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The History of Arnold Toynbee

The following essay was given as an address accepting The Toynbee Prize for 1988–1989 at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, on November 13, 1988.

I knew Arnold Toynbee only slightly, many years ago, when he was a visiting scholar at the Institute for Advanced Studies; but I then knew very little about his work. I had just come from twenty-six years in the American Foreign Service, where one read a great many other things but very little, I am afraid, about the history of ancient civilizations. I am sure that of all my colleagues at this institution I am still the one who is least erudite in many of the things that Toynbee was erudite in.

When one today talks about this man, one has first to make it clear which of two things one is talking about. One is the popular image that was at one time formed of him in this country. The other is what he really was and did. Living now in an age when, and in a country where, the image is valued so much more highly than the reality, we are all, I am sure, well aware of the distinction between the two.

As a curious illustration of what the image was, as distinct from the reality, I might begin by quoting the first introductory sentences of an elaborate eleven-page article about Toynbee that appeared in one issue of Life magazine just forty years ago, in 1948. “A spare, blue-eyed Englishman named Arnold J. Toynbee was scheduled to arrive in the U.S. this week. He was headed for the Institute for Advanced Study…at Princeton, where he will resume work on one of the most ambitious chores the human brain has ever undertaken, his monumental A Study of History.”

Actually the work of the Time-Life concern in vulgarizing Toynbee’s image in this country had been undertaken more than a year earlier, in March 1947, when Toynbee’s picture appeared on the cover of Time magazine, followed by the usual explanatory article in the pages of the same issue. And to explain Time-Life’s interest, one has to note the coming together of several apparently quite disparate factors.

Nearly a decade earlier than that date, just before the Second World War, Toynbee had completed the first six volumes of what was to become, many years later, his twelve-volume work A Study of History. In these volumes Toynbee had analyzed the dynamics of growth and decay in some twenty-one civilizations, ancient and modern; and he believed himself to have discovered in these phenomena certain patterns of development common to all civilizations, including, albeit with certain reservations, our own.

Some ten years later, in 1947, when the Time article appeared, there could have been very few people in this country who had read anything of Toynbee’s six volumes. These were not exactly light summer reading. The war had intervened. But there was just appearing on the American market at this time a six-hundred-page condensation of their contents, done quite faithfully, on independent initiative, by another scholar. An advance copy of this condensation (or so at least it would appear) had just fallen into the hands of Time‘s editors.

Beyond that, Toynbee had just then been lecturing extensively around the eastern part of the United States. This activity had included a series of six lectures delivered at Bryn Mawr College. These last, evidently, had been attended by someone very close to the publisher of Time, Henry Luce, or possibly by that redoubtable gentleman himself.

Now, to explain some of the things Toynbee was saying in his Bryn Mawr lectures, I have to remind you that this, the late winter of 1947, was just the time when the British were confessing to our government their inability to give further support to the government of Greece in its struggle against communist guerrilla enemies, and when President Harry Truman, in his response to this British approach, was not only offering to relieve the British of this burden and to assume it in their place, but was also extending, in his so-called Truman Doctrine message, what was in effect an openended assurance of support to any and every other government across the globe that could show itself to be faced with opposition of this nature.

It is clear that Toynbee was deeply affected by these events. He saw in the shifting of this and other burdens from Europe’s shoulders to those of the United States what he called the “dwarfing of Europe” and the beginning of a great struggle between the United States and Russia for world supremacy. He was a man who believed (as I must say I have never done) that world government from a single center was indeed a real possibility. He was quoted as saying, in the Bryn Mawr lectures, that the early political unification of the world was “a foregone conclusion.” But it was still a question, of course, which of the two superpowers would come out ahead. The behavior of all civilizations, he thought, had been determined by a process of challenge and response; and so it would be with the rivalry between the United States and Russia. The Soviet aspirations were the challenge; America’s reactions would be the response. America, he thought, had the better chances of winning this contest, but it would not be the material or even military aspects of America’s reaction that would be decisive: it would be the spiritual ones—Christianity, to be specific. The relationship of Christianity to the other spiritual forces of our time would be, he said, the only effective response to aggression, and would be decisive in creating the future of our civilization.

Now it was, of course, from the stand-point of any detached observer, a long leap from these rather vague philosophical speculations to a recommendation that America should mount a new Christian crusade with a view to destroying communism everywhere and achieving unification of the world under the benevolent shadows of the American flag. But this was not too long a leap to excite the imagination and the enthusiasm of the publisher of Time and Life magazines, Henry Luce.

Luce was, as many of you know, born the son of a Protestant-American missionary in China. He seems to have inherited a strong infusion of the missionary spirit; and this he combined with a vibrant and militant American nationalism. I am not sure that it was he to whom the motto was attributed: “For God, for country, and for Yale.” But leaving Yale out of it (for I really do not know to what extent his enthusiasm was aroused by that estimable institution) the two concepts, “God and country,” described very well his most passionate commitments.

So closely associated were these two concepts in his view of things that he even suggested, in one public utterance, that the churchmen and the military strategists should occupy the same room and that it should be the churchmen who should dictate the strategy. He was, not surprisingly, a sanguine supporter of Chang Kai-shek and the China lobby. He was more interested in fighting communism in China than in Russia. But his belief in the capacity of the United States for world leadership was unshakable; and it was, if I am not mistaken, in the journals of his publishing empire that the concepts of the “American Century” and the “American Empire” found their greatest currency and their strongest support. On today’s terms, Henry Luce would have stood, I should think, considerably to the right of most of those around Mr. Bush.

In the light of this background, let me turn back now to the Time article of 1947, to which I referred earlier. The article began by mentioning the great world responsibilities allegedly now falling to the United States, and went on from that to note the striking success of Toynbee’s recent Bryn Mawr lectures. Then it launched into a summary of Toynbee’s first six volumes. And it ended by describing these volumes as “the most provocative work of historical theory written in England since Karl Marx’s Capital.” From the skillful juxtaposition of the various components of this article the casual reader was left with the impression that the prediction of America’s coming world supremacy was supported by the authority of the greatest work of historical analysis produced in the English-speaking world over the past century. This sufficed, as you can imagine, to assure to the somewhat bewildered Toynbee a notoriety he had never expected, had surely never sought, probably only partially welcomed, and would never be able to shake.

So much for the popular image created by Time and Life. I suspect you could find traces of it today. But, now, how about the reality.

I must begin by making it clear that I regard Toynbee, as have so many others, as a truly remarkable and great scholar. His erudition was immense, his dedication unquestionable, his industriousness legendary, and his historical-literary output simply prodigious. In substantiation of this, let me just cite some words used by the man who was, I believe, the most serious and severe of Toynbee’s contemporary critics. This was that well-known and greatly respected Dutch historian, Pieter Geyl. In 1949 there was published a book comprised in large part just of Geyl’s magisterial criticism of the Study of History. Geyl could scarcely be charged, therefore, with an uncritical acceptance of Toynbee’s work. Yet he began this fine critical essay by describing the Study of History as “an imposing achievement.” And he went on to say:

The reading, the learning, are almost without precedent. Toynbee moves confidently in the histories of the old civilizations of Asia, the Chinese, and the Indian, of Egypt, of America as well. He is thoroughly acquainted with Roman and especially Hellenic history. Classical literature he also knows, and…is able to draw upon it freely to evoke a deeper background for his arguments and his reflections. He knows how to use for his arguments ethnological, sociological, philosophical, psychological concepts. At the same time he…writes in a splendid, full and supple style, which retains command over [a] wealth of quotations by a constant flow of images and with an intensive and untiring vividness of argument. And, what is more important still, this rich and variegated abundance serves a majestic vision. He is…profoundly aware of the unity of the architectural pattern into which he fits. [His is] a remarkable mind, unusual in our everyday world of historians.*

All this, I reiterate, is only the introduction to what was probably the most severe and searching criticism of Toynbee’s work that has ever been written. And Geyl, in 1949, did not know the whole story. He could not then know of the immense outpouring of historical writing that would mark the remaining twenty-six years of Toynbee’s life. For Toynbee would go on, in those final years, to write another six volumes of the Study of History, one major work of research on the effects of the Hannibalic Wars on the Roman Empire, another on the career of the late-Byzantine emperor, Constantine Porphyrogenitus, and smaller studies, lectures, and comments on a host of other subjects. The volume of his life’s work, as I have said, was simply prodigious. The subject cards of works by Toynbee in book form in the Firestone Library catalog lists something upward of seventy titles. The three works I have just mentioned must alone embrace nearly ten thousand pages.

  1. *

    Pieter Geyl, Arnold J. Toynbee, and Pitirim Sorokin, The Pattern of the Past (Beacon Press, 1949), pp. 3–4.

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