Arnold J. Toynbee: An Introduction, Analysis, and Evaluation

One of the greatest of the twentieth century philosophers and interpreters of history was Arnold J. Toynbee. Spengler (1880-1936), the German philosopher who taught in his book, The Decline of the West, that every culture passes through a life cycle similar to that of human life, never became as popular as Toynbee. Toynbee’s works did become popular among historians and the authorized condensation by Sommervell of Toynbee’s 12-volume A Study of History helped to popularize his works and ideas. The optimism of Toynbee contrasted with the pessimistic determinism of Spengler also helped to make the philosophy of the former palatable to a broader group of historians.
I have chosen to discuss Toynbee rather than one of the historians who have interpreted U.S. History because the vision of Toynbee and the scope of his philosophy is panoramic and universal. His is a world-wide, world-encompassing philosophy of history. The vision of men such as Frederick Jackson Turner, Henry Commager, and Charles Beard is limited and parochial because these historians limit themselves to an interpretation of U.S. History. We hope in later essays to analyze and evaluate the work of historians who have limited themselves to an interpretation of the history of this country.
Who is Toynbee? Arnold J. Toynbee was born in London in 1889 and still lives in England. He was educated at Winchester and Balliol College at Oxford University. He graduated from Oxford in 1911 and immediately went to study at the British Archaeological School in Athens. While he was in Greece he acquired a lasting interest in the history of classical civilization. He said that while he was hiking around Greece on the trail of Epaminondas(1) and Philopoemen(2) and was listening to the talk in the village cafes, he learned for the first time of the existence of a foreign policy of the British statesman, Sir Edward Fray. When World War I began, Toynbee served with the Political Intelligence Department of the British Foreign Office, leaving a teaching fellowship at Balliol College at Oxford University. In 1919 he served as a delegate to the Versailles Conference as a specialist on the Middle East situation. He confesses that his wartime experiences, and his experiences associated with the writing of the peace treaty, served to bring to his thinking a new awareness of the continuity within history and a realization that the events he was witnessing were not unrelated to the history of Greece and Rome. He returned from Paris and until 1924 became the professor of Byzantine and modern Greek languages and history at the University of London. From 1925 until 1955 he served as director of studies for the Royal Institute of International Affairs and as Research Professor of International History. From 1920 to 1938 Toynbee wrote the yearly Survey of International Affairs. From 1934 till 1961 he worked on his 12-volume work, The Study of History.
What was the Background of Toynbee’s Philosophy of History? Toynbee’s interest in the meaning of history must be found in his early devotion to the study of classical culture. In fact Toynbee claims that the history of Greece and Rome are the true pattern which all other civilizations must follow. In Civilization on Trial Toynbee gives three reasons the historian should have a classical education.
1. Graeco-Roman history is finished. Because it is finished, this history can be seen in perspective. On the other hand Western world history is unfinished, and we do not know its ending. We cannot see the general aspect because we are part of the crowded and agitated stage.
2. Graeco-Roman history is not cluttered with details. Since the time of the Graeco-Roman age many of the details of this history have been deleted and the material that do survive are manageable in quantity and they are choice in quality.
3. Graeco-Roman history is ecumenical and not limited in its outlook. The dominate note of Graeco-Roman history is unity. Toynbee insists that we are mistaken when we emphasize national history because national history is too limited in its outlook and its affect.
Toynbee goes on to say in Civilization on Trial: What we read today in Thucydides(3) concerning his experiences in the past are the experiences we have in our world now! Thucydides’ present was to be my future! Thucydides’ world and my world though chronologically distinct are philosophically united and contemporary.
In an article “I Owe My Thanks,” Saturday Review, Oct. 2, 1954, pp. 13-16, 52-55, Toynbee admits that there were other influences beside his interest in Graeco-Roman history. He thanked Edward Gibbon for showing him what an historian can do; he thanked Sir Edward Creasy for his The Fifteen Battles of the World(4) because this gave him his first notion of the possibility of a universal history; he thanked C. G. Jung for his phychological insights; he thanked Plato for teaching him to use his intellect as well as his imagination; he thanked Robert Browning for the concept of challenge and response. Others who received special commendation were John Stuart Mill, Theodore Mommsen, Goethe, Heine, and Herodotus. The Gospels he thanked for giving him an awareness of the divine being in history. (It will become obvious that he missed the meaning of the Gospels.) World War I he thanked for allowing him to see that the world of 1914 was entering upon an experience which Thucydides had already recorded.
What Did Toynbee Try To Do? Toynbee professed to set out to free the study of history from the prison house of determinism.(5) He believed that previous philosophies of history had been characterized by determinism. He said concerning Spengler in Civilization on Trial, p. 10. Spengler was, it seemed to me, most unilluminatingly dogmatic and deterministic.
What Method Did Toynbee Follow? Fritz Stern in The Varieties of History, p. 23, says: In a grandiose manner Toynbee triumphed over the limits of the conventional historian and by hs rather simple explanation of the growth and decline of civilizations captured, at least for a time, the public’s imagination.
Toynbee advocated the study of history through the examination of the rise and fall of civilizations. He believed that the historian must study civilizations because they are the smallest unit of historical study which will serve as a basis for the discovery of the meaning of history. In Civilization on Trial, p. 9, Toynbee says; One of my own cardinal points was that the smallest intelligible fields of historical study were whole societies and not arbitrarily insulate fragments of them like the nation-states of the modern West or the city-states of the Graeco-Roman world. Another of my points was that the histories of all societies of the species called civilizations were in some sense parallel and contemporary;…”
To What Conclusions Did Toynbee Come? The conclusion of Toynbee forms the thesis of his work. In his investigation he distinguishes at least twenty-one civilizations. Five or seven, he says, are still alive. He states that these civilizations grow by responding successfully to challenges under the leadership of creative minorities, and decline when the leaders fail to react creatively.
Toynbee notices that various attempts in the nineteenth century were made to explain and solve this problem of the rise and decline of civilizations. Two solutions cited by Toynbee to have been attempted in the nineteenth century were race and environment. Race and environment were suggested as key factors for the understanding of the rise and decline of civilizations because these factors suggest hereditary and environmental aspects of the problem. Something hereditary or environmental, says Toynbee, has been used to show the loss of creative power in a civili9zation which inexorably results in their disintegration and dissolution. Toynbee attempts to avoid this inexorable determinism of Spengler and others by saying that the death of a civilization is not inevitable for it may or may not continue to respond to successive challenges. Toynbee also refutes Gibbon’s theories which were popularized in the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “that civilizations decline because of their loss of control over their human environment, and that they fall because they cannot withstand assaults launched upon them by alien enemies.” Toynbee’s criticism of Gibbon results in the conclusion by Toynbee that the loss of control over the human environment (amongst the Romans the human environment was the barbarians), has no more to do with the breakdown of a civilization than does its loss of control over its physical environment.
Because race and environment, as espoused by the historians of the 18th and 19th centuries, seemed to Toynbee to be ineffective and unsatisfactory means for unlocking the mystery, he turned to mythology.
What is the Place of Mythology in Toynbee’s Method? Mythology becomes the key for Toynbee’s method of interpretation. Toynbee turned to Goethe’s Faust. In Faust Mephistopheles presents himself before the throne of God and challenges God to give him a free hand to spoil, if he can, one of the Creator’s choicest works, Dr. Faustus. In Goethe’s Faust Mephistopheles (the Devil or Satan) is a genuine challenger. God genuinely, according to Toynbee, puts his created works in jeopardy in order to win an opportunity of creating something new. Because the Devil is a real challenger, we are bound to assume, says Toynbee, that he does not always lose. According to Toynbee the working of challenge-and-response explains the otherwise inexplicable and unpredictable origin, growth, disintegration, and collapse of civilizations. Concerning this rise and fall of civilizations Toynbee says in Civilizations on Trial, p. 13: Briefly stated, the regular pattern of social disintegration is a schism of the disintegrating society into a recalcitrant proletariat and a less and less effectively dominant minority. The process of disintegration does not proceed evenly; it jolts along in alternating spasms or rout, rally, and rout. In the last rally but one, the dominant minority succeeds in temporarily arresting the society’s lethal self-laceration by imposing on it the peace of a universal state. Within the framework of the dominant minority’s universal state the proletariat creates a universal church, and after the next rout, in which the disintegrating civilization finally dissolves, the universal church may live on to become the chrysalis from which a new civilization eventually emerges.” (To be continued)
1. Epaminondas was a fourth century B.C. Greek general often studies by Philip II and Alexander of Macedonia.
2. Philopoemen was a second and third century B.C. Greek general of the Achaean League, which was dissolved by the Romans in 146 B>C>
3. Thucydides was a fifth century B.C. Greek historian.
4. A historical work of the nineteenth century A.D. in which the author discusses those battles which in his opinion have been a major cause for some great and permanent political changes in Western history.
5. The doctrine that all facts in human history are absolutely dependent upon and conditioned by their causes.

Originally Published in:
Vol. 30 No. 1 March 1970