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.
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