Toynbee and the Outline

March 30 2009

A few posts ago I asked why Wells’s Outline of History had made such an impact, when to us it looks like very basic and amateurish history indeed, even when lit by a certain Wellsian charm. I suggested answers, and there is another. Its early chapters appealed to, charmed, as popular science, an educated public still vastly ignorant of science. Toynbee in Volume XII of the Study, Reconsiderations:

I am ruefully aware that my classical education has left me almost entirely ignorant of modern Western discoveries, from the seventeenth century onwards, in the fields of mathematics and physical science.

Even Chesterton said that he had enjoyed the early scientific chapters. Forster (op cit): “The rocks bubbled and the sea smoked. Presently there was an inter-tidal scum: it was life, trying to move out of the warm water … .” They were the Outline’s Genesis. Toynbee quotes from them in Volume IV. To us, they are the most dated part of Wells’s book.

Toynbee quotes other scientific popularisers from time to time, including Julian Huxley and (especially dated now) James Jeans. Now, “popular science” is as big as popular history. The “Popular Science” section (that was still its old-fashioned name) at a shop (WH Smith?) in Gatwick airport in late 2008 was as large as, or larger than, a large history section.

Volume X:

H. G. Wells in The Outline of History has written an epic poem on the theme “Man Makes Himself” which is explicit in the title of a subsequent book from the pen of an eminent Western archaeologist of the next generation. [Footnote: Childe, V. Gordon: Man Makes Himself (London 1936, Watts).] [One of the most popular works on archaeology in English in the second third of the twentieth century.] This bleak assertion is a post-Christian Western Man’s defiant answer to the Psalmist’s joyful assurance that “the Lord He is God” and that “we are His People and the sheep of His pasture” because “it is He that hath made us and not we ourselves”; [footnote: Psalm c. 2.] […].

Volume III has a more extended passage, notable for a courtliness present in reviewing between the wars and often absent in the ’50s. The old courteous style, with its less respectable sibling deference, disappeared altogether in the ’60s.

Etherialization [becoming lighter, freer, more autonomous] has come to our notice as a concomitant of growth; and our illustrations of the phenomenon make it clear that the criterion of growth, for which we are in search, and which we have failed to discover in the progressive and cumulative conquest of the external environment, either human or physical, lies rather in a progressive change of emphasis and transfer of energy and shifting of the scene of action out of this field into another field in which – as we have noted already in passing – the action of Challenge-and-Response may find an alternative arena. In this other field, challenges do not impinge from outside but arise from within, and victorious responses to challenges do not take the form of surmounting an external obstacle or overcoming an external adversary but manifest themselves, instead, in an inward self-articulation or self-determination. When we watch an individual human being or a human society making successive responses to a succession of challenges, and when we ask ourselves the question whether this particular series of responses to challenges is to be interpreted as a manifestation of growth, we shall arrive at the answer to our question through observing whether, as the series proceeds, the action does or does not tend to shift from the first to the second of the two fields aforesaid. The presence or absence of this tendency gives us our criterion for the presence or absence of growth; and we may add that it is always a tendency that is in question; for, if we look narrowly, we shall find it impossible to cite a case of Challenge-and-Response in which the entire action takes place on either the one or the other of our two fields exclusively. Even in those responses which look like sheer conquests of an external environment at first sight, an element of inward self-determination can always be detected as well and, conversely, there is always some residue of action in the external area, even when the shifting of the scene of action to the internal arena has been carried as far as it will go. The action is never fought solely on one single field in any of those successive bouts of Challenge-and-Response in which the victorious responses accumulate into growths. At the same time, if growth is being achieved, this implies that, in each successive bout, the action on the external field is counting for less, and the action on the internal field for more, in deciding the issue between victory and defeat.

This truth comes out very clearly in those presentations of history in which the attempt is made to describe processes of growth exclusively in terms of the external field from start to finish. Let us take as examples two outstanding presentations in these terms which are each the work of a man of genius: Monsieur Edmond DemolinsComment la Route Crée le Type Social, [footnote: Demolins, E.: Comment la Route Crée le Type Social. (Paris, no date, Firmin-Didot, 2. vols.)] and The Outline of History [footnote: Wells, H. G.: The Outline of History (London 1920, Cassell).] which has been written by Mr. H. G. Wells.

He is almost certainly being too polite to Demolins, one of whose works (1897) was called À quoi tient la supériorité des Anglo-Saxons? The “race or environment” theorising against which he felt it necessary to argue (and for which there were classical precedents) was crude, mainstream and pretentious in 1934. These engagements would make some of his work, in turn, look quaint and dated to the next generation.

The environmentalist thesis is set out by Monsieur Demolins in his preface [footnote: Demolins, op. cit., vol i, p. vii.] with uncompromising terseness:

“II existe à la surface du globe terrestre une infinie variété de populations; quelle est la cause qui a créé cette variété? … La cause première et décisive de la diversité des races, c’est la route que les peuples ont suivie. C’est la route qui crée la race et qui crée le type social.”

When this provocative manifesto fulfils its purpose by stimulating us to read the substance of the book in which the author’s thesis is worked out, we find that he manages quite well so long as he is drawing his illustrations from the life of societies which have remained on the primitive level. In such cases, the state of society can be explained with approximate accuracy and completeness in terms of responses to challenges from the external environment exclusively; but this, of course, is not an explanation of growth, since these primitive societies are now static. Monsieur Demolins is equally successful in explaining the state of the arrested civilizations. He has done a brilliant piece of work in his chapter on the Eurasian Nomads. But conditions are static here again; and this chapter, which comes first in the book, is also an acme, with all the rest of the book for its anti-climax. When the author applies his formula to patriarchal village communities, the reader begins to be uneasy. The explanation seems too plausible, the course too much plain sailing. In the chapters on Carthage and Venice, one feels sure that he has left something out, without being able quite to say what this omission may be. When he seeks to explain the Pythagorean philosophy in terms of a portage-trade across the Toe of Italy, one feels tempted to smile, but checks oneself in deference to Monsieur Demolins’ impressive ability and disarming enthusiasm. But the chapter entitled “La Route des Plateaux – Les Types Albanais et Hellène” pulls one up short. Albanian Barbarism and Hellenic Civilization to be unhesitatingly bracketed together, just because their respective exponents happen to have arrived once upon a time at their respective geographical destinations by way of the same terrain! And the great human adventure and human experience which we know as Hellenism to be reduced to a kind of epiphenomenal by-product of the Balkan plateaux! In this unlucky chapter, the argument of Comment la Route Crée le Type Social confutes itself by a palpable reductio ad absurdum. When a civilization goes so far in its growth as the Hellenic Civilization went before it suffered breakdown, an attempt to describe its growth exclusively in terms of responses to challenges from the external environment becomes positively ridiculous.

Mr. Wells, again, seems to lose his sureness of touch when he handles something mature instead of handling something primitive. He is in his element when he is exercising his imaginative powers in order to reconstruct some dramatic episode in some remote æon of Geological Time. His story of how “these little theriomorphs, these ancestral mammals”, survived when the overgrown reptiles went under is almost worthy to rank with the Biblical saga of David and Goliath, and in its own vein it is inimitable. As we read the passage, [footnote: Wells, op. cit., pp. 22-4. […]] we look forward eagerly to coming chapters, in which this brilliant mind is to play upon the famous events of human history; but we are destined to experience a certain disappointment. When the little theriomorphs turn into Palaeolithic Hunters or Eurasian Nomads, Mr. Wells, like Monsieur Demolins, still comes up to our expectations; and he does passably well when some individual theriomorph, here and there, develops the personality of a Ts’in She Hwangti [how the English accent comes through in these Wade-Giles or pre-Wade-Giles Romanisations!], or even the personality of a Nabonidus. But he comes to grief in the recent annals of our own Western history when he has to size up that singularly etherialized theriomorph William Ewart Gladstone. In appreciating – or failing to appreciate – Mr. Gladstone, Mr. Wells has allowed his judgement to be perverted by conscious prejudice and – still graver intellectual crime – by involuntary obtuseness. No doubt, in Mr. Wells’s own mind, his passing references to Mr. Gladstone, whether felicitous or not, are only a niggling detail in the great sweep of his historical panorama; and yet, in a sense, they are a touchstone for trying the quality of the whole monumental work. For, in handling Mr. Gladstone, Mr. Wells is handling a great man of his own culture and his own country and his own century; and, to an author with Mr. Wells’s imaginative gift, such a subject offers an opportunity of apprehending human character, not by a mere description and classification and docketing of the outer man, but by an intuitive sympathy of one soul with another. Mr. Wells has failed to rise to the occasion here because he has failed to transfer his spiritual treasure, as his narrative proceeds, from the Macrocosm to the Microcosm; and this failure reveals the limitations of the magnificent intellectual achievement which The Outline of History represents. [Footnote: This criticism of The Outline of History is made with all respect, in the belief that frankness in criticism is the best evidence of sincerity in appreciation. For a positive appreciation of Mr. Wells’s achievement as an historian, see [a passage I am about to quote from Volume I].]

Forster (op cit) says something about Wells’s difficulty in portraying real human beings in the Outline. “The outlines are as clear as ever, but they are not the outlines of living men. He seldom has created a character who lives (Kipps and the aunt in Tono-Bungay are the main exceptions).”

“And what is it all about, anyhow? What is the meaning of this evolution from igneous gas, through scum and Christianity, to ourselves and mustard gas?” The answer he attributes: progress through, if we have enough of it, science.

Volume I has this. It comes soon after a passage on Mommsen that I have already quoted and describes exactly the destiny which awaited Toynbee himself, not so much in the way the first six volumes were received before the Second World War as in the destructive criticism which he would meet after it.

Mr. H. G. Wells’s The Outline of History was received with unmistakable hostility by a number of historical specialists. They criticized severely the errors which they discovered at the points where the writer, in his long journey through Time and Space, happened to traverse their tiny allotments. They seemed not to realize that, in re-living the entire life of Mankind as a single imaginative experience, Mr. Wells was achieving something which they themselves would hardly have dared to attempt – something, perhaps, of which they had never conceived the possibility. In fact, the purpose and value of Mr. Wells’s book seem to have been better appreciated by the general public than by the professional historians of the day.

A Study of History, Vol XII: Reconsiderations, OUP, 1961

A Study of History, Vol X, OUP, 1954

A Study of History, Vol III, OUP, 1934

A Study of History, Vol I, OUP, 1934

3 Responses to “Toynbee and the Outline”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    After societies have mastered their external environment, he writes elsewhere, their history can be understood less in terms of external challenge-and-response and more in terms of challenge-and-response within the “etherialised” society or individual. This requires a more empathetic kind of historian. But the “mere description and classification and docketing” of which he accuses Wells was an accusation sometimes made against him.

    His criticism of Wells is fair. The references to Gladstone are merely a case in point. The work does not live.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    Wikipedia’s statement that the term “etherealization” was coined by Buckminster Fuller needs modifying. Nor did Toynbee invent it.

  3. dino Says:

    Dear Mr Derrick,
    you seem to suggest that the ‘race and environment’ debate was outdated even when Toynbee was writing his study. But is not the debate still alive and kicking in terms of ‘nature versus nurture’?

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