The Anniversary Mystique

The Anniversary Mystique

Cullen Murphy

One good celebration (of the Wilson Quarterly´s 25th anniversary) deserves another.

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Some years ago in these pages, a little-known, and indeed imaginary, historian named Sybil Schwartz published an essay under the rubric "Reflections" on the subject of a discipline called Decalogy--the study of the "inner rhythms" of history as reflected in the recurring patterns of the decades. The conceit of the essay, which appeared as the 1980s began, was not only that "the decade" was a scientifically legitimate unit of history but also that the character of decades--the '20s, the '30s, and so on--was predictable from century to century. The '60s, for instance, are always a tumultuous decade, whenever they occur, whereas the '80s always tend to be dull. During a '90s decade things generally pick up somewhat. I'm not aware that Decalogy ever became the focus of a provocative session at Aspen or Davos, but neither have I heard that its basic tenets have ever been disputed.

Vast amounts of intellectual effort have been wasted on (or channeled harmlessly into) a quest for the predictable patterns and reliable rules of history. The bright exception of Decalogy aside, that enterprise has little to show for itself. The ambitious systems of the Toynbees and the Spenglers lie in ruins. Leopold von Ranke proclaimed the goal of history to be ascertaining "what really happened," but the wisest historians of our own age regard even that modest quest as a pathetic delusion. They scoff at the idea that we can objectively "know" the past, much less figure out what history means or discover the rules by which it proceeds.  

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