‘The Great Transformation’ by Karen Armstrong

Overall Rating: Recommended with Reservations (How I Rate Books)

Personal Rating: Good analysis of early religions, I’m not fully convinced by the thesis



Genres: Mythology, Religion, Nonfiction, History Book

Similar books:

Previous books by the author/in the series I’ve reviewed:

  • None

Spoilers below. You’ve been warned!

This history book studied the synchronicity between early religions and philosophy in China, Greece, India and Israel. The author focused upon themes of nonviolence, the elevation of ontological concepts to the realm of the sacred (as opposed to the worship of nature spirits), and the focus on the realm of spiritual greatness as opposed to earthly glory. In this regard she did a good job of providing a primer on the spirituality for Earth’s numerous civilizations.

However I felt that the book as a whole lacked a unifying thesis. What linked Socrates’ innovations with those of Buddha, Confucius and the various Israeli prophets? From a scholarly perspective, her argument seemed to lack an indefatigable combining thesis.

Similarly, she didn’t really provide ‘scientific controls’ for her argument, describing the other religions of the era and explaining why the Axial religions she chose to highlight were more innovative. She never discussed New World religions, or African religions, or Pacific Islander religions for example.

Instead the author cited supposed examples of synchronicity between the four main religions and philosophies to suggest there was a unifying thing combining them. She never elucidated a thesis, only repeatedly pointing out themes of nonviolence and ontological concepts and spiritual elevation shared between these religions. And honestly I wasn’t really convinced by her arguments.

Treat this book for what it is: a popular nonfiction book meant to educate the masses about the basics of religions 2500 years ago. If you’re a scholar looking to research the religious era in question, look elsewhere. The author does get lost in the weeds somewhat when it comes to historical events, but overall this is an eminently readable history book for a popular audience. Give it a look if you’re curious about the topic. I certainly learned a lot from it, and I enjoyed it as a result.

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