The Evolution of Human Consciousness
Though many of the preconditions for this evolution of consciousness already existed in different civilisations preceding the Axial Age, this mainly took place between the Seventh and Sixth centuries BCE and ended in most places around 200 CE. Prophets, sages, ascetics and philosophers appeared in different civilisations introducing similar universalistic and individualistic ethical systems based on reflection and requiring human agency. The sage Confucius urged exemplary conduct and personal responsibility in one’s roles in life. For him human authority figures were no longer divine and only maintained their legitimate authority through the Mandate of Heaven which had to be earned. Rulers also needed the Mandate of the People which had to be earned through responsible behaviour towards those they governed. The Golden Rule, Confucius’ doctrine of treating other human beings as you would have them treat you, played a major part in late Judaism and Christianity. Lao Tsu and other semi-mythical sages and magicians influenced by the I Ching or Book of Changes, taught that the world was process and not ends justified by means. This process ideology required tuning in to the Dao or Way like a skilled artisan, performer or surfer.
In Persia the prophet Zoroaster believed that there was a dialectic between spiritual forces of good and evil which would lead to the final eschatological triumph of good under the guidance of Ahura Mazda. The Buddha exemplified detachment from illusory passionate involvement in the material world through individual self-discipline and freely given compassion to others regardless of cultural embedding, even including animals. The Old Testament Prophets insisted on a new emphasis on personal commitment and loyalty to their judge-like God who had drawn up a covenant with his people which both parties pledged to obey, rather like a commercial contract.
The Achaemenid Persian empire, the later Hellenistic empire of Alexander, and the legalistic Roman Empire resulted in the spread of an amalgam of Messianic Zoroastrianism, Egyptian beliefs in resurrection and personal immortality, heroes born of earthly mothers and divine fathers, the Judaic sense of a being an obedient chosen people with a divine contract, Stoic emphasis on non-dualistic process, elements of Buddhist ethical renunciation of sensuality and Pythagorean puritanical idealism which greatly affected Plato.