist, because our notions of existence were too limited to apply to the divine.91 They would also claim that a selfless, compassionate life would bring people into God’s presence. But like other Indian sages and mystics, the Buddha found the idea of a personalized deity too limiting. The Buddha always denied the existence of a supreme being, because an authoritative, overseeing deity could become another prop or fetter that would impede enlightenment. The Pali texts never mention brahman. The Buddha came from the republic of Sakka, far from the Brahminical heartlands, and may have been unfamiliar with the concept. But his rejection of God or gods was calm and measured. He simply put them peacefully out of his mind. To inveigh vehemently against these beliefs would have been an unskillful assertion of ego. The old gods sometimes played a part in his life. Mara, god of death, for example, sometimes appeared in the Pali texts as the tempter of the Buddha, advising him to take an easier path, almost as though he were an aspect of the Buddha’s own mind.

Yet when the Buddha tried to give his disciples a hint of what nibbana was like, he often mixed negative with positive terms. Nibbana was the “extinction of greed, hatred and delusion”; it was “taintless,” “unweakening,” “undisintegrating,” “inviolable,” “non-distress,” and “unhostility.” It canceled out everything that we find unbearable. One of the most frequent epithets used to describe nibbana was “deathless.” But positive things could be said of nibbana too: it was “the Truth,” “the Subtle,” “the Other Shore,” “Peace,” “the Everlasting,” “the Supreme Goal,” “Purity, Freedom, Independence, the Island, the Shelter, the Harbour, the Refuge, the Beyond.”92 It was the supreme goal of humans and gods alike, an incomprehensible serenity, and an utterly safe refuge. Many of these images are reminiscent of words later used by monotheists to describe their experience of the ineffable God.

In finding nibbana, the Buddha had achieved his goal, but this was not the end of his life and mission. At first he had simply wanted to luxuriate in this transcendent peace. It occurred to him that he should, perhaps, spread the good news, but he rejected the idea as too exhausting and depressing. His dhamma was too difficult to explain. Far from wishing to give themselves up, most people positively relished their attachments and would not want to hear this message of self-abandonment.93 But then the god Brahma (a popular manifestation of the brahman in the eastern Ganges) decided to intervene. In the Pali text, he seemed, like Mara, to represent an aspect of the Buddha’s own personality: at some buried level, Gotama realized that he simply could not neglect his fellow creatures. In a complete reversal of their usual roles, the god left his heaven, descended to earth, and knelt before the enlightened man. “Lord,” he prayed, “please teach the dhamma. Look down at the human race, which is drowning in pain, and travel far and wide to save the world.” The Buddha listened carefully, and the Pali text tells us that “out of compassion, he gazed upon the world with the eye of a Buddha.”94 This is an important remark. A Buddha was not one who simply achieved his own salvation, but one who could still sympathize with the pain of others. Compassion and loving-kindness directed to the four corners of the earth had brought him to enlightenment. Selfish withdrawal would violate the essential dynamic of his dhamma, which demanded that he return to the marketplace and become involved in the sorrowing world. A crucial part of the insight he had gained under the bodhi tree was that to live morally was to live for others. For the next forty-five years of his life, the Buddha tramped tirelessly through the cities and towns of the Ganges plain, bringing his teaching to gods, animals, men, and women.

The Buddha’s first disciples were already renouncers, and one of them was said to have achieved enlightenment during the Buddha’s first sermon. The texts always described the process in the same way. As Kondanna listened to the Buddha expounding the Noble Truths, he began to experience the teaching “directly”; it “rose up” in him, as if from the depths of his own being, as though he recognized it, had always known it.95 It was not long before young men from the kshatriya and Brahmin classes began to join the Buddha. Vaishya merchants were also attracted to his insistence upon self-reliance, and those who did not become monks often became lay followers and patrons. The Buddha’s order (sangha) soon became a sizable sect. The monks spent hours each day practicing the Buddha’s compassionate, mindful yoga, but they also had to teach the method to others. This was not a religion for the privileged elite, like the old Vedic rituals. It was “for the many.” The monks often lived in parks in the suburbs of the cities, which made it easy for the townsfolk to consult them, and crowds of merchants, noblemen, and courtesans turned out to listen to the Buddha when he arrived in their region. But most of the time, the monks were on the road, traveling “for the welfare and happiness of the people, out of compassion for the world.”96

One of the most popular ways of attaining nibbana was meditation on the distinctively Buddhist doctrine of anatta (“no self”). The Buddha did not believe that the eternal self (atman; purusha) was the supreme reality. The practice of mindfulness had made him aware that human beings were in constant flux; their bodies and feelings changed from one moment to the next. After systematically examining his shifting convictions, emotions, and perceptions an honest person had to conclude that none of these could be the self sought by so many of the renouncers, because they were so flawed and transitory: “This is not mine; this is not what I really am; this is not my Self.”97 But the Buddha went even further and denied the reality of a stable, “lowercase” self too. The terms “self” and “myself” were, he believed, mere conventions, since every sentient being was simply a succession of temporary, mutable states of existence. In our own day, some postmodernist philosophers and literary critics have come to a similar conclusion.

The Buddha liked to use metaphors such as a blazing fire or a rushing stream to describe the human personality. It had some kind of identity, but was never the same from one moment to the next. Unlike the postmodernist idea, however, anatta was not an abstract, metaphysical doctrine but, like all his teachings, a program for action. Anatta required Buddhists to behave day by day, hour by hour, as though the self did not exist. Not only did the concept of “self” lead to unskillful thoughts about “me” and “mine,” but prioritizing the self led to envy, hatred of rivals, conceit, pride, cruelty, and—when the self felt threatened—violence. The Buddha tried to make his disciples realize that they did not have a “self” that needed to be defended, inflated, cajoled, or enhanced at the expense of others. As a monk became expert in the practice of mindfulness, he would no longer interject his ego into passing mental states, but would regard his fears and desires as transient, remote phenomena that had little to do with him. Once a monk had achieved this level of dispassion, the Buddha explained to his monks, he was ripe for enlightenment. “His greed fades away, and once his cravings disappear, he experiences the release of the mind.”98

The texts tell us that when the Buddha’s first disciples heard his explanation of anatta, their hearts were filled with joy and they immediately experienced nibbana. Why should they have been so happy to hear that the self that we all cherish did not exist? The Buddha knew that anatta could sound frightening. An outsider might panic, thinking, “I am going to be annihilated and destroyed; I will no longer exist!”99 But the Pali texts show people accepting anatta with relief and delight. Once they lived as though the self did not exist, they found that they were happier and experienced the same kind of enlargement of being as they did when practicing the immeasurables. To live beyond the reach of hatred, greed, and anxieties about our status and survival proved to be liberating.

But there was no way of proving this rationally. The only way of assessing the Buddha’s method was to put it into practice. He had no time for abstract doctrinal formulae divorced from action. A person’s theology was a matter of total indifference to the Buddha. Indeed, to accept a dogma on somebody else’s authority was unskillful; it could not lead to enlightenment because it amounted to an abdication of personal responsibility. Faith meant trust that nibbana existed and a determination to realize it. He always insisted that his disciples test everything he taught them. A religious idea could all too easily become a mental idol, one more thing to cling to, while the purpose of the dhamma was to help people to let go. Even his own teachings must be jettisoned, once they had done their job. He liked to tell the story of a traveler who came to a great expanse of water and desperately needed to get across. But there was no bridge or ferry, so he cobbled together a raft and paddled over. But then, the Buddha would ask his audience, what should the traveler do with the raft? Should he decide that because it had been so helpful to him, he must load it onto his back and lug it around with him wherever he went? Or should he simply moor it and continue his journey? The answer was obvious. “In just the same way, monks, my teachings are like a raft, to be used to cross the river and not to be held on to,” the Buddha concluded.100 His task was not to issue infallible statements or satisfy intellectual curiosity, but to enable people to cross the river of pain and arrive at the “further shore.” Anything that did not serve that end was irrelevant.

The Buddha had, therefore, no theories about the creation of the world or the existence of God. These topics were, of course, extremely fascinating, but he refused to discuss them. Why? “Because, my disciples, they will not help you, they are not useful in the quest for holiness; they do not lead to peace and to the direct knowledge of nibbana.101 He told one monk who kept pestering him about cosmology to the detriment of his yoga and ethical practice that he was like a wounded man who refused medical treatment until he learned the name of the person who had shot the arrow, and what village he came from. He would die before he got this useless information. What difference did it make to learn that a God had created the world? Grief, suffering, and pain would still exist. “I am preaching a cure for these unhappy conditions here and now,” the Buddha explained to his metaphysically inclined monk, “so always remember what I have not explained to you and the reason I have refused to explain it.”102

The Buddha liked to keep explanations to a minimum. Like Socrates, he wanted the disciple to discover the truth within himself. This also applied to the laity. On one occasion, the Kalamans, a tribal people who lived on the northern bank of the Ganges, sent a delegation to the Buddha. One renouncer after another had descended upon them, they explained, but each one belittled the others’ doctrines. How could they tell who was right? The Buddha replied that he could see why the Kalamans were so confused. He did not add to their perplexity by reeling off the Four Noble Truths, but held an impromptu tutorial. The Kalamans were expecting other people to tell them the answers, he explained, but if they looked into their own hearts they would find that they already knew the right way to live. Was greed, for example, good or bad? Had the Kalamans noticed that if somebody was consumed by desire, he was likely to steal, lie, or even to kill? Did not this type of behavior make the selfish person unpopular and, therefore, unhappy? And did not hatred and delusion also lead to pain and suffering? By the end of their discussion, the Kalamans found that they had indeed known the Buddha’s dhamma all along. “That is why I told you not to rely on any teacher,” the Buddha concluded. “When you know in yourselves that some things are helpful and others unhelpful, you should practise this ethic and stick to it, no matter what anybody else tells you.”103 He adapted a form of the meditation on the immeasurables to the laity to help them to acquire the skillful attitude described in an early Buddhist poem:

Let all beings be happy! Weak or strong, of high, middle or low estate,

Small or great, visible or invisible, near or far away,

Alive or still to be born—may they all be perfectly happy!

Let nobody lie to anybody or despise any single being anywhere.

May nobody wish harm to any single creature, out of anger or hatred!

Let us cherish all creatures, as a mother her only child!

May our loving thoughts fill the whole world, above, below, across,—

Without limit; a boundless goodwill toward the whole world,

Unrestricted, free of hatred and enmity!104

If they behaved in this way and there was a future life, the Buddha concluded, the Kalamans might accumulate some good karma and be reborn as gods. But if there was no afterlife, their considerate, genial lifestyle might encourage others to respond to them in the same way. At the very least, the Kalamans would know that they had behaved well, which was always a comfort.105

The Buddha always entered into the position of the people that he was addressing, even if he did not agree with it. As always, compassion was the key. One of his lay followers was King Pasenadi of Kosala, who remarked one day that he and his wife had recently admitted to each other that nothing was dearer to them than their own selves. Obviously this was not a view that the Buddha could share, but he did not scold the king or launch into a discussion of anatta. Instead he asked Pasenadi to consider this: If he found that there was nothing dearer to him than himself, others must feel the same. Therefore, the Buddha concluded, “a person who loves the self should not harm the self of others.”106 This was his version of the Golden Rule. Laypeople could not extinguish their egotism as thoroughly as a monk, who was devoted to the task full-time, but they could use their experience of selfishness to empathize with other people’s vulnerability. This would take them beyond the excesses of ego and introduce them to the essential value of compassion.

Toward the end of his life, King Pasenadi’s wife died and he fell into a chronic depression. He took to driving around the countryside aimlessly, and one day discovered a park full of wonderful old trees. Alighting from his carriage, he walked among their enormous roots and noticed the way that they “inspired trust and confidence.” “They were quiet; no discordant voices disturbed their peace; they gave out a sense of being apart from the ordinary world and offered a retreat from the cruelty of life.” Looking at these marvelous trees, the king immediately thought of the Buddha, jumped into his carriage, and drove for miles until he had reached the house where the Buddha—now an old man of eighty—was staying.107 For many of his contemporaries, the Buddha was a haven of peace in a violent, sorrowful world. The search for a place apart, separate from the world, and yet wondrously within it, that is impartial, utterly fair, calm, and that fills us with a confidence that, against all odds, there is value in our lives, was what many people in the Axial Age sought when they looked for God, brahman, or nibbana. The Buddha seemed to encapsulate this in his own person. People were not repelled by his dispassion, not daunted by his lack of preference for one thing or person over another. He does not seem to have become humorless, grim, or inhuman, but inspired extraordinary emotion in all who met him. His constant, relentless gentleness, serenity, and fairness seemed to touch a chord and resonate with some of their deepest longings. Like Socrates and Confucius, he had become what Karl Jaspers called a paradigmatic personality—somebody who exemplified what a human being could or should be.108 These luminaries of the Axial Age had become archetypal models; imitating them would help other people to achieve the enhanced humanity that they embodied.

One day a Brahmin found the Buddha sitting under a tree and the sight of his serenity, stillness, and self-discipline filled the priest with awe. The Buddha reminded him of a tusker elephant: there was the same sense of enormous strength and massive potential brought under control and channeled into an extraordinary peace. The Brahmin had never seen a man like that before. “Are you a god, sir?” he asked. “An angel . . . or a spirit?” No, the Buddha replied. He had simply revealed a new potential in human nature. It was possible to live in this world of pain at peace, in control, and in harmony with one’s fellow creatures. Once people had cut the roots of their egotism, they lived at the peak of their capacity and would activate parts of their beings that were normally dormant. How should the Brahmin describe him? “Remember me,” the Buddha told him, “as one who is awake.”109

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!