Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1140
Laws of History
The basic premise of A Study of History is that civilizations emerge, grow, break down, and disintegrate according to a consistent, recurrent pattern. Since Toynbee believed that the universe was not chaotic but subject to laws, he argued that those laws must also be observable in human history.
Although A Study of History is a voluminous work, the basic outline of this pattern of laws operating in history is quite simple. A primitive society evolves into a civilization because it successfully responds to a challenge in either the physical or the human environment. This pattern of challenge and response continually recurs because each successfully met challenge generates another challenge, which demands another creative response, and so on. Employing terms taken from Chinese philosophy, Toynbee identifies this as a movement from the state of Yin (rest) to that of Yang (action) and declares it to be one of the fundamental rhythms of the universe.
The engines of societal growth are creative individuals and groups. They also obey a law, which Toynbee defines as withdrawal-and-return. They withdraw from society, whether literally or figuratively, and develop knowledge, wisdom, or power, and then return to society and bring the benefits of their labors to everyone. The majority then follows this creative minority in a process of mimesis, or imitation, and so the civilization advances. Toynbee points out that the law of withdrawal-and-return can be found not only in the human sphere but also in the annual withdrawal and return of agricultural crops. He also notes that the same law applies to human spiritual growth, especially in the Christian doctrine of resurrection. This is typical of the way Toynbee uses analogies from the natural world and from spheres of human activity other than the political to emphasize his point about recurring patterns and laws.
The breakdown of a civilization also follows predictable laws. It occurs when the creative minority is no longer able to meet a challenge successfully. The ‘‘internal proletariat’’ no longer sees any reason to follow it, and the ‘‘external proletariat’’ (those groups outside the civilization’s formal borders who are influenced by developments within it) becomes hostile. Social disruption and wars follow, a stage that Toynbee calls a Time of Troubles. Out of the Time of Troubles emerges a conqueror, who imposes peace through a universal state, which is an attempt to reverse the decline. An example of a universal state, and one of the many models that Toynbee discusses, is the Roman Empire, which was born out of the disintegration phase of Hellenic civilization. But the universal state cannot permanently reverse the decline or avoid the eventual collapse of the civilization.
Everywhere Toynbee looks, he sees patterns, laws, rhythms, and cycles, not only in the broad rise and fall of civilizations, but in smaller details, too. For example, when analyzing modern Western history over the previous four hundred years, he discerns a recurring pattern of four cycles, which he even puts in tabular form in chapter 11: first there is an ‘‘overture’’ in which minor wars serve as a prelude to what is to come; this is followed first by a ‘‘general war,’’ then by a ‘‘breathing space’’ of relative peace, then by a ‘‘supplementary war’’ (which he calls the Epilogue), and finally by a ‘‘general peace.’’ Toynbee states that similar patterns can be found in the Hellenic and Sinic civilizations.
Toynbee was aware that in developing the concept of laws of history he was going against the grain as far as the modern trend of historical study was concerned. He noted that many modern historians rejected the idea that history could be understood in terms of an orderly pattern based on the operation of discernible laws. He quoted an unidentified English novelist who, wishing to express the idea that history was merely a succession of meaningless events, coined the word ‘‘Odtaa,’’ standing for ‘‘one damn thing after another.’’ But Toynbee begged to differ.
One consequence of Toynbee’s system is that, if accepted, it would make the entirety of human history intelligible. It would also mean that given the presence of recurring patterns, the historian would be in a position to offer predictions about the future course of human history, a task that Toynbee did indeed undertake, if somewhat reluctantly, in chapter 12 of A Study of History.
Writing in 1955, Toynbee stated, ‘‘Religion has come, once again, to take the central place in my picture of the Universe.’’ This is made clear in chapter 7 of A Study of History. In earlier chapters, Toynbee takes the view that civilizations are the dominant element in history, and that the higher religions (Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism) are only by-products, coming into existence as the civilizations disintegrate. In chapter 7, he describes a new view. Rather than seeing religions in terms of civilizations, he now sees civilizations in terms of religions. According to this view, the whole purpose of civilization is to provide an opportunity for a higher religion to come into being. (By ‘‘higher religions’’ Toynbee means those religions that are universal, as opposed to the lower religions that are merely local and restricted to one tribe or parochial state.) A consequence of Toynbee’s new perspective is that the breakdown and disintegration of a civilization does not mean that it has failed; on the contrary, it may have succeeded in its main task. Rather than being a by-product of a civilization that may have some other main purpose, religion is civilization’s most valuable fruit.
Toynbee uses an analogy of the wheel to explicate his view further. He sees the rising and falling of civilizations like revolutions of a wheel, which ‘‘carry forward the vehicle which the wheel conveys.’’ The vehicle conveyed by Toynbee’s wheel is religion.
The same image helps Toynbee explain why the higher religions are born during the downward turns of the wheel, in periods of decline. He argues that this is necessary because there is a spiritual law according to which progress comes only through suffering. Low points in secular life may be high points in spiritual history.
Although he is steeped in the Christianity of his own civilization, Toynbee does not regard Christianity as the only route to spiritual enlightenment. He sees all the higher religions as having a role to play, particularly in the modern age in which global communications have facilitated an unprecedented level of contact between different faiths. He considers
the possibility that in a forthcoming universal state that includes the whole world the respective adherents of the four living higher religions might come to recognize that their once rival systems were so many alternate approaches to the One True God along avenues offering diverse partial glimpses of the Beatific Vision.
Toynbee even envisions the possibility that in the future, the diverse religions might come together and form a single church.
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