Book Review: 'The Fourth Turning: What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny' by William Strauss and Neil Howe
The Fourth Turning: What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny William Strauss and Neil Howe Broadway Books (1997)
“To every thing there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven:” Ecclesiastes
First, I am grateful to Chris Snook for highly recommending this book. Also, I acknowledge that no brief commentary such as this could possibly do full justice to the scope and depth of information and insights that William Strauss and Neil Howe provide in abundance.
This book was first published in a hardbound edition in 1997, then in a softbound edition the following year. I suggest you keep this thought in mind when William Strauss and Neil Howe share their circa-2005 predictions that include tax rebellions throughout the United States in protest of governmental inefficiency and incompetence, global terrorism initiatives (e.g. blowing up an aircraft), foreign capital flight from U.S., and growing anarchy throughout the former Soviet republics. This is a research-driven book, as indicated by 25 pages of “Notes.”
Also, at least some of the material develops in much greater depth what Strauss and Howe previously introduced in Generations: A History of America’s Future (1991) and 13th GEN (1993). I suggest that you check out the quantitative and bibliographical appendices available (Pages 455-519) in Strauss and Howe’s previous book, Generations.
Here is a representative selection of key points that caught my eye:
On Turnings: “The Fourth is a Crisis, a decisive era of secular upheaval, when the values regime propels the replacement of the old civic order with the new…The fourth Turning is history’s great discontinuity. It ends one epoch and begins another.” (Pages 3 and 6)
On the three ways that man has measured time: (i.e. chaotic, cyclical, and linear) “The great achievement of linear time has been to endow mankind with a purposeful confidence in its own self-improvement…Yet the great weakness of linear time is that it obliterates time’s recurrence and thus cats people off from the eternal – whether in nature, in each other, or in ourselves.” (Page 11)
On the Anglo-American Saeculum: “The saeculum is a seasonal cycle of history, roughly the length of a long life [i.e. 80-100 years], that explains the periodic recurrences of Awakenings and Crises throughout modernity. The Anglo-American saeculum dates back to the waning of the Middle Ages in the middle of the fifteenth century.” (Page 123)
On the seven prior Fourth Turnings in the Anglo-American lineage:
Wars of the Roses (1459-1487), Late Medieval Saeculum Armada Crisis (1569-1594), Reformation Saeculum Glorious Revolution (1675-1704), New World Saeculum American Revolution (1860-1865), Civil War Saeculum Great Depression and World War Two (1929-1946), Great Power Saeculum
“With the partial exception of the U.S. Civil War, Each Fourth Turning followed a similar morphology.” (Page 259)
On the circularity of life, but also its perpetuity: “Modern societies too often reject circles for straight lines between starts and finishes. Believers in linear progress, we feel the need to keep moving forward. The more we endeavor to defeat nature, the more profoundly we land at the mercy of its deeper rhythms.” (Page 329)
On empowerment by the next Fourth Turning: “We should not feel limited, but rather empowered by the knowledge that the Fourth Turning’s ekpyrosis [i.e. a Stoic belief in the periodic destruction of the cosmos by a great conflagration every Great Year] can have such decisive consequences. By lending structure to life and time, the seaculum makes human history all the more purposeful. A belief in foreseeable seasons and perceptible rhythms can inspire a society or an individual to do great things that might otherwise seem pointless.” (Page 332)
Throughout years of research and analysis, Strauss and Howe located patterns that recur over time and discovered the natural rhythms of social experience. They then shared what they learned in this book, first published 15 years ago. They help their reader to understand “what the cycles of history tell us about America’s next rendezvous with history.” Although I carefully re-read the several hundred passages I had highlighted before composing this review, I do not claim to understand, fully, everything in the book.
We cannot predict with seamless accuracy what will happen in months and years to come. However, I agree with William Strauss and Neil Howe that we can prepare for probable contingencies with initiatives guided and informed by the information insights, and wisdom they provide in this book.
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. provides an appropriate conclusion to this review: “A true cycle…is self-generating. It cannot be determined, short of catastrophe, by external events…The roots of this cyclical self-sufficiency lie deep in the natural life of humanity. There is a cyclical pattern in organic nature – in the tides, in the seasons, in night and day, in the systole and diastole of the human heart.”
Editor's note: This review was written by Robert Morris and has been published with his permission.Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.