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

Having been inspired by Bulgarian peasants wearing fox-skin caps like the caps Herodotus and Xerxes’ troops wore, Arnold J. Toynbee began The Study of History in 1922. In his study Toynbee distinguishes 21 civilizations and these grow by responding successfully to challenges under the leadership of creative minorities and decline when leaders fail to act creatively, Toynbee does not wish to believe that the fall of civilization is inevitable and he attempts to flee from the doctrine of “determinism.” Toynbee denies the validity of the determinism exposed by Spengler in The Decline of the West and also refuses to accept the Marxian economic determinism. Toynbee sees history in terms of “spiritual” and not deterministic or economic forces.
For a more thorough introduction to the theories of Toynbee I suggest that you read the four previous articles which I have written on this subject.
The philosophy of history developed by Toynbee is so immense that very few scholars of history have devoted the time needed to master the theories of Toynbee. Toynbee is an exceedingly challenging kind of historical theorist and the language which he uses is so involved and academic that one must spend hours deciphering it so that it can be transferred into a language which will be useful to the student of historical interpretation. Toynbee’s twenty-year project I have been attempting to understand and elucidate during the past year. I hope that I have been able to cause a certain number of my readers to appreciate and understand the ideas of Toynbee.
When I last wrote on this subject for BEACON LIGHTS, I discussed the breakdowns of civilization. This time we must begin a consideration of the disintegration of civilization.
The Disintegration of Civilization
Volume five of Toynbee’s Study of History passes from the breakdown of civilization to the disintegration of civilization. This transition from breakdowns to disintegrations is similar to a previous transition from the geneses to the growths of civilizations. In the theories of Toynbee disintegration and breakdown are distinct processes just as genesis and growth are distinct processes. Toynbee has noted that some civilizations solved the problem of genesis but failed to solve the problem of growth. These civilizations that failed to solve the problem of growth were called arrested civilizations. Civilizations which have gone through a long period of breakdown but are not totally disintegrated are arrested in this disintegration and enter a long period of petrification (petrifaction). Examples of civilizations which have suffered from petrifaction were: the Egyptiac Society, China in the Far East, India, and Ceylon.
As Toynbee is setting things up for his discussion of the disintegrations of civilizations, he cites both Thomas Babington Macauley, nineteenth century English essayist and historian, and Dr. Edwyn Bevan, who wrote a personal letter to Toynbee, to prove his contention that the disintegrations of civilizations is a problem which demands careful study. Macauley’s essay on “History” is explained by Bevan. Macauley argued that the barbarian invasions into the Roman Empire were a blessing in the long run because they broke up the petrifaction of the Roman Empire. The main fret of Bevan was the development of despotism which he thought would be more injurious and harmful than the threatened anarchy. The universal world totalitarian state might develop, said Bevan, if the fratricidal strife in the world is not hated. These comments Toynbee uses to substantiate his position that disintegrations of civilizations present problems which demand discussion and investigation.
Challenge and response is the essence of the growths of civilizations. These responses provoke a fresh challenge and the clan vital (creative principle of Bergson) carries the challenged party into an overbalance which declares itself in the manifestation of a new challenge. In disintegration, however, the repetition of challenges takes place but the response to these challenges fail. This failure in making a creative response is the major difference between the process by which a civilization arises and by which it declines.
In growth the challenges are a series of unique and distinctive challenges. Toynbee says that during disintegration the same challenge comes again and again. Successive encounters with the same challenge end in defeat and not victory. This means that the unanswered challenge cannot be disposed of and it will present itself again and again until it receives some imperfect answer or else brings about the destruction of the society which does not successfully respond.
Dr. C. Gregg Singer, who has written a monograph on the ideas and theories of Toynbee, asks the question, “Why is there the ever reoccurring challenge?”
Is there some deterministic principle at work which makes this process inevitable? It is obvious from the previous discussion that Toynbee would not accept such an answer to the question, He offers his own answer which is quite obviously based on his empirical study of the twenty-one civilizations which have already perished. He comes to the conclusion that it does take place in every disintegrating civilization without exception. But he is not unaware of the pitfall which lies ahead in this kind of reasoning and he assigns causes to this process of disintegration which, to his satisfaction, maintain a degree of human freedom throughout history. (Toynbee, by C. Gregg Singer, p. 33.)
The question of Toynbee’s consistent application of the principle of “human freedom” versus historical determinism will be discussed later but it ought to be obvious that Toynbee is always aware of the need for the defense of this principle of human freedom which he feels is in conflict with the principle of determinism. The question remains nevertheless, “How can Toynbee maintain the seeming inevitability of disintegration of civilizations and still maintain human freedom?”
Toynbee follows the same pattern in studying the disintegrations of civilizations that he uses when he traces their growth. He needs in the first place a criterion to judge the disintegrations. He decides that if in the growth the cause is not to be found in an increasing command by society over the physical and human environment, the loss of such command is not one of the causes of disintegration.
Indeed the evidence, so far as it goes, suggests that an increasing command over environments is a concomitant of disintegration rather than growth. (Somervell, I, p. 364.)
Militarism is cited by Toynbee as a feature of breakdowns and disintegrations but it is also an effective means for increasing the command over the forces of nature and other living societies. A society incurably divided against itself usually devotes the greater part of those additional resources – human and material, which have been gained by military conquest, for military purposes. Toynbee substantiates his position with the following situation.
For instance, we see the money-power and man-power won through Alexander’s conquests being poured into the civil wars of Alexander’s successors, and the money-power and man-power won by the Roman conquests of the second century B.C. being poured into the civil wars of the last century B.C. (Somervell, I, p. 364.)
Having disposed of the command by society over the environment and militarism as possible causes for disintegration of societies, Toynbee suggests that the criterion for the process must be sought elsewhere. He claims that the clue for this criterion is given us “in the spectacle of that division and discord within the bosom of a society to which an increase in its command over its environment can so often be traced back” (Somervell, I, p. 365). Because Toynbee has already concluded that the ultimate criterion of the breakdowns which precede disintegrations is the outbreak of internal discords through which societies forfeit their right of self-determination, these social schisms will be the ultimate cause for disintegration.
Toynbee identifies two types of social schisms. They are vertical and horizontal schisms. The vertical schisms occur between geographically segregated communities but the horizontal schisms occur between geographically intermingled but socially segregated classes.
Vertical schisms are characterized by a reckless indulgence in the crime of interstate warfare. This is the main line of the suicidal activities in which civilizations engage. The division of a society into parochial communities is the most common feature of human societies and interstate warfare is the abuse of a potential instrument of self-destruction which is within reach of any society at any time.
The horizontal schism of society goes along class lines and is a phenomenon which appears at the moment of their breakdowns. Horizontal schism is a distinctive mark of periods of disintegration because it is absent during the phases of genesis and growth. Horizontal schisms are characterized by an internal proletariat and an external proletariat (rebel class). Toynbee uses Hellenistic society to empirically prove his point. He sees the internal proletariat as the creators of the Christian Church and the eternal proletariat as the creators of the barbarian war bands which invaded and infiltrated the Roman Empire. Because proletariats arise during a time of trouble, it is evident that the Hellenistic Society was manifestly no longer creative but was already in the time of breakdown – it was already in decline.
The dominant minority takes the place of the creative minority in the Hellenic society and is caused to retain its position by force because it is destitute of the charm of a former period of leadership. The secessions of the barbarian war bands (external proletariat) and The Christian Church (internal proletariat) were the reactions to the tyranny exercised by the dominant minority.
Toynbee also emphasizes in the study of the disintegration of civilization that the process conforms to a standard horizontal schism, as he has described and envisioned it. This is the tendency towards standardization which happens in every decadent civilization. The standard horizontal scheme is: 1) the dominant minority or universal state, 2) the external proletariat or barbarian war bands, 3) the internal proletariat or universal church.
(to be continued)

Originally Published in:
Vol. 31 No. 2 April 1971