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

As we continue the study of the dangerous and deceitful theories of Arnold J. Toynbee, we wish our reader to be thoroughly aware of the fact than an exceedingly important part of his theories is the growth and breakdowns of civilizations. Somervell in his authorized abridgement of Volumes I-VI of the Study of History devotes over 300 pages to the genesis, growth, and breakdowns of civilizations.
In previous articles we have noticed the genesis and growth of civilizations. We have briefly seen how Toynbee applies mythology to the whole problem of “challenge and response.” Challenge and response, a concept which is central to the theories of Toynbee, also provides the impelling reason for the discussion of the relationship of the creative minority to the uncreative majority. Using a process called mimesis, the uncreative majority is able to keep up with the creative minority.
As we concluded our last article we were discussing the breakdowns of civilizations. In a chapter from Somervell (XIII “The Nature of the Problem”) the position of Toynbee is summarized. When states or civilizations disintegrate one of the most notable marks of such disintegration is the reprieve purchased by “submitting to forcible political unification in a universal state” (p. 244). This forcible unification, says Toynbee, has not yet happened to Western Civilization, but it seems that he was beginning to see precursors on the horizon that foretold the coming of such a universal state. Breakdowns said Toynbee “…are failures in an audacious attempt to ascent from the level of primitive humanity to the height of some superhuman kind of living…” (p. 245). Toynbee says further: “We have also described the nature of these breakdowns in non-material terms as a loss of creative power in the souls of creative individuals or minorities…” (p. 245). The result of this loss of creative power is the complete lack of mimesis.
Toynbee also states; “…a creative minority degenerates into a dominant minority which attempts to retain by force a position that it has ceased to merit; this change in the character of the ruling element provokes, on the other side, the secession of a proletariat which no longer admires and imitates its rulers and revolts against its servitude” (p. 246).
Toynbee summarizes the nature of the breakdown of civilizations as follows:
1) A failure of creative power in the minority;
2) An answering withdrawal of mimesis on the part of the majority;
3) A consequent loss of social unity in the society as a whole” (p. 246).
More should be said about the breakdowns of civilizations, but for this article we shall hear Toynbee reject determinism and the determinist solutions of this historical problem.
Determinist Solutions Rejected
We have said previously that Toynbee rejects deterministic or “predestinarian” solutions for the breakdowns of civilizations. Toynbee disposes summarily of three determinist solutions for the breakdowns of civilizations. Those that he quickly denies are:
1. The theory that they (the breakdowns) are due to the “running down” of the “clockwork” of the Universe or to the senescence of the Earth.
2. The theory that a civilization like a living organism has a life span determined by the biological laws of its nature.
3. The theory that breakdowns are due to a deterioration in the quality of the individuals participating in a civilization, as a result of their pedigrees’ accumulating too long a tale of “civilized” ancestors (p. 251).
Toynbee also wished to dispose of a fourth deterministic solution; i.e. the cyclical theory of history. This is a theory commonly held since the eighth and sixth centuries B.C. Plato and Virgil adopted this theory of history. Toynbee insists, however, that his Study of History has given no encouragement to this view. In spite of the obvious element of recurrence, says Toynbee, we need not adopt the cyclic interpretation of all things occurring again and again in a series of never-ending and ever-recurring cycles. He says; “Yet the shuttle which shoots backward and forward across the loom of Time in a perpetual to-and-fro is all this time bringing into existence a tapestry in which there is manifestly a developing design and not simply an endless repetition of the same pattern” (p. 253)
Toynbee further suggests that the metaphor of the wheel offers an illustration of “recurrence being concurrent with progress.” “The movement of the wheel is admittedly repetitive in relation to the wheel’s own axle, but the wheel has only been made and fitted to its axle in order to give mobility to a vehicle of which the wheel is merely a part and the fact that the vehicle, which is the wheels raison d’etre, can only move in virtue of the wheel’s circular movement round its axle does not compel the vehicle itself to travel like a merry-go-round in a circular track” (p. 253).
Toynbee likewise sees this explanation a reason for happiness; he does not believe Western Civilization is inevitably doomed to failure and to consequent breakdown. He envisions the possibility of a civilization which will not breakdown but will be able to survive. He has a utopian dream which he hopes will be fulfilled. Toynbee says: This is a message of encouragement for us children of the Western Civilization as we drift today alone, with none but stricken civilizations around us. It may be that Death the Leveller will lay his icy hand on our civilization also. But we are not confronted with any Saeva Necessitas. The Dead civilizations are not dead by fate, or “in the course of nature,” and therefore our living civilization is not doomed inexorably in advance to “join the majority” of its species. Though sixteen civilizations may have perished already to our knowledge, and nine others may be now at the point of death, we – the twenty-sixth – are not compelled to submit the riddle of our fate to the blind arbitrament of statistics. The divine spark of creative power is still alive in us, and, if we have the grace to kindle it into flame, then the stars in their courses cannot defeat our efforts to attain the goal of human endeavor (p. 254).
A Preliminary Evaluation
I have refrained from evaluating the theories of Toynbee in my former articles but I find that as I come to the conclusion of this third article I must make a preliminary evaluation of the historical theorizing of Toynbee.
Arnold Toynbee’s theories are humanistic and nominally Christian. Man is the measure of all the events of history in Toynbee’s, A Study of History. He believes that man can erect, if he will use his powers, a utopia which will not fail. Toynbee always suggests that if man will remain creative he will cause a great civilization to arise.
Such a utopian, postmillennial dream world is not promised by the Scriptures. The kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ cannot be understood by the idealists of the world. Nominal Christendom has prostituted the Christian ideal and has not understood Christ’s testimony to Pilate. “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence” (John 18:36). The kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ has never been imagined by man. It could not enter into the heart of man. “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” (I Cor. 2:9; Isaiah 64:4).
“But we have the mind of Christ” (I Cor. 2:16b). (To be continued)

Originally Published in:
Vol. 30 No. 5 August September 1970