BerandaComputers and TechnologyTime, History, Nation, Generation

Time, History, Nation, Generation

This essay uses the works of William Strauss and Neil Howe to frame generational theory in the broad terms of its co-evolution with humanity’s conception of time and history, and the differentiation of two types of generations: familial lineage – “the set of all children ‘brought into being’ by a father or mother” – and peer cohort – “sharing an age location in history and therefore a common peer personality,”[1] into its contemporary position of disrepute.

Strauss and Howe’s work emphasizes the inescapable foundation of cycles as the base unit of time since prehistory. Paraphrasing the philosopher Mircae Eliade, they note how early humans were in tune to the rhythms of the sky and seasons, allowing “each generation [to] compare its behavior with that of its ancestors […] performing the right deed at the right moment in the perpetual circle, much as an original god or goddess performed a similar deed during time’s mythical first circle.”[2] Nomadic and agrarian people functionally operate in cyclical time, living in kin-based communities. Their genealogical-determined generations essentially repeat the same life cycle with the same responsibilities as their parents and progeny, expressing no significant variation of character due to their stable environments and sustainable ecological practices: children are protected and learn, adults provide the energy for survival and reproduction, and elders counsel and lead.

For early humans, this cosmic order of time and generation was inevitably, periodically disrupted by catastrophic events that would create an indelible imprint on all those who live through it, leading to the emergence of a distinct cohort generation, “but there seemed little need to insist on a rigorous definition. As time passed on, so too would ‘that generation,’ and then all would be as before.”[3] Strauss and Howe uses the Homeric Epics to illustrate this point: the Trojan War represented a unique event that mobilized a coalition of Greek states to a victorious conclusion, but after its resolution, its characters pass on and the unique moment “is worn down by the unchanging round of social tradition from which it had briefly emerged. The cycle vanishes, and the dark ages return – no longer giving rise to the stuff of epic poetry.”[4]

With the spread of writing, city-states, and empire across the West through the Medieval period, “Great Events” triumph and catastrophe grew more common, requiring novel conceptions of time and place. Religious eschatologies rose during the Axial Age in response to the breakdown of placid cycles of time, messianic visions of a descent from proverbial Golden Ages and Paradise towards an apocalypse and renewal of the world. These extended cycles were experienced as linear within a generation’s own lifetime, occasionally differentiated the life experience of successive generations as peer cohorts, but a conflation of kin lineage and peer cohort generations remained common. For early recorded history, “the standard measure of cosmic time in nearly all Indo-European cultures was not the year or the century, but the [genealogical] generation.”[5] The Bible marks the passing of time through the begetting of generations, and Greek Historians “Herodotus and Thucydides routinely measured the age of a civilization by counting its generations.”[6] At the same time, ancient writers noted cyclic stages of descent following the founding of new political regimes and religions as values and institutions degenerated across cohort generations towards; Strauss and Howe paraphrase Hesoid’s descent “of the ‘generations’ of gold and silver and bronze”[7] which make “no implicit reference to parentage [but rather emphasize] that each new genos […] lives at about the same time and possess a distinct way of life and set of values.”[8] Similarly, Polybius’s observations on Greco-Roman city-states led to his model of a “recurring progression of political regimes – from kingship to aristocracy to democracy to anarchy – from which a new kingship would emerge.”[9] Ibh Khaldun, paraphrased by Strauss and Howe, describes this pattern vividly among medieval Islamic dynasties:

The first generation establishes rule by conquest, after which it goerns with unquestioned authority. The second generation witnesses and admire that achievement, which it weakly emulates. Lacking firsthand knowledge of how the dynasty was established, the third generation not only lacks the founder’s qualities but ignores them, so the dynasty weakens further. Coming of age under ignorant tutelage, the fourth generation reaches adulthood despising the dynasty, which then crumbles. Out of the chaos a later generation produces a new king and a new dynasty, and the cycle repeats.

Strauss and Howe describe how “the Greeks sometimes hoped that Promethean reason might delivery man from perpetual destitution, while the Romans believed [in] a glorious destiny,”[11] but dynastic and empiric decline predominated human conceptions of history and generations until Western monotheisms “embrac[ed] the radically new concept of personal and historical time as a unidirectional drama,”[12] “root[ing] out calendrical paganism, denounc[ing] classical cycles, and push[ing] underground entire branches of nonlinear learning, such as the hermetic fields of alchemy and astrology.”[13] This set the stage for the widespread emergence of linear time from “a relatively arcane idea, fully understood by only a small clerical elite”[14] to the dominant worldview of the West. “The Reformation and the spread of the printed Gospel usher[ed] in a new urgency (and popular application) of linear history,”[15] but its technological underpinning, the printing press, also spurred a revolution in what it meant to identify as a people. As argued by historian Benedict Anderson, it paved the way for broadened and flattened conceptions of collective identity away from localities under shifting dynastic and sacred authority towards the “imagined community” of the modern nation-state, a novel entity bound by a shared vernacular language and secular stories distinct from the rule of a local sovereigns or remote sacralized orthodoxies.

The decline of centralized religious dogma and control, in tandem with the successes of rational inquiry and experimentation, inverted the descent towards a second coming of Christ into an upward path of reason, the torch of the Enlightenment carried higher on the shoulders of those who came before. These changes were nascent and heterogeneous in early modern Europe, however, where “meaningful membership in generations was limited to elites – that is, to those who were free to break from tradition and redefine the social roles of whatever phase of life they occupied.”[16] The union of history’s linear progress and nationally-bound, peer-based generational cycles required a radical break from the past that was unique to and initiated by the American colonies and their 18th Century revolution, based in shared principles of liberty and progress over that of a common origin or authority.

With the emergence of modern democracy and nation-states, peer cohort consciousness soon followed; Strauss and Howe track its origins to the propagandists of the French Revolution, “philosophes [who] liked to call themselves a unique generation”[17] at the end of the ancien régime. In the following centuries, speculation about the nature of generations and their power for social change became common among elite thinkers. Contemporary notions of peer cohort generations emerged in the 19th Century: John Stuart Mill “formally defined a generation as ‘a new set of human beings’ who ‘have been educated, have grown up from childhood, and have taken possession of society;’”[18] Wilhelm Dilthey explicitly defined the distinction between family lineage and peer cohort generations,[19] describing the latter as “a relationship of contemporaneity […] between those who had a common childhood, a common adolescence, and whose years of greatest vigor partially overlap;”[20] Auguste Comte noted that generations have a “unamimous adherence to certain fundamental notions”[21] and argued “generations had become, in the modern world, the master regulator of the pace of social change.”[22] Most theorists of the time said too little or much about why generations were so central, but Comte, Émile Littré and Guiseppe Ferrari were exceptions. They independently developed fourfold model of generational cycles that repeated, in notable contrast to those which declined and collapsed as writers of pre-modern dynastic rule had observed. This distinction can be likened to a cycle of history spiraling upwards in modernity, or downwards in earlier times, a synthesis of the two dominant frameworks of time and history, the circle and the line.

Theories of generations entered their own decline in the 20th Century, however. Following the horror and devastation of the Great War, “the link between generations and progress seemed like a waste of time”[23] and a tired subject. Rising social thinkers preferred to describe “how each generation creates its own subjective reality, its own psychology, emotions, values, art,”[24] such as José Ortega y Gasset, who viewed generations as a “dynamic compromise between the mass and the individual;”[25] his student Julián Mariás, who mused, “to ask ourselves to which generation we belong is, in large measure, to ask who we are,”[26] or philosopher Martin Heidegger who observed, ““the fateful act of living in and with one’s generation completes the drama of human existence.”[27] Arnold Toynbee, Mariás, Samuel Huntington, and George Modelski all created their own fourfold models of generational rhythms around the mid-century, but the era also brought a higher standard to academic research that basic questions for a science of generations remained vague or unanswered: “how do they arise? why should they change personality at any particular cohort boundary? and why should they have any particular length?”[28] As a consequence, generational theory fell out of intellectual favor just as it has risen in popular idiom. No “cohort-group has come fully of age in America without encountering at least one determined attempt to name it”[29] since the 1920s, but generational type’s grand theoretical implications has gone the way of most other all-encompassing theories of the late modern period, “skeptics [now regarding] the cohort generation, like astrology, as a provocative idea searching blindly for a reason.”[30]

[1] Generations, 434.

[2] The Fourth Turning, 8.

[3] Generations, 437

[4] The Fourth Turning, 86-87.

[5] Generations, 433.

[6] Generations, 434.

[7] The Fourth Turning, 62.

[8] Generations, 434.

[9] The Fourth Turning, 87.

[10] The Fourth Turning, 88.

[11] The Fourth Turning, 9.

[12] The Fourth Turning, 9.

[13] The Fourth Turning, 10.

[14] The Fourth Turning, 9.

[15] The Fourth Turning, 9.

[16] The Fourth Turning, 95.

[17] Generations, 438.

[18] Generations, 438, quoting John Stuart Mill, A System of Logic (1840)

[19] Generations, 438.

[20] The Fourth Turning, 63, quoting Giuseppe Ferrari, Teoria dei periodi politici (1874)

[21] The Fourth Turning, 66, Quoting Auguste Comte, Cours de Philosophie Positive (1869)

[22] The Fourth Turning, 63.

[23] Generations, 439.

[24] Generations, 439.

[25] The Fourth Turning, 68, quoting José Ortega y Gasset, The Modern Theme (1923)

[26] The Fourth Turning, 67, quoting Julián Mariás, Generations: A Historical Method ( trans. 1970/1967)

[27] The Fourth Turning, 69, quoting Martin Heidegger, Sein und Zeit (1927)

[28] Generations, 440.

[29] Generations, 439.

[30] Generations, 440.

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