September Books 16) The Great Transformation, by Karen Armstrong

This is a rather brave attempt to wring significance out of the fact that Confucius, the Buddha, Socrates and Jeremiah all lived at about the same time, between them causing a revolution in the way in which humans relate to the universe in philosophy and religion. It did not completely work for me. I found Armstrong’s account of the evolution of the Old Testament as a product of the Jews’ exile in Babylon pretty compelling, and we have a couple more of her books on the shelves which I am looking forward to reading now. Her description of ancient Greek thought, which I gave tutorials on many years ago, seemed decent enough and made a very interesting claim about the importance of Sophocles in particular and Greek theatre in general as giving people a new way to talk about and think about the world. But her Indian sections were rather dull, and her Chinese sections very dull indeed, coming alive respectively only with the appearance of the main characters, the Buddha and Confucius. It is my fault more than hers, but I felt completely adrift in Chinese geography; various kingdoms with unfamiliar and confusingly similar names, and no obvious relationship to the present day geography which I know a little better.

And I was not convinced by the book’s overall thesis, which seems to be that the near-coincidence of lifespan of the four main characters is a particularly interesting fact. It is true, but rather dull, to note, for instance, that James Marsters and Sophie Aldred were born on the same day. I think it is a little more interesting that Alexander Hamilton and the Duchess of Devonshire were born and died within two years of each other, because both were engaged in politics, and particularly in relations between England and America, at the same time. But Armstrong doesn’t seriously argue that there was any influence, or even much in the way of common roots, between her four main characters, so we get four completely different stories (only two of which are interesting) chopped across each other with various totally disparate incidents lumped together purely because they happened at roughly the same time. It did not really work for me.

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