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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.

So enormous were the dimensions of Toynbee’s historical-literary offerings that they came in the end to pose an irenic and almost insoluble dilemma for the would be critic. One could see how one industrious scholar might, over the course of a number of years, have personally gone over the entire vast expanse of historical source material cited in Toynbee’s works. One could also see how another scholar might, but also only at the cost of years of effort, have read carefully and critically the entirety of Toynbee’s opus itself. But it is hard to see how any one scholar could, within the span of a single active scholarly lifetime, do both these things. The one undertaking seemed, if only for the dimensions of the time and energy involved, to preclude the other. Small wonder, then, that the totality of Toynbee’s work had, since his death in 1975, few fully qualified scholarly critics.

It was, of course, for the effort to identify consistent patterns in the development of all known civilizations that Toynbee was most widely known. The patterns were composed of what he believed to be uniformities in the rise, the development, and the decline of civilizations, and also of the ways in which each of them transmitted something of itself to the ones that came after it. He saw in these uniformities, if I am not mistaken, the key to the understanding of the entire history of civilized man; and I have no doubt that he regarded this as the greatest of his contributions to the study of history. But it seems to be a feature of the lives of prominent people that what those people see as their greatest contributions to the life of their times is not always what posterity sees in that way; and this seems to me to be the case in the matter at hand.

Toynbee’s patterns rest, of course, on the foundations of a vast and impressive edifice of learning; and I have no intention of questioning its value. But the arguments used to demonstrate these uniformities and their significance strike me as forced, artificial, and unconvincing; and I know I am not alone in this impression. The very vocabulary used in this argumentation—the claim for the recurrence in all civilizations of elements described as “the dominant minority,” “the internal proletariat,” and “the external proletariat”—arouses my suspicions and sets my teeth on edge. It would be an inexcusable trivialization of Toynbee’s great work to try to sum up in a few words what it took him twelve volumes to put forward in his own language; but the following passage, selected more or less at random from the fifth volume of his History, will give some idea of how he himself used these terms:

Our first step will be to take a closer and wider survey of the three fractions—Dominant Minority and Internal and External Proletariats—in which a broken-down society splits when a “horizontal” schism rends its fabric. So far we have only had occasion to glance at the Hellenic examples; but, since we have found that the respective institutional products of the Dominant Minority and the two divisions of the Proletariat—the institutions of universal state and universal church and barbarian war-bands—are not peculiar to Hellenic society but can also be identified in the histories of a number of other societies in their later phases…

It is not for me to say that there was no substance at all in these sweeping categorizations; but I find it hard to see how they can do justice to the extreme variations in time and place from which such comparisons are drawn; and they arouse in me the same discomfort that I normally experience when great generalizations are used to describe highly varied versions of the human predicament. It is my impression that the life of every society is marked by thousands of unique circumstances; and to attempt to press this multitude of variables into the Procrustean bed of a great general system embracing all societies seems to me an unnatural and unpromising undertaking. I can only echo what Pieter Geyl described as his own impulse to exclaim as he made his way through this material: “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas l’histoire!”

How does one explain the fact that Toynbee gave so much of his life to the erection of an edifice that many of us see as so implausible? There are no doubt several explanations; I cannot attempt to list them all. But I find myself wondering whether one of them was not perhaps Toynbee’s failure to take full account of the element of the fortuitous—of pure chance—in the unfolding of human affairs, and his consequent assumption that everything that happened in those affairs had to have a reason visible and intelligible to the human eye.

I cannot help but recall, in this connection, the observation made somewhere in Goethe’s Faust to the effect that the ways in which deliberate design and pure luck were connected in the products of human action were something the fools would never understand. Well, Goethe, I am sure, would never have placed Toynbee among the fools; but he would surely have agreed that the element of pure chance had a greater role in history than that assigned to it by Toynbee in the development of entire civilizations.

The Harvard biologist Professor Stephen Jay Gould, in reviewing a recent book by our faculty colleague at this institute, Freeman Dyson, observed that “our empirical world is a temporal sequence of complex events, so unrepeatable by the laws of probability and so irreversible by principles of thermo-dynamics, that everything interesting happens only once in its meaningful details.” If this is true of the natural sciences, how could it be otherwise in the social and political ones? There are of course a great many events in the historical records that are, or would appear to be, in large part the products of deliberate human design or intention. They were certainly influenced and partly determined by human decision. But I can think of no such events for which, depending on how far back one wants to go, an equal number of apparently fortuitous contributing causes could not also be demonstrated. Here, in history, as elsewhere in our empirical world, “everything interesting happens only once in its meaningful details.” And if that is true of each of the myriad of small events out of which the patterns of history are woven, how could it not be true of the great and strange tapestries that present themselves to our vision when entire civilizations are taken under scrutiny?

And there is something else that I would like to note about Toynbee’s work—not in the way of a criticism of it but as a feature that helps to explain it; and that is its extraordinary impersonality. No one could leaf through the volumes of his principal works without being struck by the seldomness with which individuals make their appearance in this material. Toynbee was the historian of the behavior of masses of men—of civilizations, societies, tribes, castes, what you will—and sometimes of the institutions under which their lives were organized, but not of men as individuals. He saw the historical process as though from a great distance, as you might see a large mass of very small insects; and what interested him was not what any one of them did but what the entire mass of them did.

He would, I suppose, have been astonished that I should have found this in any way remarkable. How else, he would probably have asked, could you possibly write a history of civilization? Billions of people walked across the scene. How could anyone trying to write such a history give attention to any one of those people? It was the great sweep of the behavior of masses of men which, he would have said, was the proper stuff of such a historian’s scrutiny.

True enough, no doubt, from his standpoint. Yet at the bottom of all human experience there lay, after all, the mystery of the individual personality—its ultimate autonomy of decision—its interaction with the mass. And I wonder whether the inconspicuousness of the individual figure in Toynbee’s pageant of history was not the source of what I might call the pallor—the grayness—of so much of his work. There sweep across the pages the names of hundreds—I dare say, thousands—of historical collectivities: peoples, tribes, religious groupings, cultures, what you will. To a person of his erudition, the designations no doubt meant something. But to the mass of his readers these names could have been (as they were to me) only algebraic symbols with the values not filled in. And thus the book presented for many of us a vast kaleidoscope of semiabstractions, oppressive in their very voluminousness, wearisome in their remoteness from the individual human predicament. Without the drama of the individual personality and the individual fate, Toynbee’s history lost much of its immediacy, its color, and its bite.

Now, behind all these features of Toynbee, the historian, there stood, of course, the figure of Toynbee, the person. He himself was never unaware of this. He actually wrote a good deal about himself, about his education, his views, likes and dislikes, his loves and his hatreds. He wrote more about himself, in fact, over the course of the years than he ever wrote, so far as I can ascertain, about any other individual. What he wrote was devoid of vanity or boasting. It was also devoid of any exaggerated modesty; it appeared to assume a tacit understanding between him and the reader that he was an exceptional and interesting person, which of course he was.

At the heart of Toynbee’s self-estimation as a scholar and a philosopher lay the thoroughness of his English classical education—an education which, as he saw it, would scarcely have been obtainable later than in the years around the turn of the century when he himself received it.

It is characteristic, then, that his reply to his many critics, in an annex to the twelfth volume of his history, was cast in the form of a succession of essays on (1) the effects of a classical education (with subsections on the fortunate and the unfortunate ones); (2) the effects of having been born in 1889 in England; and (3) the effects of being what one is (of which the principal ones were: “Irreverence towards Pretensions to Uniqueness” and “Disregard for Scholarly Caution”).

These essays, supported by more than 150 learned and in some instances themselves lengthy footnotes, brought to expression a great deal of Toynbee’s historical and personal philosophy. In doing so, they constituted surely, I should think, one of the finest and most interesting of all his writings. In them, as he went along, he flicked off his many critics, the works of whom he had obviously studied with characteristic diligence (some twenty of them are mentioned in the footnotes just of the first ten pages; but this, obviously, was only a beginning). His replies, like many of the criticisms, were on a high philosophical and intellectual level, much of the discussion centering on the meaning and function of history itself as a discipline. Toynbee took no notice (and understandably so) of anything as primitive as my own distaste for his wide general categories. He did, however, at one point defend the high impersonality of so much of his own work when he pointed out that if one was to write what he called “a comprehensive study of the morphology of human affairs,” the study “must be panoramic, not microscopic, in its mental scale.” No room, here, in other words, for individual personalities. No room generally, in fact, for the narrative-illustrative description of individual segments of the historical panorama, designed to reveal not the grand design of the whole of it but the marvelous texture of one of its parts. For Ranke’s effort to describe some of the life of the past as it really was (“wie es eigentlich gewesen“) he would, I suspect, have had little patience.

Like most efforts of self-scrutiny, this treatise seemed to me to be more revealing for the things it did not say, and was not meant to say, than for what was actually set forth. Yet out of this, and out of his many other writings, there does emerge an image of the man inside.

Toynbee was born in 1889, in the great final glow, that is, of the Victorian epoch. This was the glow, of course, that was about to be so precipitately extinguished by the tragic events of the first years of this present century. And Toynbee himself observed that he had caught the Victorian age, so to speak, by the tail, only to see it slip out of his hands. But it had warmed and colored his childhood and his youth.

He would remain marked by it to some extent throughout the rest of his career: through Winchester School and Oxford, through Chatham House and the Paris Peace Conference and all the other sources of tension between a demanding past and an exciting present. It would continue to mark him in the further years through grievous personal tragedies, through the ferocious academic squabbles that dramatized his first professorship at Kings College in London, and through his sudden elevation to notoriety at the hands of the American journalistic media.

Through all these ups and downs of an unusual academic career, he would move with a curious personal detachment and imperturbability—very English, very Victorian—the familiar figure of the genteel English scholar, right out of Sherlock Holmes or My Fair Lady, the gentleman intellectual, wandering and browsing absent-mindedly among the relics and incunabula of ancient civilizations, sloughing off with mild amusement the many criticisms of his own work, seemingly as unengaged emotionally with the individuals of his time as he was with the historical personalities who found occasional mention in his writings. His person seemed to reflect the polish but also the curious pallor of his writings. He had his hatreds, the principal of these being war. He had at least one love, which might be described as a deep but highly philosophical religiosity, centering around Christianity but not restricted to it. And it is characteristic that both the hatreds and the loves were directed to great impersonal intellectual phenomena, seldom, if ever, to individual fellow human beings.

Still, when all of this is said and done, Toynbee was essentially, and with all the passion of which he was capable, a scholar—a historian. And it is primarily as such that we who share or understand that dedication should remember him. He was of course, on anybody’s terms, an exceptional scholar; and for that he deserves our respect. He had his peculiarities, as which of us does not?—and for those he deserves our indulgence. But he was driven by the same fascination that drives so many of us here in this room. Like us, he struggled manfully with the tensions between the demands of a professional preoccupation with the past and those of an unavoidable involvement with the present. Like us, he had to weave his way between the physical and social demands of a personal life and the lonely and rarified atmosphere of academic research. He, too, had to seek the middle ground between the unattainable ideal of complete objectivity, and the involuntary subjectivity which also has its merits and which no one ought fully to deny or to avoid. And he, too, had to come to terms with that quality of all cognitive pursuits that dictates that however dispassionately one tries to describe an external phenomenon, what one ends up doing is to reveal and express a portion of one’s self.

Let us then, as historians and as lovers of history, hold Toynbee in memory not primarily for the distorted image conferred upon him by the American media, and not for our own judgment of the value of his quest for uniformities among the mysteries of world history. Let us think of him, rather, fraternally, as one who labored long and mightily in the same vineyard that has claimed so much of our own devotion, as one who gave to that effort all that he could from the powers that God had bestowed upon him, and as one who deserves for that effort the same respect that we would all like to think would some day, regardless of the character of the product, be given to our own.

  1. *

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

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