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About Arnold Joseph Toynbee
Arnold Joseph Toynbee CH (14 April 1889 – 22 October 1975) was a British historian whose twelve-volume analysis of the rise and fall of civilizations, A Study of History, 1934–1961, was a synthesis of world history, a metahistory based on universal rhythms of rise, flowering and decline, which examined history from a global perspective. A religious outlook permeates the Study and made it especially popular in the United States, for Toynbee rejected Greek humanism, the Enlightenment belief in humanity's essential goodness, and what he considered the "false god" of modern nationalism. Toynbee in the 1918-1950 period was a leading British consultant to the government on international affairs, especially regarding the Middle East.
Toynbee was the son of Harry Valpy Toynbee, grandson of Joseph Toynbee, and nephew of the economic historian Arnold Toynbee (1852–1883), with whom he is sometimes confused. His sister was noted archaeologist and art historian Jocelyn Toynbee.
Born in London on 14 April 1889, Arnold J. Toynbee was educated at Winchester College and Balliol College, Oxford.
He began his teaching career as a fellow of Balliol College in 1912, and thereafter held positions at King's College London (as Professor of Modern Greek and Byzantine History), the London School of Economics and the Royal Institute of International Affairs (RIIA) in Chatham House.
Toynbee was Director of Studies at the RIIA between 1929 and 1956. It paid L1200 a year, and in return he edited its annual Survey of International Affairs from 1920-46.
His first marriage was to Rosalind Murray (1890–1967), daughter of Gilbert Murray, in 1913; they had three sons, of whom Philip Toynbee was the second. They divorced in 1946; Toynbee then married his research assistant, Veronica M. Boulter, in the same year.
He died on 22 October, 1975, age 86.
Toynbee worked for the Political Intelligence Department of the British Foreign Office during World War I and served as a delegate to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. He was director of studies at Chatham House, Balliol College, Oxford University, 1924-43. Chatham House conducted research for the British Foreign Office and was an important intellectual resource during World War II when it was transferred to London. With his research assistant, Veronica M. Boulter (later his wife) Toynbee was co-editor of the RIIA's annual Survey of International Affairs, which became the "bible" for international specialists in Britain.
Toynbee was a leading analyst of developments in the Middle East. His support for Greece and hostility to the Turks during the World War had gained him an appointment to the Koraes Chair of Modern Greek and Byzantine History at the University of London. However, after the war he changed to a pro-Turkish position, accusing Greece's military government in occupied Turkish territory of atrocities and massacres. This earned him the enmity of the wealthy Greeks who had endowed the chair, and in 1924 he was forced to resign the position. His stance during World War I reflected less sympathy for the Arab cause and a pro-Zionist outlook. He also expressed support for a Jewish State in Palestine, which he believed had "begun to recover its ancient prosperity" as a result. Toynbee investigated Zionism in 1915 at the Information Department of the Foreign Office, and in 1917 he published a memorandum with his colleague Lewis Namier which supported exclusive Jewish political rights in Palestine. In 1922 he was influenced by the Palestine Arab delegation which was visiting London, and he adopted their views. His subsequent writings show the way he changed his outlook on the subject, and in the late 1930s he moved away from supporting the Zionist cause and moved toward the Arab camp. By the 1950s he was an opponent of the state of Israel.
Toynbee was troubled by the Russian Revolution, for he saw Russia as a non-Western society and the revolution as a threat to Western society.
As an influential opinion shaper, Toynbee was invited to have a private interview with Adolf Hitler in the Reichskanzlei (Reich Chancellery) in 1936. Hitler emphasized his limited expansionist aim of building a greater German nation, and his desire for British understanding and cooperation. Toynbee was convinced of Hitler's sincerity, and endorsed Hitler's message in a confidential memorandum for the British prime minister and foreign secretary. During World War II, he again worked for the Foreign Office and attended the postwar peace talks.
Study of History
In 1934-1954, Toynbee's ten-volume A Study of History came out in three separate installments. He followed Oswald Spengler in taking a comparative topical approach to independent civilizations. Toynbee's said they displayed striking parallels in their origin, growth, and decay. Toynbee rejected Spengler's biological model of civilizations as organisms with a typical life span of 1,000 years.
Of the 21 civilizations Toynbee identified, sixteen were dead by 1940 and four of the remaining five were under severe pressure from the one named Western Christendom - or simply The West. He explained breakdowns of civilizations as a failure of creative power in the creative minority, which henceforth becomes a merely 'dominant' minority; that is followed by an answering withdrawal of allegiance and mimesis on the part of the majority; finally there is a consequent loss of social unity in the society as a whole.
Toynbee explained decline as due to their moral failure. Many readers, especially in America, rejoiced in his implication (in vols. 1-6) that only a return to some form of Christianity could halt the breakdown of western civilization which began with the Reformation. Volumes 7-10, published in 1954 abandoned the religious message and his popular audience slipped away, while scholars gleefully picked apart his mistakes.
Toynbee's ideas and approach to history may be said to fall into the discipline of Comparative history. While they may be compared to those used by Oswald Spengler in The Decline of the West, he rejected Spengler's deterministic view that civilizations rise and fall according to a natural and inevitable cycle. For Toynbee, a civilization might or might not continue to thrive, depending on the challenges it faced and its responses to them.
Toynbee presented history as the rise and fall of civilizations, rather than the history of nation-states or of ethnic groups. He identified his civilizations according to cultural or religious rather than national criteria. Thus, the "Western Civilization", comprising all the nations that have existed in Western Europe since the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, was treated as a whole, and distinguished from both the "Orthodox" civilization of Russia and the Balkans, and from the Greco-Roman civilization that preceded it.
With the civilizations as units identified, he presented the history of each in terms of challenge-and-response. Civilizations arose in response to some set of challenges of extreme difficulty, when "creative minorities" devised solutions that reoriented their entire society. Challenges and responses were physical, as when the Sumerians exploited the intractable swamps of southern Iraq by organizing the Neolithic inhabitants into a society capable of carrying out large-scale irrigation projects; or social, as when the Catholic Church resolved the chaos of post-Roman Europe by enrolling the new Germanic kingdoms in a single religious community. When a civilization responds to challenges, it grows. Civilizations declined when their leaders stopped responding creatively, and the civilizations then sank owing to nationalism, militarism, and the tyranny of a despotic minority. Toynbee argued that "Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder." For Toynbee, civilizations were not intangible or unalterable machines but a network of social relationships within the border and therefore subject to both wise and unwise decisions they made.
He expressed great admiration for Ibn Khaldun and in particular the Muqaddimah (1377), the preface to Ibn Khaldun's own universal history, which notes many systemic biases that intrude on historical analysis via the evidence, and presents an early theory on the cycle of civilisations (Asabiyyah).
Toynbee's view on Indian civilization may perhaps be summarized by the following quotation.
The vast literature, the magnificent opulence, the majestic sciences, the soul touching music, the awe inspiring gods. It is already becoming clearer that a chapter which has a western beginning will have to have an Indian ending if it is not to end in the self destruction of the human race. At this supremely dangerous moment in history the only way of salvation for mankind is the Indian way.
Toynbee's ideas have annoyed many historians and he was seldom cited after 1960. Comparative history, to which his approach belongs, has been in the doldrums. The Canadian economic historian Harold Adams Innis is a notable exception. Following Toynbee and others (Spengler, Kroeber, Sorokin, Cochrane), Innis examined the flourishing of civilizations in terms of administration of empires and media of communication.
Toynbee's overall theory was taken up by some scholars, for example, Ernst Robert Curtius, as a sort of paradigm in the post-war period. Curtius wrote as follows in the opening pages of European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (1953 English translation), following close on Toynbee, as he sets the stage for his vast study of medieval Latin literature. Not all would agree with his thesis, of course; but his unit of study is the Latin-speaking world of Christendom and Toynbee's ideas feed into his account very naturally:
How do cultures, and the historical entities which are their media, arise, grow and decay? Only a comparative morphology with exact procedures can hope to answer these questions. It was Arnold J. Toynbee who undertook the task. […] Each of these historical entities, through its physical and historical environment and through its inner development, is faced with problems of which it must stand the test. Whether and how it responds to them decides its destiny. […] The economic and social revolutions after the Second Punic War had obliged Rome to import great hordes of slaves from the East. These form an "inner proletariat", bring in Oriental religions, and provide the basis on which Christianity, in the form of a "universal church", will make its way into the organism of the Roman universal state. When after the "interregnum" of the barbarian migrations, the Greco-Roman historical entity, in which the Germanic peoples form an "outer proletariat", is replaced by the new Western historical entity, the latter crystallizes along the line Rome-Northern Gaul, which had been drawn by Caesar. But the Germanic "barbarians" fall prey to the church, which had survived the universal-state end phase of antique culture. They thereby forgo the possibility of bringing a positive intellectual contribution to the new historical entity. […] More precisely: The Franks gave up their language on the soil of Romanized Gaul. […] According to Toynbee, the life curves of cultures do not follow a fatally predetermined course, as they do according to Spengler.
— E R Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, 1953
Reception and criticism
The Study of History sold well. In the U.S. alone, more than seven thousand sets of the ten-volume edition had been sold by 1955. Most people relied on the very clear one-volume abridgement of the first six volumes by Somervell, which appeared in 1947; it sold over 300,000 copies in the U.S. The high brow press provided innumerable discussions of Toynbee's work in the press, not to mention countless lectures and seminars. Toynbee himself often participated. He appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in 1947.
Scholars were much less impressed. Toynbee has been severely criticised by other historians. In general, the critique has been leveled at his use of myths and metaphors as being of comparable value to factual data, and at the soundness of his general argument about the rise and fall of civilisations, which may rely too much on a view of religion as a regenerative force. Many critics complained that the conclusions he reached were those of a Christian moralist rather than of a historian. Hugh Trevor-Roper described Toynbee's work as a "Philosophy of Mish-Mash" - Pieter Geyl described Toynbee's ideological approach as "metaphysical speculations dressed up as history". His work, however, has been praised as a stimulating answer to the specialising tendency of modern historical research.
Toynbee was attacked on numerous fronts in two chapters of Walter Kaufmann's From Shakespeare to Existentialism (1959). One of the charges was that "Toynbee's huge success is confined to the United States where public opinion is heavily influenced by magazines" (p. 426); another was his focus on groups of religions as the significant demarcations of the world (p. 408), as of 1956. Critics attacked Toynbee's theory for emphasizing religion over other aspects of life when assessing the big pictures of civilizations. In this respect, the debate resembled the contemporary one over Samuel Huntington's theory of the so-called "clash of civilizations". Because he took Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as a related group, and contrasted them with Buddhism, his analysis was very different.
In an essay titled The Chatham House Version (1970), Elie Kedourie of the London School of Economics, a historian of the Middle East, attacked Toynbee's role in what he saw as an abdication of responsibility of the retreating British Empire, in failing democratic values in countries it had once controlled. Kedourie argued that Toynbee's whole system and work were aimed at undercutting this imperial role; he included in this denunciation Toynbee's work at the Foreign Office, where he had dealt directly with the Palestine Mandate.
Allusions in popular culture
Toynbee's ideas also feature in the Ray Bradbury short story named "The Toynbee Convector". He appears alongside T. E. Lawrence as a character in an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, dealing with the post-World War I treaty negotiations at Versailles. He also receives a brief mention in the Charles Harness classic, The Paradox Men (a working title was Toynbee 22). Most versions of the Civilization computer game refer to his work as a historian as well. Toynbee receives mention in Pat Frank's post-apocalyptic novel "Alas, Babylon". A character in the P. Schuyler Miller short story "As Never Was" adopts the name Toynbee "out of admiration for a historian of that name". He is also mentioned in the Tom Robbins novel, Another Roadside Attraction. Toynbee is also the title of a song by the modern rock group Manic Bloom from the album "In Loving Memory", the lyrics of which refer to the evitability of the fall of society given the opportunity at hand to reclaim the future.