The History of Arnold Toynbee

Arnold Toynbee
Arnold Toynbee; drawing by David Levine

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.…

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