A Study of History

A Study of History‘ is the 12-volume magnum opus of British historian Arnold J. Toynbee, finished in 1961, in which the author traces the development and decay of all of the major world civilizations in the historical record. Toynbee applies his model to each of these civilizations, detailing the stages through which they all pass: genesis, growth, time of troubles, universal state, and disintegration.

The major civilizations, as Toynbee sees them, are: Egyptian, Andean, Sinic, Minoan, Sumerian, Mayan, Indic, Hittite, Hellenic, Western, Orthodox Christian (Russia), Far Eastern, Orthodox Christian (main body), Persian, Arabic, Hindu, Mexican, Yucatec, and Babylonic. There are four ‘abortive civilizations’ (Abortive Far Western Christian, Abortive Far Eastern Christian, Abortive Scandinavian, Abortive Syriac) and five ‘arrested civilizations’ (Polynesian, Eskimo, Nomadic, Ottoman, Spartan).

Toynbee argues that ‘self-determining’ civilizations are born out of more primitive societies, not due to racial or environmental factors, but as a response to challenges, such as hard country, new ground, blows and pressures from other civilizations, and penalizations. He argues that for civilizations to be born, the challenge must be a golden mean; that excessive challenge will crush the civilization, and too little challenge will cause it to stagnate. He argues that civilizations continue to grow only when they meet one challenge only to be met by another. In 1939 Toynbee wrote, ‘The challenge of being called upon to create a political world-order, the framework for an economic world-order… now confronts our Modern Western society.’ He argues that civilizations develop in different ways due to their different environments and different approaches to the challenges they face. He argues that growth is driven by ‘Creative Minorities’: those who find solutions to the challenges, which others then follow.

He argues that the breakdown of civilizations is not caused by loss of control over the physical environment, over the human environment, or by attacks from outside. Rather, it comes from the deterioration of the ‘Creative Minority,’ which eventually ceases to be creative and degenerates into merely a ‘Dominant Minority’ (who forces the majority to obey without meriting obedience). He argues that creative minorities deteriorate due to a worship of their ‘former self,’ by which they become prideful, and fail to adequately address the next challenge they face.

He argues that the ultimate sign a civilization has broken down is when the dominant minority forms a ‘universal state,’ which stifles political creativity within the existing social order. Toynbee writes: ‘First the Dominant Minority attempts to hold by force—against all right and reason—a position of inherited privilege which it has ceased to merit; and then the Proletariat repays injustice with resentment, fear with hate, and violence with violence when it executes its acts of secession. Yet the whole movement ends in positive acts of creation—and this on the part of all the actors in the tragedy of disintegration. The Dominant Minority creates a universal state, the Internal Proletariat a universal church, and the External Proletariat a bevy of barbarian war-bands.’

Toynbee developed his concept of an ‘internal proletariat’ and an ‘external proletariat’ to describe quite different opposition groups within and outside the frontiers of a civilization. These groups, however, find themselves bound to the fate of the civilization. During its decline and disintegration, they are increasingly disenfranchised or alienated, and thus lose their immediate sense of loyalty or of obligation. Nonetheless an ‘internal proletariat’ may form a ‘universal church’ which survives the civilization’s demise. Before the process of decay, the dominant minority had held the internal proletariat in subjugation within the confines of the civilization, causing these oppressed to grow bitter. The external proletariat, living outside the civilization in poverty and chaos, grows envious. Then, in the social stress resulting from the failure of the civilization, the bitterness and envy increase markedly.

Toynbee argues that as civilizations decay, there is a ‘schism’ within the society. In this environment of discord, people resort to archaism (idealization of the past), futurism (idealization of the future), detachment (removal of oneself from the realities of a decaying world), and transcendence (meeting the challenges of the decaying civilization with new insight, e.g., by following a new religion). From among members of an ‘internal proletariat’ who transcend the social decay a ‘church’ may arise. Such an association would contain new and stronger spiritual insights, around which a subsequent civilization may begin to form. Toynbee here uses of the word ‘church’ in a general sense, e.g., to refer to a collective spiritual bond found in common worship, or the unity found in an agreed social order.

It remains to be seen what will come of the four remaining civilizations of the 21st century: Western civilization, Islamic society, Hindu society, and the Far East. Toynbee argues two possibilities: they might all merge with Western Civilization, or Western civilization might develop a ‘Universal State’ after its ‘Time of Troubles’, decay, and die.

Social scientist Ashley Montagu assembled 29 other historians’ articles to form a symposium on Toynbee’s ‘A Study of History,’ published as ‘Toynbee and History: Critical Essays and Reviews’ (1956). The book includes three of Toynbee’s own essays: ‘What I am Trying to Do,’ ‘What the Book is For: How the Book Took Shape,’ and a comment written in response to the articles by Edward Fiess and Pieter Geyl (originally published in ‘Journal of the History of Ideas’ in 1955). Arnold Toynbee suggests that civilization as a whole is the proper unit for the study of history, not the nation state, which he suggests is just a part of a larger whole. He suggests a list of 21 civilizations  and an additional 5 ‘arrested civilizations,’ but when one examines this list it seems to be very arbitrary at times where one civilization ends and a new one starts. For example, do we identify a ‘Sumerian” civilization in ancient Iraq, followed by a later ‘Akkadian, or Babylonian’ civilization  or are these just different phases of a single, long-lived Mesopotamian civilization?

Toynbee lists them as separate, but later includes both the Greek and the Roman civilizations within a single category, called ‘Hellenic,’ though it is clear from Toynbee’s list that Greek gave rise to Roman just as Sumer gave rise to Babylonia. Why is Sparta listed as a separate civilization from the rest of the Hellenic world? What is the relation between Minoan and Mycenaean (which Toynbee considers early Hellenic)? Jacquetta Hawkes considers these two aspects of the same civilization (which she calls Mino-Mycenaean. If these are just early phases of a much larger civilization  separated from Hellenic civilization by a ‘Dark Age,’ what is one to do with what Toynbee calls ‘Sinic civilization,’ separated from ‘Far Eastern Civilization,’ or for that matter ‘Indic civilization  separated from ‘Hindu civilization?’ And in his list there is no mention of such civilizations as the Etruscans, the Ethiopians, the East Africans, or the Sudanese. (While the latter could perhaps be considered part of the Islamic civilization  the former could not.) And what of Tibet and South East Asia (old Indo-China)? Are they part of the Indian Hindu Civilization even though they are Buddhist, or part of Far Eastern Civilization  or both? And if Hittite is a separate civilization, where do Hurrians, Elamites and Urartu fit?

David Wilkinson suggests that there is an even larger unit than civilization  Using the ideas drawn from ‘World Systems Theory’ he suggests that since at least 1500 BCE that there was a connection established between a number of formerly separate civilizations to form a single interacting ‘Central Civilization,’ which expanded to include formerly separate civilizations such as India, the Far East, and eventually Western Europe and the Americas into a single ‘World System.’ In some ways, it resembles what William H. McNeill calls ‘the closure of the oecumene,’ in his book ‘The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community.’

And then concerning the fall of civilizations  Toynbee suggests a single schema, drawn in part from his experience as a classical scholar, based upon the creativity of classical Athens, and the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. This pattern he finds has parallels with Sima Qian’s views of the ‘Mandate of Heaven’ or the Dynastic cycle (Asabiyyah) suggested by Ibn Khaldun, for Far Eastern and Islamic civilizations respectively. But the pattern is not universally observed, and a number of civilizations become incorporated into others. These, he suggests are the so-called ‘Aborted civilizations.’

Volume 1 of the book, written in the 1930s, contains a discussion of Jewish culture which begins with the sentence ‘There remains the case where victims of religious discrimination represent an extinct society which only survives as a fossil. …. by far the most notable is one of the fossil remnants of the Syriac Society, the Jews.’ That text has been the subject of controversy, and some reviewers have interpreted the text as antisemitic. In later printings, a footnote was appended which read ‘Mr. Toynbee wrote this part of the book before the Nazi persecution of the Jews opened a new and terrible chapter of the story…’


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