Genesis and purpose of the Study

May 1 2007

How did the plan of A Study of History take shape? The gist of it must have been in my mind by 1920, because I made my first deliberate attempt at writing it that summer. The first essay came to nothing, and no wonder; for I had tried to cast it in the form of a commentary on the second chorus – “That uncanny creature Man” – in Sophocles’ Antigone. This false start was owing to an education in the Greek and Latin classics. Yet, without that education, I should never have had the idea at all; for what set me off was a sudden realization, after the outbreak of the First World War, that our world was just then entering on an experience that the Greek World had been through in the Peloponnesian War. That flash of perception had suggested to me that there must be some sense in which Greek history was not “ancient” but was contemporary with ours, and this would mean that Greek history and our history could be laid out side by side and compared with one another. But why had my classical education made me interested in the historical approach to the Greek Civilization in preference to the literary approach or the philosophical? This is a question which I can answer with certainty. It was because my Mother was an historian, and because she had fired me with her own love of History. Greek history was not particularly her line, but it had to be my line if I was to combine the love of History that I had been given by her with the Greek and Latin education that was still the staple at Winchester when I went to school there. So the germ of the idea of this book was planted in the writer’s mind by his Mother at a very early stage in his own mental history.

My second shot at planning the book was made on the 17th September, 1921, in the train between Adrianople and Nish, and this time I succeeded; for, by the end of that day, I had written down, on half a sheet of paper, a list of about a dozen headings; and these headings stand, with very little change, as the titles of the thirteen parts of the book, now published in ten volumes. This time I had not deliberately set myself to make the plan. I had spent the day looking out of the railway carriage window, and the plan that I had jotted down at the end of the day had seemed to come of itself. If this partly accounts for my success this time, another reason for it is that I now also found a way into my subject. I got it from an Irish philosopher in California, F. J. Teggart, and Teggart had got it from Turgot. That great eighteenth-century man of genius had seen that, if one wanted to make a comparative study of History, one ought to start by trying to account for the local differences in the cultures of the living societies, and to work back into the past from this problem in the world of one’s own day.

I now had my plan, but it was not until 1927-8 that I was ready to translate this plan into detailed notes for a book. I had to wait and work, because it was obvious that a comparative study of civilizations could not be based just on a comparison of the one into which I had been born with the one in which I had been educated. An acquaintance with Western history and Graeco-Roman history was not nearly enough for my purpose; and, though, by this time, Byzantine history and Islamic history had already risen above my horizon, I had to start from the beginning in learning the rudiments of the histories of India, China, Japan, and the pre-Columbian civilizations of Mexico and Peru. Meanwhile the archaeologists had been coming to my help by bringing back to light a number of buried and forgotten civilizations – the Shang culture in China, the Indus culture in Pakistan, the Minoan in the Aegean – but it was quite a task even just to keep track of all this pricelessly valuable new knowledge.

The notes for the whole book, which I wrote at last in 1927-8, were voluminous, but they never set hard. When after a journey round Asia in 1929, I began to write the book, the notes changed and developed as I went on. Volume VI, bringing me to the end of Part V, was published 41 days before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, and for the next seven or eight years I was wholly occupied with war-work, while the notes for Parts VI-XIII lay in safe-keeping in New York. If I had not had these original notes on my table when I started to write the rest of the book in the summer of 1947, I could never have finished the job; but, if these now twenty-years-old notes had not once again turned fluid, as, once again, they did, I could never have finished the job either; for at this stage large batches of the notes had to change almost out of recognition under the solvents of new knowledge and new experience. I should, indeed, have been unfit to finish the job if, in 1954, I had still seen History with just the same eyes as in 1927-8. But, in spite of these changes in detail, the plan made in 1921 still held firm; and this has been fortunate, as it has saved the book from losing its original unity.

The only good reason for writing a book is because one’s wish to write it is a master passion. The wish has to be masterful because the work is tormenting, as every writer finds. One writes for fun, but this fun is also hard labour. Of course, this does not mean that one’s work has no purpose. A strong desire implies the presence of a strong purpose inspiring it – even though the latent purpose may not crystallize into consciousness till the work is well under way.

One of my purposes in writing A Study of History has been to throw my infinitesimal weight into the balance in which the historian’s interest and activity is distributed between the study of History in detail and the study of it as a whole. In my belief, there is no fundamental or irreconcilable opposition between these two sides of an historian’s work. One cannot be a historian without both taking general views and verifying particular facts. But each individual and each generation is apt to throw more weight into one of these two complementary scales of the historian’s balance than into the other. The balance is always fluctuating and is therefore always needing to be readjusted; and, in the generation in which I happen to have been born, most Western historians have been throwing most of their weight into the study of details. They have been exploring the vast surviving archives of the local governments of our Western World, and they have therefore been apt to see History mainly as the documentary history of Western national states. This has been a valuable and admirable enterprise, and no historian who was in his senses could think of saying about it: “We have done what we ought not to have done”. It might, though, perhaps be said of my generation of Western historians with more justice that “we have left undone those things which we ought to have done”. As far back as I can remember, I have always felt that many of my seniors and contemporaries have become prisoners of the documentary wealth [see there and elsewhere] which they have opened up. It has been a generation in which historians have had keener eyes for the trees than for the wood; and, since the righting of the balance – on whatever side it may need righting at the moment – is a job that has perpetually to be done, I have felt a vocation to do something, in my own work, to help to bring the wood back into focus. This has been one of the purposes of the present book.

The need for re-directing our attention to a general view of History has also been borne in upon me by other things that have been happening in our time. While the students of medieval and modern Western history have been opening up our Western archives, the Orientalists have been winning new knowledge about the other living civilizations, and the archaeologists new knowledge about civilizations that had not merely been “dead” but had been forgotten for centuries. All these different intellectual activities have been making magnificent additions to our stock of historical knowledge in detail, but they have been going their separate ways without much reference to one another. Why not try to bring them together? Why not try to take a synoptic view of all the civilizations that have been brought into our ken by the separate achievements of the archaeologists, the Orientalists, and the archivists? To make a shot at this synoptic view is another of the purposes of this book.

And then, lastly, there is a practical purpose which I have very much at heart. While, in the field of historical study, the archivists, Orientalists, and archaeologists have still been working almost out of touch with one another, in the field of practical life the World has suddenly been linked up into a single world-wide society by the technicians’ feat of “annihilating distance”. Civilizations which have developed very diverse traditions and diverse ways of life during the centuries for which they have been living in isolation have now suddenly been brought within point-blank range of one another. Their atomic missiles are now poised head to head, while their minds and hearts are still poles apart. We are all aware how dangerous this situation is for Mankind; we shall want to do anything within our power to ease it; and an historian has one thing that he can do. He can help his fellow men of different civilizations to become more familiar with one another, and, in consequence, less afraid of one another and less hostile to one another, by helping them to understand and appreciate one another’s histories and to see in these local and partial stories a common achievement and common possession of the whole human family. In an age of atomic weapons and supersonic guided missiles, Mankind must become one family or destroy itself. And it is one family; it always has been one family in the making. This is the vision which one sees when one focusses one’s gaze on the whole world today. I do believe that a synoptic view of History is one of the World’s present practical needs. And I therefore also believe that any early work in this field will have proved its worth if it is rapidly superseded, as a host of fresh workers pours in to gather up the harvest. If this were to happen to my book, I should feel that it had succeeded beyond all my expectations.

A Study of History, What the Book Is For: How the Book Took Shape, OUP, pamphlet written upon the completion of the last four volumes of A Study of History

I presume that the date was 1954. It was reprinted in

MF Ashley Montagu, editor, Toynbee and History, Critical Essays and Reviews, Boston, Porter Sargent, 1956

One Response to “Genesis and purpose of the Study”


  1. […] had made only a “first essay” in planning the Study by the time he wrote the 1921 essay, but the essay points towards ideas in […]


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