I recently read a book called The Seventh Crisis, which is about how America is entering a new “crisis” stage in its history and its people must overcome that crisis if we are to survive as a nation of free men and women. While I thought it was excellent, its authors relied heavily on a concept I didn’t quite understand, that being the cyclicity of history and how nations periodically enter certain phases in their lives. The basic gist is this; at times, they are at peace and stable. At times they are in crisis, and at other times they are in flux between the two.
Although I understood the basics of that idea, I wanted to learn more about it so that I could more fully understand it (and learn if it’s real). So, to do so, I turned to the book from which the authors of The Seventh Crisis got the concept: The Fourth Turning by Strauss and Howe.
And I am so glad that I did. Our society has lost much of what used to be self-evident knowledge. The Romans, the Greeks, the Ancient Chinese, and even the Medieval Europeans knew much about the true nature of the world and history that we have today forgotten. One such concept is that history follows a cyclical pattern; it is not linear, as we today think of it, but rather a never-ending circle. The Fourth Turning shows how that works and what it means for modern Americans.
Summary of The Fourth Turning by Strauss and Howe
Strauss and Howe begin The Fourth Turning by describing from where they get the concept of the saeculum, a roughly 80-100 year period first identified by the Etruscans as the time in which society tends to go through a cycle. That cycle is divided into four periods, each of which encompasses about 20-25 years and altogether is about the length of a long human life (thus also being the amount of time it takes for a society to fully renew itself with new people).
First, there is the “High.” At that time, society is relatively united in its values and life is good. The people are united and the society itself is prosperous. Think America after WWII: the 50s were a time of unity in the face of the communist menace, people of all stripes got along, and society had shared values.
Following the “High” is the “Awakening.” At that time, institutions there were strong during the “High” are attacked in the name of new values and individual autonomy. Societal cohesion, especially around shared values and morays, breaks down as a new generation begins to assert itself and push back against the culture of the high. Think the “Consciousness Revolution” of the mid ’60s and ’70s, where hippies revolted against the culture of their parents and worked to further their own views on morality and sexuality rather than coalesce around Judeo-Christian values.
After the “Awakening” is the “Unraveling.” At this time, society starts to fall apart along the fault lines created by the “Awakening.” Society atomizes as autonomy is pursued over any sort of cohesion and the mood is the exact opposite of the “High.” No one trusts institutions, citizens don’t particularly get along with each other, and society has no real standards for what is “good” and what is not.
Think the culture wars that began in the mid ’80s; trust in American institutions has plummeted, society is more individualistic than at any time since WWII, the old values have been wiped away in many parts of the country, and now people are battling out their differences in the streets.
Finally, the last stage of the saeculum is the “Crisis.” At this point, the issues of the previous stages come to a head and society is forced to either come together and triumph over the issues of the day or it will fall apart. It’s an era of destruction; war, revolution, and/or financial turmoil define these times. The climax of the last cycle was WWII. At that time, Americans had to rally around the flag and beat back existential threats in Europe and the Pacific.
Following the Crisis, if society is successful in overcoming it, is the “High.” If the society can overcome, then the new era will be one of bountiful opportunity and the cycle begins again.
In addition to the cyclicity of eras, there is a cyclicity of generations. Nomads, Heroes, Prophets, and Artists are born in that order, generally resembling the generation one away from them much more than the generation immediately preceding them. Their characteristics are generally similar for the generation as a whole but quite distinct from other generations (think how easy it is to discern a Boomer). Those archetypes tend to be born at different points along the cycle of eras, thus generally making their mark on history at the same point in the cycle as the other generations of their archetype.
To prove the truth of their assertions in The Fourth Turning, Strauss and Howe go back to the mid-15th century, beginning with the “Arthurian” generation, and show how the hundreds of years of Anglo-American history since that point prove their saeculum thesis. And right they are. For every 80-100 year period they define, there are definitive eras, especially Highs and Crises, in which society had to overcome a major war or disaster and then was able to live the good life as a result.
Additionally, they show how the cycles can only happen in relatively free societies in which generations are free to be different and the cycles can progress; in the Dark Ages, for example, society was so restricted that the process didn’t really play out as it has since the Renaissance. Things were too stagnant.
Finally, after using prodigious amounts of evidence to prove it to be true, Strauss and Howe use their cyclicity thesis to show how it relates to modern America. Beginning with the “High” of the 50s, the rest of The Fourth Turning shows how the past decades fit into the aforementioned cycle and what the final stage, the Crisis, might look like.
However, they take pains to point out that no one can really grasp what is coming. Throughout the ages, it might have been possible to discern that a crisis was coming, and even what the vague contours of that crisis might be, but knowing exactly what would happen would have been out of the reach of even the brightest sage.
No one would have seen the American Revolution as it happened before it really began, nor did they see the scale and horror of the Civil War and World War II, so it is likely that “the fourth turning” (the last, crisis stage of the cycle), will be a surprise. They predicted some sort of major war or financial crisis happening in the mid-2000s, the book being written in the ’90s, so perhaps we’ve already seen it, perhaps not.
Overall, The Fourth Turning shows how the saeculum concept can be perceived, prove it to be true (along with the individual eras and generational archetypes that are part of it), and then show how it relates to modern America.
My Take on The Fourth Turning by Strauss and Howe
I found the thesis of The Fourth Turning to be quite compelling. As Dan Carlin points out in The End is Always Near, history is not linear, however much we might, in the modern day, think it is. The Bronze Age was followed by a dark period in which society regressed, as was the fall of Rome followed by hundreds of years of darkness. While life has generally improved since the Renaissance began, history has always come in cycles.
Discerning those cycles and viewing history, and thus the future, through the lens of them is, therefore, important. That’s what Strauss and Howe do in The Fourth Turning. The cycle they define, the saeculum, is quite compelling because the past five centuries of history ostensibly show it to be real. Anglo-American society has seen constantly recurring Highs, Awakenings, Unravelings, and Crises.
Modern America is special, but not special enough to avoid that cycle. Try as we might to pretend things will remain this good and easy forever, they won’t. A big crisis will rock us, a major war will break out, or financial disaster could come at any point. We must remain vigilant.
And, more than remain vigilant, we must remain ready. Look at the life of Churchill, especially in the years before WWII. Sure, he didn’t know exactly what the coming crisis would look like. No one could have. But he did know that it would be far worse if Britain didn’t build the fighter squadrons it needed and begin to organize the Army necessary for fighting a major war. And on that count, he was certainly proven right.
A crisis will come. America, despite its divisions and discontents, must remain ready to persevere.
That’s why The Fourth Turning is an important book to read; it shows why we must wake up to the upcoming crisis. We can’t ignore our history nor can we ignore what is coming. Reading what Strauss and Howe have written will wake you up to what’s really going on. The accuracy of their model in showing the past is what makes it such a compelling lens with which we can look at the future.
That’s not to say their aren’t weaknesses in the book, there are. For example, while some of their depictions of the generations involved in this struggle and time are accurate, others are less so. When describing Boomers they are generally spot on; that generation is (generally) self-obsessed, materialistic, selfish, and focused on saying rather than doing. But the flowery, generally positive depiction of Millennials in The Fourth Turning is far less accurate; that generation, far from what the authors predict, has proven to be just as bad as the Boomers, if not more so.
The other weakness is one inherent in viewing history in a specific lens; it might be wrong, or at least slightly off. The authors predicted that the crisis would come sometime around 2005. By that logic, it would end sometime around 2025 or 2030. It’s now 2021, does it feel like the crisis has even happened yet? I think not.
Sure, the Great Recession, 9/11, Dot Com bubble, and Covid pandemic have all been bad. But does any one of them individually, or even all three collectively, represent the crisis? It’s hard to tell. Maybe 9/11 was the beginning of a terrorism crisis. Perhaps the recession started a fiscal crisis. Combined, they could lead to even bigger issues (and likely will). But nothing is happening now that even somewhat resembles WWII, the US Civil War, or the American Revolution. At those times, people knew that something major was happening. Nowadays, it still feels like things are heating up.
So, it seems like Howe and Strauss were off by a few years. Perhaps the saeculum cycle we’re currently experiencing will last closer to 100 than 80 years and will wrap up sometime in the mid to late 2040s. That certainly seems more likely.
In any case, the argument in The Fourth Turning is certainly compelling and one well worth reading and contemplating. You’ll learn about history, the characteristics of each American generation and how those characteristics led to a particular mark being made on history, and catch glimpses of what might be coming for America.
While there might be some problems with it, those problems in no way overshadow its many strengths.