A Study of History

By Arnold Toynbee, abridgement by D. C. Somervell, 1946

For Arnold Toynbee, history on the largest scale is the story of the rise and fall of civilizations.  Spengler claimed to identify a distinct essence for each civilization he studied, but Toynbee attempts nothing of this sort.  Two countries are identified as belonging to the same civilization by their degree of interconnectedness.  Toynbee’s interests are almost exclusively with dynamical questions, not what a society is, but how it is changing.  In his schema, a society is presented with a “challenge” of some sort which either overwhelms it or inspires it to advance.  The solution to one challenge leads to another challenge.  When a society ceases to advance by solving challenges, Toynbee says the society has “broken down”.  In his scheme, the breakdown usually happens early in a civilization’s life; a post-breakdown society can, and usually does, have long centuries of peace and prosperity with great technical and artistic advances.  After the breakdown, the society goes through a “time of troubles”, a “universal state” period, and a final disintegration.

The whole scheme—the identification of civilizations, challenges, breakdowns, etc. is incredibly ad hoc.  Toynbee first developed his life cycle scheme by considering one event—the fall of the Roman Empire—and then he insisted on cramming the history of every other society into this pattern.  For example, he is faced with the fact that both the Gupta and Mughal empires look like universal states for the Indian civilization.  Could one civilization have two universal states?  Impossible!  Therefore, India has had two civilizations, which Toynbee calls the “Indic” and the “Hindu”.  They have the same race, same location, same language, same religions, but they are two civilizations—because the scheme demands it.  Similarly, he divides the Chinese civilization into the “Sinic” and the “Far Eastern”, and he claims the current Islamic civilization came into being after the fall of the Abbasid Caliphate.  The Abbasid empire itself was the culmination of the Syriac civilization, a construct of Toynbee’s imagination whose universal state period actually began with the Persian empire of Cyrus, but which was “interrupted” by a millennium-long incursion by Hellenistic civilization.

Then there is the question of what counts as a “challenge”, and what is a “creative response”.  An aggressive state is swallowing its neighbors.  Is the challenge to maintain political diversity, or to establish unity?  A universal church is rent by doctrinal dissention.  Is the challenge to live with plurality, or to eradicate heresy and reestablish consensus?  To solve problems like this, there is Toynbee’s unstated rule:  the ideals of mid-twentieth century social democracy and liberal Protestantism are the ultimate standard of human perfection.  So, for example, Assyria’s conquests in the eighth century B.C. Syria were negative, but Piedmont’s conquests in nineteenth century Italy were positive.  Today’s challenges are what any 1950 progressive would identify as such:  to establish “social justice” and world unity.  He is mildly troubled by some elements of the modern world.  For example, he admits that mass education in a democratic age encourages rule by propaganda, but he thinks this danger has been averted by the BBC, which will educate the masses with the wisdom of their ruling elite.  Thank God we’ve been saved from propaganda!

No discussion of Toynbee would be complete without mentioning his idea of “mimesis”.  Toynbee is relentlessly progressive.  Civilizations only exist to advance.  Any reverence for tradition is “idolatry”.  But creative change can only be accomplished by a creative minority with the mental gifts for it.  The stupid masses are neither capable of creation nor of appreciating the higher forms of life into which they are being led.  Ordinary men are, under a veneer of civilization, still superstitious, pagan primitives.  They must be controlled by social drilling and made to accept the innovations of their creative betters.  So far, so good.  However, Toynbee also thinks that constant innovation is somehow the source of the creative minority’s authority.  He thinks that, when they stop being creative and become a mere “dominant minority”, content to rule a society without improving it, they lose the aura of authority, and the people lose respect for them and plot rebellion.  This obviously makes no sense.  If the masses are as stupid as Toynbee thinks, they would never notice that the rulers are no longer creative, and if they are as conservative as he thinks, they would actually prefer that their rulers stop meddling.  Toynbee seems to be making a mistake common among liberal historians—he attributes his own feelings to the silent masses.

The parts of the book, however, are much greater than the sum.  One can spend many enjoyable and illuminating hours reading Toynbee’s case studies of various societies.  I particularly liked his discussion of “arrested societies”:  the Eskimos, the Spartans, and the Ottomans.  Then there is a reoccurring theme in the book of the millennia-long war between settled-agricultural societies and the north-Eurasian nomads.  This war was finally brought to an end when the Cossacks eradicated and replaced Nomad society in the seventeenth century, an event of world historical importance that I had never heard of till this book brought it to my attention.  This book is full of little discoveries like that.

2 Responses

  1. I am not so sure about the idea that Toynbee argues that one civilization could not have two universal states. Toynbee seems to be saying the exact opposite in the case of the universal states of the Syriac civilization. Namely that the Abbasid and Achaemenian empires are the two universal states of the Syriac civilization.

  2. I’m afraid it’s been so long since I read the book that I’m not in a position to defend my own claim. Sorry.

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