Astrology or Psychohistory?

Monday, March 24th, 2008

A friend — Howdy, Mike! — recently lent me his copy of The Fourth Turning, which purports to predict The Future, in some sense, by looking at past patterns in history.

Is this the equivalent of astrology, or is it a small step toward the psychohistory of Asimov’s Foundation? That’s hard to say.

The basic premise is an example of social cycle theory, in this case based — at least in part — on the notion that people react much more strongly to events within their own lifetime than to abstract history.

While reading the book, but before I finished it, I came across a similar idea in Robert Wayne Atkins’ intro to Pitirim Sorokin‘s Man and Society in Calamity:

Can history help us understand what might happen in the future? If we don’t fall into the trap of focusing on names, dates, and places, then the answer is yes. The names, dates, and places never repeat but the cycles society go through repeat on a regular basis. How can this be? Because the cycles normally take between 80 to 100 years to repeat and that exceeds the life span and the experience of most people.

That 100-year period used to be known as a saeculum — the root of our secular and the French word siècle for century:

A saeculum is a length of time roughly equal to the potential lifetime of a person or the equivalent of the complete renewal of a human population. The term was first used by the Etruscans. Originally it meant the period of time from the moment that something happened (for example the founding of a city) until the point in time that all people who had lived at the first moment had died. At that point a new saeculum would start. According to legend, the gods had allotted a certain number of saecula to every people or civilization; the Etruscans themselves, for example, had been given ten saecula.

Ted Goertzel, of Rutgers University, writes about The World Trade Center Bombing as a Fourth Generational Turning Point. In the process, he discusses the basics of the Fourth Turning:

Based on their historical research, Strauss and Howe argue that American history is marked by a regular succession of four generational types, each of which dominates for about 22.5 years. This long cycle theory, taking ninety years to go through all four types, is what emboldens them to make predictions as far into the future as 2069. They argue that the four generational types have recurred in a fixed order (with one exception) throughout American history. They also note that references to this four generational pattern can be found in Exodus and The Illiad as well as in the works of Huntington (1981), Marias (1967, 1968), Littre (1860) and Ferrari (1872). Briefly summarized, the four cycles are as shown in the following table.

- Prophet
An inner-driven, moralistic generation which comes of age during a period of spiritual awakening and develops a new creedal passion. The Jungian “Prophet” archetype is dominant.
- Artist
An alienated, cynical generation which challenges the ideals of their parents and develops into pragmatic, risk-taking adults. The Jungian “Artist” archetype is dominant.
- Hero
An outer-driven, morally complacent generation which institutionalizes many of the ideals of the previous generations. The Jungian “Hero” archetype is dominant.
- Nomad
A hypocritical generation which coasts along on the accomplishments of the civics, laying the groundwork for a new idealist era. The Jungian “Nomad” archetype is dominant.

This four-cycle model can easily be reconciled the observations of the Schlesingers, Klingberg and others if we collapse the four into two. The Idealist and Civic are both extroverted in the sense of being eager to take action in the world. They are also both “liberal” in the way the Schlesinger’s define it, concerned with the common good, although they may not belong to the more “liberal” of two parties in an ideological sense. The Reactive and Civic are both introverted and “conservative” in one sense of that term. The differences between them are really rather subtle; little is lost if they are combined. The difference between the idealist and civic types, on the other hand, is of considerable practical significance. The idealists are moral crusaders while the civics are practical problem solvers.

Strauss and Howe follow each of these generations through the four stages of the life cycle (youth [0-21], rising adulthood [22-43], midlife [44-65] and elder [66-87], and explore how the interpersonal dynamics within families tend to differ depending on which historical generation each cohort is part of. However, this discussion is too complex for any but the most dedicated generational theorist to follow.

The concept of “social moment” plays a key role in Strauss and Howe’s theory. They postulate that each of their long cycles has two such moments, the first of which is a “spiritual awakening,” the second a “secular crisis.” The key social moments in American history are as follows:

or “Second Turning”
or “Fourth Turning”
Reformation Awakening (1517-1539) Defeat of Spanish Armada (1580-1588)
Puritan Awakening (1734-1743) Glorious Revolution (1675-1692)
Great Awakening (1734-1743) American Revolution (1773-1789)
Transcendental Awakening (1822-1837) Civil War (1857-1865)
Missionary Awakening (1886-1903) Depression & World War II (1932-1945)
Boom Awakening (1967-1980) [expected in the 2020's]

This is a grand historical scheme, very much in the tradition of Sorokin and other students of long term cultural trends.

The key concept is that sparks, or precipitating events, happen fairly often, but they only lead to a conflagration, say, World War II, when the mood is right. A few years later, the “silent” generation that grew up in the shadow of the heroes of the Big One goes on the fight a “police action” that goes largely unnoticed — and a few years after that, a generation raised to fight Fascism fights against almost all social norms.

On September 12, 2001, it looked like we’d entered another WWII-style crisis, where the whole nation would come together to fight a common enemy. Instead, the reaction to Iraq is more like the reaction to Korea.

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