Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Fourth Turning: Concepts of Time

I'm following up with my earlier, pre-vacation promise to blog through the Fourth Turning by Strauss and Howe. This book was my beach reading all during the week (it beats The Nanny Diaries and Wicked).

So for this post, just a quick look at one of the foundational concepts - the flow of time. Strauss and Howe propose that there are three ways of viewing time: Chaotic, Cyclical, and Linear.

Chaotic time, they assert, is a view that sees no sequence or end goal in time. Things happen pretty much randomly. As they summarize, it is "...the belief that life is a billion fragments, that events come at random, and that history is directionless." (12) With modern deconstructionistic philosophy, we can see this in action - we must construct our own meaning -- we make a pastiche of all that has come before and recombine it in new and interesting ways that has meaning for us.

Then there is cyclical time -- the idea that seasons come and go. Time turns round back upon itself. This is evident in the seasons, the cycles of the moon, etc. However Strauss and Howe assert that such seasonality applies to cultures. And that is the thrust of this text.

Finally there is linear time -- the idea of unending progress toward an end goal. Strauss and Howe believe that this is the predominant view ever since the enlightenment and the reformation. They believe that this is the view upon which the American culture has been built -- think Manifest Destiny, think the march and progress of science.

Strauss and Howe believe that we need to move from linear thinking about time to cyclical thinking:

Before, when cyclical time reigned, people valued patience, ritual, and relatedness of parts to the whole, and the healing power of time-within-nature. Today, we value haste, iconoclasm, the disintegration of the whole into parts, and the power of time-outside-nature....Yet the great weakness of linear time is that it obliterates time’s recurrence and thus cuts people off from the eternal – whether in nature, in each other, or in ourselves. When we deem our social destiny entirely self-directed and our personal lives self-made, we lose any sense of participating in a collective myth larger than ourselves. We cannot ritually join with those who come before or after us. Situating us at some intermediate moment eons away from both the beginning and the end of history, linear time leaves us alone, restless, afraid to stand still lest we discover something horrible about ourselves.(11)

Thinking theologically, we can look at this in several ways. We might look at this as expression of various eschatologies -- pre-millenial thought believes that things will degenerate into chaos until Christ returns and sets things aright, postmillenial thought believes in a linear progression of improvement culminating in Christ's return, amillenial thought looks to types and antetypes that cycle throughout history until Christ returns.

One could also argue that all three modes find their way into Biblical thought. The times and seasons of Ecclesiastes point to cyclical thinking, the fulness of time and the awaiting Christ's return point to linear thought, while the intrusion of chaos in the lives of the righteous (such as in Job's life) lend some credence to chaotic time.

Perhaps Strauss and Howe are right that we've given too much preference for linear time in our culture. Perhaps they're right that we need to recover a sense of cyclical time to help us understand trends and generations. However, they seem to go to the point of a new stoicism -- saying that the best we can do is discover our place in history and play our role well. In some ways, their work is but Marcus Aurelius warmed over:

* There is a kind of river of things passing into being, and Time is a violent torrent. For no sooner is each seen, then it has been carried away, and another is being carried by, and that, too, will be carried away.

* All that comes to pass is as familiar and well known as the rose in spring and the grape in summer. Of like fashion are sickness, death, calumny, intrigue, and all that gladdens or saddens the foolish.

* What follows is always organically related to what went before; for it is not like a simple enumeration of units separately determined by necessity, but a rational combination; and as Being is arranged in a mutual co-ordination, so the phenomena of Becoming display no bare succession but a wonderful organic interrelation.

* Always remember what Heraclitus said: 'the death of earth is the birth of water, the death of water is the birth of atmosphere, the death of atmosphere is fire,... (Meditations Book IV 43-46)

More to come later. Until then

Soli Deo Gloria

First post
Kruse Kronicle: Index on Generations