A Study of History Essay - Essays and Criticism

Arnold J. Toynbee

Essays and Criticism

Use of Eclectic Methods

The twentieth century was an age of increasing specialization in all fields of knowledge, a trend that remains with us today. Knowledge grows at a rapid pace, but what is lacking is a connecting link among different fields of knowledge. The physical scientist has little to say to the humanist scholar; the social scientist and the mathematician speak different languages; and so on. Even within disciplines, knowledge has become compartmentalized. A professor of, say, literature may spend his or her entire career developing expertise in one small area and may know little not only of other fields of knowledge but also of what his or her colleagues in the same department are teaching and researching.

These issues were central to Toynbee’s purpose in writing A Study of History. He pointed out that a historian must do two things: study history in detail but also as a whole. There had to be a balance between general views and the accumulation of facts. Toynbee believed that during the twentieth century the balance had swung too far in the direction of specialized studies that gave no sense of the whole picture. His fellow historians could no longer see the forest for the trees. Toynbee’s gigantic attempt to view the whole of history from a universal perspective therefore stood at odds with the trend of the time toward specialization. This accounts in part for the disdain with which professional historians have often viewed his work.

A consequence of Toynbee’s approach to history was that he was far more eclectic in his methods than the contemporary rationalistic approach would permit. He decided that if he was going to survey the whole of civilization, he would also employ in his task the whole of the human mind—its imaginative, nonrational, artistic, and spiritual capabilities as well as its rational and scientific powers. This approach can be seen, first, in Toynbee’s reliance, at crucial moments in his argument, on mythology; second, in his use of the psychological theories of Carl Jung; third, in his inclusion of personal experiences, some of which can only be described as mystical; and fourth, in his insistence that the purpose of history must ultimately be sought in a religious view of the universe.

Central to Toynbee’s account of the genesis of civilizations is his law of challenge and response: a civilization is born when a society successfully overcomes a major challenge. Toynbee derived this law not from any scientific method but from mythology. He pointed to various stories of encounters between two superhuman personalities in which the actions of one are in response to a challenge posed by the other. The story he relied on most was Goethe’s dramatic poem, Faust, in which God, knowing that man is always too eager to fall back into a state of slumber and inertia, uses the Devil, in the form of Mephistopheles, to goad Faust into action. Mephistopheles wagers that he can give Faust delightful experiences that will satisfy him more than any man has ever been satisfied. Faust takes on the bet, saying that he will never rest content, whatever the Devil offers him. If he should ever cease from striving for greater fulfillment, then the Devil will win the wager and can have his soul.

In the simile that Toynbee uses several times, Faust is like a climber on a cliff who is awakening from sleep and is about to seek the next ledge above. For Toynbee, this was the essential step in moving from the inactive state of Yin to the active state of Yang. He found the same message in another mythological work, Homer’s Odyssey, in which many of the temptations that Odysseus faces are in situations where he is promised that he can rest eternally in a delightful paradise. But Odysseus knows that he must remain active and press on with his mission to return home.

Toynbee’s belief that mythology could embody a truth that was beyond the reach of the rational mind was stimulated by his reading of Plato, who often used imaginative myths to explore the nature of reality. This ability to use both reason and imagination in a search for the truth was, to Toynbee, a sign of the ‘‘humility and the audacity of a great mind.’’

Toynbee’s interest in mythology was shared by Jung, and it is not surprising that Toynbee incorpo rated a number of Jungian ideas in his work. In his search for knowledge of the totality of the psyche, Jung developed the concept of the collective unconscious, a universal pool of psychic energy that manifests in archetypal images and dreams. The existence of a collective unconscious also...

(The entire section is 1875 words.)

A Critical Evaluation

Most critics would agree that Toynbee’s Study of History is a work of epic proportions. Several commentators have noted that...

(The entire section is 4574 words.)

Some Basic Assumptions of Toynbee’s A Study of History

There are at least three points of view from which the worth of a book of history may be assessed. One may ask whether the book is accurate,...

(The entire section is 5772 words.)