Article abstract: His challenge and response theory of history, set forth in his twelve-volume A Study of History, made Toynbee an important twentieth century philosopher of history.
Arnold Joseph Toynbee was born into a lower-middle-class family, rich intellectually if not socially. His family—including his grandfather, uncles, and parents—was scholarly, humanitarian, and pious. One uncle, also named Arnold Toynbee, earned distinction as a historian, philosopher, and reformer. Toynbee himself credited his mother, a historian and one of the first women to receive a degree from a British university, with first turning his thoughts to history. At Winchester and at Oxford, from which he was graduated in 1911, he received a traditional classical education. A product of late Victorian and Edwardian eras, Toynbee learned from men such as James Bryce and Sir Lewis Namier. During 1911 and 1912, Toynbee traveled in Greece and studied at the British Archaeological School in Athens. In 1912 at twenty-three, he became a Fellow and tutor at Balliol College, Oxford, in the field of ancient history. In 1913, he published a scholarly article on Sparta, and both his teaching and scholarship demonstrated promise.
World War I interrupted his academic career. Though a medical condition kept him from military service, he served in the Political Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office and engaged in propaganda activities. Toynbee’s generations—hopeful before 1914—experienced the trauma of World War I, and that event stimulated the writing of his first two books by the age of twenty-six. Both Nationality and the War (1915) and The New Europe (1915) wrestled with two important themes that troubled civilization at the time: nationality and economics. With idealism similar to that of President Woodrow Wilson, Toynbee viewed self-determination as the remedy for nationalism and the League of Nations as the means of international cooperation. His works also revealed his skill as a writer. In 1919, as a member of the British delegation at the Paris Peace Conference as an expert on the Middle East, Toynbee encountered the rough-and-tumble of international politics.
In 1919, at the age of thirty, Toynbee became professor of Byzantine and modern Greek languages and history, an endowed chair at the University of London. This appointment recognized his reputation as a scholar and his ability to foster cultural ties between Great Britain and Greece. When fighting broke out between Greece and Turkey, Toynbee took a leave of absence and covered the war as a correspondent for The Manchester Guardian. The result was another book, The Western Question in Greece and Turkey (1922), a plea for understanding different civilizations. Toynbee’s fairness to the Turks angered the Greeks in Great Britain who funded his endowed chair, and as a result, in 1924 he left the position. Thus far in his life, Toynbee’s intellectual and professional interests focused on the ancient world and the Middle East, both of which shaped his view of history. His knowledge of the classics and his understanding of the world as it was since 1914 contributed to the broad conception of history evident in his later works.
From 1925 until 1955 Toynbee served as Director of Studies for the Royal Institute of International Affairs and as Research Professor of International History at the University of London. In these capacities he made his most important contributions: his annual Survey of International Affairs and his monumental A Study of History (1934-1961). Beginning in the early 1920’s and continuing through World War II, Toynbee wrote either all or part of, or edited, yearly volumes in the Survey of International Affairs series. Neither catalogs nor chronologies, these works discussed broad themes and analyzed world events. Toynbee displayed his historical imagination in these works; given the importance of events from the 1920’s to the 1940’s, his commentary was significant. In the 1933 volume, for example, Toynbee criticized Nazism as a triumph of paganism over Christianity. Adolf Hitler himself was impressed by Toynbee’s grasp of world affairs, and in 1936, before he marched into the Rhineland, the führer conferred briefly with Toynbee.
The work for which Toynbee is most noted is A Study of History. Typically, he spent half the year working on the current volume of the Survey of International Affairs and the other half on A Study of History, and the material and themes for the two often overlapped. He began serious work on A Study of History in 1927; the first three volumes were published in 1934, and the final one in 1961. His analytical world history examined the origin, growth, and decline of civilization. In the tumult of the...
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