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Modernity Reconsidered: Multiple Modernities, Universal History and the Quest for a Civilizational Paradigm

Modernity Reconsidered: Multiple Modernities, Universal History And The Quest For A Civilizational Paradigm

In view of an unfolding global modernity, Voegelin  proposed “the empirical thesis that the philosophical investigation of the realm of phenomena has always drawn  its dynamism  from contemporary conflict situations. If today’s horizon of the phenomena in question is truly global, it is because the entire globe has become  a contemporary field of tensions.” As a result, philosophical investigation must “for the first time explore the realm of phenomena in its global breadth and temporal depth”  (Voegelin 2002, 334-335).

In this regard  I want to point to the importance of the theoretical and empirical reconsideration of the question of modernity that has been presented in the recent scholarship of the school of  Shmuel Noha Eisenstadt and show its relationship to Voegelin’s ideas.

An in-depth analysis of Eisenstadt’s seminal theoretical study of the modern predicament undertaken by Shmuel Eisenstadt and his school is beyond the scope of this brief article so I will focus here on some of the cardinal issues that determine the make-up of the modern world.

Part I. The West and the World of Multiple Modernities

Contrary to the vision implicit in the “classical” studies of modernization that became a mainstay of Western self-interpretation “the process of modernization  should no longer be viewed as the ultimate  end of the evolution of all known societies”(Eisenstadt 2003,531). It can no longer be assumed that it brings out an evolutionary potential that is common to all societies. The idea of a political, cultural, and social homogeneous world civilization modeled on Western modernity is a self-deception of the West. It is contradicted by the fact that “(a) great variety of modernizing  societies developed . . . out of the interaction between the expanding civilization of modernity and the various Asian, African and Latin American civilizations that share common characteristics “(Eisenstadt 1995, 335).

But they  also evince great differences among themselves which, on the one hand, are the result of the interplay between major symbolic premises and institutional structures in the original Western civilization, and, on the one hand, grow out of the indigenous traditions and historical experiences of the other great civilizational complexes of order (Muslim, Confucian-Taoist, Hindu , Buddhist etc.). But, as Eisenstadt points out, even within the Latin Christian civilization, new and independent civilizational patterns have developed in North, Middle and South America (Eisenstadt 2005, 44squ.)  This raises the question of the specific character of Western civilization, its essential features, and the meaning of Western modernity.  I will return to these questions below.

In so far as the global field is structured and determined by a manifold of civilizational grounded and modernizing sociopolitical formations, the paradigm of multiple modernities is quite compatible with Huntington’s thesis of an emerging pattern of inter-civilizational conflicts. But Huntington’s rather simple civilizational paradigm assumes about seven historically closed and self-contained interacting civilizations (Huntington 1996, 101). And he underestimates  the complexities of the highly differentiated historical evolution that took place before and after the impact of Western politics. Moreover he ignores the axial roots common to all existing civilizational complexes.

Eisenstadt’s paradigm of multiple modernities centers on “the role of civilizational legacies  shaping the institutional and interpretative patterns of modernity.” And this approach leads to “a closer analysis of such long term continuities” and thereby raises the “question of  axial sources” (Arneson et al. 2005, 6) of these patterns.

Part II. Axiality and Modernity

I will confine my remarks to the essentials of the argument and refrain from discussing the empirical and theoretical details.

First, the most fundamental well-known thesis started from the insight, articulated by Karl Jaspers, that the genesis of the  great symbolic forms of human self-interpretation can be traced back to an historical processes that took place between 800 BC and 800 AD in  the Near East, the Mediterranean, Europe, China, and India. This so- called axial configuration “transformed the shape of human societies and history in what seems to be an irreversible manner“ and ushered in  a “new type of social and civilizational dynamics in the history of mankind” that has continued up to the present (Eisenstadt 1982, 297). The axial complex entailed a historical plurality of symbolic configurations that crystallized into major symbolic ensembles that are characterized by their historical continuity: the eastern varieties of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism  and to a degree Zoroasterism; the Western varieties of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hellenic philosophy (Gebhardt 2008, 14).

Second, This spiritual breakthrough manifested a fundamental change in human self-understanding which involved “the conceptualization and institutionalization of a basic tension  between the transcendental  and mundane orders (Eisenstadt 1982, 294). On the one hand there is the transcendental order that embodies the universal vision of a higher moral or metaphysical realm; on the other hand there is the mundane realm of pragmatic life worlds. Accordingly Joas determined the axial age as “the age of the emergence of the idea of transcendence” (Joas 2013, 11).   Eric Voegelin suggested a more differentiated understanding of the axial complex. He identified a triadic structure of ecumenic empire, spiritual outburst, and historical reflection. Therefore Voegelin introduced  the concept of the ‘ecumenic age’: “From the ecumenic age , Voegelin asserts, there emerges a new type of ecumenic humanity, which with all its complications of meaning, reaches as a millennial constant into the modern Western civilization,” (Voegelin 1974, 58) or as I would put it, reaches into contemporary multi-civilizational global modernity.

Third, and I believe this is the crucial point: The lasting success of axial symbolisms is directly dependent on the fact that they were integrated into the power structures in post-axial civilizational orders: “In all these civilizations there also took place a far reaching reordering rooted in the conception of the relation between the political and the higher transcendental order” (Eisenstadt 1986, 8).

Part III. Power and Political Order

“If there is an essential connection between axial breakthroughs and the new pattern of political life,” this means  that,  from  the original  culturally mediated religio-social  forms of axial spirituality, the divers modes of the symbolic explications of political orders in history evolve  which articulate the “political” of societal existence (Arnason 2005, 47). From the ecumenic empires that range from the Persian empire to the Roman Imperium to the orthodox empires on the Eurasian continent, the modern political  formations in the world of multiple modernities raises the quest for a normative foundational idea of order: “The axial visions give rise to more ambitious and elaborate ways of legitimating more complex and expansive power structures.” (Arnason 2005,47). Thus it is significant that from the axial era onward the tentative alliance between cultural elites and power-holders brings forth symbolic forms of societal self-interpretation that in turn become constitutive of socio-political existence in space and time. Thus, the condition for the social success of major religio-cultural symbolic programs that were originally  embedded  in ritualistic communities is clearly tied to power and politics. This means these visions were turned into “cultural texts” and were normatively codified, administered, and authoritatively interpreted by the various cultural elites.

Such visions were taken up by political power structures and made into a mandatory belief-system that legitimated the political society by anchoring it in a transcendent source of order. Cases in point are the political function of Confucian-Daoist symbolisms in imperial  China or of Christianity in the Roman empire. This axial legacy of a transcendent grounding of political order is “conducive to a more critical stance which makes the rulers accountable to higher instances or principles“ (Arneson 2005, 47). A crucial moment of reflexivity is introduced as it crystallized in Hellenic philosophy. The rulers  and their regimes in general may be challenged by accusations of misconduct and failure to live up to their own normative claims.

Under the conditions of the post-axial political dialectic of political power and a powerful orthodox symbolic structure of order, the orthodox interpretation may find itself challenged in the name of an alternative interpretation: something that may occur through spontaneous or organized protest movements. This phenomenon is present in all post-axial societies. But it became a major and determining factor in the new world of multiple modernities after the post-axial orthodoxies were thrown  into disarray in the course of modernization processes. The central problem of the axial legacy resurfaces but in an aggravated form because the great transformation of the axial tradition that has restructured  the civilizational world since the 17th century, activated originally marginal anti-orthodox that is heterodox elements of axiality, first in the West but in the meantime around the globe. The search for an authoritative order of societal existence is marked by the tensional relationship between modernization and civilizational legacies. It centers on the great conflicts brought about by the struggle for a reconfiguration of the relationship between the transcendental and mundane order. At home and around the world, the ensuing struggles for the ultimate normative truth define domestic and international conflicts that blend values, power and interests of the parties involved.

It must be emphasized that the foregoing theoretical analysis takes into account empirical findings in all historical societies, modern ones included. In so far the charismatic vision functions as a transcendent point of reference that is at one and the same time intangible but not ineffable. It illuminates the meaning of human existence in society by blending the political into the religious. This is reflected on the one hand in authoritative symbolic ensembles that articulate – as pointed out above – the idee directrice of public order and the political culture that sustains it. In this sense it may be called the religio-cultural dispositive of any political order and, as such, is indispensable for keeping a political society in existence. The struggle for the truth of order is on the other hand beset with elements of power: the ultimate intangibility of this truth keeps in  motion an ongoing competition and struggle over the meaning of symbols.

As stated above, the arenas of these struggles differ: they range from national to international political fields that reveal a trans- inter- and intra-civilizational pattern of conflict. They demonstrate less a clash of civilizations that pits the West against the non-West than a civilization-overlapping global struggle for order. It involves the West as a power-factor and as a religio-cultural ideal-factor in intra- and inter-civilizational struggles for order; a point that confirms Huntington’s own analysis of fault line conflicts.

Part IV. The Making of Modernity in Global Perspective

As I discussed above, the socially dominant theorem of Western modernity posits a seemingly irresistible  progressive evolution of human society that transforms traditional societies into modern societies on a global scale. In this paradigm the European and Anglo-American society are models for a world that would become modern, free of the fetters of civilizational diversity, and advancing toward human perfection. Of course, historically, modernity originated in Europe and in the imperial outreach. But the Western self-understanding completely misread the nature of its own experiment in modernization.

Eisenstadt  proposed a new and intriguing reading of this process. According to Eisenstadt “the civilization as it first developed in the West was from the very beginning beset by internal antinomies and contradictions which constituted a radical transformation of those inherent in Axial civilizations”(Eisenstadt 2003, 541). And during the great revolutions the potentialities of the sectarian heterodoxies of the axial tradition resurfaced in terms of various reconficurations of the chasm between transcendental and mundane order.  With reference to Voegelin’s emphasis of the Gnostic  component  of the Western sectarian tradition, Eisenstadt argues that the cultural and political program of modernity as it crystallized in modernity can be viewed as a sectarian  heterodox breakthrough in the Christian civilization (Eisenstadt 2003, 670).   The great revolutions attest to the strong religious sectarian roots of modernity. This is exemplified in the tensional relationship between the two ideal-typical  modalities of western modernity: the “Jacobin” model based upon the eschatological vision of merging the transcendental and mundane realm,  and the  “constitutional” model based on the tentative acceptance of the distinction between the two realms recognizing  the ontic status of the “in-between” assigned to human being.

However, the constitutional alternative could never rid itself completely of the Jacobin utopian component. I might add that empirical analysis confirms the thesis of the sectarian origins of modernity. The revolutionary institutionalization of the first constitutional regime in the United States emerged from the alliance of the Christian heterodoxy of the radical Biblicist republican Christianity with the political heterodoxy of neoclassic republicanism. The heterodox Biblicism was anti-episcopal, anti-monarchical, and anti-statist and committed to the nonconformist idea of an unchurched community. Neoclassicism shared the anti-monarchism and anti-statism and envisioned a self-governing civic society. Thus, this first breakthrough of political modernity was a sectarian heterodox enterprise grounded on the destruction of the religious and political orthodoxy of the Ancient Regime. In the French Revolution, on the other hand, Jacobinism signaled the ascendancy of the apocalyptic – eschatological vision of a sacralized mundane realm that was to be realized under the leadership of a dictatorial elite. The revolutionary component of Jacobinism came to fruition in the modern political agenda of Western and global totalitarian messianism. Western modernity includes the propagation of one or the other type of sectarian heterodoxy and involves a diversity of resacralizations throughout the West.

The rise  of Western heterodoxies coincided with the ascendancy of the new natural sciences, in itself originally a phenomenon of medieval eschatological speculation, as Johannes Fried has shown (Fried 2001). The developing scientific-technological culture blended into the heterodox cultures and the specific Western modernity came into being. Science based beliefs infused an utopian spirit into all modes of modernity: the idea of scientific knowledge translated into the dynamic messianic program  of a far reaching utilitarian-rationalistic reconfiguration of  the unfolding new order. Moreover they carried the promise of freeing humankind from the fetters of existential evils like poverty, hunger, disease, and premature death in  the hope of an ultimate perfect civilizational paradise. While in the more traditional Western type of regime this modern utopianism remained limited, it became the hallmark of the authoritarian totalitarian varieties of modernity.

But it was the successful interrelationship of science and power from the 17th century onward that brought forth the growing political strength of Western nations and, in consequence, the expansion of the Western domination over the globe. Modernity originated with the West but modernity and Westernization are by no means identical . The revolt against Western domination features seemingly a strong anti-modernism but in effect it is marked by a  self-assertive indigenization of modernity.

Thus, as stated above, the inter-civilizational  process of modernization on a global scale displayed variegated features of structural and symbolic differentiation. These represent a blend of modernizing factors and the legacies of the great non-Western civilizations, and produce different and distinct patterns of modernity. Even a brief and preliminary glance at the contemporary global scene shows how the Confucian, Islamic, Hindu and even Buddhist societies responded since the 19th century  to the Western program of modernity and experimented with the Western models in terms of creating modern hybrid political forms  that produced a sequence of indigenized paradigms. On the one hand they ranged from the messianic – eschatological revolutionary movements  like the Taiping revolution (1851-1864) in 19th century China  and the following  Sinic Maoist regime to the Islamic messianic state of the caliphate (1882-1898) in the late 19th century that has resurfaced in the present; on the other hand, there is the broad movement toward the indigenization of hybrid constitutional forms of order, first in Japan (1889) China, and Persia (1907), followed  quite recently by the establishment of a Hindu regime in India and the resurgence of political Buddhism in Burma and Thailand (Gebhardt 2014, 145). At stake is not the clash of civilizations nor the simple dichotomy of the West and the Non-West confronting each other. The story of inter -civilizational transactions will not end here, nor will the formative power of the great civilizations come to an end, for they are the concerted expression of a global world of multiple modernities.



Arnason J.P et al (2005), General Introduction, in: Axial Civilizations and World History, ed.  J.P.Arnason, S.N. Eisenstadt , B. Wittrock, Brill : Leiden p. 1-12

Arnason J.P. (2005), The Axial Age and its Interpretors, in: Axial  Civilizations and World History ,ed. J.P. Arnason,S.N. Eisenstadt,B. Witttrock, Brill: Leiden p. 19-49

Eisenstadt S.N. (1982),The Axial Age :  The Emergence of Transcendental Vision and the Rise of Clerics, in: European Journal of Sociology 23,2. P. 294-314

Eisenstadt S.N (1986), The Axial Breakthroughs – Their Characteristics and Origins, in: The Origins  and Diversity of Axial Civilizations, ed. S. N.  Eisenstadt,New York: State University of New York Press, p. 1-25

Eisenstadt S.N.(1995), Power ,Trust and Meaning, Chicago: Chicago University Press

Eisenstadt S.N. (2003), Comparative Civilizations and Multiple Modernities II, Brill: Leiden

Eisenstadt S.N. (2005), Modernity in Socio-Historical Perspective, in: Comparing Modernities, ed. E. Ben-Rafael, Y. Sternberg, Brill: Leiden, p. 31-56



1. Fried (2001), Aufstieg aus dem Untergang – Apokalyptisches Denken und die Entstehung der modernen Naturwissenschaft im Mittelalter, Beck: München.

2. Gebhardt (2008) Political Thought in an Intercivilisational Perspective: A Critical Reflection, in: The Review of Politics vol. 70 ,1, p. 5-22.

3. Gebhardt (2014), Zivilisationsprozess und Symbolformen politischer Ordnung, in:Der Prozess der Zivilisation: 20 Jahre nach Huntington, ed. P. Nitschke, Frank & Timme: Berlin.

4. Joas ( 2012), The Axial Debate as Religious Discourse, in: The Axial Age and its Consequences, ed. R. N. Bellah, H. Joas, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 9- 29.

5. Huntingon (1996), The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Simon & Schuster: New York.

6. Voegelin (2002), Collected Works vol 6, University of Missouri Press: Columbia.

7. Voegelin (1974), The Ecumenic Age, Louisiana University Press: Baton Rouge


Also see Manfred Henningsen’s “The Disintegration of Traditional Civilizations.”

Jürgen GebhardtJürgen Gebhardt

Jürgen Gebhardt

Jürgen Gebhardt is a Board Member of VoegelinView and Emeritus Professor at the Insitute for Political Science at the University of Erlangen-Nürenberg. He is the author and editor of several books, including Political Cultures and the Culture of Politics: A Transatlantic Perspective (Universitaetsverlag Winter, 2010).

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