Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Round and round we go

One thing I believe distinguishes the 'progressive' worldview from that of classical conservatism is the manner in which they view history.  Much of the progressive agenda is one predicated on constant improvement--not just of technical expertise, but in human nature.  Thus we get the unending efforts to build the 'New Model Man,' usually accompanied by coercive measures... for our own good, of course.

Classic conservatism, however, includes consideration of the fallen nature of Man.  It is from this wellspring we get well-known proverbs such as "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Progressives see history in a linear light, moving (sometimes dialectically) toward utopia.  Conservatives, meanwhile, understand how easily Man forgets the hard-learned lessons of the past.  So it's not surprising that many classical historians had a cyclical perspective of history; one reflected in a current column by Michael Barone:
It's often good fun and sometimes revealing to divide American history into distinct periods of uniform length. In working on my forthcoming book on American migrations, internal and immigrant, it occurred to me that you could do this using the American-sounding interval of 76 years, just a few years more than the biblical lifespan of three score and ten.

It was 76 years from Washington's First Inaugural in 1789 to Lincoln's Second Inaugural in 1865. It was 76 years from the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865 to the attack at Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Going backward, it was 76 years from the First Inaugural in 1789 to the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which settled one of the British-French colonial wars. And going 76 years back from Utrecht takes you to 1637, when the Virginia and Massachusetts Bay colonies were just getting organized.
As for our times, we are now 71 years away from Pearl Harbor. The current 76-year interval ends in December 2017.
Each of these 76-year periods can be depicted as a distinct unit.
What I found most interesting was his chosen time interval.  In recent years, I've seen several references to generational theory.  There seem to be a number of authors with a similar perspective of cycles that last about four generations in one form or another.  If one pegs a generation to about 20 years, that four-generation cycle runs about 80... not too far off from Barone's chosen figure.

Don't misunderstand me -- I'm neither a numerologist nor a historical determinist.  Every generation contributes to and chooses its course.  But considering the Bible's caution "there is nothing new under the sun," and its extensive recording of Israel's continuous cycle of redemption, rejoicing, rebellion and ruin, I'm convinced there's something to this.  (Writing about Arnold Toynbee's approach to History during my graduate studies also took me further toward this perspective...)

We do indeed live in interesting times...

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