6th Century B.C. vase depicting Achilles, Athena and Ajax during the Trojan War (Source: historynet.com)
We ended Part 1 of this discussion by posing the following questions:
- How did we get to this point?
- Where are we going as a civilization?
- Is our civilization still growing and evolving, or in fact dying?
- A growing plurality of Americans has turned away from organized religion. Furthermore, confidence in our political, economic, legal, media and social institutions is extremely poor and worsening. Have we reached a point of no return? If Yes, what happens next? If No, how do we move forward?
In order to even begin a conversation to address these concerns, we first need to provide ourselves with an appropriate set of analytical tools. As mentioned previously, I’ll be assembling this toolkit from the works of Toynbee and Strauss & Howe.
In his masterpiece “A Study of History”, Toynbee identifies twenty one societies in the roughly 10,000 year history of humanity that fit his criteria of a ‘civilization’, as opposed to just a nation, city or tribe. There are interactions between some or many of these civilizations both in terms of ‘space’ (either by geographical proximity or at least contemporaneous contact thru trade, diplomacy and/or war) and ‘time’ (where an older civilization generates a successor or has some significant level of influence over a later culture.)
Early in his Study, Toynbee decisively rejects historical models that characterize the rise and fall of civilizations as analogous to the birth, growth, maturity, senescence and death of an individual human being. He argues that the history of civilizations is instead commensurate with a group of free climbers scaling a massive and precipitous cliff. Occasionally a climber encounters a physical obstacle impossible to overcome and gets stuck. Others may pause to rest on a ledge for an indeterminate period. Finally, there are those who, perhaps after sliding back to some extent, transform themselves into a stronger climber with a modified set of skills and resume the climb. This last is the most frequent type observed by Toynbee.
From Toynbee’s model one can observe the time scale between the commencement and demise of a civilization all the way to the creation of its successor to be a span of two or more millennia. He breaks this progression into three parts: an establishment and growth phase, an end to growth (which he terms a ‘breakdown’), and a decline & collapse, normally followed by an 800-1000 year ‘interregnum’ before the remnants of the extinct civilization are reorganized and, with new institutions replacing those which had failed, concludes in the dawn of its heir. He likens this last part as symbolically equivalent to the Phoenix of legend which, consumed in its own flame, rises from the ashes of its funeral pyre stronger and more magnificent than before.
I will do my best to summarize the details of each phase below. If the summary proves insufficient, please feel free to consult the original volumes for a more elaborate description, but be warned: as beautifully written and wonderfully informative as it is, Toynbee’s body of work is quite long and the prose is dense with meaning, as well as being gorgeously eloquent and extraordinarily erudite. You will need a full dictionary by your side and will find yourself searching for the meanings of various words in languages other than English – including French, Latin and Ancient Greek. I limited myself to the Sommervell abridgement, which is itself over 1,000 pages, and am satisfied that I have done enough.
We begin with a society that appears in a given region and is distinct from any surrounding societies in at least one cultural aspect (and typically more) – social, legal, economic, political or technological. By coming into existence, this society demonstrates that it has both mastered its immediate physical environment and held its own against any external enemies. As a consequence of these two successes, the society demonstrates that it has established itself and – assuming its energies are not totally consumed by contending with its physical environment or defending its territory from invaders – now has the ‘leisure’ to develop further, thus entering its Growth phase.
Thomas Cole, “Course of Empire – The Arcadian or Pastoral State”, 1834 (Source: Wikipedia)
A civilization that is growing will exhibit the following general characteristics:
- Having proved itself against external challenges, the society from then on faces challenges that are primarily internal in nature.
- These challenges are, in fact, direct results stemming from whatever solution the civilization developed to successfully meet the previous challenge. (Ex: to survive an invasion, a civilization transforms its government, legal framework, social structure and economy to support the war effort. Once the invader is expelled, the populace wishes to return to a peaceful society in order to both enjoy and benefit from the fruits of victory, but the political and economic leadership that has prospered from their role in the war resists changing their ways, citing ‘the need for order and security.’ A crisis inevitably ensues.)
- To meet these challenges successfully, the civilization will either adopt new institutions or effectively modify existing ones.
- The individual or group internal to the civilization which successfully addresses a challenge will itself rise to positions of leadership. They will become a ‘Creative Minority’ who serve as an example for the rest (known as the ‘Internal Proletariat’) to emulate/imitate (termed ‘Mimesis’ by Toynbee.) Whatever leadership clique that had been in charge of the civilization before (having achieved their pre-eminence by solving the previous crisis and becoming that era’s Creative Minority) will be displaced by the new Creative Minority.
- An ‘External Proletariat’ outside of the civilization’s borders arises. This group may be, on occasion and in parts, an enemy of the civilization, but is more inclined on the whole to admire it and will desire to either join it or emulate it partially or wholly as best as it can. The ‘radiance’ of a growing civilization can spread amazingly far, thus affecting tribes, peoples and nations at surprising distances from the civilization’s actual political boundaries. Thus, an External Proletariat can be quite large and varied, with the strength of the civilization’s ‘glow’ fading gradually over distance.
We can see from the above that further challenges to a civilization once it establishes itself are actually problems that are of their own making. To contend with the problem, the civilization is not struggling with an outside power but with itself. The better this civilization is at confronting and resolving these problems is a measure of its capacity for self-determination.
The “Mechanism” of Growth
Is civilization an individual thing, like a person? Or is it like a collection of ‘cells’ completely subordinate to the whole, like a living organism? In Toynbee’s view, neither characterization is sufficient. He reasons that Civilization is the sum total of relationships between its individual members. These relations arise from the synchronism of their individual fields of action. From this develops a common ground, and this common ground is what we call a society.
Toynbee also points out that society is a field of action, but the source of all action is the individuals who compose that society. An individual or small group/cadre can cause the whole of society to move in a particular direction, once they are all allied to this movement under the inspiration of the provoking individual(s). The trick is for the creative individual or a Creative Minority to both break a civilization’s ‘cake of custom’ themselves in a constructive manner and then convince the Internal Proletariat thru some means (oratory, demonstration, inducing them to pursue the experience of discovery themselves, inspiring the social act of Mimesis/imitation, what have you) to follow the Creative Minority and adopt this New Way. In this manner, a Creative Minority leads the Internal Proletariat and together they solve a civilization’s current existential crisis/challenge.
Finally, Toynbee notes that as a civilization grows, it will further differentiate itself from other civilizations by the choices it makes in successive acts of self-determination, forging its unique future while generating solutions to successive trials. This differentiation can take many forms – religion, art, industry, inventiveness, architecture and so forth.
Thomas Cole, “Course of Empire – The Consumation of Empire”, 1836 (Source: Wikipedia)
As a civilization resolves a crisis, only to be presented over time with a fresh challenge whose generation is attributable to the resolution of the previous one, the cycle of new trials eventually comes to a halt when the civilization encounters a predicament which it finds itself unable to resolve. This is, in Toynbee’s view, a failure of further self-determination. When such an event occurs, internal growth ceases and the civilization’s engine of self-evolution ‘breaks down.’
The characteristics of a breakdown are as follows:
- The existing Creative Minority fails to find a resolution to the latest dilemma and instead digs in its heels, resting on its laurels and defending its recalcitrance on the principle of “what worked before is what’s best.”
- A new Creative Minority fails to surface to address the issue, either by an accident of fortune, or because the Internal Proletariat fails to be swayed by the upstarts, or because the existing Creative Minority successfully represses them.
- The Internal Proletariat loses confidence in the Creative Minority and begins withdrawing their support and Mimesis.
- Social unity begins to fray. Civil strife can become common and extraordinarily cruel & sanguinous – as bad or worse than any barbarian invader’s depravations.
- The existing Creative Minority begins transforming into a Dominant Minority, ruling less and less by admiration and increasingly by writ of force, seeking to coerce the Internal Proletariat into returning to a posture of Mimesis.
- The Internal Proletariat, outwardly obedient, quietly responds with growing hostility to the ruling clique and begins to resist passively (for the most part.)
- The External Proletariat begins to lose its admiration for the bordering civilization and grows increasingly hostile towards it – particularly in a military sense. The border between the two consequently begins transforming from a political and/or geographical one into a fortified frontier.
There are obvious examples of this throughout the history of Rome, China, Persia and others. Toynbee’s work is rich with examples from across the globe and thru all historical eras. Such periods are often referred to by later generations as a “Time of Troubles.”
A breakdown is not necessarily decisive. Civilizations do recover from them if a new Creative Minority does find a way to rise and lead its fellow citizens down a new path. The existing institutions which have failed to answer the crisis at hand will either be modified or discarded and replaced, and the civilization will resume its growth vector.
But in cases where this new savior or team of heroes does not arise, the existing ruling clique will develop solutions which are nothing more than stopgap measures – fixes that utilize existing institutions and only provide partial relief, which in terms of software engineering is often referred to as a ‘kludge.’
These kludges work to a certain degree and for a brief period. In the early part of such periods, both the Internal and External Proletariats are calmed by a seeming return to normalcy, and all seems well. But the rot has set in, and the unresolved issues which constitute the original crisis again assert themselves.
In his analysis, Toynbee discovered a remarkable pattern associated with civilizations in breakdown. There seems to be a rhythm to it – a 3.5 beat cadence of crisis, partial relief, relapse, partial and weaker relief, further relapse, particularly weak relief, and then a final and catastrophic return of the challenge. During each ‘beat’ of the rhythm, existing institutions are damaged and eroded, with some failing along the way. If, in none of the three beats does the civilization sprout a Creative Minority to lead them out of crisis, the final resurgence of the impasse precipitates a permanent slide into decline which Toynbee frames as a ‘disintegration.’
Thomas Cole, “Course of Empire – Destruction”, 1836 (Source: Wikipedia)
In this woeful chapter of a civilization’s history, its attempts at constructively dealing with the last trial have conclusively failed. Instead of a functional solution, the dominant minority attempts to ‘freeze’ everything in place and preserve its inadequate institutions for the sake of order and to maintain a grip on the reins of power.
A rather important lesson to be learned from this is that a civilization’s disintegration is actually a suicide. The wound is a self-inflicted one, stemming from the civilization’s loss or abandonment of self-determination.
What are the ‘symptoms’ of a Civilization that is decaying/disintegrating?
- The existing Creative Minority completes its transformation into a Dominant Minority, ruling by force.
- The Internal Proletariat is coerced by the brute strength of the State into obedience. Though there may be a temporary reconciliation stemming from the Dominant Minority bringing a final end to the internal civil disorder caused by a ‘Time of Troubles’, it is a brief respite only. Sometimes the Internal Proletariat will openly revolt after a time, but direct action usually fails. The more common response is passive rejection of their rulers.
- The civilization becomes highly belligerent and vents its ferocity on the External Proletariat in an eruption of territorial conquest. This begins the Universal State period, where the Civilization extends its territories well beyond the original political borders. This has the temporary effect of drawing the Internal Proletariat and Dominant Minority together.
- The Dominant Minority has a transient burst of creativity channeled into military affairs, legislative and administrative frameworks for exerting control over the newly created Imperium, philosophy, literature and art which reinforce the assumed legitimacy of the Dominant Minority, and even some technical innovation in the form of engineering and architectural improvements that originate from military necessity.
- The External Proletariat now becomes implacably hostile. A state of war becomes a fixture of the relationship between it and the disintegrating Civilization, and the light of that Civilization no longer radiates past its fortified borders to positively impress the External Proletariat.
- The social and economic strains on the Civilization grow worse as the failure to overcome the original challenge that led to breakdown festers like an open wound and the continual state of war causes ruinous taxation, economic devastation and ever increasing hardship. The political architecture becomes poisonous as well as administrative bureaucracy grows in size and reach, becomes corrupt and fatally wounds the Rule of Law. The relationship between the Internal Proletariat and the Dominant Minority worsens until it collapses, and a permanent social schism emerges as the Internal Proletariat withdraws and becomes cynical, bitter and disillusioned.
- As the civilization’s least effective and/or completely archaic institutions fail, one that gets cashiered and replaced wholesale in every instance is religion. Having been impressed over time with the External Proletariat by its energy, tenacity and growing success, the Internal Proletariat turns to it for inspiration and imports a theology from the enemy which the Internal Proletariat then makes its own. Art, fashion and civil norms cross the frontier bulwarks as well, to be adopted by the Internal Proletariat.
- As total collapse approaches, the Dominant Minority gives up on trying to tug the Internal Proletariat back to them and instead crosses the gap from its side in order to draw closer to the Internal Proletariat. Accompanying this is a steep decline in standards for civility, morals, art and dress. Eventually, all three groups – the Dominant Minority, Internal and External Proletariats – become so similar that their differences are reduced to minor factors.
- Eventually, the border barricades collapse. Having lost its military superiority thru inadvertently training its enemies over time how to fight against it effectively, and unable to sustain the war effort further due to loss of social cohesion, an economy destroyed by the ravages of war and the tax burden imposed to pay for it, along with the vitality-crushing load of a bloated imperial bureaucracy, the Universal State falls. The Dominant Minority, Internal Proletariat and External Proletariat merge and, after a period of chaos, begin the task of reassembling a functional society by re-vitalizing old institutions, scrapping useless ones and developing new ones appropriate to the times – including ones that finally resolve the original challenge that the dead Civilization failed to overcome . Thru this ‘interregnum’ of 8-10 centuries, a new Creative Minority gradually emerges to organize and lead this revitalization, culminating in the birth of a new Civilization.
There are several types of ‘false starts’ that present themselves during the decay – attempts by the Dominant Minority to salvage the present by either returning to a mythical past when their Civilization supposedly worked gloriously well (Archaism) or to make a blind leap into the future and start again from scratch (Futurism.) Both of these are doomed to utter failure.
Archaism comes up short because the institutions and practices which may have worked in the past are no longer suited for the present – especially when dealing with the existential challenge whose failure by the then Creative Minority to resolve in multiple attempts precipitated the decline. Furthermore, Archaism attempts to crystallize the Civilization into an unalterable form, resulting in its ultimate sterility.
Futurism seeks to scrap everything currently employed by the Civilization that keeps it up and running (even in its current debilitated condition), wiping the slate clean to create all things from new and in a perfect form. Utopian idealism always fails, however, on its first encounter with reality.
The Generational Cycle
The Strauss & Howe theory has attracted quite a bit of attention and criticism over the last two decades. Supporters believe it to be uniquely insightful due to its focus on the effects of major historical events on peoples and nations and their observed reactions to such events over an extended period. Detractors criticize the methodology as ‘touchy feely’, non-rigorous, overly malleable and non-falsifiable ‘pop culture’ historical analysis.
My own view is that the theory is useful not as a precise surgical instrument with which to analyze history but as a ‘wide angle lens’ providing a general overview. It is not a tool of prophecy or fortune-telling, but a general guide. There can be no question that ‘great’ events can trigger mass movements and attitudinal shifts in populations – the experiences of my father and his Italo-American immigrant family in New Jersey with the Roaring Twenties, Great Depression and WW2, as well as my mother’s experiences and those of her extended family in Italy during the war, shaped their outlooks, how they chose to live their lives and what they imparted to me as life lessons in my formative years.
Let’s look at the main precepts of the Generational Cycle theory below:
- The theory works primarily for societies that have dynamic social structures. Any society with a rigid social hierarchy – where one’s destiny is determined solely by accident of birth – does not lend itself to analysis with this toolset.
- The duration of a cycle is, very roughly, 4 generations. The length of a particular generation can vary by as much as 20% compared to the equivalent portion of a previous cycle. Estimates of these lengths are, by their very nature, rather qualitative, and are quite naturally influenced by historic events. Thus, a typical cycle can be anywhere from 80-100 years in length and is measured from one existential crisis to the next.
- Cycles can be disrupted. As an example: the Civil War resulted in over 1M deaths, roughly ¾ of them soldiers between the ages of 13 and 43, and a total of 3% of America’s population at the time. The social and economic effects were tremendous, especially in the South, driving migration to unsettled western territories. The South did not recover economically for half a century. During the postwar period, a tremendous influx of new immigrants flooded the United States, mostly from non-Germanic nations, whose integration into American life also greatly affected the social fabric. Because of these factors, the cycle did not clearly reassert itself until the beginning of the 20th century.
- The role of each of the 4 generations in each of the cycle’s 4 periods (called ‘Turnings’) depends on the average physical age of a given generation in a particular stage of a cycle. The physical age is broken into 4 categories – childhood (where a basic outlook on life is set), young adulthood (where a generation begins emerging into the world and coming into its own), middle age (where a generation takes the reins of political, social and economic leadership in society) and old age (where a generation withdraws from public life into retirement.)
- The 4 periods of a cycle are known as a High (Society has solved/survived the last crisis and a period of order, prosperity, organization and community optimism prevails), an Awakening (where public institutions and the order they bring to the community come under attack for suppressing individualism), an Unraveling (where public institutions, now fatally undermined from the Awakening, are widely distrusted and the individualism that sprouted from the Awakening is ferociously embraced), and a Crisis (where all institutions are destroyed – a very dangerous period often including a major war or severe civil strife. In this, the Generational Cycle agrees with many historians, including Toynbee, who have observed that a people or nation is highly susceptible to engaging in a major military conflict every 80-100 years – as if a given nation or people has forgotten what war is really like, as there is no one still alive to remind them.)
- The 4 generations, each born into a particular period of the cycle which shapes their outlook, are called Heroes (the children of a Prophet generation whose childhood occurs during an Unraveling and who, as young adults, encounter and solve the subsequent Crisis), Prophets (the children of a Hero generation whose childhood is spent in the peaceful, tranquil order and group cooperation environment of a High and who, as young adults, rebel against that order in favor of individual expression and personal freedom), Nomads (children of an Artist generation who in their early youth observe the institutional degradation of an Awakening and, distrusting those same ineffective or damaged institutions, enter young adulthood knowing they must rely on their own resources and cut their own trail thru the wilderness of the future – a feeling that I have known all my life (see the prologue of the 1st installment of this series)), and Artists (born during a Crisis from Nomad parents and overprotected by them, they enter adulthood as conformists, consensus seekers and compromisers, and are highly supportive of and deeply impressed by the Hero generation which precedes them.)
For me, a simple way to understand the underlying principles of the Generational Cycle is to remember that, by and large, each generation thinks it’s smarter than their parents. 😉
The interactions between each generation during a given period, when they are all at different stages of their lives and have different social standing with respect to one another, is what creates the events and outcomes of that period of the cycle.
In order to provide a focus for the discussion, let’s capture the main characteristics of the generations in our own time using the Strauss & Howe tools:
Baby Boomers – a Prophet generation and children of the (Hero) GI Generation, born 1941-1960 (approximately.) As young adults, they rebelled against their parents, called themselves ‘Hippies’, advocated ‘Free Love’ and ‘Flower Power’, and adopted a “Turn On, Tune In and Drop Out” attitude to life. They are now approaching or are already in retirement. It is this generation who gave birth to the Millenials (the next ‘Hero’ generation) and who are supposed to generate a ‘Grey Champion’ that, with a voice of fire and brimstone, rallies the young Heros and points to the path which they must follow in order to resolve the Crisis and restore the polity to the kind of order and prosperity which they remember from their own childhood.
Generation X – that would be MY generation, folks: the Nomads. Born from 1961-1981 and children of a “Silent” generation of Artists, we are self-reliant and wary of authority. Fundamentally pragmatic and rising into positions of power at this point, we are expected to provide the practical guidance and mission directives to Millenials thru the Crisis.
Millenials – born 1982-2004, whose parents are the Boomers. It is hoped that this will be this cycle’s Hero generation which will triumph over the Crisis and establish a new Golden Order; a generation that is supposed to be self-confident, team-oriented, civics – conscious and driven by concern for the Greater Good.
My own experience has been more….nuanced. Some millenials I’ve met have a despicable sense of self-importance, narcissism and entitlement with a strong elitist tint. Their mere presence is a divine gift, their self-awarded greatness based not on achievement but on the mere fact that they draw breath, accompanied by an obsession with receiving continual validation and exercising control. They are, in short, the worst possible products of what is now a very ‘progressive’ educational system heavily based on ‘participation’ awards. There are other millenials, however, who I have found to be stunningly humble, genuine, honest, driven to prove themselves, anxious to achieve worthwhile things and quite eager to learn. As best as I can tell, the dividing line between these two general types of millenials is age. Those born, say, from 1982-1993 seem more likely to exhibit the negative traits, while those born later hold promise. There seems to be a genuine divide between them as well, as I’ve seen the two groups clash heatedly.
Generation Z (the Homeland Generation) – beginning in 2005, those of this emerging generation are the Artist children of Generation X. Early data suggests they will play their usual support role to the Hero generation of Millenials, though I suspect they will align themselves with the younger half of that group.
And now that we have our full set of analytical tools, what does their application to our current situation tell us?
I’ll begin a step by step analysis in the next post. 🙂