Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1454
Not every work that is monumental because of its size is monumental in character. Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History, a twelve-volume work, compels the continuing critical attention of historians, philosophers, and other students of civilizations rising and falling over time. Despite its scope, this book is not superficial; despite its author’s ambition—to account for the death of civilizations—it shows no sign of a confusion between modesty and unoriginality: Considered as a theory, it is daring and illuminating.
Is the work, however, true? Most readers hesitate to enter upon a multivolume pilgrimage if the only reward is acquaintance with a scholar’s laborious fancies. In the sense in which Toynbee is a philosopher of history, a philosopher of history is someone, generally a historian, who tries to make sense out of the mass of events presumed to have occurred. Proceeding from records and signs, or what are thought to be records and signs, a story of the presumed past is constructed: That is history. The story is then surveyed in an attempt to find its theme, the moral of the tale: The account of these reflections is this person’s study of history.
Such a study may be true, or it may not. To be true, such a study practically requires a historian who is a genius, something of a seer, and levelheaded. Such a person might discover or create an explanation of history that shows that the fortunes and accidents of history are fortunes and accidents only relative to people’s ignorance. Considered in such a light, history is inevitable. Given the demands of an accurate study of history, it is more likely that, strictly speaking, a given study of history is false—that at best it approximates the truth and makes some sense to people who share something of the author’s perspective. In any case, the truth of such a study is unimportant.
Not the truth of the theory, but its plausibility is what counts; not its conformity to undiscoverable facts, but its organizing power in the face of evidence. Even if a reader rejects a study of history because of its failure to make sense out of the evidence, it is still possible that the work will have had the value of showing a creative mind’s response to a historical problem. That Toynbee’s study has this latter value is beyond question. To some, his theory is plausible; to others, it is as clearly false; but to all, it is exciting and worthy of respect.
Toynbee’s study of history led him to present and defend the thesis that “societies,” not nations, are the proper concern of the historian. According to Toynbee, civilized societies—civilizations—arise in response to challenging conditions; the civilizations grow in response to further challenges; they break down, that is, cease to respond creatively, because of some idolization of the past; and finally, they disintegrate. The civilization then becomes a dominant minority, an internal proletariat (in the society, but not of it), and an external proletariat (formerly, but no longer, of the society) as a result of the failure to respond in such a way as to meet a challenge that is repeatedly presented.
The answer to the central question, Why do civilizations die? is that they die as a result of an inability to determine themselves creatively. The failure of self-determination results, if petrifaction does not set in instead, in a schism of the society that is paralleled by a schism in the soul of the member of the society.
The thesis and each point in its defense is illustrated historically in Toynbee’s work. One of the values of the work comes from its ability to charm the reader into a reexamination and reappraisal of the content of history. It also introduces readers to many historical findings with which they may not have been acquainted previously.
Dispassionately considered at some distance from the wealth of historical material that gives the thesis great persuasive force, Toynbee’s central claim is perhaps not as remarkable as it may seem to be while one is reading A Study of History. It may be that in his use of the term “civilization,” Toynbee has employed a criterion by reference to which he dismisses certain societies as primitive. The analysis reveals what his use of the term “civilization” indicates: societies that grew not from favorable, but from unfavorable and challenging conditions. Similarly, it might be argued that his account of disintegration is a question-begging truism, handsomely disguised. Civilizations decline before they fall; they fall because they fall apart, and they fall apart because they can no longer hang together creatively.
The value of the study, however, is not a function of the remarkableness of the claim. Perhaps for the first time, a historian has shown civilizations, to a considerable extent, as they are: not as living organisms, not as accidents, not as the fruits of fortune—but as societies, achieving their characters as civilizations from the mode and quality of their responses to challenges, and falling apart when, either because of the absence of challenge or because of the presence of challenges too strong to be met, the society and the individuals composing it divide into irreconcilable parts. If what Toynbee presents is a truism, at least he has had the wit to see it as a truth and the historical knowledge to make it respectable. Furthermore, he has imagination and spiritual courage.
It takes spiritual courage to argue, as Toynbee does, that history is “a vision of God’s creation on the move,” and that the historian finds six dimensions—the three of space, then time, life, and the Spirit. He also appraises the chances that humans have in Western civilization to pursue their “true” end: glorifying God. He argues that the laws of nature do not control all of peoples’ actions, but that, within limits, humans are free; perfect freedom, he adds, is to be under the law of God. Finally, he conducts a “survey of saviours” and concludes that only Jesus has made good his claim to be the son of God.
These beliefs are not unpopular; indeed, they are shared by millions. What is odd, and therefore demanding of courage, is the expression of these beliefs in a study of history, not merely as token reminders of the faith of people in Western civilization, but as necessary to both the understanding and the existence of Western civilization itself. Although it may seem strange and unhistorical to explain history by a declaration of religious faith, it is possible, even for the unbeliever, to appreciate the historical point of Toynbee’s declaration of religious faith. First, as Toynbee shows, Western civilization is, for the most part, a Christian civilization. Second, if Toynbee is right in arguing that civilizations rise and grow as they make creative responses and break down and disintegrate as they fail to determine themselves, then to be born and to grow through an exercise of the proper spirit is the special business of any individual or civilization that values life and the special quality of life that creative activity provides. It is certainly excusable for a Christian scholar to make these points in Christian terms.
A particular benefit of Toynbee’s spiritual approach to historical problems is his analysis of “schism in the soul” in a disintegrating society. In a growing society, people are creative or mimetic; that is, they are leaders or imitators. In a disintegrating society, however, there is an increasing tendency to substitute for creativity and mimesis, either passively or actively. For example, instead of being creative, people might be inclined either to live with abandon, to follow their impulses (the passive substitute), or to live with self-control, keeping their passions in check (the active substitute). Truancy (desertion) and martyrdom (action above and beyond the call of duty) are considered to be the passive and active substitutes, respectively, for mimesis. Toynbee also considers “the sense of drift” and the “sense of sin” as alternative substitutes for the feeling of creative advance that accompanies the growth of a civilization. His discussion of other spiritual attitudes and characteristics is intelligent and illuminating.
Toynbee refuses to be either pessimistic or optimistic about the possibility of the survival of Western civilization. Of the twenty-eight civilizations that Toynbee finds in history, only Western civilization is not clearly disintegrating or already dead. Toynbee sees some signs of breakdown in the West, but believes they are not conclusive. He considers that the extreme destructiveness of the atomic bomb, together with the continued effort of the Christian spirit, might finally bring about a world order that will allow Western civilization to continue to grow.