The argument

September 3 2008

I linked to the full contents the of A Study of History, the first time they had been presented in one place, here.

Here I linked in the same way to the contents of the two abridgements. DC Somervell, the first abridger, also presents an Argument, too long for easy posting. This is “an abridgement of an abridgement” at the end of each of his volumes (1946 and 1957).

Toynbee summarised his ideas in several places, but he also offers an argument, shorter than Somervell’s, in the introductory paragraphs to the eleven Parts of the second abridgement (1972), which he made in collaboration with Jane Caplan.

Here are those paragraphs. I’ll number them. They also have never been presented together until now. They are not as clear or pointed as they could be. I am sure the words are more Caplan’s than Toynbee’s. They are a summary of an abridgement and final rethinking, not of the original work (1934-61), but the outlines of the original work are there.

I have just written on the About page: “His fiercest post-war critics were judging the whole, or large parts, and the further away you stand from this canvas, the harsher your judgment is likely to be.” I said that because the charm of the Study is in the foreground detail, where this blog usually wanders. If you stand as far back as we are about to now, there is also not much to object to prima facie. There is not enough to go on. The problems come when we look more closely and systematically at the whole work and its methods, as the post-war critics did.

Paul Johnson: “Toynbee often reminds me of Herbert Spencer, erecting an enormous centotaph of industry and erudition on a tiny plinth of common sense.” (The Times, July 15 1976.)

I. I begin my Study by searching for a unit of historical study that is relatively self-contained and is therefore more or less intelligible in isolation from the rest of history. I reject the present-day habit of studying history in terms of national states; these seem to be fragments of something larger: a civilization. In so far as Man needs to classify information before interpreting it, this large-scale unit seems to me to be less distorting than a smaller scale. After defining my unit, and looking at pre-civilizational societies, I try to establish a “model” for histories of civilization, taking my cue from the course of Hellenic, Chinese, and Jewish history. By combining their principal features, I propose a composite model which seems to fit the histories of most of the civilizations we know. I conclude by assembling a list of civilizations past and present.

II. Having rounded up my horses, I now set myself to put them through their paces. What is it that brings a civilization to birth? I first try race and then environment, and I find both these explanations unsatisfying, because they assume that living beings are subject to inexorable laws of Nature, like dead matter. So I look for an explanation in terms of life, which in human affairs means free will. I find this

in the insights of mythology and religion, which show creation as the outcome of an encounter – a process that I shall describe as challenge-and-response. I then try to discover the limits within which the interplay of challenge-and-response is effectively creative in practice. I do this by examining a number of test cases, and I find that, although a strong stimulus is needed to bring a civilization into existence, the challenge must not be so severe as to stifle creativity.

Testing and rejecting theories of race made Toynbee seem dated in 1972. He was still referring to ideas which he had had no choice but to examine in 1934.

III. A civilization that has successfully come to birth has surmounted the first and highest hurdle, but will it then automatically go on from strength to strength? The evidence of some societies whose growth has been arrested after birth suggests that this does not always happen, and so I am led on to investigate the nature of growth itself. A society continues in growth, it seems, when a successful response to a challenge provokes a fresh challenge in its turn, converting a single movement into a series. I am then driven to ask whether the successive steps in this sequence of challenge-and-response lead in some direction. The notion of inevitable progress towards a predictable goal seems to me to be inappropriate in the human sphere, but I find that in a general way the growth of a society can be measured in terms of the increasing power of self-determination won by the society’s leaders; and I believe that the future fate of a civilization lies in the hands of this minority of creative persons.

IV. Why have some civilizations broken down in the past? I do not believe that civilizations are fated to break down, so I begin by exposing the fallacious arguments of the determinists. Having rejected determinist explanations, I look for an alternative. I find, first, that the very process by which growth is sustained is inherently risky: the creative leadership of a society has to resort to social “drill” in order to carry along the uncreative mass, and this mechanical device turns against its masters when their creative inspiration fails. I then have to account for the failure of creativity, and I ascribe it to the spiritual demoralization to which we human beings seem to be prone on the morrow of great achievments – a demoralization to which we are not bound to succumb, and for which we ourselves bear the responsibility. Success seems to make us lazy or self-satisfied or conceited. I muster a series of notable historical examples to show how this actually happens and how human beings have erred in each case.

V. Breakdowns are not inevitable and not irretrievable; but, if the process of process of disintegration is allowed to continue, I find that it seems to follow a common pattern in most instances. The masses become estranged from their leaders, who then try to cling to their position by using force as a substitute for their lost power of attraction. I trace the fragmentation of society into a dominant minority, an internal proletariat, and an external proletariat consisting of the barbarians on its fringes; and I sketch the social reactions of these diverse groups to the ordeal of disintegration. I also find a corresponding social schism in the souls of people who happen to have been born into this unhappy age. Discordant psychic tendencies which are perhaps always latent in human nature now find free play. People lose their bearings, and rush down blind alleys, seeking escape. Greater souls detach themselves from life; still greater souls try to transfigure life higher than mere life as we know it on Earth, and sow the seeds of a fresh spiritual advance.

VI. When a society is in disintegration, each of the three factions [dominant minority, internal proletariat, external proletariat] into which it splits produces an institution. The dominant minority tries to preserve its threatened power by uniting the warring states into a universal state. I use this name because these empires, though not literally worldwide, embrace the whole territory of a single civilization.

This is unclear. What are the three institutions? The dominant minority creates a universal state. The internal proletariat nurtures a religion. What is the institution of the external proletariat?

But universal states have sometimes been the work of alien empire-builders, just as the higher religions and the barbarian cultures have been alien in inspiration, and these facts lead me to re-examine my proposition that a civilization is self-contained and is therefore an intelligible field of study. I begin by asking whether universal states are ends in themselves [in some meta-historical sense] or means to something beyond them. By looking at some of their institutions, I discover that they unintentionally benefit both the higher religions and the barbarians, though it is the religions that profit most.

This is Toynbee’s idea of the universal state as the chrysalis of a higher religion. He then goes on to to his idea of a future “world state”.

At the same time, although the historical universal states have so far always been local and ephemeral, they seem to be foretastes of a future régime in which the whole of Mankind will live in political unity, and so I conclude by assessing the prospects for this.

Paul Johnson, op cit, calls Toynbee “Early League of Nations Man”. There is some justification in that, though Toynbee had been sceptical of the League of Nations as conceived by Woodrow Wilson.

According to some of his critics, such as Geyl, his and others’ longing for, or expectation of, world government had a dark side: defeatism about Western civilization.

Trevor-Roper thought that it was latently fascist (Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Prophet, New York Review of Books, New York, October 12 1989). On top of this, he thought that Toynbee was exalting himself personally as a prophet. He confused Toynbee with cranks and faddists of the 1930s.

It was, in truth, a sign of two things: his lasting reaction against the “idolatrous” worship of “parochial” national states which had led to the “fratricidal” First World War; and his idealism: if humanity is to aspire to being a communion of saints, then excessive reverence of mundane institutions must anyway fall away.

These tendencies were at the root of his dislike of Jewish tribal and Zionist pretensions, which were interpreted as anti-semitic.

Why humanity would be freer from the worship of an institution merely because it was a world-institution is not clear. And how would a world government be set up?

Communion of saints vs dictatorship of proletariat.

VII. The emergence of the higher religions seems to me to mark so important a new departure in human history that these cannot be dealt with adequately in terms of the civilizations whose declines and falls give rise to them. I try to show that they are not parasites on dying civilizations, nor do they simply serve as chrysalises of new civilizations. On the contrary, I believe that the higher religions are themselves societies of a new and distinctive species; their purpose is to enable men to find a direct personal relation with the transcendent reality in and behind and beyond the Universe, though so far they have fallen short of their spiritual aspirations.

The universal state is the chrysalis of a higher religion.

Most of the religions have achieved the essential step of disengaging themselves from the restrictive matrix of the civilizations in which they came to birth, and have addressed themselves to the whole of Mankind; but some have been betrayed by their institutionalization into becoming rigid in structure and intolerant in outlook. Religions have obviously played an important role in history, but I still have to ask myself what religion is. People have always had something that they call religion, but is the object of their belief real or illusory? I am convinced that it is real, and, although I know that my conviction is partly an unprovable act of faith, I also try to show that only the postulate of a supra-human reality will make some proven human feelings comprehensible to us.

VIII. I believe that civilizations have always been brought to grief by their own faults and failures, and not by any external agency [even in America]; but after a society has dealt itself the fatal blow and is on the point of dissolution, it is usually overrun and finally liquidated by barbarians from beyond its frontiers. The crystallization of a universal state’s frontiers seems to be the crucial event, for this cuts the barbarians off from peaceful social contact and pens them up until the moment comes for their destructive descent. I describe how this barbarian pressure builds up, and I show that the barbarians possess an ever-increasing advantage over the embattled civilization, so that their ultimate victory is inevitable. On the desolated homelands of the former civilization, the barbarians enjoy a brief “heroic age”; but, unlike the higher religions, these ages open no new chapter in the history of civilization. The barbarians are the brooms which sweep the historical stage clear of the débris of a dead civilization; this destructive feat is their historic task, and it has been glorified, to the point of becoming almost unrecognizable, in their myths and poetry.

IX. If it is admitted that single civilizations are not always intelligible fields of study, it seems logical now to look more closely at encounters between civilizations. I want to find out what happens when two civilizations that are contemporaries are brought into close cultural contact, usually when one of them is in the process of disintegration. This type of encounter seems particularly important, because most of the higher religions have arisen in places where several religions have intermingled. I first have to establish the facts about encounters, and, with these facts at my command, I examine the effects, which are disturbing and often alarming. I find that “aggressive” civilizations tend to stigmatize their victims as inferior, in culture, religion, or race; the assaulted party reacts either by trying to force itself into line with the alien culture, or by adopting an exaggeratedly defensive posture. Both reactions seem to me ill-advised. Encounters evoke terrible animosities and create enormous problems of coexistence, but I think that the only positive solution is for both parties consciously to attempt a mutual adjustment. This is how the higher religions have answered the problem, and in our present-day world it is imperative that different cultures should not face each other in hostile competition, but should seek to share their experience as they already share a common humanity.

X. Encounters between contemporary civilizations are not the only way in which one civilization comes into contact with another. A living civilization has an encounter with an extinct one when it brings this back to life in a renaissance. I do not think that this term should be confined to “the” renaissance of Hellenism in Italy: renaissances have been quite common in many other societies, and have also occurred in other aspects of life than those resuscitated in late medieval and early modern Italy. Many people appear to look upon this Italian renaissance as a marvellous cultural rebirth, but I think that a ghost is intrinsically less valuable than a living being. [Surely an utterly false distinction in this and many other cases.] I try to make this point clear by reviewing some examples of these artificial revivals of institutions, ideas, and arts, and I find that the native genius of a civilization is liable to be stifled if the society comes to accept the revival of the old as a sufficient substitute for fresh creative departures.

XI. My study of history would be incomplete if, after having surveyed the process of history, I failed to ask myself what history is and how an account of it comes to be written. I do not think that history, in the objective sense of the word, is a succession of facts, nor history-writing the narration of these facts. Historians, like all human observers, have to make reality comprehensible, and this involves them in continuous judgments about what is true and what is significant. This requires classification, and the study of the facts has to be synoptic and comparative, since the succession of facts flows in a number of simultaneous streams. Historians who accept the full implications of their task are in danger of erecting deterministic explanations, but I do not think that this need be so. I believe that human beings are free to make choices within the limitations of their human capacity. I also believe that history shows us how men may learn to make choices that are not only free but effective by learning to achieve harmony with a supra-human reality that makes itself felt though it is impalpable. A curiosity to explain and understand the world is the stimulus that has excited men to study their past, so I conclude by looking at some of the impulses that have moved individual historians to embark on their work of discovery and explanation.

With Jane Caplan, A Study of History, new one-volume abridgement, with new material and revisions and, for the first time, illustrations, and with a Foreword by Toynbee, Thames & Hudson, 1972

4 Responses to “The argument”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    The text I show here is in italics in the book. (I deviate from my rule of following a printed text exactly.)

  2. davidderrick Says:

    One problem with the Study, it seems to me, is its sprawling shape. If spiritual progress is the factor which makes history more than an endless sorrowful round of breakdowns and rebirths, should the whole project not have reached its climax with the section on Universal Churches? The thirteen Parts might then be arranged thus:


  3. dino Says:

    Dear Mr Derrick,
    the institutions of the external proleteriat are the ‘war bands’ organised to ‘scavange’ on the ‘corpse’ of the disintegrating civilisation.
    In paragraph vii – universal churches are described as the chrysalis of new civilisations (and not universal states). So the temporal order runs – universal state; universal church; new civilisation.

    • davidderrick Says:

      In the later volumes (I’ll try to say exactly where the change happens) Toynbee comes to regard the idea of religions as being “chrysalises” for newly-emerging civilisations as being patronising towards religions, and wondered whether the true function of civilisations might not, rather, be to act as chrysalises for higher religions.

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