So, Akavia ben Mehalel represented a tradition that was a parallel and an alternative to Hillel's as received by Shammaya and Avtalion, a tradition that ended with Akavia. The little that we know about Akavia's teaching does not suffice to tell us much more that it was a deeply individualistic tradition that valued truth over conformity and located the center of religious experience within the individual.
"Akavia ben (son of) Mehalalel said, consider three things and YOUll not come to sin. Know from where YOU have come, to where YOU are heading, and before Whom YOU will give justification and accounting. From where have you come: from a putrid drop (of semen); to where are you heading: to a place of dirt, worms and maggots; and before Whom will you give justification and accounting: before the King of kings, the Holy One blessed be He."
Compare this centering of the Fear of Hashem within man conscience and the attitude of Rebbi, who placed it squarely with G-d. Rebbi said in the beginning of chapter 2 of Avos: "Consider three tings and you will not come to sin: The Eye that sees, the Ear that hears and all your actions are written in the book".
However, like all great truths and all disagreements for the sake of Heaven, Akaviah ben Mehallel's approach survived through Ben Azzai in the 3rd chapter of Derech Eretz Rabbah. This part of this masechta is often cited by Rishonim as the tractate "Ben Azzai" and it contains some moral reflections on the origin and destiny of man. This section is considerably older than chapters 4-11. Ben Azzai says almost the same things as Akavia but he introduces a fourth theme and subtly shifts the emphasis form the entirely man-centric focus to a man cum G-d perception that is more compatible with HIllel's overall balanced approach. He does this by first laying out Akavia's approach and then repeating it with a crucial modification that focuses on Hashem's role as the Judge.
Ben Azzai says: He who places four things before his eyes, will not ever sin. From where he came, and where he goes and Who judges him and what will be.
Form where did he come? From a place of darkness and obscurity.
From where he came? From a place of inpurity.
Where he goes? To render others impure.
From where he came? From a spolied wetness and from a place that no man can see.
Where he goes? To Sheol and Destruction in Gehenna and to be burned in fire.
Who is his Judge? His judge is not flesh and blood but the Lord of all things, before Whom there is injustice and no forgetting and partiality and no bribes.
What will be? Worms and maggots, as it says(Job 25)" even man is worm and son fo man maggots".
Several conclusions jump at me when I look at this teaching and compare it with that of Akavia.
First, Ben Azzai had two versions of Akavia's statement, both of which he listed.
Second, Akavia's statement is then reworked in such a way as to make it more balanced and include the awareness of Hashem as Judge in addition to the man-centered approach of Akavia. In this fashion, the teaching of Akavia is restated in a way that is much more balanced, more Hillel than Akavia.
Finally, we don't know whether Akvia and Ben Azzai both received a tradition that is even older than Hillel and Akavia, except that Ben Azzai wrote it down in the way that it came to him through the prism of the school of HIllel and Akavia formulated it in his own tradition, which, came to an end with him.
Where might have this tradition come from? Sfas Emes on Avos says that the three questions of Akavia ben Mehallel are the same as the three questions that Yakov warned his messengers that Eisav will ask:
1.From where do you come?
2.Where are you going?
3.Whose is are these ones before you?
He explains that these are questions which will produce the Fear of Heaven, if a Jew asks them, but depression and distancing from G-d, if it is Eisav who asks them.
This is a profound lesson. It also may be the source for the tradition that came down to us in two formulation, of Akavia ben Mehalel and Ben Azzai.