Chaos Theory and the Fourth Turning©


Gerald L. Atkinson

11 September 2001

An article in The Washington Times (‘Turning Point,’ 9/25/01) reminds us of the work of two modern historians, Wm. Strauss and Neil Howe, who have written several books on the cyclical patterns of history – especially American history. They are not the only historians who have addressed this topic. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr, is a prominent American historian (along with his father) who posited this view of history. Arnold Toynbee, the early 20th century British historian in his epic ‘A Study of History’ gave an account of 21 different ‘civilizations’ in human history and constructed from that history a common structure for their rise and fall. He categorized the stages in which all such ‘civilizations’ progressed through this ‘cycle.’ And of course the Edward Gibbon, the 18th century British historian wrote the definitive story of the ‘Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire.’ All of these prominent historians addressed the cyclical nature of societies which (as Toynbee points out) is the phenomena of the relationships of human beings, which in essentials, “ to be found in the works of Aristotle.”

The Washington Times article relates the recent 11 September terrorist attack on America to the subject of cycles in American history. It begins with a quotation by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936 during the Great Depression.

There is a mysterious cycle in human events.

To some generations, much is given.

Of other generations, much is expected.

This Generation has a rendezvous with destiny.”

“About 60 years after Mr. Roosevelt spoke these words, Virginian historians Neil Howe and William Strauss included them in a book about historical cycles of peace and upheaval in America. Published in 1997, ‘The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy: What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny,’ made this chilling forecast:

‘Based on historical patterns, America will hit a once-in-a-century

national crisis within the decade...’like winter,’ the crisis or ‘fourth

turning’ cannot be averted. It will last 20 years or so and bring

hardship and upheavals similar to previous fourth turnings, such as the

American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Great Depression and

World War II. The fourth turning is a perilous time because the result

could be a new ‘golden age’ for America or the beginning of the end.’

‘It all will begin with a ‘sudden spark’ that catalyzes a crisis mood

‘around the year 2005.’

“Since the 11 September terrorist attacks, the book’s public discussion Web Site at: has exploded with comments. In their own e-mail message, filed two days after the terrorist bombings... Strauss and Howe said the...attacks were enough to catalyze a crisis mood. But it is not yet clear if America has entered a fourth turning or is still in the end stages of its ‘third turning,’ which the authors describe as a time of ‘unraveling’ for institutions and old civic orders.”

“In any case, the authors said, ‘the catalyst event is only ‘a gateway, a prelude, not the main event. The climax of the Fourth Turning, the true history-bending moment, remains well in the future, its nature unknowable...With ‘The Fourth Turning,’ we’re saying, ‘Here’s a theory. Test it. Put this book on a shelf. Come back in a while and see if we’re right. We’ve been reading about people making forecasts who are rewriting their chapters on this and that. Well, we don’t have to rewrite ‘The Fourth Turning.’”

“The duo...became involved in historical ‘turnings’ while working on their 1991 book, ‘Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069.’ ...they identified characteristics of Americans, based on when they were born, for 18 generations. With one exception [the needlessly destructive Civil War during which came 17 years before the expected ‘secular crisis’ of the era]...the ‘generational personalities’ have followed each other infixed order: Idealists are followed by reactives, who are followed by civics, who are followed by adaptives.”

“Today’s American leaders, for instance, are either members of the silent generation, which is adaptive, or the baby-boomer generation, which is idealist...Coming behind them are Gen Xers [13ers in the authors’ lexicon], who are reactive, and the Millennials, borne in 1982 or later, who are another civic generation, like their great-grandparents.”

“While studying generations, the authors saw a pattern of historical change that seemed to emerge every two decades or so. They named these historical changes ‘turnings,’ and identified them as follows:

· The first turning is a ‘high,’ an upbeat era in which institutions are strengthened, new civic orders are planted and individualism is weakened.

· The second turning is an ‘awakening,’ a passionate era of spiritual upheaval in which the civic order is challenged by new values.

· The third turning is an ‘unraveling,’ a time when individualism rises and institutions and civic orders weaken and new values are implanted.

· The fourth turning is a ‘crisis’ time when there is widespread upheaval and civic orders are replaced with new ones.

In early American history, for instance, the four turnings included a blooming Colonial civilization (1704-1727), a ‘great awakening’ spiritual revival (1727-1746), the rebellious French and Indian Wars (1746-1773) and the American Revolution (1773-1794) as the fourth turning.”

“In recent years, the post-World War II years of 1946-1964 were a first-turning time of American Ascendancy...The years of 1964-1984 marked a time of spiritual revival amid the rise of feminism, environmentalism and black power. The culture wars, a third-turning period of unraveling, started in 1984 and were scheduled to end around 2005.”

“But the perilous fourth-turning time could be here already. ‘It’s like a winter – it can come early or late, it can be severe or mild. But it’s going to come. The only way to get to spring is through it,’ said Mr. Strauss. ‘People can draw strength from what they learn from history, but change is disorienting,’ said Mr. Howe, who is an economist and historian. ‘Everyone always likes to have some impression of where they are in history, some idea that they’re in some trajectory. I think this [the terrorist attack] has thrown into doubt where they are.”

I have given you this background on the authors of the books, ‘Generations,’ and ‘The Fourth Turning’ because I have discovered that in these books the authors, without knowing it, have described American civilization as a complex, nonlinear iterative feedback system. I called Wm. Strauss after his first book was published and informed him that I had taught from his first book in a Chaos Theory course that I had developed and taught at the Naval Air Test Center in the Masters Degree program. I had designed the course and the entire curriculum for the Artificial Intelligence track in the Computer Science Department.

Chaos Theory, the science of ‘surprise,’ of complexity and self-organizing systems has grown out of the work of Scientists at the Santa Fe Institute, headed by Murray Gel-Mann — the scientist who won the Nobel Prize for predicting the existence of the quark, the tiny building block of protons and neutrons which comprise the nucleus of every atom — have studied thousands of such systems, both physical and social. I study and write about the application of this science to our American civilization.

You don’t need to know much about that science to understand the everyday reality of Chaos Theory in the practical applied sciences. It is the science of complexity, of intricate sophisticated systems, which become so specialized that each part depends upon the functioning of every other part. All of us know of and experience this phenomenon in our everyday lives. It results in the unintended consequences of actions that we and/or others take that impact our lives. Each and every one of us has experienced this in our own personal lives. And we recognize it at a surface level in the events that surround us.

More importantly, historians have told us that this phenomenon has resulted in the rise and fall of over 20 civilizations before us in the history of man. I study and write about the application of this science to our American civilization. I will continue to carry out research on the application of this science to American civilization and post the results on this Web Site and publish them in the Eternal Vigilance journal.

For those of you with a ‘scientific frame of mind,’ the following books are recommended to understand Chaos Theory: “Chaos and Fractals: New Frontiers of Science,” by Peitgen, Jurgens, and Saupe, Springer-Verlag, 1992 and “The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex,” by Murray Gell-Mann, W.H. Freeman and Company, 1994. For those of you who do not want that level of understanding, don’t worry. I will keep my descriptions in terms of the ‘street smarts’ language of a ‘science of surprise,’ of ‘unintended consequences’ of actions taken by individuals, political movements, and groups of individuals. We all know Chaos Theory — it is and has been part of our lives since we were conceived. It is at work in the subject at hand.

I have published extensive reviews of both of the Strauss and Howe books in my new Eternal Vigilance journal. I have posted them on this Web Site for your reading ‘enjoyment.’ The review of the ‘Generations’ book is at the link, Generations. This book gives a broad historical perspective of the cyclical nature of America’s past and what to expect in the future if all goes according to the patterns discovered by the authors.

My review of the ‘Fourth Turning’ book can be accessed at the Fourth Turning link. This book provides a detailed account of the era in which we are now living. The account of the generational ‘personalities’ will be immediately recognized by anyone who has read a national level newspaper over the past decade.

Read these book reviews and get caught up on the real meaning of the 11 September terrorist attack on America. It fits into an historical pattern that allows us to see the future in a meaningful light. And it should show us the way to a new ‘golden age’ for America rather than the ‘beginning of the end.’ It all depends on Americans recognizing our real ‘enemies.’

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