Book Review of The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe

There are three ways you can look back at history:

  1. Chaotic – “history has no path. Events follow one another randomly, and any effort to impute meaning to their whrigling succession is hopeless.”
  2. Linearism – history as progress, “the belief in indefinite scientific, economic, and political improvement”, linear time is a unique (and usually progressing) story with an absolute beginning and and absolute end.”
  3. Cyclical – repetitive, “time is endless, yet also endlessly completed and renewed, propelled by elaborate rituals resembling the modern seasonal holidays”

In, The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy, Will and Neil make the claim that history is cyclical. And they provide many examples from the ancients.

“Cyclical time originated when the ancients first linked natural cycles of planetary events (diurnal rotations, lunar months, solar years, zodiacal precessions) with related cycles of human activity (sleeping, waking, gestating, birthing, planting, harvesting, hunting, feasting).”

Neil Howe, Will Strauss, – The Fourth Turning

According to Neil and Will, linearism has taken a hold of Western and North American civilization.

“[…] the West began using technology to flatten the very physical evidence of natural cycles. With artificial light, we believe we defeat the sleep-wake cycle; with climate control, the seasonal cycle; with refrigeration, the agricultural cycle; and with high-tech medicine, the rest-recovery cycle.

Neil Howe, Will Strauss, – The Fourth Turning

What I Liked

The idea that history is cyclical is fun to think about. I like the idea that ancient humans figured out how to live in certain ways and pass down information using tradition and myths. In a way, it makes me feel connected to humans we can never meet in person.

When it comes to linearism, it often feels like humankind’s glorious transformation is perpetually just around the corner. That’s anxiety inducing if you ask me. For a moment, consider the fact that you may not be living during the most important time in human history. Chances are, you’re not.

Seeing history as cyclical, seems as if it can better prepare us for our future because it has an aura of “We’ve been here before, we got this.”

What I Didn’t Like

Linearism and progress is noble. Striving for progress and shedding bad old civilization habits, is a good thing. I wouldn’t take dating advice, financial advice, or cooking advice from the ancients – many people died as a result of forced marriage, plundering of objects of value, and not preparing food correctly and dying unnecessarily from food poisoning.

Final Verdict

I enjoyed this book a lot. It gave me a perspective on history that I never considered before. Connecting the cycles of the seasons and the cycles of a human life span in order to better help prepare us for things we’ve already gone through? Love it.

Whatever mode or model you use for trying to predict your future, as long as it’s somewhat accurate, that’s a good one to use. Who’s to say that chaotic, linearism, or cyclical time is correct?

What do you think about cyclical time? How do you think history progress or repeats?

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