Arnold J. Toynbee: An Introduction, Analysis, and Evaluation (2)

In the previous article on this topic we began to discuss the rise and breakdown of civilizations. This is an exceedingly important aspect of the philosophy of history developed by Toynbee and it is my intention to develop this aspect of Toynbee’s philosophy more thoroughly before going on to other elements of the theory under consideration.
The Rise of Civilizations
Civilizations emerge, according to Toynbee, out of a primitive society. This emergence is caused by “challenge and response,” and is initiated by a creative minority which responds to an initial challenge and a series of successive challenges. The nature of these challenges can be natural, physical, or human. The success of the creative minority in calling forth responses depends upon the ability of the creative minority to call forth the willing cooperation of the uncreative majority. The challenges must not be too strong but they must be able to call forth a momentum which is strong enough to carry the society from one achievement to a fresh struggle and from the solution of one problem to the confrontation of another.
Toynbee relies heavily on the elan vital of Henri Bergson* at this point in A Study of History to account for repetitive successful responses to a series of meaningful challenges. Elan vital works through what Toynbee calls a series of overbalances. One overbalance sets up the necessary conditions for the next overbalance. This system has in it the potentiality for an “infinite process.” Growth and decay are the underlying assumptions of this approach to the interpretation of history.
The dominant role is played by the creative minority who are a very small part of the total members of any given society. Their influence is not dependent upon their numerical strength but is dependent upon the mystical relationship the members achieve over the passive majority. The individuals in the creative minority create civilizations out of primitive societies; creative minority members are “Superhuman Mystics.” Creative personalities transfigure their fellow-men into fellow creatures by recreating them in their own image. “Transfiguration” is the process which is the essence of the rise of civilizations out of primitive societies.
Because the uncreative majority if left far behind and does not understand nor appreciate the work of the creative minority Toynbee must find a solution to bridge the gap between the uncreative and the creative. The solution is mimesis. It is social drill which leads the majority to the acquisition of certain social assets, aptitudes, emotions, or ideas. The uncreative majority imitates the creative minority, mimesis is a shorty cut in the development of a civilization in any society.
If the creative minority can cope with the challenges that confront it, the civilization will continue to develop. The creative minority must secure the willing allegiance of the uncreative majority to offer successful responses. When the allegiance disappears the civilization is in serious danger of breakdown.
The Breakdown of Civilizations
Volumes 4-10 of A Study of History by Toynbee are devoted to the breakdown of civilizations. The breakdown of civilizations is more obvious than the growth of civilizations. Toynbee includes twenty-six civilizations in his study. Sixteen of these twenty-sic are dead and buried. The ten survivors are: (1) our own Western society, (2) the main body of orthodox Christendom in the Near East, (3) Russian orthodoxy, (4) Islamic society, (5) Hindu society, (6) the main body of Far Eastern society in Chino, (7) the offshoot in Japan of Far Eastern society, (8) the arrested civilization of the Eskimos, (10) the arrested civilization of the Nomads. According to Toynbee the Polynesians and the Nomads are in the last agonies; seven of the remaining eight are in varying degrees of annihilation or assimilation by our own Western society. Six of the seven show signs of having broken down and of having entered into a state of disintegration. The Eskimo civilization was arrested in its infancy.
According to Toynbee one of the most conspicuous marks of the breakdown of a civilization is a phenomenon which takes place in the last stage of decline and fall. This phenomenon is the forcible unification of a civilization into a universal state.
All living civilizations but the Western civilization have broken down internally and are in a process of disintegration. Western civilization has not entered upon the era of a universal state but we can undoubtedly conclude that the “time of troubles” has descended upon the West.
Why do civilizations disintegrate? Is this disintegration an inevitable aspect of the historical process? Are their forces at work in human affairs which bring about this disintegration?
The major factors in the disintegration of civilizations are the loss of creative power in the creative minority. This seems to be an inescapable and inevitable disintegration. It seems that all civilizations must run down. This brings Toynbee uncomfortably close to the determinism which he explicitly wishes to avoid.
Toynbee expressly rejects the idea of determinism. In Volume 4 of A Study of History Toynbee explores and explains the problem of philosophical determinism. Toynbee rejects the determinism of forces beyond our control; this determinism is also rejected by modern physical science in its attitude toward the miraculous. Toynbee also rejects the determinism of Spengler and the biologists who say that every society has a predestined time span. Toynbee refuses to accept the determinism which asserts the inevitable process of the deterioration of the qualities of individuals which causes a civilization to break down. Toynbee sees the cyclical view of history as unacceptable; he cannot adopt the idea of the endless repetition of the same pattern.
Toynbee does not believe that Western civilization is doomed by necessity to join the majority of disintegrated and fallen civilizations. He says: “Though sixteen civilizations may have perished already to our knowledge, and nine others may now be at the point of death, we – the twenty-sixth – are not compelled to the riddle of fate to the blind arbitrament of statistics.” (Somervell, I, p. 254)
Greg Singer paraphrases and describes the attitude of Toynbee as follows: “The Divine Spark of creative power is still alive in Western society – if we have grace to kindle it into a flame, the stars in their courses cannot defeat our efforts to attain the goal of human endeavor.” (Singer, p. 21.)
Although Toynbee explicitly denies determinism he may espouse an implicit kind of determinism which becomes responsible for the breakdown of civilizations. Toynbee’s reliance on the Bergsonian elan vital which calls forth a series of overbalances is ultimately no less deterministic than those forms of determinism which are most obviously deterministic.
Having discussed determinism and having denied its validity in Volume 4 Toynbee examines in Volumes 5-10 of A Study of History the possible explanations he will accept for the disintegration and breakdown of civilizations. Toynbee rejects cosmic forces beyond human manipulation, as the ultimate reasons for the breakdown of civilizations. He insists that civilizations breakdown because of factors for which man is responsible or can control. The factors which cause the breakdown of civilizations are essentially human factors, according to Toynbee, and this opens the door to a multiplicity of possible causes for this important phenomenon in history. (To be continued.)

*Bergson was a French philosopher and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1927, and was one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century.

Originally Published in:
Vol. 30 No. 3 May 1970