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Plato’s Vision for the Philosophic Empire (1 of 6)
Part 1: Ancient Greece and the Politics of Debt
This article begins the ninth chapter in a thirteen-chapter book project titled “Philosophy: Its Origin, Purpose, and Destiny”. The chapters of this book are available to read for free on my Substack site (www.thewisdomtradition.substack.com).
If you click on the “Publications” section on my website (www.alexsachon.com) you can find a table of contents for the book along with links to the first eight chapters published so far.
In addition to my written material, I also host a podcast, where I review each of the articles and offer additional commentary on their main themes and arguments. Also featured are stand-alone episodes offering supplementary material which contain relevant information not contained in the written articles.
Please note that this current article is the first part of a six part series on Plato and the philosophy of government. Stay tuned for the rest of the parts after this one; they all go together to form one complete chapter of this Philosophy book.
1. The Axial Age: Philosophy vs. Empire
Over the course of the previous eight chapters of this ongoing book project on philosophy, we have covered, on numerous occasions, the outstanding significance of the historical period termed the “Axial Age”.
This historical period ranges from roughly 600 BC to 400 AD. During the approximately one thousand year period that constitutes this “age”, many if not all of the core institutions of human civilization underwent drastic changes and transformations.
In a sense, this historical age represents the transition point between the decline of an ancient pattern of civilization and the beginnings of our modern one. During this critical time period, many new developments and emergences began, while at the same time a very ancient way of life gradually collapsed and fell into extinction.
Overall, this is a period of transition, innovation, and evolution - it marks a major pivot point in human history and therefore is worthy of deep investigation.
Thus far, when discussing the Axial Age, I have primarily emphasized its significance in terms of it marking the time period when Philosophy first formally emerged as a public-facing institution.
Before then, philosophical teachings were confined to the Mystery Schools and their inner caste of initiates. At this time, these Mystery Schools were preserved within the institutional architecture of the state religion.
In this format, the philosophical teachings of these schools were kept for initiates and thus were largely concealed from the view of the majority. Consequently, the vast majority of peoples did not interface with the inner mysteries of their own religion.
During particularly dark periods, the priesthoods overseeing these institutions would become corrupted by outside influences. When this happens, the inner spiritual guides behind the Mystery Schools would quietly depart from the corrupted religious institutions, leaving its remaining priesthoods without the key to unlock the most prized esoteric secrets of the faith.
The institutional architecture of the ancient world gradually collapsed over the course of the Axial Age. This motion culminates with break-up of the Roman Empire and the formal establishment of the Christian Church.
Notably, these two events took place right around the time when the astrological transition of World Ages between Aries and Pisces took place.
These events also mark the end-point of the Axial Age. As if by destiny, the events of the Axial Age come together as a perfect representation of “creative destruction”, clearing out the institutional architecture of the previous age so that a new world order could be born out of its ashes.
In this article, we are going to revisit this critical time period of the Axial Age and develop a detailed overview the geopolitical and socioeconomic context of the time.
While thus far we have been emphasizing the Axial Age primarily in terms of its association with philosophy, here, in this present article, we are going to shift and investigate the larger ongoing social and cultural changes that were taking place in the world during this era.
This discussion of the political economy of Axial Age civilization sets the stage for the four articles that will follow. These articles build on the foundation set here in order to explore in detail Plato’s philosophy of government. In particular, we will be exploring his vision of the “philosophic empire” - which in his view is the ultimate destiny or archetype for human civilization.
As we will be exploring, Plato lived during a time of empire. His observations on the social and political dynamics of his time inspired his philosophical teachings. In later section of this chapter, we will investigate two examples of these philosophic teachings on government: in one, he utilizes the Atlantis myth to diagnose the karmic causes of empire and in another, he envisions the “philosophic empire” as the ultimate purpose and destiny of government.
In his teachings, Plato emphasizes the necessity of applying philosophy to the task of political and economic governance. He argues that society will never attain stability, let alone beauty, as long as its leadership class remains untutored, undisciplined, and selfish. The solution is therefore to train these leaders to become philosophers.
Plato advocated for Philosophy as a solution to the social and political ills of society. By promoting philosophy, he sought to inspire a social and political movement that would re-orient the direction of empire, shifting it from one ruled by self-interested tyrants to one governed by philosophers.
In Plato’s view, a world civilization must be a philosophic empire. In the philosophic empire, all aspects of human life are brought into alignment with the Law. This Law is Natural Law: it is the law of the universe; of nature; of our own physical and psycho-spiritual anatomy.
This is the law that scientists study and attempt to map. It is also the same law that dictates what is and isn’t sustainable as a human activity pattern: that which is sustainable is that which is lawful; that which isn’t lawful will not and cannot sustain itself.
This article is dedicated to the task of building a larger historical context to Plato and his vision for the philosophic empire. I want to begin by comparing his idealistic vision for empire with the harsh realities of the materialistic empires that plagued Eurasian civilization during his lifetime.
In the following sections, I will begin our multi-part exploration of Plato and the geopolitics of the Axial Age by first zooming out and exploring several overarching trends in human civilization that were already playing out and unfolding by the time the Axial Age formally begins.
As we will see. these are trends which began developing over the course of several millennia preceding the Axial Age. In many ways, these historical trends come to a culmination point with the events of the Axial Age. Therefore, to understand the lessons the Axial Age has to teach us, we must first understand what came before.
2. What Came Before: the River-Valley Civilizations of 4,000 BC
As introduced above, the events that unfolded over the course of the Axial Age took place as the end product or culminating point of several large scale patterns and evolutionary motions that had been playing within the collective body of human civilization over the course of millennia.
Before looking at these precursors to the age, let’s first define what exactly the Axial Age is and what made it special.
Defining the main characteristics of this age, Encyclopedia Britannica writes that “the Axial Age is the period when, roughly at the same time around most of the inhabited world, the great intellectual, philosophical, and religious systems that came to shape subsequent human society and culture first emerged—with the ancient Greek philosophers, Indian metaphysicians and logicians (who articulated the great traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism), Persian Zoroastrianism, the Hebrew Prophets, the “Hundred Schools” of ancient China (most notably Confucianism and Daoism)… these are only some of the representative Axial Age traditions that emerged and took root during that time.”
Britannica also informs us that “the phrase originated with the German philosopher Karl Jaspers, who noted that during this period there was a (collective psychological) shift—or a turn, as if on an axis—away from more predominantly localized concerns and toward transcendences.”
Overall, the Axial Age marks a critical phase in the evolutionary development of the human race. It also marks a significant stage in the gradual emergence of globalization, a process that had already been underway well before the 6th century BC (the beginning of the Axial Age).
Over the course of this age, there emerged an almost continuous zone of civilization across Eurasia, one that was increasingly interlinked through the bonds of empire, trade, conquest, and migration.
This civilization zone extended from China in the East, westward through India, Persia, and Mesopotamia, and into the Greek States of the Mediterranean region.
Each of the main civilization zones that took part in these great Axial Age transformations were regions that had, in previous millennia, already experienced the rise and fall of great civilizations.
In particular, Egypt, India, Mesopotamia, and China played host to four great civilization zones during an extended period stretching from 5,000 to 2,000 BC. During this period, these zones became the most advanced in terms of agriculture and animal domestication, technological and artistic innovation, construction of cities, and organization of state power.
These four civilization zones all emerged in fertile river-valley regions: the Egyptian civilization zone emerging around the Nile, the Harrapan civilization by the Indus and Sarawati rivers, the Mesopotamia civilizations around the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and Chinese civilization along the Yellow River in China.
These river-valley regions provided large, continuous areas of fertile soil. The ability to generate high crop yields allowed for large populations to emerge in each of these regions. However, alongside this growth in population, new social and political demands arose, notably the need for a strong central state to coordinate, regulate, and distribute the collective agricultural operation.
Geographer Felipe Fernandez-Armesto elaborates: “Intensified agriculture clearly unlocks a potential pattern. More food makes it possible to sustain larger populations, to concentrate them in bigger settlements, and to divert more manpower to nonagricultural activities. But intensification also requires organization. … It calls for someone - or some group - with power to divide land, marshal labor, and regulate the distribution of water and fertilizer. Surplus production needs to be guarded in case crops fail or natural disasters strike.”
This central state authority is also necessary in the resolution of legal disputes and for stockpiling and allocating stored resources, particularly during times of drought or famine.
The four river-valley civilization zones simultaneously achieved a common evolutionary stage of cultural advancement. In the next section, we are going to investigate the economic, political, and sociological dynamics that underpinned these early agrarian states.
3. The Sociology of Early States
The early River-Valley states all adopted a monarchial form of government. Fernandez-Armesto explains: “All practiced divine or sacred kingship, all had rigid social hierarchies, and all placed the lives and labor of their inhabitants at the disposal of the state.”
The pressing economic and military necessities of these early states lead each to “develop similar political institutions and personnel, including bureaucrats and enforcers.”
These instruments of social governance are new emergences that did not exist in the more primitive pattern of chiefdoms and brood families that had existed before.
The quantity of economic surplus that collective enterprise at the scale of a state can provide provides the resources necessary to support specialized, skilled occupations such as those associated with crafts, trades, and architecture.
Fernandez-Armesto explains: “As they get bigger, settlements and politically linked or united groups of settlements further expand the number of government functions. Where once there was just a chief and his counselors, now there are aides, advisers, officials, and administrators.”
“In chiefdoms, the chief and a few counselors handle all the business of government. In a state, those functions get split among groups of specialists” who conduct activities such as “administering justice, handling revenue, or conducting war. … These authorities “organize subjects into categories or classes according to the needs of the state, which include collective labor, taxation, and war.”
In states, economic complexity also grows. “Where many people settle together (and) as markets grow, settlements acquire more craftsmen, who engage in more specialized trades and who organize into more and larger units.”
Economically and politically, these early states (like our modern ones) are organized as an alliance between four castes: the state or “warrior” caste, the priesthood and scholarly caste, the merchant, banking, and aristocratic caste, and the peasant or labor caste.
In the days of the early states, merchants were the source of economic trade and diplomatic contact between separate civilizations. As Fernandez-Armesto describes, “the state ran a monopoly on economic production and its merchants were its ambassadors.”
Merchants as a class are innately nomadic, however. Over time, as states rise and fall and monarchs come and go, this caste of nomadic merchants develops its own perspective. Gradually, the allegiance of this merchant class begins to shift away from being loyal to the needs of the state or collective and instead begins strategically pursuing its own needs, plans, and desires at the expense of the other castes.
Because of their importance to the economic development of these early states, this increasingly wealthy and influential class of merchant-bankers gained political power over the monarchies of the different states they traded with. This happened everywhere in a gradual motion.
In these early monarchies, there was no separation between church and state. The monarch was also the head of the state religion. Ideally, he would also be an initiate of its State Mysteries, which the priesthood would serve as the loyal custodians over.
In exchange for the loyalty of the monarchy, the priesthood, who was the preserver of all knowledge, promoted the economic development of society by keeping the accounting records of the state, organizing its agricultural cycles, serving as the storehouse for surplus food, weapons, etc.
In time, these economic activities would move outside of the custodianship of the priesthood, moving from the temple to the palace. As this happens, economic activity becomes increasingly detached from the morals and ethics of religion and instead begins to follow the competitive logic of politics and business.
Ideally, as Manly Hall informs us, "it was the function of the State to administer the rights and privileges of the people. Its major concerns were the improvement of security, and the happiness of the citizens.” In this capacity it was “the supplier of roads, utilities, and an efficient postal system. It also maintained law enforcement and water rights.”
However, as religion declines as a dominant factor in human life and material concerns increase in their stead, the orientation of the state begins to change from an internal to external orientation.
Faced with constant economic, environmental, and political instability, these early states developed warlike tendencies. “They needed to grow and conquests were the only way to guarantee food for an increasingly restless population.”
Here, the bureaucracy in charge of the economic machine becomes involved with “levying taxes, mobilizing resources for public works, gathering raw materials for manufacture and trade, and equipping rulers for almost constant warfare against neighboring empires or barbarians.”
Meanwhile, the armies charged with defending the territory of the empire, while also of expanding its dominion through imperial conquest, were drawn primarily from its peasant class of farmers.
A delicate political balance developed between the state and this peasant caste. Each needs each other, but they can also fall out of alignment and come into conflict. As we will see, the collapse of these civilizations ultimately happens as a result of these two branches falling out of alignment.
4. The Collapse of the River Valley Civilizations
The River Valley civilizations of this early era achieved great milestones and cultural attainments over an extended period of time. They also served as a powerful globalizing force, as they were responsible for binding many separate chiefdoms and tribes together into ever-larger zones of political and economic organization.
Within the large geographic territories that these early states occupied, they served to catalyze the formation of economic, political, and cultural bonds of connection between peoples previously isolated from one another.
Trade and diplomacy were the “carrots” that served to unite previously separated peoples, while conquest and war were the “sticks”. Both ways, these early empires served to spread key institutions of civilization into comparatively uncivilized regions. Through them, the boundaries of civilization spread and began bridging humans and societies together into larger and larger patterns of integration.
However, while they accomplished much, a variety of factors came together to eventually bring each of these four early civilization zones into collapse and ruin.
These early states (not unlike our modern ones) were highly stratified: while the higher castes of society enjoyed wealth, privilege, and power, the vast majority were laborers, slaves, or subsistence farmers. This discrepancy, during times of drought, famine, or resource shortage, lead to resentments which in turn fostered internal rebellions and insurrections.
As geographers such as Jared Diamond have pointed out, these early expansion- and consumption-oriented empires inevitably faced resource scarcity issues. Continued population growth demanded ever more intensive exploitation of the environment. Natural processes of climate change exacerbated these stresses, further undermining the stability of these early states.
It is at this point, when the empire is most vulnerable from within, that attacks from barbarian hordes at the periphery break through and begin fragmenting and breaking down the foundations of civilization. These hordes represent entropic forces tasked with breaking down an order of civilization that had crystallized into an unsustainable pattern.
Geographer Fernandez-Armesto notes that, beginning around 1500 BC, each of these great river valley civilizations faced social collapse and political dissolution. By 1000 BC, “war, natural disaster, environmental exploitation, and social and political disintegration had strained or shattered most of the big states and civilizations that had emerged.”
He continues “By 1000 BC, failed states littered the landscape. Some of the world’s most spectacular empires broke up. … Food distribution centers controlled from palace labyrinths shut down. Trade was disrupted. Settlements and monuments were abandoned. The literacy of these civilizations was lost, their writing systems forgotten.”
So complete was the collapse of these early civilizations that, “when writing resumed in these regions centuries later, the inhabitants had to invent new alphabets.”
5. Themes Behind the Rise and Fall of the River Valley Civilizations
A) The Separation of Church and State and the Secularization of Law
The basic story of how the first states arose is relatively straightforward: one local chiefdom rises up, conquers other surrounding communities, and binds them all together into a common political, economic, and cultural zone of activity.
This new emergent social entity - the state - provides many important benefits to its community of subjects. These include economic integration, political unification, and enlarged military and defense capacities.
The spreading economic and political boundaries of the state require it to consolidate numerous different cultural, linguistic, and religious systems together. The task of these states was to modify but not entirely overthrow the previous legal codes and cultural foundations of conquered populations.
This means that, out of practical necessity, large empires required broad and adaptable legal concepts that could be fitted into numerous different cultural systems at the same time.
In previous ages, the economic and legal structure of a social group was integrated with religion. But now, as foreign populations become integrated into the economic machine of an empire, the legal code shifts out of its connection with religion and begins to exist in a more secularized form.
Manly Hall summarizes this shift: “The inevitable drift was away from religious codes and toward neutral legislation, which could be applied to those of different convictions without offense. (In time), religious tribunals lost all authority over physical life and property.”
In the new pattern that emerged, an uneasy compromise was made: religion was left to govern over the culture (each culture having its own religion) while an increasingly secular state governed civil law and economic activity.
B) The Decline in Influence of the Mystery Schools
During the “Golden Age” of these early states, when they were at their cultural peaks - a time before the diseases of empire set in - the monarch was the head of the state religion and also an initiate of the state Mysteries run by its inner council of priests.
Inspired by the wisdom of its occult priesthood, the rulers of early states dedicated considerable time, resources, and manpower to the construction of outstanding religious monuments and temples. Within these magnificent architectural structures, the priesthood conducted their sacred rites and rituals, some public, others private.
In this age, the priesthood was the custodian of knowledge; to gain access to this knowledge, the leaders of the state had to become initiates. This pattern of institutional design was inherited from the deepest antiquity, when human life was completely immersed in religion.
The earliest civilizations were theocratic monarchies featuring: a) monarchial rulers who were seen as divinely appointed; b) an inner council of elders within the priesthood who maintained the sacred knowledge and traditions and who served as advisors and initiators to the ruling class; and c) a bureaucracy of administrators who were responsible for carrying out the will of the ruler. In the original pattern, this bureaucracy was an extension of the temple and was not secular in motivation or orientation.
As time descends from remote antiquity, we see a pattern whereby the tight alliance between religion and civil governance becomes decoupled.
Gradually, the state seeks to express its independence and autonomy from the temple. The motive for this separation could come through the person of a new unsympathetic conquering monarch or it could be spurred by the rise of an aristocratic class who seeks its own interests over those of the state religion.
Often, a new faction of political rulers, frustrated at being unable to control the priesthood or gain access to its sacred knowledge without having earned it through initiation, turned against them, casting them out or killing them and replacing them with “cronies” who lacked wisdom but who would “play the part” in order to appease the masses while serving the interests of the state.
Ultimately, to survive, the Mystery Schools require the constructive participation of the other castes. When the state, the priesthood, the aristocracy, or the public turns against this institution, the custodians of its sacred knowledge simply depart, leaving that society without the benefit of its wisdom.
It is forbidden for esoteric teachings to be granted to anyone who has not earned the right to its knowledge though personal attainment. Therefore, if a social group fails to produce candidates worthy of attaining initiation into its knowledge, then the knowledge simply ceases to come into and vitalize the life of the collective.
When this happens, the social group fails to produce new members who meet the high standards of qualification to become an initiate of this priesthood. As the old and wise ones retire or die, new initiates fail to appear. Consequently, the light gradually goes out in the heart of the temple and wisdom dies, leaving the darkness of ignorance in its place.
C. The Beginnings of Debt, Credit, and Money
Economic growth, agricultural productivity, and trade were the foundations that made early states possible. To facilitate these ends, the state and temple bureaucracies pioneered the use of debt-based credit instruments. It is here that “modern money” officially has its beginnings.
It is important to understand that money is a unit of measurement. Like the foot or the meter, it is used to measure a quantitive value. In the case of money, the value being measured is that of “debt”.
Thus, a dollar is a measure of one unit of debt, denominated in terms of the American dollar. In this way, ”units of currency are merely abstract units of measurement.” Thus, “What we call ‘money’ isn’t a ‘thing’ at all; it’s a way of comparing things mathematically, as proportions: of saying one of X is equivalent to six of Y.
As anthropologist and economic historian David Graeber summarizes, “Money is not a commodity but an accounting tool. In other words, it is not a ‘thing’ at all. You can no more touch a Dollar or a Deutschmark than you can touch an hour or a cubic centimeter.”
Graeber demonstrates with ample historical documentation that money and finance do not begin with coinage and barter but rather with the adoption of credit-based accounting systems, which first emerged in these early agrarian states.
In this early age, banking was a utility provided by the temple bureaucracy on behalf of the state. The temples, being the repository of all knowledge and learning at those times, were naturally the sponsors of this economic system.
In its earliest forms, these credit systems were utilized primarily by the bureaucracy for organizing domestic economic affairs. They worked by tethering the value of the core commodities and foodstuffs of their society to a common unit of measure such as the weight of silver.
In this system, the silver itself was for the most part not used directly in transactions. Instead, commodities were priced in silver but transactions occurred mostly by means of credit.
As Graeber explains, the majority of monetary activities taking place in these early states involved “paying taxes, fees, or buying products that palaces and temples made or imported, on credit provided by or regulated by these large institutions.”
Credit money thus served to minimize transaction costs and preserve economic stability within the empire. It was a utility provided by both the state and the temple, to be used for the benefit and glory of the society as a whole.
The temples not only played host to financing economic activity; they also gave birth to and protected the earliest markets. As Graeber explains, “throughout antiquity markets were located in the open spaces in front of city gates or temples, providing easy access to official weights and measures to prevent fraud.”
In sum, the state-temple bureaucracies of these early empires were tasked with keeping the books, hosting the marketplace, coining the money, importing and regulating the inflow and outflow of silver in trade and barter with foreign merchants, and supplying its wealth in the form of credit to the economy at large.
In his epic scholarly work “Debt: The First 5,000 Years”, David Graeber gives us an example of how this credit machine worked in ancient Sumer.
“The Sumerian economy was dominated by vast temple and palace complexes. These were often staffed by thousands: priests and officials, craftspeople who worked in their industrial workshops, farmers and shepherds who worked their considerable estates.... By the time the curtain goes up on Mesopotamian civilization around 3500 B.C., temple administrators already appear to have developed a single, uniform system of accountancy. ... The basic monetary unit was the silver shekel. One shekel’s weight in silver was established as the equivalent of one gur, or bushel of barley.”
Rudimentary financial accounting was “utilized by temple bureaucrats in order to keep track of resources and move things back and forth between departments. Temple bureaucrats used the system to calculate debts (rents, fees, loans, etc.) in silver. Silver was, effectively, money.... [But,] Silver did not circulate much. Most of it just sat around in temple and palace treasuries.”
“One reason was that while debts were calculated in silver, they did not have to be paid in silver - in fact, they could be paid in more or less anything one had around. Peasants who owed money to the Temple or Palace, or to some Temple or Palace official, seem to have settled their debts mostly in barley, which is why fixing the ratio of silver to barley was so important.”
“In the marketplaces... prices were also calculated in silver, and the prices of commodities that weren’t entirely controlled by the Temples and Palaces would tend to fluctuate according to supply and demand. But even here, such evidence as we have suggests that most transactions were based on credit.”
Overall, Graeber concludes that “credit money came first, well before bullion” (meaning metal coinage). In its earliest forms, “money’ simply took the form of commodities acceptable for payment to temples and palaces at guaranteed prices for taxes and fees.”
In its accounting, the bureaucrats overseeing this early financial system used an official price grid denominated in a standard unit of accounting such silver weight. This established a standard price for debt payments owed to the palace and its collectors. Thus, “early money was simply the official price schedule for paying debts” to the state.
The monetary values the temple used in its accounting were important for economic forecasting and planning. The prices “had to be stable in order for producers to plan ahead and minimize the risk of disruptive shifts in prices (and hence the ability to pay debts). Official price equivalencies thus served as an adjunct to fiscal policy while avoiding instability.”
According to Graeber, this is the true context in which money originates: it does not begin with coinage or barter and trade. “Coins came much later, and their use spread only unevenly, never completely replacing credit systems.”
D. The Plague of Compound Interest
The system of credit-based monetary transactions discussed above describes how money was typically utilized in these early economies, in particular as it pertains to the organization of the domestic economy and the paying of taxes and tributes by its citizens.
However, when it came to financing merchant enterprise or other forms of long-term investments involving risk and uncertainty, a more dynamic method of credit-transaction was invented: that involving interest-bearing loans.
David Graeber informs us that “we don’t know precisely when and how interest-bearing loans originated, since they appear to predate writing. Most likely, Temple administrators invented the idea as a way of financing the caravan trade. ... Temple administrators developed the habit of advancing goods to local merchants who would then go off and sell goods overseas. Interest was just a way for the temples to take their share of the resulting profits.”
With the invention of interest-bearing loans, the evils of usury begin: “Once established, the principle seems to have quickly spread. Before long, we find not only commercial loans, but also consumer loans - usury in the classical sense of the term."
The politics of debt began to take center stage in these ancient states after interest-bearing loans move from the merchant trade to the agricultural sector. This shift introduced debt as a powerful destabilizing factor within the social fabric of early civilizations, one that would eventually lead to the collapse of the entire civilization pattern.
The story goes something like this: investors who had gained wealth from merchant trades naturally want to keep their money multiplying. However, the volume and profit from trade cannot expand exponentially alongside the compounding of interest from interest-bearing loans.
This resulted in investment money accumulating in the hands of investors faster than they could find new commercial opportunities to re-invest it. Consequently, the “money class” would have sought new markets to open up interest-bearing investments to. It is at this point that creditors found their major new non-commercial market: the agricultural sector “This is where the most serious problems occurred, especially when crops failed or military hostilities interrupted the harvest."
Graeber writes that, “by 2400 B.C., it already appears to have been common practice on the part of local officials, or wealth merchants, to advance loans to peasants who were in financial trouble on collateral and to begin to appropriate their possessions if they were unable to pay. It usually started with grain, sheep, goats, and furniture, then moved on to fields and houses, or, alternatively, family members.... These would be reduced to debt-peons: not quite slaves, but very close to that, forced into perpetual service in the lender’s household - or, sometimes, in the Temples or Palaces themselves.”
The emergence of usury within these early societies caused resentments and antagonisms to develop between the aristocracy who would lend it at interest rates as high as 33% and the peasant class, who were often thrown into bankruptcy or slavery as a result of these unrealistic interest rates.
When interest-bearing loans are made during a commercial transaction, such as the type that merchants engage in, a relationship dynamic develops that is inherently different than that which results when these loans are brought over into the agricultural sector.
In trade, creditors and merchants share in risk of the enterprise, with debts paid out of revenue brought back from the voyage. But with agricultural loans, the majority of the risk is held by the farmer.
As Graeber explains, “the loan usually took the form of prepayment against the crop, on which the palace’s share was estimated as if normally high yields would materialize. But the crop often turned out to be less, squeezing the cultivator, whose crop shortfall became a debt.”
“Inevitably, rural usury led to the forfeiture of land and crop rights.” Free-standing citizens would be reduced to debt peons. This practice was responsible for expropriating families from their land and reducing them to debt slavery to their creditors. Sadly, as Graeber notes, “a frequent practice was for debtors to pay interest by pledging their family members as bondservants to work for their creditors.”
Economic historian Michael Hudson summarizes the situation: “ever since interest began to be recorded in ancient Mesopotamia, the defining financial character of economies has been the tendency for debts to multiply so rapidly that large numbers of debtors have had to settle their obligations by selling or forfeiting their property. Throughout most of recorded history such asset transfers are so widespread as to transform the distribution of land and other wealth.”
Graeber notes that “the effects were such that they often threatened to rip society apart. If for any reason there was a bad harvest, large proportions of the peasantry would fall into debt peonage; countless families would be broken up. Before long, lands lay abandoned as indebted farmers fled their homes for fear of re-possession and joined semi-nomadic bands on the desert fringes of urban civilization.”
To illustrate this point, Graeber points out that these types of catastrophic debt crises are noted in ancient Jewish scripture: “It would seem that the economy of the Hebrew kingdoms, by the time of the prophets, was already beginning to develop the same kind of debt crises that had long been common in Mesopotamia. Especially in years of bad harvests, as the poor became indebted to rich neighbors or to wealthy moneylenders in the towns, they would lose the titles to their fields and instead become tenants on what had been their own land. And their sons and daughters would be removed to serve as servants in their creditors’ households, or even sold abroad as slaves. The earlier prophets contain allusions to such crises, but the book of Nehemiah, written in Persian times, is the most explicit.”
Faced with the potential for complete social breakdown and a collapse of the state due to the catastrophic effect of these types of policies, the politics of debt became a central issue in the rise of early empires.
The nature of the issues surrounding credit, debt, and usury are ones that not only exacerbate political tensions and economic pressures within the internal boundaries of a civilization, they also compromise the state’s ability to defend and protect its borders, as a large percentage of its standing army from the peasant class is not available because they have been ensnared into debt bondage and slavery by the creditor class.
From the perspective of the state, the dynamics of usury ultimately undermine its own foundations. One primary means is through the economic enslavement of the population, leaving it less able to defend its borders. Another is through debt deflation, where the overall economic productivity of the state begins to decline as a result of the parasitic behavior of its financial class, which sucks up at an unsustainable rate the resources of the collective, leaving, in the end, society as a whole to die for lack of nutrition.
In his decades of research work, economic historian Michael Hudson has repeatedly emphasized the point that interest-bearing debt or usury has been one of the key factors behind the collapse of civilizations ever since its initial invention thousands of years ago.
Hudson explains that, when debt deflation caused by usury sets in, “the proceeds of society's economic growth have to be allocated to pay debt service, absorbing the revenue that otherwise would be available for direct investment and enhancement of living standards. This shrinks the ‘organic’ or ‘real’ economy’s ability to produce a surplus while still managing to pay creditors, invest in future production, and increase living standards.”
The gradual sterilization of society is an inevitable outcome as financial claims run ahead of the economy’s ability to produce and pay. This always results in a political crisis, as the social fabric of society begins to break down due to its inability to carry the exponential growth of compound interest. Ultimately, the state economy as a whole is bankrupted by the process, with much of its population turned into slaves unless they revolt.
E. The Debt Jubilee
Because of their outstanding importance to the long-term stability of civilization, the politics of rural usury and debt deflation were at the forefront of the religious movements of the day. David Graeber explains that: “the laws governing the growth of debt were at the core of (the emergent) religious doctrines of the ancient Near East, including those of Judaism, early Christianity, and Islam.”
During this era, the lasting greatness of a civilization was defined in large part by how they dealt with the issue of debt. Whether a state survived or failed depended on whether it was able to navigate itself out of the quagmires of debt deflation and economic enslavement.
As Hudson explains, “something must give when the mathematics of interest-bearing debt overwhelms the economy’s ability to pay. For a while, the growing debt burden may be met by selling off or forfeiting property to creditors, but ultimately an active public policy response is needed to save the economy’s land and natural resources, mines and public monopolies, physical capital and other productive assets from being lost to creditors.”
As a solution to this issue, Sumerian and later Babylonian kings devised a “clean slate” or “debt jubilee” policy, wherein they would periodically announce general debt amnesties for the subjects of their kingdoms.
Summarizing the orientation of these ‘clean slate’ policies, Graeber informs us that “such decrees would typically declare all outstanding debt null and void (commercial debts were not affected), return all lands to its original owners, and allow debt-peons to return to their families.”
Through the jubilee policy, a monetary drain was avoided in bad harvest seasons, when production would underperform the expected interest return of the financier class. It was at this critical point that the monarch would step in and cancel agrarian debts. This allowed the consequences of deft deflation and debt peonage to be kept under control, without completely eliminating the credit mechanism altogether.
Historical records indicate that this practice was followed in Babylonia and Sumer. In Judaism (Levitius 25), the Jubilee policy is mandated. Much later, early Christianity and Islam grew rapidly in popular support due in large part due to their denunciation of usury.
6. The Politics of Debt and the Rise of Oligarchy
From the standpoint of the long-term evolution of human civilization and the emergence of new forms of social complexity within it, an important new political factor emerged on the world stage as a direct result of the outcomes of these early River-Valley empires.
This new power player emerges in the form of “oligarchy”. It would officially reveal itself a few centuries after the final collapse of the early River-Valley states, at the onset of the Axial Age period. Since its point of first emergence, the oligarchy has grown steadily in power and influence as a key actor on the world stage.
In mankind’s original monarchial form of government, the state is ruled by the absolute authority of one individual. This changes with civilization’s move into oligarchy.
With oligarchy, governance moves from the one monarch to a coalition of elite interests. These become the oligarchs, who politically compete with each other for influence over the overall system, which no single individual dominates completely.
From a long-term evolutionary standpoint, the move of monarchy into oligarchy signifies a pluralistic motion moving into the realm of human governance, one where the responsibilities for governing the state move from the control of one absolute monarch to that of a small elite group.
From this viewpoint, the evolution of society from the simple format of "one kingdom, one ruler” to the more dynamic concept of "one kingdom, numerous governors” seems inevitable, particularly as society grows in complexity.
In particular, the move from monarchy to oligarchy coincides with the rise of a vast state bureaucracy, one which oversees the flow of resources within the expanding imperial state. The heads of key departments of this bureaucracy, in conjunction with wealthy families within the merchant and land-owning aristocratic classes, end up positioning themselves to become the dominant factions of this oligarchy. These factions conspire to express their shared political and economic interests over those of other constituencies within the social collective, which are perceived now in a competitive light.
With oligarchy, power becomes politically negotiated and managed among a group of elite, rather than wielded with absolute authority by one central figure.
In the original forms of monarchial government, the various powers of religion and state were aggregated together and vested in the being of one all-powerful person. As monarchy cedes to oligarchy, these powers begin to decentralize and become vested within a coalition of elite families, guilds, and mercenary groups, each of which ends up forming its own dynasty of hereditary descent.
In oligarchical models of state governance, power is diversified: it is held in different forms by competing interests who are semi-autonomous from one another. The power of these oligarchs arises from the control each has over some resource of society’s, be it governmental, economic, legal, religious, or cultural.
Keeping in mind the concepts of usury and the politics of debt deflation discussed earlier, the story of the rise in political power of the oligarchical class is relative simple and straightforward to understand.
Over the millennia-long span in which the rise and fall of early Eurasian and North African empires took place, new innovations such as interest-bearing loans and coin-based trade economies were developed and implemented.
Initially, these new financial innovations developed in collaboration between the state and merchant classes. But when a pressing debt crisis would arise, the question would become about whether the state should offer its agrarian caste a debt jubilee or not.
In these societies, if the merchant, banking, and land-owning classes positioned themselves to garner sufficient influence over the state - with the state having become dependent upon them for its own survival - then these aristocratic groups could block a debt cancellation policy.
In this manner, the aristocracy move to usurp political control of the state, re-directing its policies and laws so that its own interests are preserved and those of the other castes sacrificed.
Together, a corrupted state and a greedy aristocracy combine to either corrupt, overthrow, or ostracize the priesthood. Meanwhile, the lower caste of peasants and laborers become the victims of this process, as their rights and privileges are eroded away, with them eventually becoming debt peons or slaves.
The key circumstance that allows the parasitic takeover of the financial and aristocratic classes over the rest of society comes with the rise of rural usury and the politics involved with the debt deflation that results.
The dynamics of debt deflation are harmful to every caste of society except the aristocracy: the lower classes of subsistence farmers and laborers are disenfranchised and fall into a state of absolute dependency to an insulated caste of financial oligarchs. Meanwhile, the state and monarchy see their kingdoms atrophied from within and, in their weakened state, inevitably destroyed from outside attacks from barbarians or competing empires.
Over the course of the River Valley civilizations, we see the credit-making operation gradually decoupling from state and temple institutions and moving instead into the private control of the aristocracy, the bankers, the merchant class, and mercenaries.
Consequently, these empires become increasingly dependent upon the land-owning aristocratic caste, with the dominant families of this caste aligning to become a powerful bloc of political and economic interests - i.e. an oligarchy.
As the rise and fall of these early states attest, to the extent that a new aristocratic class can maneuver an increasingly vulnerable imperial state into granting it the right to make usurious loans to its people and to have those loans be protected by the legal and enforcement arms of the state, then the archetypal dynamics of debt deflation, empire, slavery, and social collapse will in time inevitably follow.
7. The Axial Age, the Re-Emergence of Empire, and the Tyrant Economy
In large part due to the consequences of debt deflation, the first wave of “River Valley” empires fell into ruin.
In these early states, the collapse of the initial social order was complete and total. In those areas where the state finally collapsed or succumbed to outside invasion, civilization regressed back into a primitive subsistence level of existence, with mankind receding back to a tribal pattern of organization.
In these destroyed regions, it would be centuries before civilization would be resurrected. When it finally was, an entirely new cultural system emerged; almost no memory remained of what had come before.
While in the end these early states would experience a complete and total collapse, during the course of their initial run, these early empires left a legacy that would, in time, inspire the peripheral cultures they encountered to imitate and reconstruct their model of statehood and empire, while adding important new innovations in the process.
One of the side consequences of the rise and fall of the early empires is that they “spilled people, technologies, and means of life into frontier areas that had been little populated” (Fernandez-Armesto).
It is in these frontier areas that, within a few centuries, a new model of empire would shortly arise. In this second wave of empires, one whose onset coincides with the beginnings of the Axial Age, we find the pattern of oligarchy replacing that of the old monarchial pattern in a much more explicit way.
As we will see, these new oligarchy-controlled empires took the debt-based credit model to new heights. In the process, they would catalyze a further complexification of civilization, one that would inspire it to simultaneously achieve incredible new highs while at the same time fall into abhorrent new lows.
The major innovation that separates the two eras of statehood and empire comes with how the second wave of empires were primarily driven by oligarchs rather than monarchs. These oligarchs leveraged the use of bullion coinage, mercenary armies, and slavery to become a powerful political force on the world stage.
The oligarchy that emerges during the Axial Age period exists semi-autonomously from any particular state. From its own independent position, it possesses the power to strategically pit states and empires against each other for the sake of its own gains and ends.
From a strategic standpoint, the task of these “international bullion brokers” is to forge relationships with numerous warring states and convert each to its own bullion standard.
Not all of this is bad; there is a definite utility in terms of trade if two neighboring states or regions share a common medium of exchange such as silver.
The credit systems of the early empires were best suited to a situation in which economic activity was primarily internally focused. This worked for the early states. But, as Joseph Farrell notes, once trade between states becomes more significant, “the issuances of money in the form of letters of credit against a given state’s warehouse surplus would inhibit, rather than aid, such trade. Another mechanism was required that would not require a diplomatic negotiation between states for each and every trade.”
If a situation could be created in which each of the trading partners comes to commonly incorporate the use of a precious metal within their economic systems, then by use of this shared medium of exchange large scale economic transactions between distant states could take place much more efficiently.
The problem is, in adopting this bullion standard, states become dependent on a third, semi-independent party, one that emerges as a spin-off of the merchant class: international bullion brokers.
As states and empires become more internally driven to attain and distribute wealth in the form of bullion, they become ever more dependent on the middle men in charge of brokering their access to this currency and the goods and services it buys.
On this, Joseph Farrell remarks: “at one and the same time as a medium of international exchange is more or less agreed upon, there also arises an international class of merchants conducting such trade and exercising sweeping influence over those units of exchange.”
Writing on the emergence of this “new money” class, Joseph Farrell quotes one respected historian of this period (Heichelheim), who informs us that this new class of oligarchs “were comprised for the most part of members of the nobility themselves who had made the grade using the new political and economic possibilities of their time to overthrow their own equals and to subdue their whole state temporarily.”
The economic foundation of the oligarchical class that emerges is based on war and debt. Essentially, the oligarchy that rises to replace monarchy is one comprised of war-making profiteers who exist as an alliance between aristocratic families, bankers, and specialized guilds (existing at this time almost as proto-corporations) who are involved in mining, manufacturing weapons, and building mercenary armies.
The “business model” of this war-making machine is to ensnare a state or empire in war debts denominated in bullion. These debts make the leadership of the state economically dependent on this cartel. This dependency leads them to re-engineer the internal economy of these states in ways that accommodate the long-term needs of the cartel and not the state itself.
One of the key changes that states ensnared by loans from this cartel are coerced into making involve the implementation of a privatized debt-based currency system rooted in the use of silver coins. This new system becomes implemented at all levels of the domestic economy, replacing completely the previous credit economy that had traditionally been run by the temple or state. Now, the once-public system of money has been turned private.
As discussed above, the first wave of River-Valley empires used silver primarily as a measure of value. Most people did not actually possess or transact directly with silver, however. Instead, they merely priced the value of their goods and services in terms of its weight. The result was a two-tiered economic system, with the state transacting with its merchant class in silver bullion and its peasant class primarily with credit and grain.
With the rise of the second wave of empires, this dynamic changes. The oligarchs position themselves to become the private bankers of the state and its people. In so doing, they take over the role that once belonged to the temple or state bureaucracy, transforming banking from a public utility to something run by private enterprise.
It is here that the “cash economy” arises. This new economic paradigm is controlled almost entirely by the oligarchy. In particular, through its control of finance, this cartel gradually positions itself to take over key functions of the state. In so doing, it is able to re-engineer the state and its laws to exclusively suit the needs of itself rather than those of the kingdom or its people as a whole.
Scholar Joseph P. Farrell calls the situation that results the “tyrant economy”.
Farrell observes that the oligarchs behind this “tyrant economy” were often compelled to “introduce the coin economy pattern into the area over which they ruled in order to: a) gain an upper hand over their enemies; b) stabilize the position of the peasantry on the land; and c) expand and rebuild the state economy toward a central distribution of money and goods, one that would be directed towards financing mercenary armies, bodyguards, and various political friends and parties.”
The new coin economy that the oligarchs introduced is one where wealth becomes heavily concentrated in the sectors involved with war-making. Coins would only indirectly trickle down to the lower caste of peasants and laborers, such as in the earnings gained from farmers selling crops or through wages paid to laborers for massive building operations like the construction of monuments or irrigation canals.
The overall dynamic that results is one in which states retain rulership over the populace, while an oligarchy of private financial interests gradually attains rulership over the state. These oligarchs then mismanage the state for their own selfish interests, enslaving the people and keeping them in a state of perpetuate warfare and financial uncertainty.
8. The Military-Coinage-Slavery Complex
When this new oligarchical form of empire emerges, it does so as a distributed system where power is wielded through alliances between various factions and power blocs, each responsible for controlling a key element of an emergent “military-coinage-slavery complex”.
We’ve already noted that while this oligarchy is lead by the banking and merchant classes, its power base also extends into other associated sectors, such as the slave trade, the mining sector, the trans-Eurasian bullion trade, the temple system (existing already at this time in various states of decay), and the legal and judicial arms of the state.
On the military front, the emergence of oligarchy and the new, coin-based model of empire they introduce becomes associated with the rise of mercenary armies and private weapons manufacturing operations.
The dynamic works like follows: the soldiers in these armies require payment in a form that will allow them to buy things they want and need. This means that, if you’re going to pay these soldiers in coins, then marketplaces must already be established which are designed to accept this coinage in return for the desired goods or services the soldiers want.
In order to convert its domestic economy to one that seeks and desires hard currency such as silver coinage, the states of the Axial Age used their own internal taxation systems to ensure the necessary public demand for these coins. By demanding that taxes be paid in coins, the state and the banking cartel behind it ensure that the populace will be motivated and self-driven to pursue economic activities that will result in its ability to attain these coins.
One of the primary occupations that one can pursue in such an environment in order to get coins is to become a soldier. The fact that soldiers are paid in coins while the rest of the economy is in need of these same coins for tax purposes provides a mutually beneficial situation from the perspective of empire.
David Graeber explains further: “Say a king wishes to support a standing army of fifty thousand men. Under ancient medieval conditions, feeding such a force was an enormous problem.... On the other hand, if one simply hands out coins to the soldiers and then demands that every family in the kingdom was obliged to pay one of those coins back to you (for taxes), one would, in one blow, turn one’s entire national economy into a vast machine for the provisioning of soldiers, since now every family, in order to get their hands on coins, must find some way to contribute to the general effort to provide soldiers with things they want. Markets are brought into existence as a side effect.”
As an inevitable side effect, the new bullion-backed economy creates an incentive for illicit markets to develop offering slaves, prostitutes, and other disgraceful “products”. Culturally, a “race to the bottom” results. As Joseph Farrell explains, “the opportunities clearly were there for those who assisted in the monetization of the city, all its activities and possessions, and its population.”
Once a state converted its internal economy into a coin-based operation, it symbolically enters into a bargain with the devil.
As Joseph Farrell explains, “once any crown within any given state accepts this arrangement, it will become increasingly hostage to the need for bullion and for the merchants, slave traders, and mining-mercenaries that supply it and have the technology to mine, melt, and mint it.”
Once the money-making power of the state is surrendered to this outside force, it is only a matter of time until the power and influence of this oligarchy extends into every branch of society. “With this step, their power and influence over the various states which they penetrated was almost complete, for it gave these ancient bankers, like their modern counterparts, the ability to expand or contract a state’s money supply, and to control their economies to create boom or bust.”
The banking oligarchy is able to position themselves to take advantage of the internal economies of warring states because they have already maneuvered to corner the market in three important industries adjacent to banking: mining, mercenary armies, and the slave trade.
David Graeber describes how these elements interlinked to form one mutually interdependent system: “Gold and silver were acquired in war or mined by slaves captured in war. Mints were located in temples (the traditional place for depositing spoils), and city-states developed endless ways to distribute coins, not only to soldiers, sailors, and those producing arms or outfitting ships, but to the populace generally, as jury fees, fees for attending public assemblies, or sometimes just outright distributions. … At the same time, insisting that the same coins served as legal tender for all payments due to the state, which guarantees that they would be in sufficient demand that markets would soon develop.”
“It was slavery, though, that made all this possible. … Enormous numbers of people were being enslaved in many of these conflicts, and, of course, many slaves ended up working in the mines, producing even more gold, silver, and copper. Geoffrey Ingham calls the resulting system a ‘military-coinage complex’ - though I think it would be more accurate to call it a ‘military-coinage-slavery complex’.” (Graeber)
Zooming out, a simple pattern becomes clear: in order for warring states to take advantage of the mercenary armies, weapons, and slaves privately financed by the oligarchy, they needed to first agree to transform their internal economies into the debt-based hard currency regimes favored by this same banking class.
David Graeber elaborates: “the existence of markets was highly convenient for governments, and not just because it made it so much easier for them to provision large standing armies. By insisting that only their own coins were acceptable as fees, fines, or taxes, governments were able to overwhelm the innumerable social currencies that already existed in their hinterlands, and to establish something like uniform national markets.”
These types of uniform, coin-based markets appear simultaneously across China, India, Mesopotamia, and the Mediterranean. Not coincidentally, these are the same regions that historians find the emergence of private mercenary armies.
David Graeber observes the overall pattern: “If we look at Eurasian history over the course of the last five thousand years, what we see is a broad alternation between periods dominated by credit money and periods in which gold and silver came to dominate. Why? The single most important factor would appear to be war. Bullion predominates, above all, in periods of generalized violence.”
9. The Rise of Oligarchy and the Birth of Philosophy
As we covered in the previous section, a new model of empire - the “military-coinage-slavery complex” - entered the world stage at the beginning of the Axial Age. It emerged at almost the exact same time (the 6th century BC) as did the coming of the great philosophical schools of the age, including those founded by the sages Pythagoras, Gautama Buddha, and Lao Tzu.
Graeber writes that “coinage appears to have arisen independently in three different places almost simultaneously: on the Great Plain of northern China, in the Ganges river valley of northeast India, and in the lands surrounding the Aegean Sea, in each case, between roughly 600 and 500 BC. This wasn’t due to some sudden technological innovation: the technologies used in making the first coins were, in each case, entirely different. It was a social transformation.”
This exact same time period, in these exact same locations, saw the emergence of the world’s first public-facing schools of philosophy. Thus, alongside oligarchy we find emerging philosophy.
To take a particularly example, in the Grecian states, Pythagoras and Plato emerge to found the first schools of philosophy in the Mediterranean region. At the exact same time, this region falls into the type of imperial oligarchical pattern described above, with coinage, slaves, mercenary armies, and everything in between.
In both cases, with the co-emergences of oligarchy and philosophy, a significant institutional transformation is taking place, one that signifies the death of an old order and the coming birth of something new.
In the case of philosophy, it rises just as the ancient religious institutions of antiquity - the pagan religious order - were dying out and transitioning into a new form of expression, one which would blossom in the coming millennia through the vehicles of Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism.
At the same time, alongside the decline of ancient religion, comes the decline of the ancient Mystery Schools that were embedded within the old temple priesthoods. Philosophy arises just in time to be passed the torch of esoteric knowledge so that it may carry its light forward into the next age.
In the case of oligarchy, we find this sociological pattern emerging at the end point of a very old pattern of monarchial rulership, which was dying out because it proved to be no longer tenable due to the geopolitical and social complexities of the Axial Age. This older pattern suffered from its own evils and it is not necessarily bad that an alternative pattern that is more pluralistic in nature (oligarchy) be given the space to grow and develop.
Zooming out, we find a clear link between the co-emergence of these two social transformations:
Philosophy emerges out of the Mystery Schools at the exact point when the collapse of the old institutional order begins to take place. Meanwhile, the oligarchy and model of empire they implement are the catalysts for this destruction, bringing on the deconstruction of the old order so that a new one may be born in its place.
The wide-reaching institutional dissolution that the “military-coinage-slavery complex” brought on spread rapidly, infecting practically the whole Eurasian theater, from the Mediterranean to China. Through its machinations, the old monarchial order would die out across the world.
When Rome died, it took its oligarchs with it. But philosophy lived on: destined to inherit the world brought down by the financial imperialists.
A creation-destruction duality is thus implied: the oligarchs provide the means for the entropic dissolution of the old order, while philosophy sets the stage for the building of a new world order.
The relationship between the two may explain why the ancient temples and priesthoods were involved in promoting markets and the use of new financial instruments during the Axial Age: for the finance-based oligarchical empires of the Axial Age to work, the participation of the temples as treasuries and mints was required.
The question is why the ancient priesthood would have participated in enabling the actions of empire. I can think of two possible explanations:
1) The priests looked at these new economic instruments as “vehicles of the Dharma”, meaning they represent important catalysts for stimulating the evolutionary unfoldment of the species. The priesthood facilitated the use of money as a means of moving civilization into a higher state of complexity while also hastening the destruction of the old monarchial order in the process. But while they may have promoted the growth of markets and economic development, they did not mandate that oligarchies arise to abuse these instruments for their own benefit. That is the karma of man, not a situation they are deliberately causing per se.
2) It may have also been true that the temples involved with the minting coinage for oligarchs had become corrupted and the priests doing their minting were not of the same philosophical class as those who once existed during the heyday of the Mystery Schools. We should remember that throughout the Axial Age period we find a gradual decline of the “pagan” institutions of religion. Alongside this decline is the gradual departure of the Esoteric Schools from the ancient temples, and a fall of the priesthoods into corruption.
10. The Axial Age and the End of Pagan Civilization
The expand-or-die model followed by the oligarchical empires of the Axial Age perfectly embodies the attributes of a parasite: in order for the military-coinage-slavery complex to perpetuate its existence, it must occupy a variety of hosts in order to claim and feed off their energy and resources for itself. In time, the host dies, so the parasite detaches and moves on to another, leaving behind a trail of “failed states” in its wake.
In a philosophical sense, the fall of civilization into the level of ethical decay, social destruction, and human tragedy signified by the Axial Age empires symbolizes the Scythe of Saturn sweeping across the face of the earth, cutting out, tearing down, and bringing to ruin all that is not destined to be part of the future.
Since this move into the future involves the celestial motion of the Sun out of the Age of Aries and into the Age of Pisces (the transition point being approximately 325 AD), it seems apparent that the function of the Axial Age empires was to facilitate the deconstruction and tearing down of an entire ancient pattern of civilization - the so-called “pagan” era.
It was this decaying old order of civilization, one that had long been dominated by monarchial rulership and its own brand of evils, that the imperialist oligarchs of the Axial Age dug their teeth into and shred to pieces.
Ultimately, the majority of this oligarchy who were responsible for destroying this ancient pattern of civilization would themselves not survive its collapse: they would ultimately go down with the ship they facilitated in destroying.
When civilization collapses, the basis of the wealth that this caste has accrued for itself goes with it.
The fall of the age comes to completion with the destruction of the Roman Empire. In the West, the Christian Church soon rose to fill the power vacuum that resulted from its collapse. In the East, Islam and Buddhism served this role.
In the centuries that followed the end of the Axial Age, a new form of religious empire would emerge, one that would take the place of the previous financial empires. Like the previous oligarchs, these religious entities existed independently of any one state. Rather than be loyal to any one ruler, these new religious institutions instead mandated the state to be loyal to its interests.
The dynamic tensions that would result between “church” and “state” - now permanently separated - would set the stage for much of the drama in world civilization that would take place over the course of the next fifteen hundred years.
Meanwhile, philosophy, now playing host to the Esoteric Schools, exists as a third party independent of both church and state.
No longer dependent on either, the philosophical schools in the West become nomadic, exerting their influence in key regions and cultures at precise moments.
In this way, they are able to exert a quiet but powerful directing influence over the affairs of the collective, making strategic moves at key points in order to shape the overall outcomes of the larger social, political, and psychological motions taking place throughout the age.
It is interesting to note that, near the end of the Axial Age, a third type empire develops. This is one that forms from the collapsed remnants of a decaying oligarchy-controlled civilization. Here, a charismatic leader rises, unites divided armies, re-establishes the old financial economy of the previous empire, and directs the state toward the mission of imperialist expansion.
What is notable about this late-stage empire that develops is that it is strongly driven by a social and political mission that is primarily ideological in nature.
In particular, in the case of Asoka in India and Alexander in the Mediterranean, we find two emperors who are also converts into the philosophical school of their time: Asoka being a convert to Buddhism and Alexander one of Aristotelian and Platonic philosophy.
In the case of Asoka, he was a Buddhist convert whose philosophical convictions strongly influenced the direction of his empire. He spread Buddhist teachings far and wide throughout India and the greater surrounding region, while simultaneously seeding other key institutions of civilization into peripheral regions where city life was only starting.
Summarizing the career of Asoka, Manly Hall writes: “The early career of the great Indian Emperor Asoka (273-231 BC) was concerned with those strategies and conspiracies nearly always associated with the rise of Eastern rulers. He certainly united his empire by the usual methods of destroying his enemies and discrediting their policies. Asoka was only a lad during these crucial years, and by the time he reached maturity his conscience was sorely troubled as he contemplated the costs of empire in terms of human misery. He came under the direct influence of enlightened Buddhist teachers, and made public acknowledgement of his sorrow and regret for all the misfortunes that had come to his subjects as the result of his ambitions. He dedicated his life to works of peace, scholarship, and religion and was ordained as a monk putting on the yellow robe of the order.”
Hall continues, noting the remarkable legacy left by Asoka: “Asoka extended the influence of Buddhism into Ceylon and Burma, and is believed to have dispatched missionaries to Syria, Greece, Egypt, and remote insular regions. The appearance of Oriental doctrines in the cultures of these areas may be traced largely to Asoka’s zeal. He combined wonderful skill in leadership with saintly dedication to human service. It was largely due to Asoka’s influence that Buddhism became one of the world’s most widely disseminated religions.”
A few decades earlier, in the Mediterranean we find the legendary Alexander the Great playing a similar role in terms of seeding the philosophy and other institutions of Greek culture into the greater Eurasian region.
Sweeping down from Macedonia to conquer and unite the Greek states and spread their culture and empire out into the greater surrounding regions, Alexander, like Asoka, was explicitly driven by philosophic motivations.
Richard Tarnas summarizes the historical significance of Alexander’s reign: “Just when the Greek intellectual achievement had reached its climax during the fourth century BC, Alexander the Great swept down form Macedonia though Greece and onward to Persia, conquering lands and peoples from Egypt to India and creating an empire that was to encompass most of the known world…. Tutored by Aristotle as a youth in his father’s court and inspired by the Homeric epics and Athenian ideals, Alexander carried with him and disseminated the Greek culture and language throughout the vast world he conquered. Thus Greece fell just as it culminated, yet spread triumphantly just as it submitted.”
“As planned by Alexander, the large cosmopolitain cities of the empire - above all Alexandria, which he founded in Egypt - became vital centers of cultural learning, in whose libraries and academies the classical Greek inheritance survived and flourished.”
“Inspired by a vision of mankind’s universal kinship beyond all political divisions, he attempted to bring about such a unity - a massive cultural fusion - by means of his immense military ambition. After his early death, however, Alexander’s empire did not hold together. Following a long period of dynastic struggles and shifting sovereignties, Rome emerged as the center of the new empire, with both its focal point and its outlying regions now further west.”
In these two examples, we find the institutional architecture of the oligarchy being temporarily leveraged by a charismatic military ruler in order to create an empire. Unlike with the previous oligarchical empires, however, the motivation behind these late-stage empires was not primarily financial. Instead, they were inspired by a sense of religious and philosophical idealism on the part of the ruler.
The implicit aim of these late-stage empires was to leverage, for one last go, the institutions of empire in order to spread the key institutions of civilization into the peripheries of Eurasia. This served to seed civilization into the dark regions where more primitive chiefdom patterns were still existing.
It was as if the collective body of mankind was being raised so that large regions would be elevated into a common state of institutional development at the same time. Only once these seeds had been planted throughout the main corridors of Eurasia did the Age of Aries finally come to an end, with the Age of Pisces dawning in its place.
Geographer Felipe Fernandez-Armesto summarizes this situation, noting how, right as the Axial Age was ending, with one final push of empire the seeds of civilization were spread throughout Eurasia. After Alexander, “the Roman Empire carried Greek science and philosophy into Western Europe. Buddhism became a state ideology in the first empire to cover almost all of India. The Chinese Empire became a growing arena in which Buddhism, as well as native Chinese thought, spread within and across China’s widening borders.”
He also points out that, as the elements of civilization were spreading throughout Eurasia, its most developed regions were becoming increasingly interconnected through the bonds of trade and the opening of trade routes across the great continent.
The Axial Age, and pagan civilization as a whole, comes to an end between the fourth and sixth centuries AD. Generally, the breakup of the Roman Empire and rise of the Christian Church is marked as the point of demarkation for when the old age ends and the new age is born.
As David Graeber explains, this new age, officially marked by the Sun’s motion into the sign of Pisces in the 4th century AD, begins everywhere “with the collapse of empires.... [In the new states that formed] conquest and acquisition for their own sake were no longer celebrated as the end of all political life. At the same time, economic life, from the conduct of international trade to the organization of local markets, came to fall increasingly under the regulation of religious authorities. One result was a widespread movement to control, or even forbid, predatory lending. Another was a return, across Eurasia, to various forms of virtual credit money.”
While it is true that art, culture, and learning died with these empires “for most of the earth’s inhabitants, it could only be seen as an extraordinary improvement over the terrors of the Axial Age.” Graeber elaborates, noting that “as cities shriveled, and many were abandoned, even this was something of a mixed blessing. Certainly it had a terrible effect on literacy; but one must also bear in mind that ancient cities could only be maintained by extracting resources from the countryside.”
With the return to credit money, the bullion that had formerly circulated within the population as a means to support imperial expansion lost its monetary value.
Consequently, it moves out of circulation, to be stored once again in religious complexes and temples, this time those of Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism, where it is kept “safely” out of the hands of more would-be oligarchs.
Graeber explains further: “When coins go out of circulation, after all, the metal doesn’t simply disappear. In the Middle Ages - and this seems to have been true across Eurasia - the vast majority of it ended up in religious establishments, churches, monasteries, and temples, either stockpiled in hoards and treasuries or gilded onto or cast into altars, sanctums, and sacred instruments. Above all, it was shaped into images of gods.”
In conclusion, it is interesting to note that the Axial Age begins with bullion moving out of the temple storehouses and into the population - a move instigated by the first wave of oligarchs. The age then ends with this bullion moving back out of the population and back into the temple storehouses.
The temples it would move back into belonged to a new order of religions, however - ones born as a consequence of the dramas that ensued during the 1000 year period of succeeding Axial Age oligarchical empires.
These religions existed as part of a new institutional paradigm, one where the institutions of religion exist semi-autonomously from the state. In the West, this situation manifested as the Church wielding a political empire over the separated feudal states of Europe. In the previous pattern, the religion and state were always united; now, they often were in open competition with each other.
We might note that the widespread popularity of the new religions that arose at the end of the Axial Age comes with their promise to end the weaponization of finance by banning usury, eliminating coinage from circulation, and regulating commerce. For a long period, they succeed. But in the later half of the Piscean Age, gradually an alignment of political and economic interests forms and manages to re-establish hard currency-based empires throughout Eurasia - a process that culminates in the British Empire and its mandate of the pound sterling as the reserve currency of the world.
It was in the heartland of Axial Age empires - the Mediterranean - that the great Athenian sage Plato was born. It is to him and his teachings on the philosophy of government that we will now turn in Part 2.