• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Prophet

Arnold J. Toynbee: A Life

by William H. McNeill
Oxford University Press, 346 pp., $24.95


Thirty-five years ago Arnold Toynbee’s Study of History was a world best seller. It was described as “the greatest work of history ever written.” It conquered first America, then the Muslim East, then Japan. Its author, hailed as “the most renowned scholar in the world,” “a universal sage,” circled the globe in triumph, receiving homage wherever he went. At the height of his fame I rashly wrote a dissentient essay. It was denounced by a Roman Catholic priest (who refused to read it) as “blasphemy” and by a Muslim writer as “a symptom of intellectual chaos.”1 Today the cult has subsided. The ten thick volumes of the Study sit undisturbed on the library shelves. Who will ever read them? A few Ph.D. students perhaps, desperate for a subject. Did anyone in fact ever read them in toto? I doubt it.

Still, the fact of that phenomenal success story remains and deserves study, so we must be grateful to Professor McNeill, who, at the request of Toynbee’s surviving son, has written this biography. It is a work of thorough research, and it is written with skill, sympathy, and discretion. But however sympathetic, however discreet, it makes—casually, obliquely, or in footnotes—some damaging admissions. It will not, I think, restore the credibility, or the credit, of its hero.

Arnold Toynbee came of an educated professional family which had seen better days. His grandfather was a successful physician who charged “unprecedentedly high fees,” at least after he had cured Queen Victoria’s deafness; but he died suddenly, aged fifty-one, killed by an experiment with chloroform which went wrong. His uncle, also called Arnold, was a tutor of Balliol College, Oxford, who set out to improve society but also died young, at thirty. His memory was treasured by his friends, who founded Toynbee Hall, the first settlement house in London, to preserve it, and by his relations, who objected when our Arnold wrote his first book as “Arnold Toynbee,” thus, they said, usurping his uncle’s name: in future he was to write as “Arnold J. Toynbee” in order to keep his distance. Toynbee’s father never made money and his career too was cut short, not by death but by madness: he spent his last thirty years in an asylum.

Toynbee was thus brought up in a family which had been accustomed to a higher standard of life than it could now sustain and had to watch every penny. This left him permanently obsessed with “an almost pathological fear of running out of money.” He was an only son, obviously very talented, and he could not fail to know it: a doting mother and two admiring younger sisters saw to that. Throughout his life he depended on such support: “The absence of admiring females,” says his biographer, “was a severe deprivation for him.” Their adulation ensured self-satisfaction and a certain insensitivity to the opinions and feelings of others. These characteristics, originating in the family, were not corrected by his education; for he became the prize pupil, in succession, of the two most famous academic forcing-houses in England, Winchester College and Balliol College, Oxford.

The education provided there was the classical humanist education of the English governing class since the Renaissance. This education, whatever its value in the formation of character, had, by now, certain intellectual limitations. It was essentially literary. Not only did it exclude the study of science, it also stopped short of any serious understanding of its declared subject, the Greco-Roman world. The perfect pupil, on emerging from it, could read the Greek and Latin authors with ease, imitate their language with virtuosity, and absorb their ideals insofar as they could be made applicable to modern life. But his understanding of Antiquity would be limited to public events as represented by ancient writers and as interpreted in a modern context. Understanding of Antiquity in its own right, in its own context, as undertaken in the eighteenth century by Bentley and Gibbon, was no longer fashionable. It had been left to the Germans, whose immersion in such details was often regarded with condescension. The most famous Greek scholar in England, in Toynbee’s youth, was Gilbert Murray, who saw Euripides and Aristophanes as allies in his own battles for the liberal causes of Edwardian England. Toynbee, who won all the prizes at Winchester and Balliol, was naturally integrated into this tradition, and although he would afterward react against it, he would never escape from its limitations.

His brilliant career at Balliol led naturally to a fellowship; but before taking up his duties he spent a year traveling abroad—in Italy and Greece, of course. He walked through Greece studying ancient sites, exploring the country, peopling it in imagination with the warriors and orators of Herodotus and Thucydides. The modern Greeks whom he found there seemed very different and he did not like them. Still enclosed in his English conventions, and believing in “the soundness of race prejudice” against “the meaninglessness of the ‘Rights of Man,”’ he disliked their genial Mediterranean habits and, above all, their custom of bargaining about prices; he was sure that he was always being diddled by those “dagos.” So he turned aside from the ugly reality and took refuge in imagination. This sometimes took extreme forms. In Thessaly, looking at the site of the decisive battle of Cynoscephalae in 197 BC he believed that he “saw” the whole battle enacted before him: the Macedonian phalanxes overwhelmed by the Roman legions. Three months later he similarly “saw” the Turks defeating the Venetians in Crete, and then again another such vision at Monemvasia in the Peloponnese. No doubt the poor fellow was suffering from the heat, or had walked too far on a spare diet of olives and retsina.

If a graduate student, or a colleague, of mine had told me that he had been to the site of the battle of Edgehill and had actually seen, with his own eyes, Round-heads and Cavaliers shooting and slashing at each other, Charles I on his horse, Prince Rupert charging, and Dr. Harvey reading a book under a hedge with the king’s young sons, I would be seriously concerned for his mental health. But Toynbee, forty years later, would solemnly record these and other hallucinations as signs of his election: he had been specially privileged to “see” the history of the past with his own eyes, having fallen, through two millennia, into “the deep trough of time.” But perhaps this elaboration of fantasy came later, after his folie de grandeur; we are not told if he recorded it at the time.

Toynbee’s visit to Greece was cut short, and his dislike of the modern Greeks sharpened, by an unfortunate accident. By drinking contaminated water from a spring, he contracted dysentery and had to spend some time in a Greek hospital. He seems to have been a difficult and rather ungrateful patient, giving trouble both to the “dagos” who looked after him and to the British legation. When he had sufficiently recovered, he returned home. But the episode did not end there, for two years later, when the First World War broke out, he was exempted from military service on account of his dysentery (now totally cured), and forty years after that, in the days of his fame, he would see this as another sign of his election: he had been preserved from the killing fields, he would then suggest, in order to fulfill a higher purpose….

Unfortunately, this later account is somewhat economical of the truth. McNeill, as an honest biographer, is obliged to reveal that Toynbee’s exemption from military service, first in 1914, when he made a show of volunteering, then in 1915, when the government brought in conscription, was only obtained by deliberate and rather devious evasion. We need not go into the details of the episode; it makes unattractive reading, and, according to McNeill, weighed on Toynbee’s conscience afterward. It was not what was expected by Winchester and Balliol, and it left Toynbee determined to justify himself by other means. Another result was that, before the end of the war, he resigned his fellowship at Balliol. He would not have found it comfortable to face, as his pupils, the battle-scarred survivors of the trenches.

By this time, Toynbee was married. He had married in 1913, after his return from Greece. It was a marriage that was to have a great effect on his life, for his wife, Rosalind Murray, came of a distinguished and interesting family. Her father was the famous Hellenist, Gilbert Murray, now Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford. Her mother, Lady Mary Murray, was the daughter of the late Earl and—what was more significant—the dowager Countess of Carlisle.

Rosalind, Countess of Carlisle, called herself a Liberal. In fact, she was a Whig: a snobbish and opinionated grandee who uttered radical sentiments from a safe aristocratic eminence and expected deference and obedience to her whims. One of her whims was rabid teetotalism: she is said to have emptied the earl’s priceless port into the lake at his ancestral seat, Castle Howard, where she now reigned supreme. For having quarreled with her husband, who had fled to London and died there, and with all her sons, who did not share her Rechabite views, she had settled in Yorkshire, in that grandest of noble houses, over the ultimate disposal of which she had acquired complete power. The one member of her family with whom she had not fatally quarreled was her daughter Mary, who had inherited her formidable character and adopted her severe views: she was a sworn enemy of drink and a firm vegetarian. The consequences were the same as in the previous generation: Mary’s two sons took to the bottle (one of them committed suicide) and only the surviving daughter conformed—up to a point. It was this daughter whom Toynbee married and thus helped to perpetuate the syndrome in another generation.

The auspices, from the start, were not favorable. Rosalind (named thus after her grandmother) had literary ambitions and wrote a series of semi-autobiographical novels. One of them, which she wrote during her engagement to Toynbee and dedicated to him, was about a girl who got engaged to an academic and then, having doubts, drowned herself before the wedding. Rosalind could never be described as an “admiring female”: she would consistently refer to her husband’s great work as “the nonsense book.” Toynbee was evidently devoted to her, but found her—as he found most things—expensive. However, there was a good chance, given the countess’s power and whims, that this favorite granddaughter might ultimately inherit Castle Howard and the great estate which went with it. Then the financial circumstances of the Toynbees would change. They would live in aristocratic grandeur, entertaining the great and writing immortal works.

Meanwhile, there was the war. Having escaped enlistment Toynbee spent it in London, first engaged in propaganda, under Lord Bryce, then in the Political Intelligence Department, under Sir James Headlam-Morley, preparing briefs for the Foreign Office and, after 1918, for the negotiators of the peace treaties. His field was the Near East, the Greco-Turkish world, of which he had some experience. He had able colleagues, young men like himself, and well-informed ideas, but they cut little ice. The Foreign Office did not appreciate these too clever young advisers, and no one could control the prime minister, Lloyd George. A particular point of disagreement was the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. Lloyd George wished to award part of Asia Minor—in particular the Greek city of Smyrna—to the Greeks. Toynbee, supported by Harold Nicolson, was opposed to this. Lloyd George’s view, naturally, prevailed. Toynbee, who anyway had little love for the Greeks, now extended his antipathy to Lloyd George. He waited for an opportunity of revenge. It was not long in coming.

  1. 1

    Zaki Saleh, Trevor-Roper’s Critique of Arnold Toynbee: A Symptom of Intellectual Chaos (Baghdad, 1958).

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print