Considered one of the most influential historians of the 20th century, Arnold J. Toynbee and his interpretations of the world’s civilizations have become standard reading for generations of students and scholars alike. Like Oswald Spengler before him, Toynbee wrote about human history as a series of civilizations, separated not by national characteristics, but by culture and religion. His major work, A Study of History, is a ten-volume piece written between 1934-1961.
Born in London, England in 1889, he attended both Winchester College and Balliol College at Oxford. After graduation in 1911, Toynbee began his teaching career at Balliol. He went on to teach at the University of London, the London School of Economics, and the Royal Institute of International Affairs. During World War I, Toynbee worked for the British Foreign Office in the Intelligence department and attended the Paris Peace Conference at Versailles in 1919. He served his nation in World War II by working again with the Foreign Office and returned to the Continent as a delegate in the peace talks at the end of the war.
Certainly one of the century’s most prolific authors, Toynbee and his many works stand apart in the field of universal history. The scope of his A Study of History (sometimes called The History of the World) is the entire written history of humankind up to his present time. In it, his premise is that a distinct pattern can be found throughout all human historical experience. He is consistent throughout the ten volumes in describing civilizations that find conflict with other men, physical (nature) forces, or God. These peoples find either success or frustration in working toward a response to these events. Toynbee calls this phenomenon “Challenge and Response.” In the last few volumes of the Study, Toynbee seems to find religion to be this “other force” in an increasing number of cases. Unlike Spengler’s descriptions of a finite, predictable “life cycle” for each civilization, Toynbee is optimistic. Many civilizations do adapt to overcome whatever forces are arrayed against them.
It is interesting to note that Toynbee asks the question, “Does history repeat itself?” in his book Civilization on Trial, written in 1948. Of course, at the time the world’s political order was still in flux. World War II had recently ended and the United Nations had just come into existence. The obvious implication of the question dealt with the great military conflicts the West had seen in the previous one hundred years. Would the nations of the world square off again in the next generation as they had done so many times in the recent past? Toynbee asks us to calmly consider that although in many ways history does indeed repeat itself, this does not mean that free will is compromised. Put another way, human destiny is not predetermined, for Toynbee writes that as long as there is life, there is hope, and that humans are truly the masters of their destiny.
In his writings, he saw the purpose of all preceding societies. Throughout history, Toynbee wrote, humanity continued (and still does so) to attempt to rise toward some higher kind of spiritual life. Toynbee believed that that goal has never been reached by an individual society, but perhaps has been reached by individual persons such as saints. He was a tough critic of society, and in his view, humankind is an unfinished project, a work in progress. All the civilizations that we know of have already broken down and gone to pieces, with the single possible exception of our own Western civilization.
Toynbee’s politics appear to lean toward a liberal, nearly Socialist view of government. In his book Change and Habit—The Challenge of Our Time, he makes the case for an eventual world government. He calls the system of individual countries “a habit,” and he maintains that humans can change their habits if the only alternative is disaster. To him, the framework of nation-states and competing military alliances (and the potential for nuclear conflict) between those nations imperils humanity’s very existence. Toynbee details the steps required to attain the goal of a world government, including the ways our currently sovereign peoples would have to be convinced that it is in their interest to forgo local representation for the betterment of the human race. The other main benefit gained from the world government model, according to Toynbee, is a more efficient plan for growing and distributing food to all of Earth’s people.
He does recognize, however, the difficulties in getting people to simply get along with one another. Toynbee is correct to say that political equality among diverse peoples is nearly impossible when those involved are also socially, culturally, and physically many miles apart. Social issues such as the equality of the sexes, unique religious practices, and cultural mores vary widely from one region to the next. He makes the argument that within the United States there are still racial issues, particularly in the Old South, that are only one example of how difficult a task it would be to truly unite the world’s population under a single ruling government. At the same time, he sees hope, citing the example of both Islamic people and the people of Latin America, who seem to be free from racial tensions among their different populations. Toynbee truly sees only one race—the human race— and feels strongly that artificial barriers such as nationalism must be removed in order for all of humankind to survive. It would appear that at this time in our own history, the nations of Europe, in the expansion of the European Union, are beginning to heed his warnings.
Fellow historians have sometimes criticized Toynbee’s methods. One concern focuses on his reliance upon insight and imagination rather than arguments or induction. While some scholars defend his style as an example of using metaphor or simply being poetic, others declare that Toynbee fails to go the extra mile in getting his facts straight, thereby weakening some of his arguments. However, in the end, Toynbee must be given credit for his attempt to document our world’s history as a unified one. He has succeeded in showing us that it is at least possible to envision such a future for humankind.
- Gargan, E. T. (1961). The intent of Toynbee’s history—A cooperative appraisal. Chicago: Loyola University Press.
- Toynbee, A. J. (1948). Civilization on trial. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Toynbee, A. J. (1966). Change and habit—The challenge of our time. New York and London: Oxford University Press.