Friday, February 11, 2011


“History repeats itself” goes the old adage. For a long time we heard this saying paying not much attention to it, with the exception of a limited few. Maybe the time is now. Historian Neil Howe certainly thinks so. His breakthrough book “The Fourth Turning” outlines the idea that successive generations of people follow a certain seesaw pattern of high and low, from crisis to prosperity with a roughly 80 year span dividing the whole into 4 parts of 20 years, each corresponding to one generation. His analysis starts around the time of the founding of the United States and continues through the pattern of depression and war following prosperity and to another depression following yet another era of prosperity. Hence from crisis to crisis, the Revolutionary war gives way to the Civil War, which in turn goes through the Great Depression and World War 2, culminating in modern times with our current crisis.
Unfortunately there is nothing new about this idea and I think that even Mr. Howe knows this. Whole nations and cultures believe that time and history are fluid and cyclical. It goes without saying that everything we observe around us follows a pattern of birth and death all the way to the very beginning of the universe. It is only an illusion of the mind that we see ourselves as separate from cycles of nature and time as a straight uninterrupted line of progress from low to high (a very sad state of affairs in today’s academic science and history). Our minds have been much too conditioned by the now almost obsolete ideas of Darwinism. Evolution is a much more complex and fluid component of nature than the simple hierarchic system of those who eat and those who are eaten.
In the years 1833 - 1836 a series of paintings by Thomas Cole sought to portray this idea of natural cycles, but having to do with one of the loftiest of manmade constructs, civilization. Cole’s series “The Course of Empire” progresses from a “savage” state, meaning a scene primarily occupied by hunters and gatherers, through pastoral scenes of Arcadia and ends with scenes of high civilization creating its own destruction and the ultimate apocalypse which eventually ends with desolation once again run over by hunter gatherers. It is a simple and novel idea, one which doesn’t get much play these days. Our preoccupations with ourselves and the now, blind us to the greater picture. We seem to be ever closer to edge beyond which disaster awaits.

The Savage State

The Arcadian of Pastoral State




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