Historical Context

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The growth of nationalism was one of the most important developments in nineteenth- and twentieth- century Western history. Toynbee disliked nationalism, regarding it as one of the besetting evils of the modern world. He believed it was the cause of war. He also believed that emphasis on the nationstate led to distorted versions of history. This was why he took civilizations rather than nations as the units of historical study. Toynbee also wanted to combat another dangerous modern tendency, that of Eurocentric or Western bias, which he called an ‘‘egocentric illusion.’’ He did not view Western civilization as the apex of human development since this left no room for objective evaluation of civilizations originating in China and India, let alone South and Central American civilizations.

World Wars I and II
A Study of History was influenced by the times in which Toynbee lived. In 1920, Western civilization was facing the challenge of recovering after the devastation of World War I. It was in that year that Toynbee first conceived the idea that there might be uniform laws governing the rise and fall of civilizations. He noted striking parallels between the situation facing the West and the challenge faced by the Hellenic civilization following the Pelopponesian war in the fifth century B.C. This parallel between the two civilizations was the seed idea that led to the structure elaborated in A Study of History.

World War II also affected Toynbee’s work. Volumes 4–6 of A Study of History were published the year the war broke out. Since they dealt for the most part with the breakdown and disintegration of civilizations, they were very timely.

Toynbee was unable to resume his work until 1947 because of the war. His views had been modified by the intervening events. Because of the destructive power of the newly created atomic bomb, he now possessed a more pessimistic view of the future prospects for Western and other civilizations. He also allocated a far more important place to the higher religions of the world than before.

The Cold War
When Toynbee was writing his final volumes, the Cold War between the United States and Russia, the two superpowers that had emerged after World War II, dominated the world. Toynbee gave considerable attention to this situation in chapter 12 of A Study of History. He noted that if a third world war should break out, the result might be the annihilation of human life on Earth. He concluded that the only alternative was to move toward political unifi- cation of the world with control of nuclear weapons in the hands of one power. He did not see the United Nations as capable of fulfilling such a role. Instead, it would have to be carried out by one of the two superpowers. Of these two powers, Toynbee held a more favorable view of the United States. Toynbee found the United States, with its history of federalism, more suited to assuming the principal position in a world government.

Population Growth
In the second half of the twentieth century, one of the major problems facing the world, Toynbee believed, was unchecked population growth. He pointed out that the population of China had doubled in the hundred years from the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth. India and Indonesia, two of the most populous countries in the world, showed a similar rate of population growth. Much of the growth was due to reduced infant and child mortality rates. Toynbee believed that if the trend continued, world population would outstrip the earth’s capacity to feed everyone. Even the most sophisticated technology would not be able to prevent this. After all, Toynbee argued, the Earth’s surface is finite; only so much food can be produced from it. The result of overpopulation would be famine unless a world government was formed to restrict the rights of humans to procreate. Toynbee acknowledged the many diffi- culties and tensions this loss of personal liberty would create.

Literary Style

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Simile and Analogy
Toynbee frequently makes use of similes and analogies in which two apparently dissimilar things are compared. The purpose of these similes is to enable the reader to visualize the concept that is being presented and make it easier to grasp. One extended simile recurs at several points in the book, and that is Toynbee’s comparison of civilizations to humans climbing a mountain. Primitive civilizations are like people lying asleep on a ledge with a precipice below and a precipice above. No further progress is possible for them. Arrested civilizations are like climbers who have reached a certain height but now find themselves blocked; they can go neither forward nor backward. Civilizations that are ready to grow, however, are like climbers who have just risen to their feet and are beginning to climb the face of the cliff. They cannot stop until they either fall back to the ledge or reach another, higher ledge.

In another extended simile, Toynbee compares the influence of a creative minority in a civilization to a physical beam of light that radiates outward. He calls this a ‘‘culture ray,’’ in which the economic, political, and cultural aspects of a civilization radiate to those living outside its formal borders. His description of the process is an example of the poetic quality of much of Toynbee’s prose:

The light shines as far as, in the nature of things, it can carry until it reaches its vanishing-point. The gradations are infinitesimal, and it is impossible to demarcate the line at which the last glimmer of twilight flickers out and leaves the heart of darkness in undivided possession.

Toynbee believes the culture ray to be a very powerful force because although civilizations are a comparatively recent development in human history, they have succeeded during that period in permeating, to a greater or lesser extent, virtually every primitive society.

A third extended simile is that of a dam. Toynbee uses this to illustrate the way a disintegrating civilization creates a military barrier to insulate itself from the alienated people outside its borders. The barrier acts like a physical dam. However, in the long run it is always breached. In chapter 8, Toynbee elaborates at great length and sophistication, in terms of his simile of the dam, on how this happens. The water that is piled up above the dam (the equivalent of the civilization’s hostile external proletariat) seeks to find the same level as the water below it (the civilization), and it continually exerts pressure to that effect. Just as engineers construct safety valves in the form of sluices, so does the defending civilization attempt techniques that will keep its own ‘‘dam’’ from collapsing. One technique is to enlist some of their barbarian adversaries on their own side. But the safety valves fail because the forces outside the military barrier (the equivalent of the water above the dam) are forever on the rise. When the barbarians finally break through, the result, as with the bursting of a physical dam, is calamity all round.

A Study of History has been compared to a mighty river, meandering along its course and gathering strength from many tributary streams. It might also be thought of as a great cathedral, in which every stone, every stained-glass window, and every historical monument in the interior help to create the final edifice that reveals the grandeur of humanity’s spiritual aspiration. In constructing this imposing edifice, not only does Toynbee seem to know almost everything about so many different civilizations, his style of exposition is equally eclectic. In addition to the facts and historical research that are the tools of the historian’s profession, he makes frequent use of mythology and world literature. He has an eye for the apt quotation that perfectly captures his idea, as when a passage from a poem by American poet Walt Whitman illustrates the Toynbee theory of a recurring rhythm of challenge and response through which a civilization grows: ‘‘It is provided in the essence of things that from any fruition of success, no matter what, shall come forth something to make a greater struggle necessary.’’ Shakespeare is employed to illustrate the idea that civilizations are destroyed not by outside forces but from within; Shakespeare is brought in again to illustrate the Toynbee law of ‘‘etherialization,’’ in which the vital sphere of a growing civilization shifts from the external to the internal world. Goethe’s poem Faust is used to illustrate the challenge and response pattern, and references to the Bible and classical myths are too numerous to detail. Toynbee uses this eclectic approach to his subject to capture a vital dimension of human history that may be unobtainable by a method that deals only with strict empirical facts.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Gargen, Edward T., ed., The Intent of Toynbee’s History, Loyola University Press, 1961, pp. 1–46.

Jung, C. G., Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Collins, 1967, pp. 159–60.

McIntire, C. T., and Marvin Perry, Toynbee: Reappraisals, University of Toronto Press, 1989.

McNeill, William H., Toynbee: A Life, Oxford University Press, 1989.

Montagu, M. F. Ashley, ed., Toynbee and History: Critical Essays and Reviews, Porter Sargent, 1956, pp. 3–11, 115–17, 122–24, 172–90.

Myers, E. D., Review in Nation, Vol. 164, April 19, 1947, p. 455.

Spengler, Oswald, The Decline of the West, Oxford, 1991.

Winetrout, Kenneth, Arnold Toynbee: The Ecumenical Vision, Twayne, 1975, pp. 17–38, 120.

Further Reading
Geyl, Peter, Debates with Historians, Meridian Books, 1958. Geyl’s text includes four chapters that deal with A Study of History. Geyl criticizes Toynbee’s method as not being genuinely empirical, and he also disputes Toynbee’s pessimistic assessment of the state of Western civilization.

Ortega y Gasset, Jose, An Interpretation of Universal History, translated by Mildred Adams, W. W. Norton, 1973. This work is compiled from a lecture course that Ortega gave on Toynbee. Largely hostile to Toynbee, Ortega accuses him of having a mystical approach to history and of relying too much on Greco-Roman history as the key to all other civilizations. Ortega also claims that Toynbee makes major factual errors.

Samuel, Maurice, The Professor and the Fossil, Knopf, 1956. Samuel disputes Toynbee’s description of the Jews as fossils of the extinct Syrian civilization with its implication that Jewish culture is lifeless and unproductive.

Stromberg, Roland N., Arnold J. Toynbee: Historian for an Age in Crisis, Southern Illinois University Press, 1972. This is a concise introduction and a balanced and fairminded evaluation of Toynbee’s thought, excellent for those who are studying him for the first time.


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Brewin, Christopher. “Arnold Toynbee, Chatham House, and Research in a Global Context.” In Thinkers of The Twenty Years’ Crisis: Inter-War Idealism Reassessed, edited by David Long and Peter Wilson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. The years between the two world wars have been called the “idealistic” phase of international-relations theory. This collection of essays examines works written during that period, including Toynbee’s writings, to analyze their utopian elements and to determine if “idealistic” is an accurate description.

Herman, Arthur. “Welcoming Defeat: Arnold Toynbee.” In The Idea of Decline in Western History. New York: Free Press, 1997. Herman, a program coordinator at the Smithsonian Institution, analyzes the writings of Toynbee and other intellectuals who have depicted the decline of Western civilization.

Mason, Henry. Toynbee’s Approach to World Politics. New Orleans, La.: Tulane University Press, 1958. Critical analysis of Toynbee’s political theories, including both positive and negative evaluations of his methodology. Surveys his study of international affairs. The appendix covers general reception and specific criticisms of A Study of History.

O’Hagan, Jacinta. “The Patriarchal Civilization: Arnold Toynbee’s Conception of the West.” In Conceptualizing the West in International Relations: From Spengler to Said. New York: Palgrave, 2002. Analyzes how Toynbee and thinkers such as Oswald Spengler and Edward Said have conceived of Western civilization and the role that these conceptions have played in global relations.

Perry, Marvin. Arnold Toynbee and the Western Tradition. New York: Peter Lang, 1996. Provides an explication of A Study of History, describing Toynbee’s ideas about the nature, evolution, and destiny of Western civilization. Assesses Toynbee’s intellectual importance, discusses his critics and admirers, and analyzes the relevance of his ideas at the end of the twentieth century.

Samuel, Maurice. The Professor and the Fossil: Some Observations on Arnold J. Toynbee’s “A Study of History.” New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956. Evaluates A Study of History and concludes that much of the work is meaningless, that many of Toynbee’s historical facts are inaccurate, and that purposeful omissions create a distorted picture.

Tomlin, E. W. F., ed. Introduction to Arnold Toynbee: A Selection from His Works. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. Defines and clarifies key phrases used repeatedly in A Study of History. Each selection includes the editor’s description of the work, its background, and the major principles it contains.

Compare and Contrast

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1950s: The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union dominates the political landscape of the world.

Today: The world is no longer divided into two competing superpowers. The United States is generally considered to be the sole superpower, but there are other regional centers of power, such as the countries that comprise the European Union, as well as Japan, Russia, and China.

1950s: There is a wide expectation in the industrialized world that machines and robots will soon take over many of the tasks now performed by humans. This is expected to result in greater leisure. Toynbee believes this may mean that people will spend more of their time participating in religious practices.

Today: The average American works more hours than his or her counterpart did a generation ago. Mechanization has not resulted in more leisure although technology has produced a greater variety of choices as to how leisure time is spent.

1950s: Global population nears three billion, and efforts to curb it begin. The Population Council is formed by John D. Rockefeller III; the International Planned Parenthood Federation is also formed.

Today: The United Nations estimates that world population passed six billion in late 1999 and is growing at the rate of seventy-seven million a year. Efforts at population control emphasize not only contraception and family planning but also the improvement of every aspect of women’s lives, including health, education, political rights, and economic independence. High levels of education, coupled with economic prosperity, are known to correlate with lower birth rates.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide