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Where Does “Axial Breakthrough” Take Place? In the Past, or in Present Narratives of the Past?

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Abstract

This article focuses on Vernant’s thesis, masterfully developed in Les origines de la pensée grecque (1962) and translated into English in 1982. Vernant explained that between the seventh- and the second-century BCE, one can note crucial modifications of the traditional and religious atmosphere, in civilizations as distant as China, India, Persia, Palestine and Greece. These turning points brought Confucianism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Prophetism, and, in Greece, Search for Truth. For historians, who claim their expertise on the past, methodological issues are at stake in any inquiry about an “axial age” or an “axial breakthrough.” First, there is the epistemological question of historiography, a present narrative of the past that cannot, from a scientific point of view—that of the historians, erase varieties of past narratives (poetics, technical treatises, epigraphic decrees, vase paintings, etc.). Then, there is the new understanding of the constant interaction of what we call the political sphere with what we call the religious sphere, insofar as the distinction between a strictly political sphere, separate from the religious sphere, is now fully challenged. Finally, the polis as we understand it nowadays includes women’s acts, as feminist scholarship has demonstrated through the past 35 years. This new depiction makes the “citizens” different: They can no longer be thought of as all the same and interchangeable.

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Acknowledgments

This is a revised version of a paper originally presented at the Fudan Conference “Comparing “Axial Breakthrough” in Ancient Civilizations: An International Workshop” held at Fudan University in Shanghai on December 5–6, 2015. I would like to thank fellow delegates for their helpful and stimulating questions and comments. I also would like to thank Lillian Doherty who, very kindly, did the revision of my English paper.

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Correspondence to Violaine Sebillotte Cuchet.

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Sebillotte Cuchet, V. Where Does “Axial Breakthrough” Take Place? In the Past, or in Present Narratives of the Past?. Fudan J. Hum. Soc. Sci. 9, 565–576 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40647-016-0150-y

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