Arnold Toynbee’s “A Study of History”21 min read

IT would be impossible to summarise Professor Arnold Toynbee’s Study of History within the limits of a single article with any pretence of doing justice to his argument. His interpretation of history is an extremely individual one, and depends for its cogency on the vast array of data he has accumulated in his volumes, from every age known to history, and from every corner of the globe. In the present essay only a few illustrations are taken, and these from the present Western civilisation and its Graeco-Roman prototype, and they can hardly be expected to carry conviction divorced from the wealth of analogous situations which Toynbee finds in other places and at other times. But among contemporary historians Toynbee shines by reason of the universality of his sympathies and his determination to understand the causes of the rise and fall of civilisations in the light of spiritual principles, and even a bald, dogmatic and possibly distorted account of a few of his main conclusions may be of some value, not as a final verdict to be hastily subscribed to, but as a stimulus and inspiration to individual study of and thought about history.

Origins of Civilisation

How did civilisation originate ? According to the evidence of archaeologists, the period of man’s primitive condition was so long that all known civilisations may virtually be called contemporary in comparison with it. How did primitive man suddenly come to make this extraordinary leap in the dark ? The clue is to be found in mythology. We find myths constantly recurring, of individuals enjoying a state of rest from which they are unseated by the entry, at God’s behest, of some disturbing factor. Adam and Eve were at rest in the garden, Job was at rest among his possessions, until suddenly each was plunged into a situation which involved struggle and growth. Somewhat analogous appears to have been the origin of civilised society. To take a single instance, after the Ice Age there occurred a great change in the metereological systems affecting the Mediterranean basin. North Africa became desiccated, and a desert appeared in what had been luxuriant soil on which primitive man had been able to live without labour. Some of the inhabitants responded to this challenge on the part of nature by migrating southwards into land which has enabled them to live in primitive ease to this day. Others responded by moving eastwards to the Nile valley, and by undertaking the difficult task of clearing the swamps, and in the course of their struggles and difficulties here, the arts of life were born. There is further evidence to support this theory in other parts of the world, and if it is correct, it disposes of the older theory that civilisation began in river valleys because the conditions of life there were easy. The origin of civilisation seems to have been the appearance of a physical challenge to which some sections of primitive man made a creative response.

Challenge and Response

The essence of primitive societies is rest. They are like mountaineers sleeping on a ledge. As long as they remain asleep they are in safety, but once the upward climb is begun they are exposed to the danger of extinction from many quarters, yet it is precisely this danger that spurs them to greater efforts. In the case of societies, as soon as one challenge evokes a successful response new conditions arise which form a fresh challenge, either because it moves to new ground and must adapt itself to new conditions, or because it is threatened by its neighbours, or because it finds itself faced with new problems of social organisation. As long as it can preserve its dan of creative response, its- growth and development continue. But when this dan is lost, the society either makes a too-successful and overspecialised response which brings on apathy, or else, more frequently, makes a series of false but apparently impressive responses which ultimately end in its extinction.

Growth of the Graeco-Roman Civilisation

All this may be illustrated from the Graeco-Roman civilisation. When the early Greek tribes first penetrated into the Greek peninsular, some of them crossed the seas to Ionia and the islands off Asia Minor. Here, uprooted from their tribal organisation by the exigencies of a sea- voyage and exposed without shelter to the hostile Asiatic peoples, these early emigrants, faced with this double challenge, made a creative response which was the first flowering of civilisation in the West. They were the first to break away from primitive family custom, and to establish political organisations based on law and locality, and for the primitive ritualistic drama that long continued in vogue in the peninsular, they substituted the soaring epic poetry of Homer. The new city-state way of life was imitated on the peninsular, and under it the several populations grew to a point where they could no longer support themselves by existing methods of agriculture. Here was the new challenge. Most of the city states reacted by sending their surplus population overseas—a method of merely postponing the problem without having to alter their way of life. Sparta wrested land from her neighbours, which proved a false response, for in organising herself to defend it she was forced to form an over-specialised militaristic type of society, rigid and inflexible, which denied satisfaction to the higher needs of the human soul.

Creative Response by Athens

It was Athens that made the truly creative response. Originally under the guidance of the semi-mythical figure of Solon, she deliberately changed her system of hand-to- mouth farming to a system of cash-crop olive farming for export, which enabled her to import food from overseas. This economic revolution brought a fresh social challenge in its wake, namely the need to devise a political framework to accommodate the newly created commercial classes, and Athens responded successfully to this challenge also. In the course of these adjustments, she became ‘the education of Hellas’. Her political framework was closely-knit, yet she preserved her freedom to make new adaptations ; her leaders secured the goodwill and cooperation of the people at large, and except for a brief interlude under Peisistratus and his sons, there was no need to impose government by force; she produced masterpieces of literature, sculpture and pottery ; and when the great challenge came from the Persian hordes, she alone of the Greek states was in a condition to respond and bear the brunt of it.

Breakdown of the Graeco-Roman Civilisation

When was this creative dlan lost? The challenge to which Athens failed to respond was not external but internal. She failed to provide an inter-state organisation suitable to the needs of the league of city-states she joined together in the course of her struggles against the Persians, and attempted to impose her will on them by force. From this point, somewhere between the Persian and Peloponesian wars, may be dated the breakdown of the entire Graeco-Roman civilisation. The internecine rivalry of the Peloponesian war, the great military eruption of Alexander, the pessimistic philosophies of the schools, the military struggles of Macedon, Carthage, and Rome, the long series of improvements in military technique, the final establishment by the Romans of an enormous universal Empire founded on the sword, with all its brilliant incidental achievements in the realm of administration and law—all these events, however externally impressive, are symptoms typical of a society in decline and doomed to extinction.

Schism in the Body Politic

Why does Professor Toynbee set all these events in one vast framework of decline ? Because they were carried out by a society at odds with itself. All political action is initiated either by an individual or by a ruling minority. As long as society is in a healthy state of growth, the ruling minority and the people work with a single will. But as soon as the ruling minority fails to make a correct response to some challenge, not necessarily external, their position becomes insecure, they begin to maintain it by force, and from a creative minority they change into a dominant minority, imposing their will on a more or less reluctant proletariat.

Schism in the Soul

‘ This fundamental schism in the body politic of a society occasions a corresponding schism in the soul of every individual born into it. Because they have lost the creative orientation, both dominant minority and disaffected proletariat seek satisfaction in false substitutes. The dominant minority indulge in militarism and conquest for its own sake, and the frontiers of the society expand while its culture dies. The characteristic philosophies of a dominant minority are negative, deterministic or sceptical. In the Graeco-Roman world, all the thinkers who followed Aristotle however lofty their systems, were philosophers of escape. Art became an increasingly vulgar imitation of past glories. As the frontiers expanded and the numbers of the semibarbarian proletariat swelled, the tone of society, despite the softening influence of Christianity, became increasingly barbaric, not steadily so, but in a series of routs and rallies. By 380 we find the dominant minority, in the person of the Emperor Gratian, imitating the customs of the Goths, the external proletariat of barbarians beyond the official frontiers of the civilisation. This shows graphically that it was not the power to resist the barbarians that the Romans lost, but the will to do so, and this because they were culturally bankrupt. Meanwhile the internal proletariat, with no sympathy for their masters and nothing to expect from them, centred their hopes away from this world altogether, on a God who was a Saviour, and when the society had broken up entirely into marauding war-bands, the ghost of the shattered empire was eventually revived as the framework of a universal religion which now became the positive inspiration of a new civilisation. This brief sketch of the collapse of one civilisation while the religion of despair of the disaffected proletariat becomes the positive inspiration of its successor, may be paralleled in ancient Egypt, China, India and the Middle East.


What is the essence of this creative 6lan without which societies perish ? Professor Toynbee describes it as the ability to continue transferring the field of struggle from the external to the internal world, from the macrocosm to the microcosm. What he means may be illustrated from Shakespeare’s heroes. The struggles of Henry V are wholly in the external world, those of Macbeth partly in the external and partly in the internal world, and those of Hamlet almost wholly in the internal world. The change from the attitude to life of Henry V to that of Hamlet may be described as an advance in self-determination, and this is the true criterion of the progress of an individual or a society. The first challenges with which a society is faced are usually from the physical environment. When these have been dealt with, others supervene, involving more complex social and political organisation, and a more refined and etherealised attitude to life. In answer to these challenges, every great creative act is accompanied by a process of ‘ withdrawal and return ’ on the part of the creative individual, minority, or society making it. Immediate success on the physical plane has to be sacrificed for the sake of acquiring power to achieve a more ‘ inward ’ or ethereal reaction to the external situation, and when this higher behaviour-pattern is achieved, the withdrawing individual or minority returns with enhanced power to command the voluntary allegiance and will to imitate of his fellows.

Withdrawal and Return : Individuals

An enormous mass of examples is adduced to illustrate this law, of which a few are quoted here. The classic examples of individuals withdrawing from society to return on a more ethereal plane with greater effect, are found among the mystics and founders of religions. Christ lived apart in the wilderness, Gautama Buddha rode away from his father’s palace, St. Paul spent three years in the wastes of Arabia, and they returned to paint a really durable pattern on the canvas of history. The power they acquired of attracting the uncreative masses to imitate them voluntarily, is the one sound motivating force to be found in history, though even this is beset with dangers, as we shall see. Withdrawal followed by return on a more etherealised plane can be just as effective when it is involuntary. Thucydides and Macchiavelli are examples of statesmen, discredited and thrown out of office by some mischance, who ultimately exercised a far greater influence by their writing than they could have done if they had pursued their chosen avocations.

Withdrawal and Return : Societies

Before giving some account of Professor Toynbee’s . analysis of the causes of the breakdowns of past civilisations, and of his views about the present condition of our own, a few examples may be cited from his illustrations of the operation of the principle of withdrawal and return as it affects societies. Athens carried through her great economic and social achievements at a time when she had dropped out of the colonial race, and was apparently cutting a poor figure in comparison with other Greek city-states. Both Herodotus and Thucydides look back on this period as a time of eclipse. Yet this period of withdrawal was followed by the tremendous outburst of latent energy with which she flung back the Persians and blossomed into the highest civilisations yet seen in the West. Again, the Italian city- states of the Fifteenth Century, cut off behind the Alps from the main stream of European political development, were meanwhile quietly laying the foundations of renaissance culture and developing the technique of banking and of efficient secular government. The great influence exercised by this Italian culture in the century following the period of withdrawal accounts for the foundation of ruthless secular monarchies on the italian model in England, France and Spain, and is illustrated by the fact that three-quarters of Shakespeare’s plays come from Italian sources. Again, it was when England, after the reign of Elizabeth, first withdrew from all serious attempt to intervene in continental affairs that the processes could be begun by which she established a constitution that became the admiration and model of the Western world. These are but three examples of the way in which the withdrawal and apparent eclipse of a society on the material plane of power-politics leads ultimately to the exercise of a far wider and more enduring influence and ascendency in the realm of ideas. Professor Toynbee amasses other examples from all over the world.

The Criterion of Breakdown

We saw earlier in this article that the criterion of the healthy growth of a society is its progress in selfdetermination, based on the ability of a creative minority to charm and attract the masses, and to induce them to imitate its more etherialised and enlightened adaptation to the needs of the time. What then is the criterion of a society’s breakdown ? The last act in the collapse of a society is the incursion of foreign war-bands. If we fix our attention on this alone, it looks like an act of God. But experience shows that it never takes place until the society has already committed moral suicide at a far earlier date. When a society is alive and healthy it can resist the most formidable foes, as Athens resisted the Persians, or as a small Indian state is said to have brought Alexander to a halt on the Indus. It is when a society has transformed itself from a compact and orderly whole, united by common ideals and aspirations, into an enormous theatre for contending military adventures, when it has grown vast in body and feeble in soul, that it becomes a prey to barbarian war-bands. The later stages of its decay are often the time of vast geographical expansion and impressive technical inventions, which mask the spiritual weakness and internal decay behind a facade of apparent strength and power, and blind the people to their real plight.

Hence we must distinguish between an initial breakdown on the one hand, when the creative minority loses its hold over the voluntary co-operation of the masses, and a long period of disintegration leading, to utter collapse on the other, during which successive dominant minorities resort to violence and achieve a false and unnecessary progress in military and industrial technique, when true progress would have consisted in the development of an organically united society voluntarily progressing towards a more etherialised way of life.

Causes of Breakdown

What are the causes that lead to the failure of a ruling minority to maintain its elan of creative response and then to the aggravation of the fatal schism thus introduced into the body and soul of a society ? They lie in the essential inertia and conservatism of human nature. Once primitive society has been left behind, and the dynamic process called civilisation has been set in motion, challenge follows on the heel of challenge, demanding a greater and ever greater power of self-determination and emancipation from the physical environment. The essence of civilisation is not comfort but mortal danger. It is a perpetual struggle in which external circumstances relentlessly impel man to take further steps towards his own emancipation and spiritual freedom, while the forces of inertia in his mind resist. In this struggle, the final arbiter is the human will, which is free to struggle on its own account and also to seek the grace of God. In the struggle as we see it in the pages of history, two main causes operate to obstruct the elan of creative response. The first is the failure of the ruling minority to respond to^a^ new situation through attachment to its own past successes. The second is the rise of intolerable disharmony in the social structure owing to the imperfect (because merely mechanical) imitation by the masses of the creative response of the minority. The result of either of these situations is a blindness to the true nature of the existing challenge, and an obstinate attempt to continue with old institutions or old lines of policy which were once useful but are now irrelevant and highly dangerous.

A Modern Example

For example, the true nature of the challenge which confronts us today in the economic and social sphere is the need to devise a world-order that will provide for the subsistence of vast populations without recourse to modern war. Yet neither rulers nor ruled can see the true ^nature of the challenge. They idealise their past successes as nationstates and seek to repeat them today by recourse to economic nationalism. The creation in the sixteenth century of a series of heavily centralised nation-states by a minority employing new techniques of political and economic government was a successful (though not a truly creative) response to an existing challenge, namely the economic inefficiency and anarchical tendencies of late mediaeval society. But the attempt to repeat this success today in the face of an entirely different challenge is suicidal. The old nation-state is too small a framework to accommodate the

expanding forces of modern industrialism and has already become an anachronism. If we are to avoid war, our need is to learn to forego national sovereignty in the interests of federal and regional co-operation, leading to voluntary acceptance of world-unity. But, in a manner characteristic of ruling minorities at all times in disintegrating societies, the governments of today are blind to the true nature of the existing challenge before them, and persist in “ the idealisation of an ephemeral technique ”. And this example of blind conservatism among ruling minorities is but one among many cited in Professor Toynbee’s book.

Our Present Western Civilisation

How do Toynbee’s doctrines apply to our present civilisation ? On his analysis, our modern Western civilisation is the sole living survivor among the twenty-six historical civilisations that have so far emerged, and in it disintegration has been going on for a long time. The initial breakdown occurred in the eleventh century when the Papacy, under Hildebrand, not content with its campaign to suppress simony and laxity among the clergy, began its long struggle against the Holy Roman Empire by plunging into the Investiture contest. The foundations of the true line of progress had been laid by St. Benedict and Gregory the Great, namely, the establishment of the ascendency of Christian idealism in society by the organisation of a monastic priesthood who really followed the life of Christ. But by entering into a contest with the Empire, Hildebrand and the succeeding Popes of the Middle Ages were forced to make an alliance with Norman and other war-lords for temporal gains, and by thus compromising their power to reproduce the purely spiritual Christian ideal, forfeited the voluntary esteem of the people of Europe. They entered on the path that led ultimately to the use of fire and faggot and the sale of Indulgences. A time came when the yoke of conformity with a materialistic Papacy became intolerable, and when in the late fifteenth century the old mediaeval form of monarchy proved incompetent to suppress the rising forces of distress and anarchy, the political and spiritual initiative passed to the creative minorities of the secular city-states of northern Italy. These states devised a new form of government and propagated a new outlook on life, and they had power to attract the imitation of the rest of Europe. They did not, however, follow the etherialised ideals of Christ, but the ideal of ruthless political efficiency, coupled with a return to materialistic pagan culture.

Disintegration of Western Society

The subsequent developments in Western Civilisation, the appearance of the secular nation-state, the great armed expansion overseas, the development of science in a spirit of scepticism and divorced from Christian culture, the’introduction of industrialism and modern democracy, the incessant warfare, the class struggles, the vulgarisation of manners and the decline of art, are all characteristics of a disintegrating society, maintaining its life by desperate material expedients when its power to make true progress along the line of self-determination has been lost.

Western Society Not Doomed

But Western society is not yet irrevocably doomed. As we saw in the case”of Rome, no society is dead until it commits suicide of its own volition. The human will retains its freedom, and the deterministic theories that postulate inevitable decay are wrong. Spengler’s theory that societies are organisms predestined to perish is without foundation. Nor are societies doomed to an endless cycle of growth and decay on the analogy of the repetitive processes of nature and the cycles of the stars, for they are composed of humans, and in the human psyche is concealed the divine and creative spark of freedom. The critics who disparage Toynbee on the ground that he is trying to discover the inevitable laws that determine the develop- merit of societies in the over-confident manner of nineteenth-century sociologists like Comte and Spencer, do not take into account this aspect of his theory.

Furthermore, our present society has not yet entered upon the final stages of dissolution, which in other civilisations has always been characteristed by the emergence of a universal Empire founded by the sword, with a vast disaffected proletariat turning their hearts towards a saviour-religion of alien inspiration. Two desperate attempts to establish such an Empire by Germany and one by Napoleonic France have been successfully resisted. Nor

has there yet appeared a new universal religion to capture the hearts of the unsettled proletariat, the nearest approach to which was the abortive attempt by Trotsky to spread the gospel of world-wide communism, complete with Messiah, prophets and martyrs.

The Future

According to Professor Toynbee, the modern world is evolving rapidly towards world-unity before our eyes. Whereas there were about a dozen first-class powers at the beginning of the century who could play an effective part in world politics, now there are really only two. The question whether this civilisation can recover its creative elan cannot be decided finally until it is seen whether world-unity comes deliberately and peacefully, or is dictated by a world- conquering power. In the latter case there will be mundane peace but spiritual death, and a new saviour-religion and new civilisation will have to emerge. But until this happens there will always exist a way out from the vicious circle of materialism and militarism in which our society appears to be spinning to destruction. It lies in the return to the spiritual ideal of Christ of a creative minority, who, by voluntarily withdrawing from participation in the struggle for the good things of this world, may inspire the rulers and people, first of their own country and then of the whole word, to return whole-heartedly to the Christian ideal of life. On the basis of present-day materialism, an overt clash may be uneasily avoided for a time ; but some kind of a world-wide spiritual renaissance will be needed if modern society is to recover its unity on a true basis and heal the deep and fundamental schism of its soul.