Critical Overview

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There were two markedly different reactions to A Study of History. The general public gave the book an enthusiastic reception, but academic historians were in general severely critical of Toynbee’s work.

In 1947, when Somervell’s abridgement of volumes 1–6 appeared, Toynbee won wide popular acclaim in the United States. E. D. Myers’ review in the Nation was typical of the praise heaped on the book by nonspecialists. Myers commented that Toynbee’s concepts and analysis were ‘‘of suffi- cient importance and excellence to merit serious study; his presentation is as ‘entrancing’ as Mr. Somervell suggests it is.’’ Myers suggested that if readers had time to read only one book that year, they should select A Study of History.

Much of the American book-buying public felt the same way. The abridged version became a Book-of-the-Month club selection and a bestseller. In 1947 alone, over 129,000 copies were sold, and total sales in the next few years reached almost 250,000. Toynbee himself became a minor celebrity. He was invited to give a lecture series at Bryn Mawr College, and in March 1947, his photograph appeared on the cover of Time magazine, which contained a lengthy and laudatory review of A Study of History. There were numerous discussions of the book in the press and on radio and television, and Toynbee was hailed as a prophet for the post-World War II era. In Toynbee and History: Critical Essays and Reviews, published in 1956, M. F. Ashley Montagu commented that the book ‘‘constitutes one of the most famous and most widely discussed books of its time.’’

However, most professional historians did not share this exalted opinion of their colleague’s work. In 1954, following the publication of volumes 7–10 of A Study of History (abridged by Somervell in 1957), there was a barrage of harsh criticism by historians. Prominent British historian Hugh Trevor- Roper wrote in the Sunday Times (reprinted in Toynbee and History):

Not only are Professor Toynbee’s basic assumptions often questionable, and his application of them often arbitrary, but his technical method turns out to be not ‘empirical’ at all. The theories are not deduced from the facts, not tested by them: the facts are selected, sometimes adjusted, to illustrate the theories, which themselves rest effortlessly on air.

Another distinguished British historian, A. J. P. Taylor, was equally dismissive of Toynbee’s work. Declaring in London’s New Statesman (reprinted in Toynbee and History) that the work was not what he understood history to be, Taylor commented:

Professor Toynbee’s method is not that of scholarship, but of the lucky dip, with emphasis on the luck. . . . The events of the past can be made to prove anything if they are arranged in a suitable pattern; and Professor Toynbee has succeeded in forcing them into a scheme that was in his head from the beginning.

Other academic critics weighed in with similar criticisms, attacking Toynbee’s methods and his conclusions. Some said the work was a failure, that Toynbee got his facts wrong and also mixed up his history with too much theology and metaphysics, trying to take on the mantle of prophet and religious moralist. Specialists in different fields of history attempted to refute what Toynbee had written about their particular area of expertise.

There was similar criticism of Toynbee’s work from academic historians in America, although Pitirim Sorotkin, an eminent sociologist wrote a more positive article that was published in The Journal of Modern History (and reprinted in Toynbee and History ). Although he disputed Toynbee’s fundamental idea that a civilization is a unified whole and argued that...

(This entire section contains 761 words.)

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Toynbee’s fitting of all civilizations into a pattern of genesis, growth, and decline was far too rigid, he still expressed the view that Toynbee’s work was ‘‘one of the most significant works of our time in the field of historical synthesis.’’

It is customary for major works, of history or any other discipline, to undergo periodic reevaluation, and A Study of History has been no exception. In 1989, two books were published to celebrate the centenary of Toynbee’s birth. In the essays collected in Toynbee: Reappraisals, it is clear that professional historians were now prepared to look more favorably on Toynbee’s achievement. And in his biography Toynbee: A Life, William H. McNeill, himself a noted historian, made a persuasive case for the positive reevaluation of Toynbee’s work. It seems likely that, criticisms notwithstanding, A Study of History will endure, along with Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West (1918–1923), as one of the most learned and provocative works of historical analysis written in the twentieth century.


Essays and Criticism