Use of Eclectic Methods

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1875

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.

Illustration of PDF document

Download A Study of History Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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 explains the phenomenon Jung described as synchronicity in which individuals or groups seem able to communicate with others with whom they are not in direct contact. Toynbee may have drawn on this concept when he explained how the culture of a civilization, in its disintegration phase, is transmitted to its external proletariat, the groups that live outside its boundaries: ‘‘A rain of psychic energy, generated by the civilization . . . is wafted across a barrier.’’ This concept of a society receiving and absorbing the influx of ‘‘alien psychic energy’’ seems to depend on what Jung, drawing on ancient philosophy, referred to in Memories, Dreams, Reflections as ‘‘the sympathy of all things.’’ It operates on a level much deeper than the explicit intermixing of ideas.

Jung also believed that the subconscious contained repressed psychic energies that exerted great, if hidden, power over human desires and actions. Toynbee noticed a social parallel to this repression of elements of the conscious mind into the subconscious. This is when the creative minority in a society loses touch with its creative impulse and deteriorates into a mere dominant minority, resulting in the creation of a proletariat. The effect is that a society that was formerly unified is now split into two parts, each of which is hostile to the other, just as conscious and subconscious elements of the mind are frequently at odds with each other.

As Kenneth Winetrout points out in Arnold Toynbee, Toynbee also developed a schematic interpretation of religion that drew on Jung’s classifi- cation of four psychological types—thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition—and two psychological ‘‘attitudes,’’ introversion and extraversion. The introverted thinking type corresponds to Hinduism; introverted feeling, to Buddhism; extraverted thinking, to Islam; and extraverted feeling (love), to Christianity.

Some may find this too much of a broad generalization. However, the attempt to discover a consistent pattern in diverse phenomena, both inner and outer, is characteristic of Toynbee’s habit of thought.

The third aspect of Toynbee’s unconventional method of studying history is the influence of a number of unusual personal experiences. He records in volume 10 of the unabridged A Study of History that on no fewer than six occasions he had found himself in direct personal communion with certain events in history as if those events that had happened hundreds or thousands of years ago were literally unfolding in front of his eyes. The experiences were triggered by viewing the scenes where those events took place. Toynbee then records yet another experience, even ‘‘stranger’’ (his word) than the others. It occurred not long after World War I. Toynbee was walking down a London street when he

found himself in communion, not just with this or that episode in History, but with all that had been, and was, and was to come. In that instant he was directly aware of the passage of History gently flowing through him in a mighty current, and of his own life welling like a wave in the flow of this vast tide.

One can only guess what this remarkable experience must have been like and what effect it had on Toynbee’s later work. But mystical or not, it seems entirely in line with the thrust of A Study of History, in which Toynbee seeks to grasp the whole of history in a meaningful pattern and by doing so acquire insight into what the future might hold. It is clear from this that Toynbee was no ordinary historian. Perhaps the essential nature of his work can be better grasped if he is viewed as an artist and A Study of History as a kind of prose epic. One reads Toynbee not so much for the facts, although there are plenty of those, but for the vision, the informing pattern, the unity in diversity that he discerns in the sweep of human history. In this respect, Toynbee’s work resembles the work of another scholar in another field, Joseph Campbell. Campbell’s A Hero With a Thousand Faces, published in 1949 as Toynbee was working on his final volumes, did for mythology what Toynbee did for history, identifying a single recurring pattern in all the diverse mythology of the world.

The fourth and final aspect of Toynbee’s distinctive method as a historian was that he strived to see the unfolding of civilizations in terms not merely of humanity. He thought that to view history merely from a human perspective led to a dangerous worship of the creations of man. As a historian, he could not ignore the importance of the spiritual dimension. He believed that this was by far the most important angle of vision from which to study history. In fact, he declared that the whole purpose of the turning wheel of history was to bring forth spiritual truth. History gives ‘‘a vision of God’s creation on the move’’; creation travels from God, by way of history, back to God. The contribution of the historian is to point this out for others to contemplate.

Such a vision also formed part of Toynbee’s own spiritual quest. Although later in his life he would describe himself as an agnostic, in volume 10 of A Study of History, in a passage that was not included in Somervell’s abridgement, he looked forward to a fellowship with others through the grace of God, whose ‘‘presence and participation transfigure a precarious Brotherhood of Man into a Communion of Saints in which God’s creatures are united with one another through their union with their Creator.’’

Toynbee expressed the same idea, in less high- flown language, when he wrote of his practical purpose as a historian. In his pamphlet, ‘‘How The Book Took Shape’’ (reprinted in Toynbee and History), he remarks that in a world in which nuclear annihilation is a possibility, there is one thing a historian can do:

He can help his fellow man of different civilizations to become more familiar with one another, and, in consequence, less afraid of one another and less hostile to one another, by helping them to understand and appreciate one another’s histories and to see in these local and partial stories a common achievement and common possession of the whole human family. . . . And it is one family; it always has been one family in the making.

To a fractious world that has still not learned what it needs to know, Toynbee’s gentle words, all the more eloquent for their simplicity, bear repeating.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on A Study of History, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

A Critical Evaluation

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4574

Most critics would agree that Toynbee’s Study of History is a work of epic proportions. Several commentators have noted that Toynbee, as a historian who zealously recorded the many contrasting beats of history, himself injected a marked counterbeat into historical writing. Since 1910 few works have exceeded one volume; in literature the short story has been threatening the novel. In contrast, both the length and the temper of A Study of History are exceptions to the prevailing ethos. Toynbee consciously struck a blow against the fashionable specialized and ‘‘scientific’’ studies which isolate tiny fragments of experience for the most intensive study. His chief foe, however, was not the discrete use of scientific techniques but rather the idolatry of that method and the ready acceptance of the superficial philosophy of ‘‘scientism’’ with its easy optimism and materialism. His method, in its turn, must be critically assessed, for the boldness of his approach makes it inevitable that certain questions and criticisms should be raised. The first person to anticipate this would have been Toynbee himself, who observed at the time he was launching his major work: ‘‘In the world of scholarship, to give and take criticism is all in the day’s work and, each in our day, we may criticize our predecessors without becoming guilty of presumption so long as we are able to look forward without rancour to being criticized in our turn by our successors when our day is past.’’

All historians, including those who construct theories of universal history, have their special competence. Toynbee’s was Graeco-Roman history. Its lands and people were so familiar to him as to make them his second ‘‘homeland.’’ However, it is exactly his attachment to Hellenic history which causes readers some uneasiness about the pattern of world history he discovered. His conceptual scheme was suspiciously well tailored to the decline and fall of one civilization but it hung rather awkwardly on the twenty-odd others. It is apparent from even a cursory reading that Hellenic civilization had its ‘‘Time of Troubles,’’ ‘‘Universal State,’’ and ‘‘Universal Church’’ in relentless and seemingly preordained succession. This pattern was more dif- ficult to maintain when Toynbee discussed other civilizations. He was obliged to confess that Egyptiac history comprised one kind of exception (for its universal state was revived after it had run its normal course), Arabic civilization was another exception, and other civilizations were in other ways exceptions too.

When a reader attempts to apply the conceptual scheme derived principally from Hellenic civilization to, for example, Western civilization, Toynbee’s problem at once becomes clear. In a table designed to portray the stages in history of the various civilizations, the ‘‘Time of Troubles’’ for Western civilization was charted as having occurred between 1378 and 1797. Elsewhere in the Study, Toynbee was more cautious, leaving the impression that although many symptoms of decay may be present, one must wait and see before conceding this decline. If growth and disintegration are as clear-cut as was elsewhere implied, it is curious that the stage in history at which the West finds itself should remain so beclouded for Toynbee.

Furthermore, critics point to flaws in Toynbee’s pattern of history which are distinct from the problem of its concrete application to contemporary civilizations. The basic concept in his schema is civilization, and yet he never defined by more than a few illustrations precisely what he meant by this term or how it could be distinguished from society. As the analysis proceeded he nevertheless talked about these units as if he were using them with all the precision of a zoologist. Yet the species civilization appears to be used interchangeably with the generic category society. Most of his definitions are literary rather than scientific, and much of his terminology has that breadth and vagueness which generally characterizes spiritual interpretations of history. For example, in his treatment of the withdrawal and return of creative leaders who inspired growth in civilization, the reader must somehow divine the precise common denominator for the experiences of some thirty individuals. If Toynbee had used Buddha, Caesar, Peter the Great, Kant, and Lenin to point up an interesting parallel, this flaw would not be particularly significant. When he used their experiences to establish scientific formulas and laws, the practice may legitimately be questioned. Indeed, his discussion is curiously marred by the unequal attention given the various personalities and minorities responsible for civilizational growth. In some cases, Toynbee presented shortened life histories of the creative leaders, and the data while interesting often have little to do with the point at issue. At other times, he allowed a paragraph or two to suffice. This difference in treatment can hardly be based upon any systematic principle. Moreover, it is difficult to appreciate the similarity he detected between the quiet habits of Kant, whose thoughts, to be sure, made an impact throughout the world, and the withdrawal and return of Peter the Great, who returned to Russia from Europe with new ideas which he personally put into practice.

This concept is also obscure in Toynbee’s discussion of particular creative nations. The notion that England withdrew from the Continent between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, only to return as the center of world trade and world power in the nineteenth century, has more meaning as a description of the general foundations of British foreign policy than as an exact statement of historical fact. That is, British policy was based upon England’s relative insularity, but this hardly constituted withdrawal. If it is farfetched to assume that a nation even in the sixteenth century could withdraw from relations with others, it is no less extravagant to imagine that other nations in the thick of European power politics would be incapable of making a creative contribution. Any theory which excluded seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France as a creative force would hardly receive support. Yet it would also be erroneous to ignore the fact that the concept of Withdrawal and Return, whether because or in spite of its utter intangibility, illuminates some of the shadowy corners of history which scientific studies have left untouched. However, Toynbee’s overly ambitious claims invite critical responses by some honest observers.

Another principle or law which is so indefinite that almost any historical episode can be molded to fit its broad outlines is Challenge and Response. Spiritual and scientific interpretations of history have consistently asked, What is the true mechanism of history? For some, such as Hegel and Marx, it is a particular dialectic or process. Others have found the mechanism in economic conditions or geographical factors. Toynbee’s formula is more difficult to verify objectively and more likely to encompass a wider range of events. Between an environment that is too severe and one that is too easy, there is a ‘‘golden mean’’ where civilization can flourish. In general, the basis for this optimum condition is a favorable climate and adequate land and natural resources.

Scientific historians would object that this concept is too simple. New nations and societies have achieved their positions in history because of such rudimentary factors and because the whole context of their historical experience was favorable. The American colonies were blessed with a broad continent with resources of unparalleled variety and richness. This privileged position, however, was only one fragment of the larger historical development in which factors such as outside assistance and unexpected freedom from colonial domination were also involved. There is some question whether Toynbee’s formula of challenge and response is sufficiently broad to encompass these various factors and concrete enough to permit their separate consideration. In the eyes of most modern scientific historians, every historic event is a separate entity and therefore so infinitely complex that an observer can evaluate it only in terms of its concreteness. Only by patient research and painstaking scrutiny can such an event be clearly illuminated.

There is a final assumption to which modern historians would probably take exception. Toynbee postulated that civilizations break down and decay because elements within them are inherently selfdestructive. Yet the early American civilizations, particularly those of the Incas and Aztecs, were destroyed by external forces. But a spiritual interpretation of history could hardly concede such a point. So A Study of History maintained that these civilizations had already succumbed to the most profound internal malaise before they were invaded and conquered by Spanish adventurers. It is of course likely that societies have been weakened by internal dissension and decay before falling prey to a more powerful foe. It seems naïve to imagine, however, that history does not offer numerous cases of brute force triumphing over weakness and virtue. This has surely been the fate of small nations throughout history. It would be surprising indeed if the same were not true of civilizations such as the early American ones. Toynbee’s assumption of transcendent spiritual factors in history makes it difficult if not impossible for him to accept the primacy of force and power as the cause of death for a civilization. His ‘‘Time of Troubles’’ explanation indirectly assumes that the successful conqueror has not himself suffered the same self-inflicted blow and is therefore morally and politically superior. If pursued to its logical conclusion, this principle would mean that in all important respects a conquering invader would surpass his victim. Any list of victorious conquerors shows how fantastic this assumption is. It symbolizes the great weakness in those spiritual versions of history which too complacently identify virtue and power. It reflects the tragic paradox of our times that in Western civilization with the breakdown of common moral standards even the spiritual historian becomes a utopian of power. He finds ways of justifying the proposition that might makes right.

Furthermore, the dilemma which confounds students of human affairs is reflected in the dual problem with which Toynbee grappled. In seeking to establish general principles and laws of history, he chose as his subject great civilizations and found over twenty separate examples. Thus a student of history has the same kind of individual facts with which the physical sciences have traditionally dealt. Civilizations are ‘‘affiliated’’ and ‘‘apparented,’’ but this very concept may have served to obscure the empirical unity of history. Particular cultures are interrelated in complex ways, and only in the last volumes of the Study did Toynbee demonstrate the degree to which he plumbed the profound and mysterious relations between various societies in history.

Although Toynbee called upon this physicalsciences analogy, he at the same time abandoned a practice central to all scientific pursuits. The criticism leveled most frequently against him has been that his ‘‘well-beloved empiricism’’ is in fact no empiricism at all. He selected his data and imperturbably used them to build a system. But each datum can be used in a variety of ways, and Toynbee may not always have cited those facts which would not support his principal theses. However valid this criticism may be for Toynbee’s empiricism in particular, it is unerringly true with respect to empiricism in general. The cauldron of history is so immense that the individual historian can serve up but a spoonful, and whether this can represent the whole is always doubtful. The limits of Toynbee’s history are those of his subject matter. The infinite variety of history is the chief factor which creates the eternal boundaries within which any student must formulate his principles.

There is a further standard by which A Study of History can be judged. In sheer erudition and learning, the work is breathtaking and matchless. It is more wide-ranging than Spengler’s masterpiece, and its pages literally teem with brilliant passages and flashes of insight. One section includes an extensive account of the history of warfare; another describes the colonization of North America. His accounts of the history of the Jewish people in Eastern Europe and Spain, of the Spartan form of society, and of the Ottoman slave-court illustrate the amplitude of historical experience to which the reader is introduced. Even if one finds that some of Toynbee’s main theses are untenable, only the most uninspired of readers would be unable to gain new perspectives on the world. The value of Toynbee’s work does not depend on the acceptance of each of its parts as if it were a Euclidean demonstration. It is so rich in historical allusions that the study of its pages has a value independent of full agreement with its assumptions and conclusions.

As a philosopher of history, Toynbee himself held up a warning to all historians and political scientists. He steadfastly maintained the proposition that history in general is unpredictable. The soundest estimates will be confounded by elements of chance and contingency. No one can say in advance how leading participants in the historical drama will act and few have prophesied accurately the more far-reaching events in history. Some think the gradual elimination of this uncertainty will occur when the specialized social sciences delve more carefully into the wellsprings of human behavior. Toynbee affirmed his confidence in the use of some of these techniques, particularly social psychology and statistics. It would be stretching a point, however, to imply that he shared the cheerful and extravagant expectations of some social scientists about the elimination of chance in discoveries that are possible through the use of rigorous social surveys.

In talking about the growth and decay of civilizations, Toynbee necessarily wrote social history. This is particularly the case in A Study of History, for the fundamental criterion by which growth is measured is not geographical expansion but, more unusual, self-determination. It is obvious that a society which turns inward in this way must face up to its social problems. Therefore one finds in the Study a large number of rich insights into social ills and social institutions.

Sociologists as a group have laid great stress on case studies, maintaining that a student must first get inside a particular society and appraise it on its own terms. A prominent American social theorist has held that the only clear ‘‘case study’’ in Toynbee’s writing is his analysis of Hellenic civilization. Even the staunchest admirer of Toynbee must confess that sometimes the social data hardly provide a clear picture of the uniqueness of a particular community. It is probably fair to say that Toynbee made little or no contribution to the cultural ‘‘case study’’ method as interpreted by modern sociology.

He has, however, provided empirical sociologists with a series of fertile hypotheses which remain to be tested and verified. His theory of challenge and response is of this order. Some of his formulas, however, have already been analyzed more fully, among them his theory of cultural diffusion or radiation wherein a society that has accepted a certain aspect of an alien culture must subsequently acquire all others. Moreover, as early as the turn of the century, modern sociology considered the social phenomenon of imitation, for which Toynbee has constructed his theory of mimesis. One of the social classics anticipated A Study of History on this point by nearly half a century: ‘‘A society is a group of people who display many resemblances produced either by imitation or by counter-imitation. For men often counter-imitate one another, particularly when they have neither the modesty to imitate directly nor the power to invent.’’ There are fewer allusions to the findings of modern sociology in Toynbee’s great work than there are to comparable studies in political science and history. Yet it is significant that great social theorists such as Merton have found a community of interest with Toynbee.

The major difference between Toynbee and contemporary sociologists is his individualistic interpretation of social change. Toynbee ascribed to great personalities and leaders what sociologists would insist, through more extensive analysis and study, could be attributed to underlying social forces. Research and new theoretical tools may yield the causes of fundamental change in man’s social relations and institutions. The neophyte in sociology may be tempted to dissent vigorously from its obsessions with classification, from its sometimes pedantic distinctions between society and community or between subtypes of sacred and secular societies; he may likewise disagree with Toynbee’s extreme individualism. On this point, nonetheless, the paths of the historian and his contemporaries in sociology and anthropology sharply and probably irrevocably diverge.

Students of contemporary religion have been at least as critical of some of Toynbee’s views as have scholars in the social sciences. It is most unlikely that philosophers and specialists in comparative religion would accept the strong currents of Christian determinism which emerge in his general conclusion that Christianity is the culmination of religious history. Indeed, by abandoning the neutrality about religions which he maintained throughout earlier accounts, Toynbee invited the unanimous criticism of all relativists in philosophy and religion.

Within religious circles, moreover, particularly among traditionalists, one would expect further differences of opinion on many of the points Toynbee raised. He stated, for example, that religious progress occurred during the breakdown and decay of civilizations. It is historically accurate to say that periods of decay have frequently been marked by profound religious insight. In times of crisis, the idolatrous worship of governments and social institutions has frequently been supplanted by new faiths or old religions. It is far less certain that in all of history, the progress of religion has been an inevitable concomitant of cultural disintegration. One exception is the growth of religious indifference in the past four centuries, during what may prove to be our own ‘‘Time of Troubles.’’ Further, it might well be argued that there has been a tendency for religions to identify so closely with historic civilizations that the destruction of one has meant that the other would likewise perish. Toynbee is right if in ideal terms religions prove able to stand apart from their native societies and in times of catastrophe display the courage of interpreting these tragedies as judgments by God. One looks in vain in the New Testament, however, for a concept of religion mounting to higher dimensions of insight through impending societal breakdowns and destruction. On the stage of human experience, there is always a chance that evil will triumph over the good and an eternal peril that religion itself will be destroyed. From this standpoint, the latter-day revisions of Toynbee’s morphology of history may be subject to criticism and possible emendation.

Toynbee also tended to identify religion too completely with a particular ecclesiastical institu tion. It is not everywhere clear what he meant by his frequent references to the ‘‘Church’’—sometimes it was the Roman Catholic, elsewhere the Greek Orthodox, and occasionally the Church of England. In general, his hopes for the future were related to the revival of a universal Roman Catholic church under a modern Hildebrand. Thus, the greatest of all questions to be answered in the twentieth century is, ‘‘Can Hildebrand arise again in his might to heal the wounds inflicted upon the souls of his flock by the sins of a Rodrigo Borgia and a Sinibaldo Fieschi?’’ There is a curious naïveté to his statement that although ‘‘the Church may actually never yet have expressed Christianity to perfection, there is at least no inherent impediment here to the attainment of a perfect harmony.’’ Elsewhere he seemed acutely aware that all institutions are likely, through domination by hierarchies of leaders, to become closed corporations in which there can be little progress. In general, Toynbee tended to overvalue the virtues of ecclesiasticism and to treat cavalierly the whole tradition of Protestantism. It is one thing to deal realistically with the implications of religious universalism for international affairs. It is something else again to draw further conclusions about the intrinsic merits of religions on that basis. In his emphasis on the primacy of institutional religion, Toynbee surely parted company with Bergson and Augustine.

For the analysis and study of religion, however, Toynbee’s contribution is of greatest significance. He identified the particular religions which have been important in various civilizations. He discussed their influence and shortcomings with great insight and unquestioned familiarity. That a secular historian should pay such heed to the religious theme in history has been one of the momentous factors influencing the role of religion in the midtwentieth century.

More than the majority of historians, Toynbee wrote about political events and trends from the viewpoint of political science. In numerous ways, this approach was apparent in estimates of political developments in England and the United States, in analysis of the influence of forms of government upon international politics, and in discussions of political power. But the issues Toynbee spoke of most frequently and on which he propounded formal theories are the nature of political leadership and the nature of the modern state. Each theory carries important implications for democratic theory and practice in the West.

In one view, the leader is merely an expression of prevailing customs or ideas in any society. He is thus an agent for that commonalty and can act only upon its mandate. Toynbee assumed, however, that it is primarily through the energy of the successful creative leader that a society moves forward. Moreover, the bonds of community between him and his followers are so fragile that only through imitation and ‘‘social drill’’ can they respond to his program.

The question one must ask is whether Toynbee’s conception leads directly to antidemocratic politics. It is important to observe here that the fundamental assumption upon which a theory of creative leadership is based is not inconsistent with some of the findings of contemporary scholarship in political science and sociology. There is an inherent tendency, we have discovered, for ‘‘elitist groups’’ to ascend to power in both autocratic and democratic governments. The role of the ‘‘charismatic’’ leader is central in this process. The great personality or hero in Toynbee’s scheme must first convince the people of his intrinsic worth as a leader before his creative program will be given a try. This would hardly be true for governments which were tyrannies or depotisms, although modern totalitarianism may present a somewhat different case.

On this count, Toynbee’s thesis is unqualifiedly democratic, for the great mass of uncreative followers retain the right to accept or reject the leader who is appealing to them. On other grounds, however, there are reasons for some uncertainty. Once a leader who has risen to power has lost his creativity, machinery must be in place to make possible his removal and to assure succession. On this crucial point, Toynbee’s references to revolution are inconclusive. Moreover, the system of popular elections, the principal means for disposing of unsatisfactory leaders, is not referred to at any point. If we conceive of Toynbee’s theory of political leadership as a detailed account of the political process, then this omission becomes so serious that we may classify his views as antidemocratic. If, on the other hand, we appraise it as a fragment of a broad theory of history, then some qualifications are necessary. In general, spiritual interpretations have tended to accent the importance of struggle, which has often obscured their insight into the indirect channels by which these contests are resolved. If one assumes that the most profound human experiences are a monopoly of the few, it is difficult to build on this foundation a steadfastly democratic philosophy. Yet political leadership, for most moderns, remains little less than an ‘‘enigma wrapped in a riddle.’’ It is symbolic of this dilemma that Toynbee should join an intensely individualistic social philosophy with a theory of political leadership which has aristocratic overtones.

Toynbee’s view of the state is that of a contemporary English Liberal. In his view, political units in both socialist and free enterprise states have been moving, through trial and error, toward a common set of functions. The major problem in interpreting the role of the state is to bring the discussion to the level of practical experience. If it were possible to find some palliative for the enormity of recurrent wars, then states everywhere could act in many more ways to promote the general welfare. It may be said that Toynbee’s conception of political problems is hardly that of a systematic political theorist. To a surprising number of perplexing issues, however, he brings the fresh and creative outlook of a thinker whose intuition has exceeded his ability to formulate general principles and theories.

We have been primarily concerned with Toynbee’s theory of international politics. If the scheme he devised for interpreting and evaluating all history moved through successive stages, it is even more true that his concept of international politics was evolutionary. Indeed, his whole outlook on the forces and principles of international affairs was painfully and slowly harmonized with reality.

Toynbee was, in both religion and politics, originally a staunch idealist. His thinking about foreign policy and diplomacy was imprisoned within a crusading nationalism. Sometime during the 1930s, the decade of unparalleled catastrophe, however, he began to employ the tools and principles that four hundred years of modern diplomacy have taught. For an absolutist in religious matters, this shift to relativism in politics could not have been easy. He sometimes seized upon new instruments for peace and order as enthusiastically as he had taken to simple formulas.

Thus in the early stages of the experiment with collective security, Toynbee was convinced that this ‘‘new dispensation’’ had taken the place of the old balance of power. The particular problems of collective security with which he was forced to deal concretely were probably what carried him toward political realism. The pathos of these experiences liberated his theory from its earlier utopian fetters. This tendency in his thinking reached its culmination in the counsel he offered for the mitigation of the perilous struggle between East and West since World War II. In time of greatest crisis, no rational student of international politics could afford to ignore the lessons of diplomatic history. Toynbee turned to traditional diplomacy and its well-tested procedures and techniques because he properly identi- fied that struggle as a worldwide political contest.

Moreover, in practice, Toynbee’s viewpoint was eclectic. He was able to distinguish between immediate and ultimate objectives. The former can be pursued as practical alternatives; the latter must be conceived as long-range aims which can be achieved only by prudent choices among competing principles. What is striking about Toynbee’s theory is that on most fundamental issues he succeeded in maintaining one set of interests without sacrificing the other. Since 1947 he steered the perilous course between a cynical realism and the fatuous assumptions of utopianism. In the 1930s, he was not always able to find this channel but at the height of the cold war when the highest political wisdom is called for, he adjusted his theory to current problems.

Whether the most prudent political insight can carry Western civilization beyond the reach of ultimate destruction is something about which Toynbee was none too sanguine. All he would say was that in the task which confronts Western society and against the catastrophes of internecine warfare, our best hope was in bargaining for time. Toynbee’s theory of international politics was transformed because modern society must try to avert its doom. In this common enterprise, the historian of great civilizations and the student of unrelenting struggles for political power offered the same counsel.

Source: Kenneth W. Thompson, ‘‘A Critical Evaluation,’’ in Toynbee’s Philosophy of World History and Politics, Louisiana State University Press, 1985, pp. 215–26.

Some Basic Assumptions of Toynbee’s A Study of History

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5772

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, that is, whether it deals fairly and skillfully with the data upon which it is based. Secondly, one may turn the historian’s characteristic tools back upon himself and ask: How did this book come to be written? What is its relation to the individual life of the author, and more particularly, what is its relation to the age in which he lived? And, thirdly, one may ask what basic ideas, assumptions, or intellectual methods may underlie the text, governing its scope and proportion, shaping its emphasis, and giving a sort of artistic or intellectual unity to the whole.

When, however, we attempt to focus upon a book so vast and various as Toynbee’s A Study of History from any of these viewpoints, difficulties at once arise. His basic ideas seem to have shifted radically during the thirty-odd years he spent producing the ten volumes, so that many discrepancies between the earliest and latest volumes may be found. Moreover, our times are too much with us to make it possible to see his book clearly in relation to the currents of thought and feeling that still run among us. We cannot say which of the many contradictory strands will predominate or seem most significant to later generations. Finally, the scope of his inquiries is so wide, and his erudition so various that the job of checking up on his accuracy must be resigned to experts in one or another of the fields of history with which he deals. Yet this is in some degree unjust, for errors of fact or judgment, which may seem monstrous to the narrow expert, need not necessarily invalidate the book as a whole. If we listen only to indignant specialists, the real greatness of the Study (which must surely lie in the effort to reduce all the multifariousness of human history to a comprehensible order) may quite escape us.

Indeed, on this point I venture the opinion, absurd though it may seem, that even if all but a few fragments of Toynbee’s text should prove vulnerable to attack on the ground of factual inaccuracy, still the book will stand in the public eye, and also I believe in the judgment of posterity, as a notable monument of our century’s intellectual history. Quite apart from the impression his ideas have made upon the general lay public—and this in itself becomes an incident in the intellectual history of our times—Toynbee has presented the community of academic and professional historians with an important challenge. It may or may not be taken up seriously by future generations; and the long-term influence of his book will in part depend upon the reaction we and our successors make to the challenge he has set before us.

The nature of Toynbee’s challenge is twofold. First, he has boldly overridden the conventional boundaries between specialisms in the field of history. Taking all the knowable human past as his province, he has found rhythms and patterns which Toynbee was inspired by the fifth-century Greek historian Thucydides any less panoramic view could scarcely have detected. I am, for myself, profoundly convinced that there are insights attainable by taking large views of the past which cannot be had from close inspection of the separated segments of history. I once had an experience in New York City which for me has come to stand as a symbol of the advantage which may accrue to a man taking such an intellectual position. Once on a hot summer’s evening when I was walking on Morningside Heights looking down upon the Hudson, the traffic on the Parkway beneath caught my attention. It was heavy, and to my surprise I saw that the cars were grouped along that ribbon of concrete in the alternating nodes and antinodes of a longitudinal wave, precisely like the diagram I remembered from my physics textbook illustrating the propagation of a sound wave. Moreover, the waves of traffic moved along the Parkway at a rate considerably faster than the progress of any car and were regular in length as well as in their speed. Here was a truth about stop-and-go driving on a crowded road which I had never known before, even though I had more than once been a particle in such a jam. Only the long perspective of Morningside Heights permitted me to apprehend this aspect of the phenomenon. Observers closer to the roadside might see individual cars going by; might calculate their speed or tabulate their makes, study the varieties of hubcaps or measure the pollution of the air from the exhausts; but from the very proximity of their vantage points our imaginary observers could have understood the wave-character of the traffic only through exact and painstaking statistical analysis of a sort usually impossible in historical study from lack of sufficient data. Yet a Toynbee-like vision of universal history, I believe, opens the possibility of short-circuiting statistical methods, as my glance from Morningside Heights could do. New insights may arise with breadth of view; fallible and never completely provable perhaps, yet enormously stimulating to exact and careful study which may find new questions to ask of familiar data in the light of general ideas generated by men like Toynbee. No multiplication of specialisms or narrowing down of fields of history in the interest of more perfect accuracy can by itself hope to achieve such an enrichment of our understanding of man’s past. Interaction between large views, bold hypotheses, fallible intuitions, and exact, detailed scholarship is what we need. If we concentrate upon the latter alone, by drawing ever closer to the facts and seeing details ever more completely, we may blind ourselves to other aspects of reality. We may, in the terms of my parable, see only the hubcaps and radiator grilles in the parade of traffic and miss the waves entirely.

This, then, is the first great challenge which Toynbee’s A Study of History has put before us. It is a real challenge; for most academic historians, because they have made accuracy their major concern, have shrunk from universal history. After all, no man, not even a man as gifted as Toynbee, can hope to have more than a superficial acquaintance with all the fields of history; and until Toynbee came along, the English-speaking world had, for at least two generations, left universal history to brilliant amateurs like H. G. Wells, or, in this country, to the writers of undergraduate textbooks, whose efforts were directed not so much to new synthesis as to the cataloguing of more or less well-assorted information culled from the work of specialists.

The second great challenge Toynbee has put before us is similar in that it constitutes a breakthrough of the traditional limits of our discipline, not horizontally, so to speak, but vertically. What I mean is this: Toynbee has felt himself free to connect his studies of history with ultimate philosophical and theological questions. His study of the human past has confronted him with such questions as: What is the destiny of mankind? What laws are human societies subject to? What part does God play in human affairs? Perhaps because we wished to be scientific, and were temperamentally cautious, professional historians have tended to skirt these major riddles of the human condition; but Toynbee has boldly rushed in where we have feared to tread and come up with his own individual answers. Quite apart from the question whether they are good answers or not, answers are there in his book; and I believe that much of his popularity arises from the explicitness with which he has confronted these ultimate questions which haunt, and have always haunted, the minds of reflective men.

We all know the enrichment which came to the traditions of political history when men began to delve into economic aspects of the past; and Toynbee, it seems to me, offers a similar enrichment by challenging us to bring our historical truths into relation with sociological, philosophical, and theological theories and beliefs.

Yet in attempting so grandiose a synthesis, accuracy of fact and accuracy of detailed interpretation inevitably suffer. Omniscience is beyond mankind, and in proportion as one ideal of history is emphasized another must be crowded into the shadows. This is, no doubt, the case with Toynbee, who, in undertaking to say something about everything, has laid himself open to expert criticism over and over again. Yet criticism directed merely toward correctness will miss the heart of his book, disguise its importance, and can do little to explain (or to destroy) its significance for our age in general and for professional historians in particular.

Let me leave the matter of Toynbee’s accuracy at that. However mistaken or wrong-headed he may be on particular points, the Study still stands before us, grand and imposing.

Perhaps we can hope to come nearer to an understanding of his significance by taking up the second critical standpoint, asking ourselves: How did this book come to be written? What is its relation to Toynbee’s and our own time?

Two preliminary observations are perhaps worth making in this connection. First, the scope and content of A Study of History is dependent on the work done by archaeologists, much of it within the present century. If the goodly company of the archaeologists had not discovered and studied Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Minoan, Mycenaean, Hittite, Indus, Shang, and Mayan civilizations, Toynbee could not have conceived history as he did. In this most elementary sense, his book is a product of our age. Secondly, the great popular reception his ideas have met in this country—a reception far warmer than they have had in England, or in any other country so far as I know—is undoubtedly connected with an easy inference to be made from his pattern of the development of civilizations. If the Western world is now becoming ripe for the emergence of a universal state, as his pages seem to suggest, the United States is clearly a contender for the role once played by Rome. Such a role flatters the national ego. If this is to become the American century, it is, to say the least, comforting to know the historical inevitability thereof in advance. In some influential quarters Toynbee’s ideas were, I believe, so interpreted, and the publicity his books received depended in some measure upon this fact.

But these observations merely skirt the question of the relation between A Study of History and our times. Fortunately, Toynbee has himself given a reasonably clear account of how he first conceived the germ of the Study. In 1914, soon after the First World War broke upon an unsuspecting Europe, Toynbee, in the course of his academic duties as a young Oxford don, found the pages of Thucydides pregnant with new meanings, and applicable, with surprising precision, to the contemporary struggle in Europe. In Toynbee’s own words:

. . . suddenly my understanding was illuminated. The experience that we were having in our world now had been experienced by Thucydides in his world already . . . Thucydides, it now appeared, had been over this ground before. He and his generation had been ahead of me and mine in the stage of historical experience we had respectively reached; . . . Whatever chronology might say, Thucydides’ world and my world had now proved to be philosophically contemporary. And, if this were the true relation between the Graeco- Roman and the Western civilizations, might not the relation between all the civilizations known to us turn out to be the same?

A sudden flash of insight, then, communicated from the pages of Thucydides in a time when the familiar landmarks of European civilization seemed about to collapse, raised a tantalizing question in Toynbee’s mind; and as soon as the pressure of war duties in the British Foreign Office was removed, he set out to try to find an answer. If it were true that European historical development in the twentieth century A.D. was in some sense running parallel to the historical development of the Greek city-states of the fifth century B.C., was this mere accident, or part of a larger parallelism between the whole life course of the two civilizations? And could similar parallels be discovered in the histories of other peoples? Was there, in short, a sort of plot or rhythm common to human civilizations?

As we all know, Toynbee’s investigations gave affirmative answers to these questions. As early as 1921 he was able to jot down a draft outline of the work we know as A Study of History, and during the next eight years he worked out details and prepared notes to flesh out that preliminary outline.

During these germinative years, and down until 1933 when work on the first three volumes was completed, Toynbee remained strongly under the spell of the classical education he had received in school and at Oxford. This shows through quite clearly in the first three volumes, where he regularly used the history of the Greco-Roman world as the archetype and measuring rod against which to plot the careers of other civilizations. Indeed, the method he used to identify his separate civilizations was to search for analogues of the three leading phenomena which accompanied the decay of the ancient classical world—a universal state, a universal church, and barbarian invasions; and when some parallels to these phenomena were discovered, he was prepared to recognize the death of an older and the birth of a new civilization.

There is, here a certain ambiguity in Toynbee’s thought—or so it seems to me. He never gives a systematic, careful definition of what the term ‘‘civilization’’ means, but in later passages refers to it as a ‘‘state of the soul.’’ Yet his criteria for recognizing separate civilizations are political, and as his book unfolds one discovers that the breakdowns of civili zations occur on the political plane also. I do not think Toynbee contradicts himself by such a procedure, for he could plausibly enough assert that the gross political manifestations which he used to discover the major outlines of the careers of civilizations were no more than outward and easily discovered manifestations of the state of the souls of the millions of men concerned with each civilization. Yet he has not spelled out what he means by his central concept of a civilization, and in his first three volumes he sometimes gives the impression that the political framework is at least for practical purposes identical with the civilization itself.

Such an emphasis upon politics is thoroughly in the tradition of classical thought; and there is still another sense in which his early inspiration derived from the ancients. From at least the time of Plato it had been a commonplace of Greek and Roman literature to hold that history moved in cycles. In its extreme form, as in the fourth of Vergil’s Eclogues, this theory asserted that identical acts would recur time and again as the Great Year rolled round anew; in less fantastic form, men like Plato and Polybius held that constitutions underwent a regular cycle of change, rising toward an apex and then inevitably undergoing decay and eventual dissolution until the cycle began once more. Toynbee’s view of the life pattern of civilizations, as advanced in his early volumes, was nothing but a translation of this classical commonplace onto a larger scene, substituting civilizations for the constitutions of city-states, and the globe, as known to contemporary Western historians, for the Mediterranean world of Plato and Polybius.

Yet however deeply Toynbee’s mind in his early manhood was imbued with Greek and Roman literature, it remained true that, like Western civilization itself, his precocious childhood had been even more profoundly affected by exposure to an intense, evangelical Christianity, which gave him an abiding familiarity with the King James Bible. In the later 1930’s when the progress of public events cast the long shadow of the Second World War upon the scene, and when personal problems also distressed him deeply, Toynbee’s classicism began to wear thin. By degrees Toynbee the Hellenist gave way to Toynbee the man of religion, not quite Christian perhaps, since the creeds and formalism of organized Christianity repelled his mind. But still his new frame of mind may, I think, fairly be described as an enriched and sophisticated version of the Christianity of his childhood. One can see the beginning of this transformation in the middle group of his volumes, published on the eve of World War II, and the change in outlook became explicit and complete in the four concluding volumes published in 1954.

This gradual conversion was Toynbee’s personal response o the challenge of personal sorrow and public disaster. The phrase from Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, ‘‘pathei mathos’’ (learning through suffering), which had echoed in his mind even in his most Hellenized years, came to have an ever growing significance for his view of the history and destiny of mankind. For through suffering, he came to believe, specially gifted men might attain a sensitivity, otherwise beyond their powers, to the divine reality behind mundane appearances; and, as teachers and prophets, could share their enhanced vision of the nature and purposes of God with their fellow men, whose minds had been readied for the reception of their message by the same suffering.

From this point of view, the cyclical rise and fall of civilizations came to have a new meaning. In his earlier, Hellenizing years, the recurrent breakdown and dissolution of civilizations had stood as a self-contained tragedy, attesting the limitations of human powers and the blindness of human passions. The consolation of history, as he then apprehended it, was a sort of Stoic heroism in the face of foreknown disaster. The three quotations which he prefixed to his first volumes: ‘‘Work . . . while it is day . . .’’; ‘‘Nox ruit, Aenea . . .’’; and ‘‘Thought shall be the harder, Heart the keener, Mood shall be the more, As our might lessens,’’ accurately catch the tone of his mind, deeply affected as it then was by the war of 1914–1918.

But from his new standpoint of the later 1930’s and after, this resigned pagan heroism began to seem mere blindness to the most basic reality of the world. Instead of being mere disaster, the long drawn-out human suffering involved in the dissolution of a civilization now appeared as the greatest of all challenges offered to men, creating for them the indispensable social matrix for reception of divine self-revelation. Thus the entire historic process changed its character in Toynbee’s eyes. History was no longer simply cyclical; one civilization was no longer strictly equivalent to another. Instead, through the establishment of religions during the declining phases of a civilization’s existence, a permanent addition to human knowledge of God was painfully attained. Universal history thus appeared as a gradual, stage-by-stage revelation of God to man. Religions replaced civilizations as the supremely valuable and significant forms of human association. God displaced man as the protagonist of history.

In this revised picture it is not difficult to recognize the lineaments of the traditional Judaic- Christian interpretation of history. Faith in progress, which Toynbee had rather scornfully rejected during his Hellenized years, was now restored, though not in its secularized eighteenth- and nineteenthcentury form. To be sure the cycles of civilization remained; but they served, like the wheels of some great chariot, to carry humanity onward, ever onward toward some divinely appointed and unforeknowable but plainly desirable end.

The development of Toynbee’s mind, in response to the public and private experiences of his mature lifetime, obviously involved discrepancies and changes of emphasis, if not outright contradictions, between the earliest and latest volumes of his A Study of History. These discrepancies may, perhaps, illustrate a changing temper of our times; I do not know. Certainly his growing religiosity is not unique; other sensitive spirits, too, have turned toward God as he has done; but whether he and they comprise only a minority in the intellectual community of our time, or whether they will appear in later times as pioneers of a new age remains to be seen. However that may be, Toynbee’s volumes may be better understood and their discrepancies appreciated only if the reader sets them, as I have tried to do, against the background of the years in which they were written.

It remains, now, to take up our third vantage point and examine Toynbee’s work in itself, asking what basic assumptions and intellectual methods underlie his book. It is here, I believe, that we can discover a measure of consistency and unity in his whole thought, despite the disparate conclusions which have at different stages of his life dominated his mind. For Toynbee the Hellenist and Toynbee the man of religion both used much the same methods of inquiry, and at least one common assumption underlies both the earlier and later versions of his vision of history.

Let me say something about Toynbee’s methods of inquiry first, and turn to his assumptions at the end of this paper.

Toynbee likes to call himself an empiricist, and repeatedly describes his procedure in seeking illustrations for some general proposition about human history as an ‘‘empirical survey.’’ Yet it seems to me that his use of this word is distinctly misleading. For his ‘‘empiricism’’ is an empiricism which already is keenly aware of what it is seeking; and in such a difficult and multifarious study as history, it is all too easy to find evidence to ‘‘prove’’ almost any proposition. The reason is simple. The potential data of history are limitless, and by selecting for attention only those bits and pieces that fit in with one’s notions, a convincing ‘‘empirical’’ validation of the preconception with which one started out may often, if not always, be achieved. Yet this is the procedure by which Toynbee again and again seeks to prove or justify his generalizations. It follows, I think, that whatever value they may have—and in my opinion many of them have a great value—does not rest upon the empirical surveys of which he seems so fond.

Indeed, Toynbee’s self-proclaimed empiricism seems to me largely a pose, adopted originally, perhaps, partly in an effort to distinguish his thought from Spengler’s; and one which has been largely abandoned in his later volumes. Rather, the heart of Toynbee’s intellectual procedure has always been the sudden flash of insight such as that which, on his own account, launched him originally on A Study of History. The experience of suddenly seeing some new relationship or pattern emerging from a confusion of elements previously unrelated is one which I presume all thinking men experience from time to time; and such experiences often carry with them a considerable emotional force which almost compels assent even before the details and implications of the new insight have been tidily arranged and worked out. Such I conceive to have been the method by which Toynbee worked his way through history; and being endowed by nature with an unusually powerful memory and an even more powerful imagination, his flashes of original insight have been numerous and far ranging. Many of them are, at least for me, profoundly illuminating. Let me just mention two examples from European history where my information is adequate to make it possible for me to control, in some measure, the data Toynbee worked upon. I find, for example, his concept of an abortive Far Western civilization on the Celtic fringe of Europe in the early Middle Ages, and his account of the competition between what he calls the ‘‘city-state cosmos’’ and the national state organization of late medieval and early modern Europe eminently enlightening. His analysis of the successive phases through which Greek and Roman society passed, and especially of the early phases of the growth of Greek civilization, seem to me mas terful and entirely persuasive; and to go somewhat further afield, in his anatomy of the Ottoman Empire in particular and of nomad empires in general, he seems to me to be barking up the right tree, though his analysis may be a bit too schematic to fit each case exactly. It is passages such as these, where the free exercise of a synthetic imagination has succeeded in suggesting novel relationships or discerning new points of view, which, in my opinion, make Toynbee a truly great historian.

But I must also confess that there are other passages in his book where his imagination seems to run amuck. In the interest of fitting his data into a pattern he sometimes seems to cut and slice reality in an arbitrary and even fantastic fashion. I will mention only one instance of this: His description of the Arab caliphate as the resumption of a Syriac universal state after a millennium of Hellenic intrusion does not convince me in the least. Yet once the equation is made, throughout the rest of the book it is baldly taken for granted, and the sense in which the caliphate was also heir to Greek and Roman culture is nowhere seriously taken into account.

Such contrasts as these point up the difficulties of Toynbee’s intellectual method. The sort of insights upon which the book is founded come in a flash or not at all, arising, in large, part, from the hidden and unconscious levels of the mind. Their nature is closer akin to the vision of the artist than to strictly rational or merely inductive mental processes. But rational and inductive processes contain their own controls, being bound by logic and sense perception; whereas the constructive imagination lacks such controls, and may go sadly astray by virtue of the very freedom which in lucky instances permits it to strike home to the truth.

My first point, then, about Toynbee’s intellectual procedure is his reliance upon insight and imagination rather than upon arguments or induction. In this he is true to the Platonic intellectual tradition of which he is a latter-day representative; for Plato, too, and all good Platonists after him, have experienced and, having experienced, have valued above all else the flash of intellectual insight—the vision of the Idea—which Plato set as the apex of intellectual endeavor.

This suggests another important characteristic of Toynbee’s procedure: for just as Plato in the Republic falls back upon a myth when he wishes to describe the Idea of the Good, so also Toynbee at critical points in his book resorts to myth and metaphor, and finds in these an otherwise unattainable path to the solution of problems he has set himself.

I need scarcely remind you of the freedom with which he resorts to these devices. Images such as the elaborate metaphor of the climbers on the rock face or the pollarded willow of the first volume give a picturesque sharpness to his concepts; and, more than this, seem sometimes for their author to take on an independent life and reality of their own. Toynbee’s mind tends to move freely among visual images, metaphors, and figures of speech, finding baldly abstract and severely verbal formulae a pallid substitute for fully embodied imagination.

One may, indeed, say that his habit of mind is poetic, and it would be a mistake not to recognize his book as a prose epic, whatever else it may be besides. If his literary style were more austere and polished, his book could, I think, stand comparison with Dante, or better, with Milton. Indeed, in Toynbee’s own spirit one might make up a table of literary parallels: As Herodotus is to Homer, and as Thucydides is to Aeschylus, so Toynbee is to Milton. Like Milton, he combines classical humanism with evangelical religion; but Toynbee lacks the doctrinal certainty of his predecessor. In much the same way the two great Greek historians accepted the fundamental intellectual frame-work of their poetic forerunners, but could not accept the pantheon of Olympus.

Toynbee’s use of myth as a guide and suggestion to argument occurs at critical turning points in his book rather than throughout. But in falling back on Goethe’s Faust for hints as to the manner in which a civilization comes into being, in summoning Aeschylus’s Prometheus to assist him in comprehending the processes of civilization’s growth; or in resorting to the language of Christian theology when discussing the relations of law and freedom in history, Toynbee is reproducing for his readers the processes of mind through which he himself passed in order to arrive at his conclusion.

Toynbee has confessed that this procedure at first filled him with misgiving, flying, as it did, in the face of accepted, scientific, sober-minded, intellectual method. But whether by birth or training, he found peculiar stimulus in the world of poetry and myth, and decided to plunge ahead and follow the suggestions that came to him from these sources in plotting out the drama of human history. In later years, he found a theoretical justification for what he had done. ‘‘I have now lived to see,’’ he writes, ‘‘the subconscious well-spring of Poetry and Proph ecy restored to honour in the Western World by the genius of C. G. Jung; but, before Jung’s star at last rose above my horizon, Plato’s example . . . had given me courage to part company with an earlytwentieth- century Western Zeitgeist whose . . . only realities were those that could be weighed and measured.’’

As I understand Toynbee’s mature conviction (and I am not sure that I do understand his rather oblique and fleeting references to this arcanum of his thought), mythology represents an attempt to express in figurative and narrative language an intuitive grasp of the deepest reality of the human condition: a reality which can tamely but only inadequately be expressed in sober, severely intellectual discourse. And since the intellect is only part of man, and not necessarily the most far-ranging or reliable part at that, he now feels that he was right in relying upon the inspiration of myths to guide his thoughts, for they represent free intuitions of the soul, whose universal value has been tested by their survival through many ages and countless retellings.

For my present purposes, however, there is no need to explore or to criticize Toynbee’s ex post facto justification for his procedure. The important point is the procedure itself—a movement of mind and method of thought very deeply implanted in him, and as characteristic of his early Hellenized as of his more recent Christianized outlook.

I think he would agree that Plato is his intellectual master of masters; and this is true not only in his reliance upon flashes of insight, and in his use of metaphor and of myth to convey or suggest meanings which sober matter-of-fact language leaves lifeless, but also in the habit of mind which strives in the face of all the diversity of experience and of history to arrive at the interconnectedness of things— to see multiplicity and discrepancy reduced to unity and order, to see the whole in the parts, the One in the Many. This is, indeed, the most basic and fundamental quality of Toynbee’s mind, a quality perhaps unusual in an historian, who is normally liable to be arrested and intrigued by the variety and multiplicity of things and to take the data of history more or less for what they are—infinitely various, changeable, shifting, and interesting.

The impulse to find a unity in history implies, of course, that there is such a unity to be discovered; and this seems to me to be the bedrock of Toynbee’s entire intellectual enterprise. Here is the basic assumption of his A Study of History: that there is intelligible unity behind all the diversity of human historical experience. Moreover, it is possible to characterize the unity Toynbee believes he has discovered; for alike in his earlier as in his later phases of thought, he has seen history as essentially a drama in which the human spirit is confronted with an Other, suffers frustration, and is provoked to respond by changing itself, thus growing, or, when the response falls short of success, suffering decay; but in either case making history. The nature of the Other which confronts the human spirit may vary: it may be physical nature, it may be other men, it may be God; and the later phases of his thought are distinguished from the earlier by the greater emphasis he now puts on the third of these alternatives. Yet in the fundamental picture of the historic process, and in the assumption that there is a Form or Idea (in the Platonic sense) to that process, he has remained entirely consistent, so far as I can see, from beginning to end.

I must confess that I am myself sufficiently close-wedded to the Zeitgeist of the twentieth century to be disturbed by some of Toynbee’s mythological and theological language. Yet I find it possible to abstract sound sense from his pages. History, I agree, is change, and change in human society is, I believe, provoked by challenges (of whatever sort) from outside the closed circle of custom and institutional precedent which binds the normal day-by-day life of men together. And the reality of rhythms and patterns in history I am not disposed to deny. No doubt such crude paraphrase would, for Toynbee himself, lose all the barely expressible overtones and utterly distort the truth he has sought to convey. Such imperfect communication is, however, normal in intellectual discourse and should surprise no one. My point is merely this: I find much scintillating suggestion and stimulation to thought in Toynbee’s pages; he has opened vistas of history and put questions before me as no other single author has done. For this I am grateful, and insofar as he does the like for others of the historical profession, we should all be grateful. He has certainly not spared himself in pursuing a high goal. I hope that future historians may find inspiration in his example, and will test, criticize, correct, and not entirely forget to emulate his efforts. If we do, the study of history cannot fail to be enriched, and we will worthily uphold Clio’s oft-disputed claim to reign a queen among the sciences.

Source: William H. McNeill, ‘‘Some Basic Assumptions of Toynbee’s A Study of History,’’ in The Intent of Toynbee’s History, edited by Edward T. Gargan, Loyola University Press, 1961, pp. 29–46.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial
Previous

Critical Overview