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Born: 1889, London, England

Died: 1975, York, England

Major Works: A Study of History (1934-61). Civilization on Trial (1948), An Historian's Approach to Religion (1956), Change and Habit (1966), Cities on the Move (1970)

Major Ideas

The proper study of history involves studying civilizations rather than nations or cultural periods.

Civilizations arise by the response of creative individuals to challenges presented by situations of special difficulty.

Progress in civilization consists in meeting difficulties by responding in creative ways that are internal and spiritual rather than external and material.

The breakdown of a society occurs when creative individuals fail to lead through the exercise of creative power, resulting in withdrawal of the allegiance of the majority and a subsequent loss of social unity.

Arnold Toynbee, British historian, earned a classical education at Oxford University and was a fellow and tutor there from 1912-15, after which he worked at the British Foreign Office and later served as a delegate to the Paris Peace Conference. In 1919 he became a professor of Byzantine and modern Greek studies at the University of London. He covered the Greco-Turkish war as a correspondent. Then, while holding several academic posts, he wrote his twelve-volume A Study of History, which occupied him from 1934-61. He wrote many other volumes on Western civilization, religions, classical history, and other subjects.

When an important figure dies, it is often appropriate to say that now that person belongs to the ages. For Toynbee, it might be said that during most of his life, the ages belonged to him. He was a researcher and author almost obsessed with facts--but not for their own sake. He saw them as clues to the nature and mystery of the universe in which every human person awakes to consciousness. He was a man trying to observe major patterns throughout history by studying the details of events not only in ancient Greece and Rome, medieval Europe, and Asian cultures but those of Eskimo, Sumeric, Osmanli, Shang, and Mayan civilizations as well.

What unveiled itself under Dr. Toynbee's keen analysis was what might be called the unity of humanity, which also led him to a rather ecumenical view of the presence of God in the world. Roland Stromberg referred to Toynbee as "the prophet of global unification." Toynbee's initial concentration was Greco-Roman history, which impressed him with its global rather than parochial outlook. In his volume Civilization on Trial, he emphasized his views by warning still-slumbering Westerners that "our neighbors' past is going to become a vital part of our Western future," a conclusion which more recent events seem to substantiate emphatically.

Implied in this is a call to responsible action. There are lessons from the past that we ignore only at our peril, insists the British historian. Our debt to the future cannot be overlooked, Toynbee reminds us in a number of publications, including Change and Habit, where we read that "our unborn potential successors cannot plead their own cause. Their plea to us has to be put to us by ourselves, since we, and only we, out of all those who have departed and all those who are still to come, are now alive and therefore now bear the responsibility of holding the trusteeship for the species of which we are the momentary representatives."

This sense of the interconnectedness of all of the dead, the living, and the as-yet unborn is rooted in Toynbee's sense of religious faith. Volume 6 of the work for which he will be longest remembered, A Study of History, ends with a highly religious tone. While he does not preach the dominance of a particular faith system, Toynbee indicates that the only way in which Western civilization will avoid annihilation will be by returning to its Christian heritage penitently and in humility. Elsewhere Toynbee wrote that the Christian impulse gave the West its great achievement: through God, to act not only for one's self but for all of humanity.

In his 1956 book, .An Historian's Approach to Religion, the author shows a broader view of religion, an acknowledgement through an ecumenical approach of the complementariness of the various major faiths. A decade later he would write that "the higher religions have released Man from the social prison-house which he had inherited from his prehuman ancestors."

A good illustration of this overview perspective is found in Cities on the Move, wherein Toynbee tells how he became fascinated with Constantine Doxiadis's "Ekistics." The historian found the discipline "promising because 'Ekistics' is the common ground and natural meeting-place of a number of lives of study that have been pursued, till recently more or less in isolation from each other. Architecture town planning, the study of communications economics, sociology, psychology, medicine biology all contribute.

Some critics made harsh observations about Toynbee s comprehensive approach. Whatever he is doing, he is not uniting history, some of them complained. But the late Catholic historian Thomas P. Neill, who as a scholar seems to have understood Toynbee as well as anyone has, insisted that what the British historian was doing was writing about history but found the work to be a very effective scholarly effort. He concluded that Toynbee's work is "the first Christian philosophy of history of consequence since Bossuet." Neill then adds this commentary; "It reintroduces Providence into history, treats man as a free spiritual being created by God to enjoy the Beautific Vision. Moreover it is more truly a 'universal' history than Boussuet's or any earlier Christian's 'universal history,' for it sees the unity of mankind in creation and in destiny and it attempts to work out a theory of history to give all mankind a place. In this sense it is a richer and fuller inquiry into the meaning of history than previous Christ ian study."

But it would be an error to think that it was faith in the Christian God that originally prompted the young historian to pursue the career that he did. Late in his life, he explained that "my rejection of religion was sudden; my reconversion has been gradual, but it has been lasting." One impetus that motivated Toynbee's work all of his life was the death of his classmates in World War I. Here are just some of the illustrative quotations that have appeared throughout the author's writings, which cover over half a century: "Why am I still alive today, to be writing these lines? If, in 1914, I had been fit for active service, the chances are that, like so many of my school fellows, I should have been dead by 1916." "By the end of the First World War half my contemporaries had been killed....I must work for the abolition of the wicked institution that was the cause of this criminal destruction...." " I am now seventy-five. Half my contemporaries at school and at the university were killed before they were twent y-seven." And finally, from A Study of History: "In 1915 and 1916, about half the number of my school fellows were killed together with proportionate numbers of my contemporaries in other belligerent countries. The longer I live, the greater grows my grief and indignation at the wicked cutting short of all those lives....The writing of this book has been one of my responses to the challenge that has been presented to me by the senseless criminality of human affairs."

"This book" is one of the publishing events of all time. A Study of History contains 3 million words, 332 pages of index, and some 19,000 footnotes. It is not for bulk, however, that the opus will be remembered. Rather it is the combination of great learning, method, and writing style that attracts readers. Toynbee chose to focus not on individuals, not on states, but on civilizations, defining them in spiritual terms that reflected in part, at least, the approach of mathematician-philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. A civilization "might be defined as an endeavor to create a state of society in which the whole of Mankind will be able to live together in harmony as members of a single, all-inclusive family."

According to Toynbee, civilizations arise not because of genetically superior individuals (there are none) nor because of a favorable geographical environment but because of a creative response by a minority of individuals to a situation of special difficulty. Among the challenging situations which serve as "stimuli" to creative individuals are "hard countries," that is, places where it is difficult (rather than easy) to survive; "new ground," where no effort to build a society has previously been made; "blows," defeats of one sort or another; the "pressures" of frontier conditions; and "penalizations," that is, coercive conditions and regulations imposed on one class or race by another.

A civilization grows and progresses, Toynbee argues, when the responses to external difficulties are internal and spiritual, rather than external and material. In general, the more severe the challenge posed by difficulties, the more creative and fruitful the response. The responses that. promote growth are made by individuals who are so stimulated by challenging problems as to make original discoveries or come up with inspirations by which they transform the uncreative majority and encourage a new way of life. Toynbee calls this process "etherealization," and he uses the term "mimesis" to name the process of imitation by which the uncreative majority follows the creative minority.

A civilization breaks down and disintegrates, Toynbee argues, when the creative minority fails to exercise its creative power, leading to a withdrawal of the allegiance of the majority, a loss of social unity, and a failure of self-determination.

A society fails to determine itself in a positive way when the majority acts mechanically in its imitation of the creative spirit shown by its creative leaders or when the leaders themselves begin to act mechanically rather than creatively. Other causes of the failure of self-determination are the practice of using old social institutions as the vehicles for new social practices and the "idolization" of formerly creative but presently outmoded ideas, institutions, or techniques.

In A Study of History, Toynbee traces the fate of twenty-eight civilizations, not to everyone's satisfaction. Pitrim Sirokin, who finds Toynbee's contributions very significant, nevertheless sees the category of "civilizations" as invalid. Another critic says that the theory of challenge and response is too vague. Hugh Trevor-Roper charges his fellow countryman with "conjuring tricks," concluding that Toynbee's major study is a "terrible perversion of history."

One topic that has been among the most controversial for Toynbee is his view of Judaism, which he continually represents not as a living, vibrant higher religion but rather as a fossil of Syriac civilization. Lewis Mumford proclaims this a "major" lapse in Toynbee's thinking and Israel's Abba Eban reacted very strongly to this in an essay titled "The Toynbee Heresy." Even so sympathetic a commentator as Thomas P Neill felt it necessary to label Toynbee both "harsh" and "unjust" on this topic.

Toynbee did have many contemporary admirers. Distinguished historian William McNeill believes that Toynbee "has opened vistas of history and put questions before me as no other single author has done." Here is how Tangye Lean ends his praise: "What remains astonishing is that we should have produced any individual of the size and strength to perform this creative act." Mumford predicts that "if our world civilization survives its threatened ordeals, A Study of History will stand out as a landmark, perhaps even as a turning point."

Arnold Toynbee was a compassionate person. His humanity was apparent in what he wrote. He discovered for himself the flaws of historical figures and he tried to understand them. But he refused to endorse those flaws; instead he attempted to learn from them and thus point to a better way to resolve history's problem. While not a member of any church, he considered himself to be an independent Christian. He wrote that "Christianity's fundamental tenet is, as I see it, a belief that self-sacrificing love is both the best and the most powerful of all spiritual impulses that are known to us."

Further Reading

McNeill, William H. Arnold J. Toynbee: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Highly regarded account of Toynbee as scholar and public figure, with some attention to his considerably turbulent private life.

Peper, Christian B., ed. An Historian's Conscience: The Correspondence of Arnold J. Toynbee and Columbia Cary-Elwes, Monk of Ampleforth. Boston: Beacon, 1986. A meticulously edited exchange of letters that reveals the development of many of Toynbee's central ideas.

Toynbee, Arnold (with D. C. Somervell). A Study of History, Abridgement of Volumes I-VI and A Study of History, Abridgement of Volumes VII-X. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1946 (Vol. 1), 1957 (Vol. 2). A splendid abridgement by D. C. Somervell, a distinguished British scholar, who worked closely with Toynbee (who approved wholeheartedly of the result). The abridgement faithfully follows the plan of the original and throughout much of the abridged text contains Toynbee's words. An especially helpful feature is an abridgement of the abridgement, entitled simply "Argument," a 38-page summary of the entire work. Available in paperback.

Urban, G. R. Toynbee on Toynbee. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974. From a series of radio interviews in which the eighty-three-year-old historian reflects on and reconsiders his judgments on the history of civilizations.
COPYRIGHT 1999 COPYRIGHT 1992 Ian P. McGreal
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Publication:Great Thinkers of the Western World
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 1, 1999

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