I’ve been rather intermittently reading The Fourth Turning over the past week or so, which someone kindly sent me (and which I must send back when I’ve read it). When I first opened it, I found it a bit too centred around the USA for my taste. But today I opened it somewhere else, and rapidly found myself rather engrossed in it.
The main idea of the book is that history proceeds in cycles, and the particular cycle with which the book is concerned is the old Roman saeculum, which seems to be the length of a lengthy human lifetime.
This was something I didn’t know. I’d heard of Per Omnia Saecula Saeculorum, and knew that it meant something like “for ever and ever”. But I suppose it actually means “for all the lifetimes of lifetimes.”
Nor am I entirely unfamiliar with cycles of about this duration. I first came across them in Robert Beckman’s Downwave in the form of Kondratieff economic cycles. There seems to have been a long tradition of cyclical economic thought.
Furthermore, there is something of a sense these days that the history of 80 or so years ago actually is repeating itself, with a global depression developing, and a new totalitarianism in the ascendant. The Nazis are back – only this time they’re antismoking Nazis rather than antisemitic ones.
I’m not entirely sure why I find such ideas attractive, but in large part it’s because the natural world demonstrates such cycles – day and night, the phases of the moon, the annual cycle of the seasons, and the 100,000 year cycle of ice ages -, all of which exert strong influences on human life.
I also see lots of cycles in the computer models I build of elastic frameworks. These continually vibrate and rock from side to side. And that is in fact what everything in the world is always doing.
And the saeculum is another sort of cycle. It’s the length of time it takes to completely replace one bunch of humans with another bunch, who will in their turn repeat the mistakes of the previous bunch – and so on ad infinitum, or rather Per Omnia Saecula Saeculorum. So it makes a certain sense if each saeculum repeats the previous ones – much in the same way that each separate human life is, to a large extent, a repeat of all human life.
Nevertheless, if such a cyclicity in human affairs seems very plausible, it also smacks a bit of an astrology which sees human life enmeshed in planetary cycles. And in this sense the Fourth Turning, when it was first published 1997, was a book that set out to predict the future. And it predicted a period of crisis – the Fourth Turning – beginning in the first decade of the next century. And it doesn’t seem to have been wrong.
But I can’t help but think that, given that a saeculum doesn’t appear to be a fixed period of time, or that nobody really knows how long one is, there has to be an element of luck in getting predictions right. In these times when everyone is living longer than they used to do only a century ago, the saeculum must be getting longer. And it could plausibly range from about 60 years to over 100 years – which provides a very large window to fit events into, simply by adjusting the length of the saeculum.
For example, it was commonly believed in ancient Rome that Rome would last for 12 saecula after its founders, Romulus and Remus, circa 750 BC. And if it is taken that a saeculum is 97 years, that extends to the sack of Rome, and the fall of the Roman empire, in 410 AD.
But if a saeculum is only 60 years, it extends almost exactly from 750 AD to the end of the Roman republic at the accession of the first Roman emperor, Augustus, in 31 BC – perhaps the most significant historical event in Roman history. Furthermore, to confuse matters further, in the time of Augustus it was believed that a saeculum was 110 years long.
And so, as a measure of time, a saeculum is a bit like an elastic 12 inch ruler which can be extended or contracted to fit any length of time. And 12 saecula can be anything from 720 years to 1164 years. With such a margin of error, all prophecies are bound to be accurate.
While on the subject of time, I was reminded of an odd feature of playing cards which I noticed a while ago. And it is that the numbers of the cards seem to relate in multiple ways to the duration of a year.
In the first place, there are 52 cards in a standard pack, and there are 52 weeks in a year.
There are 13 different cards in each suit, and this corresponds to the 13 28-day sidereal lunar months in a year – each month being 4 weeks long. And if you happen to think that 13 is an unlucky number, you can always lop one off, and have just 12 months in a year.
There are also 4 suits, which correspond to the four seasons of the year.
But the most remarkable one seems to be that, if each of the cards is given a value of 1 to 13, then the sum total of all the cards is 364. And since most decks of cards come with 2 jokers, if these each have a value of 1, the total comes to either 365 if one is added, or 366 if both are added – the exact number of days in a year.
I can’t make up my mind whether this is accidental, and such numbers could be extracted under torture from any pack of cards – or whether it reflects some long lost use that cards may once have had – quite separate from gaming and fortune-telling -, such as their use as paper currency denominated in days of time.