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.” 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 …

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