Saturday, November 20, 2010

American Cultural Eras: A Summary

      Previously, I made the comment that “American culture in 2010 is more like the 1860s than the 1960s”. Here I follow up on the idea.  In the 1860s America was in two stages of cultural change.  It was a romantic era and an era of secular crisis.  Today, we are in both again.

     The Romantic era of the nineteenth century has many similarities with our current one.  This blog is about Romanticism in general with an emphasis on its current 21st century form.  The concept of secular crisis that I am using comes from the work of William Strauss and Neil Howe, particularly their book The Fourth Turning [1].

     Strauss and Howe defined four cultural phases that constitute a cultural cycle [See Table 1].  The cycle is similar to an annual round with four seasons.  History does not repeat itself but the cycles, like seasons, do.  We all know that the winter of 2009 was different from but similar to the winter of 2005. They occurred in different years, had different events, and the strength of each winter may have been different (mild or severe).  But they were winter none the less due to other defining characteristics (the weather is generally colder; the days are shorter, vegetation is dormant, etc).
     Similarly, the four seasons of American culture are:  Awakening, Culture Wars, Secular Crisis, and Cultural High.  The Awakening is a period of spiritual and intellectual growth that comes from deep confidence within the culture.  New ideas are floated, the status quo is challenged, and sometimes governments are overthrown.  In Western Civilization, the Awakening has the second purpose of being the threshold in-between Apollonian and Dionysian periods. It is a high entropy hybrid era with both ethoses’s equally matched. It is the only season that has a dual role.

     Culture Wars are eras of moral and ethical strife, and when powerful cultures may clash on international stages but with little final result.  Collective confidence erodes. The balance in ethos’s tips to the newer side and this strengthened New Light begins transforming the culture, dismantling the legacy of the Old Light.  This era is sometimes referred to as an Unravelling that leads to crisis.

     A Secular Crisis is a season of deep cultural loss of confidence that typically leads to the overthrow of a well established status quo (although, the new status quo may eventually resemble and act like the previous one). The crisis is an identity crisis but it is often played out as a struggle for economic resources or political ends. Episodes of total war are likely to occur. The last vestiges of the Old Light are purged leaving the culture fully dominated by the new ethos.  

     The Cultural High is when the survivors of the crisis rebuild their society using the guiding principles of the new dominant ethos. Cultural categories are firmed up, empires are expanded and solidified, and confidence is restored.

     Next, another Awakening emerges that starts the process over again.  However, the pattern is not set in stone and it can be broken in any era due to internal or external issues. But the pattern has been consistent for several cycles.  

     Table 1 shows this pattern, taking American history back to its English colonial days. The pattern continues deeper into British history but here I am merely pointing out that it is a pattern found in Western Civilization as other European nations have versions of it too. The pattern breaks from being nation/empire focused into city-state or regional variations the further back in time you go.

     I have shown the Apollonian-Rational eras as blue and the Dionysian-Romantic ones as red. Awakenings are purple due to their hybrid character.   The 17th century may have been more of a pre-Romantic era but I am thinking of the intellectual figures of those years that assisted with creating the rational-romantic opposition during the 18th century, such as Descartes (1596-1650), Spinosa (1632-1677), and Locke (1632-1704). Remember, the Puritans emphasized the rational-intuition dichotomy that would become rationalism vs. romanticism.  

Table 1:  Cultural Eras in American History [2]
Culture Wars
Secular Crisis
Cultural High

4th; Consciousness Revolution
Post Scientism
Crisis of Confidence
Our Future

3rd Awakening
WWI & Prohibition
Depression & WWII
American High

2nd Great Awakening
Slavery Compromise
No slavery Compromise
Gilded Age

The Great Awakening
Colonial Conflicts
American Revolution
Young Republic

Puritan Awakening
Glorious Revolution
Age of Empire

     When was Modernism?  Roughly, from the 3rd Awakening through the 4th Awakening. After that there is an overhang as it gradually fades to its sunset in our current crisis.  Yes, Keynesian crap will end.  Nineteenth century Romanticism ran from the 2nd Awakening through the 3rd; its overhang then faded into the 1930s.

     So, there it is. Year 2010 is like 1860 because we are once again in a secular crisis guided by romantic principles.  Year 1960 was at the end of a Cultural High guided by rationalism.  In 1960 our leaders walked the earth with great confidence.  Today, they may have superficial hubris but their deeper anxiety shows through.  Confidence is lacking and maybe competence too.

     Today, don’t expect rational responses to our current crisis; seek the intuitive solution. Study the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution as they are our best guides to action.  Romantic secular crises do not have obvious linear related events such as B follows A.  But, there are dozens of events that are related in nonlinear ways such that A and B may appear to be isolated events when they are actually in a reciprocal or reflexive relationship.  These are dangerous times in which competence is sorely needed.


1. William Strauss and Neal Howe, The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy, Broadway Books, New York, 1997.  See also their Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069, William Morrow, New York, 1991.  I’ll use their Generations theory later.

2. I use ideas and dates from The Fourth Turning and William G. McLoughlin, Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform: An Essay on Social Change in America, 1607-1977, 1978 for Table 1.  The big difference is that I allow the eras to overlap because cultural processes needn’t be viewed as links in a chain. Within each season there is a 17 to 23 year period that is the core of the season.  Table 1 has no grid lines.  Time and cultural patterns are nonlinear as well. Sometimes it snows in autumn.

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