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.
In 1919, having resigned his fellowship, Toynbee was in need of paid employment. Encouraged by his father-in-law, Gilbert Murray, he applied for a newly created professorship in the University of London. This was the Koraes Chair of Greek and Byzantine Studies at King’s College. It had been endowed by a group of rich Greeks in London, headed by the former Greek minister there, the scholar and bibliophile Ioannes Gennadius, and named after Adamantios Koraes, the literary leader of the Greek revival in the nineteenth-century. The duties of the professor were to give lectures which would emphasize the continuity of Greek culture from Antiquity through Byzantium and the dark age of Turkish oppression to the present day. On the face of it, Toynbee, with his antipathy to modern Greece, was not an obvious choice as the first occupant of the chair. Events quickly followed which nearly made him the last.
For only a few months after taking up his duties, Toynbee saw, no doubt with some satisfaction, the Near Eastern policy of Lloyd George, which he had vainly opposed, heading for disaster. The Greek occupation of Anatolia, authorized by the Treaty of Sèvres, provoked a Turkish nationalist revolt under Mustafa Kemal, which would ultimately lead to a Greco-Turkish war. Toynbee, who had already missed one term by visiting the Near East, applied again for leave of absence in order to see “how Greece is handling her Muslim minority.” He did not tell the university authorities that he had arranged to act as special correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. Already, when he left London, he was inclined, if only through hatred of Lloyd George, to favor the Turkish cause, and he may have felt guilty of overdoing anti-Turkish propaganda during the war when he had compiled a Blue Book on The Murderous Tyranny of the Turks.
At all events, what he witnessed of Greek excesses in Anatolia completely converted him. He sent strong denuciations of the Greeks to the Manchester Guardian and on his return wrote, with great speed, a book on the subject. By the time it was published, the Greeks had been defeated in war and were being driven out of Asia Minor. It was now the turn of the Turks to commit atrocities, at which they were not backward. Smyrna, the birthplace of Koraes, was burned. But Toynbee, in his despatches to the Manchester Guardian, was remarkably reticent about these Turkish excesses and even suggested that Smyrna had been burned by the Greeks. He was in fact “blatantly partisan”—on the Turkish side. His biographer explains that he needed to show that he had not evaded military service in vain and to enjoy the humiliation of Lloyd George.
Such arcane psychological extenuations would hardly satisfy the London Greeks who were paying his salary as professor. Not unnaturally, they were indignant. They met in committee and demanded an account of the way in which their money had been spent. Although King’s College had not noticed this (and so Toynbee had not been told of it it), their agreement with the university entitled them to receive a report. The report did not satisfy them. Their professor, they noted, had given very few lectures, and those not on Greek culture at all but on such subjects as the history of the Ottoman Empire and the Mongols of Central Asia. That was not what they had intended. And now there were these articles and this book! “Professor Toynbee,” they declared, “having accepted a Greek chair, founded by Greeks, with a Greek endowment, and graced by the illustrious name of Koraes,” had used it “to conduct a virulent and sustained attack on the Greek nation in its hour of utmost peril”; and they demanded his resignation.
Toynbee was unwilling to resign; instead, he went public. That made the situation worse. The university was split. His defenders raised the cry of academic freedom—always a sure way of inflaming emotion. His opponents accused him of behaving irresponsibly: “You have shown an utter disregard for the interests of the University and the College and your own Chair in the future.” The press took sides. Toynbee was strongly supported by an anonymous editorial in the Nation and Athenaeum, but the force of this article, as the historian of the affair writes, “is somewhat diminished by the fact” that its author was Toynbee’s father-in-law and sponsor, Gilbert Murray.2 As Toynbee’s mother wrote at the time, “Of course it will be secret: it would be injurious if it leaked out.”
By that time Toynbee had yielded to the pressure and resigned the chair, which was thus saved from extinction, and he was once again seeking a job. One was offered by the grateful Turks. He was tempted; but in the end he accepted an offer from his old wartime chief, Headlam-Morley. He was to be director of studies at the new Institute of International Affairs (afterward the Royal Institute, alias Chatham House). He would keep this post until his retirement in 1955, writing its regular annual reports and combining it with a personal professorship (which soon became more or less a sinecure) and a certain amount of lecturing and journalism. Thus his financial position was stabilized. With his formidable energy, and the help of a devoted secretary, he could spend the winter months producing the regular annual report of Chatham House and then, in the summer, withdraw to Yorkshire and fulfill the ambition for which his previous experience, he believed, had qualified him. That ambition he had described in a letter written as an undergraduate at Balliol: “As for Ambition, with a great screaming A, I have got it pretty strong. I want to be a great gigantic historian.”
And yet it would not be all plain sailing, for even if income and life in London were regulated, Yorkshire and marriage had their problems. For Toynbee had now been sucked into the world of Castle Howard, and found himself surrounded not by admiring but by dominating females. As long as she was alive, the Toynbees had been financially dependent on the old countess, who, if submissively approached, would dole out sustaining allowances, punctuated by stiff lectures—as when they briefly joined the Labour party in 1918. That produced a stinging letter and shut the gates of Castle Howard with a snap. In order to reduce the humiliation of such dependence, Toynbee had to work ever harder in his successive posts and thus seldom saw his own children, with further disastrous results. His best support came from his father-in-law, who could sympathize with him, for he too had a strong-willed wife and rebellious sons.
Moreover, by now, the Toynbees had lost the prospect of Castle Howard. In 1921, when the old countess died, it had been left, not, as by ordinary English aristocratic usage, to the grandson who had inherited the earldom, but to the obedient, teetotal, vegetarian daughter, Lady Mary. However, the Murrays had declined the inheritance and it had been passed, against compensation, to the countess’s youngest son, in whose family it would remain. So the Toynbees had to be content with a modest house in the neighborhood, Ganthorpe, part of the compensation. That was a great disappointment to Rosalind Toynbee, who now became very difficult. After writing another semi-autobiographical novel about a girl who had made a mistaken marriage, she would plunge into Roman Catholicism. Then, having failed to convert either her father or her husband,3 she would write a book against the former and abandon the latter in order to live with a Dominican priest twenty years younger than herself.
McNeill tells us a great deal about this painful family history from the Murray and Toynbee papers—so much that we may be glad that Rosalind’s diary, which would no doubt have told much more, was burned, in “a drunken haze” by her son and her lover, the ex-priest. Such was the unquiet domestic background against which Toynbee began to realize his ambition to be “a great gigantic historian.” To that enterprise we must now turn.
The broad plan of Toynbee’s Study of History—the idea of reducing the whole of human history to a recurrent and predictable pattern—was already in his mind in the years that have just been described, between 1920 and 1923. That plan owed something to his wartime experience and its sequel in the Greco-Turkish war: experience which had shown the incompatibility of two distinct cultures. It also owed something to his reading, in 1920, of Spengler’s Decline of the West. He had adumbrated it in lectures and made notes of its main headings. As it developed in the following years it was both an extension and a repudiation of his training in the classical, humanist tradition of Winchester and Oxford. That training had been centered on two relatively short periods of Greek and Roman history: the two periods of greatest literary achievement. That meant, for Greece, the fifth century BC, the age of the great dramatists and Pericles, culminating in the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War, as described by Thucydides, and, for Rome, the last century of the Republic and the beginning of the Empire, the age of Cicero and Lucretius, Horace and Virgil.
These were the golden ages whose writers had formed the self-confident rational humanism of the English upper class since the Renaissance. Toynbee had accepted that tradition—a tradition represented to the end by his father-in-law, Murray—and would continue to use its language, and indeed to be limited by its intellectual anachronism, its insistence on placing ancient societies in a contemporary context. But at the same time he would seek to escape from its limitations, to generalize from it beyond its narrow boundaries. And as he generalized, the mental outlook behind his thinking changed. Under pressures which were not themselves intellectual, the Hellenist and humanist who began by making Thucydides “canonical for his entire interpretation of history” became steadily less of a Hellenist, less of a humanist, and in the end positively anti-Hellenist, antihumanist. 4
This process of change took twenty years to complete itself. It emerged in the successive installments of his work and in his private correspondence and public lectures in the intervals between them. The first installment, volumes 1 to 3, was published in 1934, the second, volumes 4 to 6, in 1939, the third, volumes 7 to 10, in 1954. These separate publications correspond to distinct stages in the public events of the time, but they also reflect distinct stages in Toynbee’s personal history and the progressive inflation of his own ego. For Toynbee, who had declared his ambition in such extravagant terms as an undergraduate at Oxford, was not a modest man: far from it. Behind what his biographer calls “his mask of modesty,” which became in time a grotesque parade of “humility,” there was a raging egotism. In this he reminds us of another great egotist who also ended as a self-important prophet vaticinating in the void, Thomas Carlyle. When Carlyle was constipated, all history had to writhe and groan with him. When Toynbee thought himself overcharged in Greece, Hellenic culture was devalued; and when his wife pressed him to follow her into popery, all civilization must follow too.
Toynbee’s first volumes were begun in the years when the stability of the world seemed to depend on the League of Nations. He was then still a Liberal, a supporter, like Gilbert Murray, of the League, and these opening volumes set out his thesis in a calm, magisterial manner. That thesis was that “civilizations,” which (not nations) are the units of history, are distinct entities, with a life cycle of their own, deducible by comparative study; that, unless they are “arrested,” “fossilized,” like that of the Eskimo (or, as later emerged, the Jews), they all go through identical stages of cyclical rise and decline; that having reached their fatal term they are, after a “time of troubles,” dissolved, and some of their constituent parts incorporated into a universal state; and that the end of each such cycle leaves the world rather better than before. All this was illustrated rather than demonstrated with an accumulation of erudition which impressed, even if it did not always convince, the reader. It was certainly a change from the narrow specialization of academic historians who, at best, dealt with particular nations or particular themes and who were made to look very small by a “universal historian” conjuring with the twenty-one “philosophically equivalent” civilizations between which he divided the whole process of world history.
McNeill is impressed too. He refers to the “path-breaking quality of Toynbee’s work,” which, he says, has “enduring significance.” This path-breaking quality seems to consist in his application of historical generalization to the non-European world: by bringing in China, India, the Muslim world, he “expanded the range of historical consciousness beyond anything conceived by historians before him.” This seems to me mere rhetoric. What of the “universal historians” of the Enlightenment: Montesquieu, Voltaire, Gibbon, Adam Smith? How Voltaire ridiculed the “universal history” of Bishop Bossuet, which began with a small hill tribe in Palestine instead of with the great civilization of China! Gibbon mastered all the evidence available to him on the history of the Chinese, the Mongols, the Persians, the Arabs, the Turks.
And what of later anthropologists and sociologists, of Frazer or Max Weber? These writers may have been less ambitious than Toynbee but they were more respectful of the evidence. Consequently they are of more “enduring significance.” Modern Chinese historians write with respect of Gibbon’s understanding of Chinese history and Toynbee’s sinologist friend Owen Lattimore declared that Gibbon’s account of the social organization of the Mongols remains classical today. But Toynbee presumed to despise these predecessors. Moreover (as McNeill admits) he did not approach his “civilizations” with an open mind: he did not turn to study China and India until he had already determined, from “the archetypal career of Hellenism,” the pattern into which they were to be fixed.
Let us not waste time on the details of Toynbee’s system. Everyone now admits that they do not sustain it. The historical interest of his work lies not in it but in its relevance to the public events of his time, especially after 1931 when the authority of the League of Nations was successfully challenged by Japan and the economic crisis in Europe prepared the way for the accession of Hitler to power in Germany in 1933. These facts were not reflected in Toynbee’s first installment, which went to press in 1932, but they are discernible behind the second installment, which would appear in 1939.
To Toynbee, as to some other liberal men who had placed their hope in the League of Nations, the events of 1931 to 1933 were climacteric, a breakdown of the European order comparable with the collapse of the Roman Empire. I was at school at that time and well remember a lecture given to us by J.L. Hammond, a friend and colleague of Toynbee, who explicitly drew this parallel. I was much impressed at the time, but have since discovered that the parallel has been drawn so often in the past that it has worn rather thin.5 These were also the years in which Rosalind Toynbee, a recent convert, was banging away about the necessity of popery, and Toynbee himself was hovering on the brink. The new volumes reflected these developments. They declared that Western civilization had begun its fatal decline with the Renaissance, the recovery of “pagan” Greek culture and Greek freedom of thought which had fatally weakened the medieval unity of Christendom. Now the last stage had come. The predestined “time of troubles” had reached its crisis, and our petty nationalisms were about to be submerged in a new “world empire” spiritually cemented by a universal religion.
And what should that religion be? What indeed but the Catholicism which had been so disastrously fragmented in the sixteenth century and whose saving power was being preached in the ears of her family by Mrs. Toynbee? To Gilbert Murray, “the old Rationalist” as he signed himself, this was too much. Toynbee, he said, was “becoming a propagandist for Rosalind”; and he advised him to “shake yourself and get into a different and more objective atmosphere.”
In 1939, the year of the publication of the second installment, Rosalind admitted defeat. It was then that she published her attacks on her father’s agnosticism in her book The Good Pagan’s Failure, then that she abandoned her husband to live with her Dominican priest. This certainly shook Toynbee, but the different atmosphere into which he moved was not quite what Murray had intended. Looking for the form of the new “universal state,” he found it—tentatively, indeed, but unmistakably—in Hitler’s Germany.
In 1934 Toynbee had visited Germany in order to see for himself what was going on there. He concluded that Hitler, though radical at home, was conservative abroad. Two years later he went again and delivered lectures which so encouraged the Nazi establishment that he was invited to a personal meeting with Hitler. The meeting lasted nearly two hours. On his return, at a weekend house party at Blickling in Norfolk, the stately country house of the Marquess of Lothian6 and one of the social centers of “appeasement,” he reported his conviction that Hitler, who had just sent his troops to reoccupy the Rhineland, was essentially a man of peace. His views were well received and he was encouraged to put them in writing for submission to the prime minister and foreign secretary; which he did.
Two years later, after the Western surrender at Munich, Toynbee changed his view about Hitler’s peaceful intentions but decided that he was now irresistible and ought not to be resisted. He wrote a paper expressing this view, but Chatham House was forbidden to publish it lest it become “a most dangerous encouragement to Hitler.” Even after war had begun, and before the initial German victories which made some think that surrender was an unavoidable necessity, Toynbee advocated it. “The world is in such desperate need of political unification,” he wrote, “that it is worth paying the price of falling under the worst tyranny.” Hitler, it seems, was to be the Augustus of the new world empire: he was to preserve whatever was worth preserving—which was not much—of the worn-out civilization of the West. If we ask why the need was so desperate as to require the payment of such a price, the answer must be, in order to conform to Toynbee’s theory.
In the course of the Second World War, which Toynbee spent in the Research and Press Service of the Foreign Office at Oxford, his views changed again. Hitherto he had seen religion, as most historians see it, as a dynamic force within a particular civilization: Christianity was the religious dynamic of Western as Islam, Buddhism, or Hinduism was of Eastern civilizations. But now he reversed the formula. Having entirely repudiated secular reason, he decided that civilization itself had no value except as a means to religion.
This important change he announced in a lecture delivered in Oxford in May 1940, as France was collapsing under the German Blitzkrieg. But when he came to identify the religion of the new world empire, he suddenly and illogically plumped for the whole apparatus of Roman Catholicism. Gilbert Murray, who heard the lecture, was disgusted. Toynbee, he wrote, “holds contradictory opinions at the same time”; his lecture was “deplorable,” “an amazing collapse of common sense.”7 From now on, although their personal relations remained friendly, Murray and Toynbee were intellectually incompatible.
Murray was disgusted by the content of Toynbee’s lecture, but he also pointed to its illogicality. If the function of civilization was to subserve religion, each civilization, in a plural world, could subserve its own traditional religion. But if there were to be a universal state on these terms, obviously it could not, without violence, subserve the religion of only one of the societies which it had absorbed. After 1945 Toynbee implicitly admitted this. But by that time the world had changed again and he had discovered a new “universal state” to replace Nazi Germany: America.
Toynbee’s romance with America began in 1942 when he visited New York and there met Henry Luce, publisher of Time, Life, and Fortune. Luce, the son of an American missionary in China, wished to spread the American gospel in the world, and he was impressed by the views which he heard from Toynbee; they seemed to provide, for his own missionary ideas, the justification of historical inevitability. Five years later Luce’s vision seemed to be realized when President Truman publicly declared America’s leadership of the free world in its struggle against communism. By a happy coincidence Truman did this in the same month in which D.C. Somervell’s one-volume abridgment of Toynbee’s work—that is, of the six volumes so far published—appeared in the American bookstores.
Here Americans could read, unencumbered by the mass of historical detail which, in England, had been regarded as the most interesting part of the original work, the essential thesis: the cyclical pattern of history throughout the world, throughout the ages; the decline of the West since the Renaissance; the time of troubles; the “desperate need” for unification in a world empire; and the inconsequent promise that all might still be well, for the iron laws of history (it now appeared) were not so inflexible after all; they were secretly operated by the Christian God, who could be got at by prayer: “We may and must pray that the reprieve which God has granted to our society once will not be refused if we ask for it again in a humble spirit and with a contrite heart.” Toynbee was very fluent with such stuff, which no doubt went down well in the Bible Belt.
This happy coincidence of Somervell’s abridgment and Truman’s doctrine was seized by Henry Luce and on March 17, 1947, Time was used as the instrument to project the image of Toynbee throughout the world as the apostle of a new age of history. The cover of the magazine showed his face; behind it, civilizations, rising and falling, were personified as human beings climbing up and then inevitably falling down the steep precipice of time; and within, an article by Whit-taker Chambers, a repentant ex-Communist, hailed Toynbee as the sage who had proved the historic necessity of the American mission to save the relics of Western civilization from Communism. Toynbee, said Chambers, was the greatest historical prophet since Marx. He was also the answer to Marx. He had revolutionized the science of history. He had “found history Ptolemaic and left it Copernican.” It could never be the same again.
Certainly Toynbee could never be the same again. Luce made and unmade him: made him famous as “an international sage,” made him rich with royalties and lecture fees; unmade him by destroying the last restraints of public modesty, humanist education, even common sense. He became “addicted to the limelight,” accepted the role assigned to him, and with his eyes looking upward to Heaven, and his lips intoning the oracles of God, stretched out his hands to grasp the golden shower descending upon him.
This personal transformation became clear with the publication of the next batch of volumes, volumes 7 to 10, in 1954. They had been written largely in America, for the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton had provided him with a base, replacing Ganthorpe from which, since his divorce from Rosalind, he was barred. The same divorce had also now ended his flirtation with Catholicism, so world history no longer needed to veer that way, and he could afford to be more logical than in 1940. If the world empire was to be subservient to a world religion, that religion could not be Christianity only. It must be an amalgam of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism. Of this new religion Toynbee himself was the prophet. Yes, prophet: for there was no longer any pretense of rational argument. He wrote of “the command laid upon me to write out my book.” It is the command of God to the prophet Isaiah: “Take thee a great roll, and write.”
By the time he reached the last chapters of his great roll, Toynbee was clearly far gone in megalomania. He evidently believed that the faithful, who crowded to his lectures, and from whom he drew, like his grandfather, “unprecedentedly high fees,” needed to know all the stages of his illumination: how it was that he had been called to his unique mission, and uniquely qualified for it, and, by what singular revelations, he had been confirmed in it. So, in suitably biblical language, he told them. In a series of bizarre “acknowledgments” he recorded his debts, large and small: to God, who had chosen him for his task, to William of Wykeham, who had founded Winchester College for his education, to Pindar and Plato, Thucydides and Saint Augustine, nannies and governesses, uncles and aunts. He recorded numerous signs of his election and recalled, as such, the hallucinations he had experienced when he had “sunk into the trough of time” and witnessed, in the flesh, authentic fragments of past history. And not merely fragments: on one occasion, he solemnly assured his readers, he had
found himself in communion not just with this or that episode in History, but with all that had been, and was, and was to come. In that instant he was directly aware of the passage of History gently flowing through him in a mighty current and of his own life welling like a wave in the flow of the vast tide.
After this what need could there be of evidence or argument? The Prophet had only to reveal.
It was when I read this volume that I was moved to write the essay which Father Columba denounced, unread, as blasphemy and Mr. Zaki Saleh saw as a symptom of intellectual chaos. McNeill also refers to this essay—indeed, declares that “Toynbee’s reputation among historians has yet to recover” from it. If he really thinks it so powerful it is odd that he does not say anything at all about its argument, merely brushing it aside as “dismissive wit.” So perhaps I shall be excused if I say something about it. Just as McNeill has set out the explanatory context of Toynbee’s Study, so I shall briefly explain the context of my response to it.
On reading Toynbee’s work, I objected to it on three levels. First, as a historian, I objected to his method, which (as all historians agree) was dogmatic, not (as he claimed) “empirical.” He made statements of fact which were not merely contestable but demonstrably wrong and then used them to sustain arbitrary conclusions, dogmatically stated. Critics were either ignored or collectively denounced as “antinomians.” His most formidable critic, at this level, the Dutch historian Pieter Geyl, was blandly evaded. Toynbee made it clear that he thought all such criticism—“nit-picking,” in McNeill’s language—impertinent: at worst, the grandeur of his message could easily absorb a few errors of detail.
What then of his grand message? Here was my second objection. In my opinion, Toynbee was using false methods in order to claim a scientific base for an obscurantist thesis, a great attack on Western civilization and human reason. For the Western civilization which he wished to preserve, even at the cost of surrender to Hitler, was not the civilization that most of us recognize. The revival of learning, the culture of the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, Leonardo and Erasmus, Shakespeare and Montaigne, Galileo and Newton, Mozart and Goethe—all these, together with the Hellenism whose revival in the Renaissance had inspired the process, were denounced as the symptoms of degeneration, and he called for a conqueror—any conqueror, provided that he did the job painlessly—to finish it off: to replace it, first, in his earlier volumes, by medieval bigotry, then, in his later, by a meaningless amalgam of “higher” religions: mere vapid religiosity. This seemed to me not a defense but a denial of civilization.
Finally, I was revolted by Toynbee’s grotesque egotism: his complacent acceptance of the role of sage and savior ascribed to him by the American press, and his own improvement on that role, his shameless portrait of himself as a prophet of God marked out from birth by special providences and revelations. The evidence of this was inescapable in his last volume: one did not need to deduce it, only to quote.
Thus I believed that Toynbee, at the height of his fame, was a pernicious prophet, who, while pretending to offer salvation to Western culture, was in fact preaching a mindless, gutless, perhaps a barbarous millennium. If he had been some crackpot in a backwoods college, he could of course have been ignored; but how could he be ignored when he was being hailed throughout America as the genius of the new age? And not only in America; for now, following his fame, he was himself floating around the world, like some iridescent gas balloon, a mile or two above reality, and in each country, as the majestic apparition hove in sight, the awaiting multitudes
wondering on their faces fell…
Less than a god, they thought, there could not dwell
Within the hollow of that shell.
I believed that the hollow shell contained only gas: very rich gas, indeed, drawn through elaborate pipes from distant exotic sources; but still gas, and noxious gas too.
But how was one to persuade the deluded multitudes? Scholarly criticism had failed. Those weak pellets had glanced impotently off that smooth impervious surface. Mere denunciation was useless, inaudible above the choral dithyrambs of praise. I decided that there was only one effective method. The balloon must be punctured and the gas let out. Perhaps if the worshipers could smell it, they would recognize its true character. And the puncture must be neat, scientific, where the skin was most stretched, most tender, with a sharp needle dipped in deflationary ridicule: the ridicule that kills, the ridicule which, in Shaftesbury’s phrase, is the test of truth.
Of course I was not alone in destroying the myth. McNeill flatters me too much. Others helped. Mr. Luce had second thoughts when he discovered that Toynbee’s millennium was not quite the same as his own American dream: Toynbee was even prepared to contemplate a Communist world empire, provided that it came painlessly. And then there was his attack on the Jews, his insistence that there was no Jewish civilization: that Judaism was a fossil and the state of Israel an illegitimate rebirth. That raised a powerful lobby against him. It also began his romance with the Arabs. However, Arabia, in those days before the oil boom, was not as rich as America, and the lecture circuit was not so well organized there. This was a serious drawback, for although he was now a rich man, Toynbee was still obsessed by fear of poverty, and the shamelessness with which (as McNeill says) he “aimed, quite crudely, at collecting as much money as possible” by his lectures against modern materialism disgusted his sponsors and reduced the number of his American invitations.
Fortunately, in his last decade, the void which opened in the West was filled from the East, by Japan. There he lectured to the emperor and his court; “Toynbee Societies” sprang up; and “Toynbee Studies” were published. He was also taken up by Daisaku Ikeda, the leader of the Buddhist lay organization Soka Gakkai. This was financially profitable to him, although, as McNeill drily observes, the value of their collaboration “for Ikeda and his movement was far greater than anything it did for Toynbee’s reputation.”
Only in his own country was the prophet without the honor he expected. In 1947 indeed, at the height of his fame, the British Labour prime minister, Clement Attlee, offered him the Regius Chair of History at Cambridge, which, says McNeill (I wonder why), is “more august than the corresponding professorship at Oxford.” Luckily he refused: it would not have been a happy appointment, either for him or for Cambridge. He also refused a knighthood; McNeill thinks because it was not enough. Later the Queen offered him the Companionship of Honour. He received the offer in New Zealand, at breakfast, as he was conveying a sausage to his mouth. Instead of being pleased by the honor, he was mortified by this “humiliating and irritating experience.” Why had he been offered only “the second prize”? Why not the grandest of personal awards, the Order of Merit? However, “swallowing both his sausage and his pride,” he accepted the proffered honor. Thirteen years later the episode still rankled when another historian, “not of my calibre,” received the OM. In 1947, in a self-dramatizing (and self-pitying) poem, he had compared himself with Thucydides, Christ, and Dante. I doubt if any of these would have bothered about the difference in status between CH and OM.
How will posterity judge Toynbee? Not, I fear, at his own valuation. Even his biographer admits that his great work was left “a shambles” by his own efforts to restore its intellectual credibility, “to put Humpty Dumpty together again.” His grand historical scheme is now as dead as a dodo: a monument of wasted erudition. His egotism, his self-dramatization, his inflated biblical style, and his subordination of world history to his own personal circumstances make him ridiculous. And yet, this honest and scholarly biography, while effectively conceding everything to his critics, leaves him not as a comic but as a tragic figure, in the classical Aristotelian sense: a good man ruined by the accidental operation of venial faults. He was very learned and immensely industrious. He was driven by a powerful ambition. But he had no sense of humor and perhaps, as Gilbert Murray suggested, not much common sense. He was also fatally fluent. Unusually for a best-selling author, his publishers tried hard to restrict his production, his “generation of instant books.”
His vanity and complacency cut him off from corrective friendship—he seems to have had few friends—and left him an easy prey to the flattery of the press and publishers. His personal life was not happy. I do not regret having exposed the pretentious obscurantism of his work when it was being cried up throughout the world as the ultimate wisdom of centuries; but perhaps I would have been a little gentler if I had known that his father, for his last thirty years, had been mad.
October 12, 1989
Zaki Saleh, Trevor-Roper’s Critique of Arnold Toynbee: A Symptom of Intellectual Chaos (Baghdad, 1958). ↩
Richard Clogg, Politics and the Academy: Arnold Toynbee and the Koraes Chair (Frank Cass, 1986), p. 85. ↩
Rosalind did succeed in converting her father, but only after he was unconscious and dying, when she introduced a priest to give extreme unction. This led to a scandal and the priest, who had boasted of his “conversion,” was disowned by his bishop. ↩
Toynbee’s “patronising distaste” for Hellenism, specifically on account of its rationality and of what he describes as its “humanism or man-worship,” pervades, in particular, his book on Hellenism (1959)—a book which is not included in McNeill’s bibliography. See the review by Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones reprinted in his Classical Survivals: The Classics in the Modern World (Duckworth, 1982), pp. 56–59. ↩
For instance, the German historian G.B. Niebuhr detected such a collapse in the French Revolution which brought Louis-Philippe to the throne in 1830; on which see the robust comments of Macaulay, in G.O. Trevelyan, Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay (Oxford, World’s Classics, 1932), Vol. I, p. 405. ↩
Not, as McNeill says, “at a dinner party at the Astors” (i.e., at Clivedon), although Lord and Lady Astor were among the guests. See Thomas Jones, Diary with Letters, 1931–1950 (Oxford University Press, 1954), pp. 179–181. ↩
Gilbert Murray to Barbara Hammond, quoted in Duncan Wilson, Gilbert Murray OM, 1866–1957 (Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 345. ↩