January 12 2008

“When has Toynbee ever modified his text in answer to criticism?” asked Trevor-Roper in an article in Encounter, Arnold Toynbee’s Millennium, in June 1957. Volumes VII-X of the Study had appeared in 1954.

The answer is that it was impossible to revise them or their predecessors, but he was about to begin work on an additional volume in which he would look at arguments presented by his critics. An eleventh volume, an atlas, appeared in 1959. The twelfth came in 1961 and was called Reconsiderations.

Very few people indeed will consider reading it. If you haven’t read the first ten – “monstrous” (AJP Taylor) – volumes and mastered their arguments, why look at a 740-page book of engagements with critics? Better, surely, to read Somervell’s abridgement. Or Caplan’s.

Actually, no. The abridgments leave out too many of the anecdotes, quotations and digressions which are half the fun. Reconsiderations is a largely self-contained work which sets out many of the arguments again, summarises others, and deals engagingly with the whole body of criticism which had appeared since the war. It’s not a bad place to start. The index is even in the same volume. Begin with Volume XII and then, if you are still interested, go on to I-X.

William McNeill is wrong when he says that Reconsiderations left the Study a “shambles” (in 1963, apparently). The Study was not supposed to be a neatly-resolved final word on “human affairs”, but a provisional one. In time, when better work had been done, its author hoped that it would be superseded and forgotten. That doesn’t make it a failure. Reconsiderations is a synthesis of the Study, balances it, and puts it, pro tem, to rest. It is not “interesting only to specialists”.

EWF Tomlin says that “He was in many ways his own keenest critic. That is the reason, no doubt, why the twelfth volume of the Study of History […] proves such satisfying and profitable reading.” And “Even the most intransigent critic could not fail to notice that Reconsiderations was a masterly volume of apologia, rejoinder, and fair-minded admission of shortcomings; and it remains perhaps Toynbee’s most sustained piece of expository prose.”

McNeill is very good on Toynbee’s intellectual evolution and his personal life, but Tomlin would have produced a more sympathetic, more joyful, less grudging biography.

4 Responses to “Reconsiderations”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Arguably, the revision of the whole which Reconsiderations is not was accomplished by Toynbee in collaboration with Jane Caplan. The 1972 abridgment reflects some of his changed thinking.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    Not the least of the problems with McNeill is that he, inexplicably, fails to make a single mention of Toynbee’s last work: the large-scale The Greeks and Their Heritages, which was published posthumously in 1981, eight years before McNeill published his biography. This goes far beyond the minor omission of which any book can be accused.

  3. […] in 1954. Volume XI, a Historical Atlas and Gazetteer, followed in 1959, and Volume XII, called Reconsiderations, answering his critics, in […]

  4. davidderrick Says:

    Pace Tomlin, Toynbee does not always address important criticisms in Reconsiderations. Perhaps he even artfully avoids the most trenchant of them. I will try to set out a balance-sheet later.

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