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Showing 1-10 of 86 reviews(Verified Purchases). See all 134 reviews
on March 4, 2017
This is an excellent history of the ancient world with focus on Greece, Israel, India, and China. She surveys political developments but also with special attention to religious and philosophical developments and major figures. The Great Transformation is a theory of the "Axial age" from about 900 to 200 BC. The Great Transformation is religious and social in nature. What's amazing is that far distant areas of the world underwent comparable developments at the same time, with no apparent communication: the Hebrew prophets, Buddha, Confucius, Greek tragedians and philosophers. It's like the whole world underwent a religious and philosophical revival. As I understand it, religion is transformed from a ritual practice to one that is more moral and ethical, with a value on self-sacrifice. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Politically there are important developments too, from tribal "compactness" to a more cosmopolitan outlook; and in Israel, we see the beginnings of the separation of religion and the state.

Armstrong has done a lot of research for this book, and she presents the latest thinking on many issues of the time. Most of the time she is careful to present speculation as such, but often she presents speculation as fact. The historical record for this period is very scant.
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on September 19, 2015
This book was something of a disappointment to me, at least compared to several other of Ms. Armstrong's works. Some of her books have been very important to me, offering understanding, knowledge, and even enlightenment. This one, however, falls short of her best efforts, perhaps because it attempts so much. The problem is not the quality of Ms. Armstrong's research or clarity. In discussing the evolution of four major religious/philosophical traditions (the Indian, the Chinese, the Judaic, and the Greek) in the centuries around 500 BC, she imparts an enormous amount of information without overloading or confusing the reader. Rather, it seems to me that she tries to force what she is telling us into a pre- determined conclusion; that religion in general in this period moved away from violence and towards compassion. Certainly, this pattern did appear in the emergence of Buddhism, in some Hebrew texts, and in some strains of Chinese thought. But other, contradictory elements were there as well, and the compassion she finds in Chinese thinking seems very different to me from the compassion of Buddhism, or from contemporary developments in Judaic thought -- let alone what was happening in Greece. This is an interesting and instructive book, but it lacks for me the depth of some of her other works.
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on October 4, 2016
There is a lot of stuff in this book and you have to be prepared to spend the time with it, but it is well worth it. It helped answer a lot of questions and gave me a perspective I hadn't had access to before. Really happy I read it, and may read it again - sometimes a book changes you and your point of view and you see things differently the second time around.

If you want to understand the development of religious thinking, and more importantly, the cultural and historic setting for that development, I'd highly recommend this book. Just be prepared to spend the time needed. This is the third book I've read by this author and I've learned a lot from them.
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on May 4, 2017
My first comment is that the Amazon post from Publishers Weekly (pasted here) needs an editor..
Karl Jung is not the one who coined the term Axial Age. It was Karl Jaspers.
Furthermore, the review is sensationalistic and misses the key points of Armstrong's work.

"It's not what one may expect from a book about the development of the world's religions: 'Crouched in his mother's womb, he lay in wait for his father, armed with a sickle, and the next time Uranus penetrated Gaia, he cut off his genitals and threw them to the earth.' However, the Greek myth of Cronus clearly illustrates Armstrong's main thesis, that the 'simultaneous' development of the world's religions during what Karl Jung called the axial age, is a direct result of the violence and chaos, both physical and spiritual, of past civilizations. Armstrong, a former nun turned self-described 'freelance monotheist,' has enough background and personal investment in the material to make it come alive. Her delivery is crystal clear, informative and, though somewhat academic, easy for the layman to understand. Her voice is straightforward yet wrought with palpable concern. This reinforces the book's goals of creating a clear understanding of where religious developments have come from and explaining how today's 'violence of an unprecedented scale' parallels the activities that created the 'axial age' in the first place."

In The Great Transformation (TGT) Armstrong meticulously, but without losing energy, explores the emergence of the pivotal religions of the world that emerged from c. 900 to c. 200 BCE. Her treatment is, first of all, historical and cultural, with emphases upon India (Hinduism and Buddhism), China (Taoism and Confucianism), the Middle East (Judaism), and ancient Greece.
Although Armstrong often is tagged as a comparative religion scholar/writer, she is less interested in comparing religions (comparisons almost always devolve into value assessments that fuel competitive approaches to religion) than she is showing how diverse histories and cultures leave us with deep resonances of religious and spiritual awareness.
Those resonances--including ritual, kenosis (emptying), knowledge, suffering, empathy, and concern for everybody--provide the clues to a careful reader to help understand how regional/cultural/historical expressions of religion finally transcended those beginnings and became viable across cultures and eras in history.
The transformation suggested in the book's title is kaleidoscopic. From time to time and from place to place the resonances emerge from particular circumstances and move toward universally recognized traits of authentic, transformative religions.
A delight found in each chapter is Armstrong's judicious use of primary sacred texts--yes, including Homer's epics and the Greek dramatists broad ouvre--that contextualize the values of religion without attempting to put all religions in one proverbial pot.
Finally, TGT begins with reflections upon recent history (e.g., the fall of the Twin Towers in 2001) and the rise of the perceived certainties of science and technology that have had the effect of muting the myths and mysteries found in the history of religions. Armstrong's closing parenthesis, "The Way Forward," holds out the hope those seeking to survive the twenty-first century might find, again, the values of myth and mysteries from ancient and contemporary flowerings of Axial Religion.
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Whether you believe in religions or not, spirituality or not, this book has a wonderful range of clear, uncluttered, undogmatic and useful insights for the open, enquiring mind about the spiritual origins of humanity. The book is vastly useful because of the intelligent perspective it gives across the origins of spirituality in different places and different cultures and the way it balances and compares the different origins. Armstrong gives us the sense of putting different pieces together in the puzzle of the underlying urge for spirituality in human beings.
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on January 12, 2016
I was required to buy this for my college World Religions course, and I have to say, I did not expect to enjoy it as much as I did. She goes into a lot of detail about a few different religions, and tracks how they have changed over time, and how modern religion has evolved from them. I loved her writing style. As I was reading, I was easily able to picture this all being told by an aunt who you only see every few weeks, but she always brings over a bottle of wine, and you get drunk while staring into space as she shares excitedly shares all the wonders of the universe with you. Basically, you can tell that she loves what she does, and she just wants everyone else to love it as much as she does. My only complaint is that sometimes it is a little unorganized. Each chapter has one section for each of the major religions, but they aren't always in the same order each chapter, and there are no section headings. However, as long as you have followed along in the previous chapter, it's not difficult to figure out which religion she is discussing. I would recommend this to anyone who wants to learn about religion without wading through textbook speak and textbook prices.
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on April 14, 2015
“The Great Transformation” discusses a novel look on the early religions that shaped us into the human beings we are today. This covers an epoch from around 1600 B.C.E. to 200 B.C.E. Karen Armstrong focuses on a central theme surrounding Karl Jaspers’ proposed “Axial Age” and invites the reader to analyze key spiritual developments. She envelops the ideals of the early religions quite well, mixing already-known religious notions with a universal underlying message. Armstrong has been known to speak strongly on human compassion or the Golden Rule, and each chapter seems to incorporate this.

Dr. Armstrong starts the book from when the first humans began to resemble an Axial movement. The book’s organization is a bit different from others, since each chapter encompasses a central theme rather than a certain people. Slowly but surely, the book starts to pick up and cover different messages for each period of time. For example, there is one chapter that discusses the notion of self-kenosis, which is the process of emptying all the thoughts from one’s mind and submitting to a divine will.

While I do wish that Armstrong could’ve organized each chapter or part by each separate culture, I do understand why she didn’t do so. It makes sense to want to see what each culture’s beliefs were at a certain time period. The supporting evidence was laid out well, and usually at the end of each chapter, she would relate the evidence to how significant it was to the Axial Age.

After reading this book, I can definitely say that I recommend “The Great Transformation” to anyone who is interested in seeing how early religions and philosophies were all intertwined in one form or another. It is a very interesting read, and Armstrong does a fantastic job with laying down her arguments and specifying certain areas of uncertainty.
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on February 7, 2016
Karen Armstrong's brilliant study of the Axial Age offers a vast overview of the development for the first of concepts that we identify today with some of the major religions and think of as normal human(e) ideas. She ranges over nine or ten centuries studying the cultures of Israel, Greece, China and India and comparing their development in great detail from the ninth to the second century BCE. But then she goes on to discuss how this major shift in world thinking continues to influence today, even as she treats in less detail major shifts since the Axial one. Perhaps the book is a bit too long, a bit repetitious, but it is full of original insights and I daresay no one reading it will be as thoroughly conversant will all four major cultures as Armstrong is. Bravo, bravo!
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on November 17, 2013
If it weren't for the sometimes dry, cerebral nature of the writing which can be hard to connect with, I would give this book 5 stars. While I greatly appreciate Ms. Armstrong's lack of needless embellishment of the material, I find that I am not able to read this book for more than about 30 minutes at a time. In addition, and this may be just a difference in American, vis-à-vis the Queen's, English but there are times I have to stop reading to check the definition of a word she uses. I have a large vocabulary and speak 4 languages, so this is unusual for me and I find it interrupts my reading needlessly. I'm sure other scholars, particularly religious scholars, will find her writing readily accessible. Having said all that, she is incredibly thorough, carefully building her story brick by brick and her work greatly increased my understanding. I have read several other works by Ms. Armstrong and will continue to count her among my top choices for serious religious study.
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on July 28, 2016
Karen Armstrong is one of the most important scholars and writers of our age. This works should be required reading for an liberal arts degree, anywhere. Scholarly, thorough and yet captivating.
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