The Great Transformation by Karen Armstrong (review by Andrew R. ’17)

The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious TraditionsThe Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions by Karen Armstrong
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In The Great Transformation, religious historian Karen Armstrong sets out to analyze the origins of Buddhism, Judaism, Confucianism, and Daoism in the context of political and social strife in the centuries leading up to the Common Era. As a primer to the study of ancient Mediterranean and East Asian philosophy, The Great Transformation occasionally hits the mark: its analyses of the historical realities of the Babylonian Captivity in the Middle East and the Period of the Warring States in China bring clarity to historical periods often overshadowed by the state-building that occurred on either side. Such moments of lucidity, however, appear far too rarely in this thick 500-page text. Having set out to compress an eight-hundred-year history of philosophical movements in the entire Eastern Hemisphere into a single volume, Armstrong falls almost constantly into disjointed, abstract accounts of wars, reigns, and migrations, indulging in so many disparate stories that her ostensible subject—commonalities of Mediterranean and Asian religious movements—disappears for twenty pages or more. Too wide-ranging to shed light on any particular historical subject and too bogged down in specifics to synthesize its parts into one coherent thesis, Armstrong’s book leaves the reader with little more than a mound of undigested historical facts by the last page.

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