Arnold Joseph Toynbee CH (April 14, 1889 – October 22, 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.
Toynbee was the nephew of the economic historian Arnold Toynbee, with whom he is sometimes confused. Born in London, Arnold J. 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. He was Director of Studies at the RIIA between 1925 and 1955.
He worked for the Intelligence department of the British Foreign Office during World War I and served as a delegate to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. With his research assistant, Veronica M. Boulter, who was to become his second wife, he was co-editor of the RIIA's annual Survey of International Affairs. During World War II, he again worked for the Foreign Office and attended the postwar peace talks.
The Toynbees have been prominent in British intellectual society for several generations:
|Joseph Toynbee |
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|Arnold Toynbee |
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Scholar and diplomat
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Writer and journalist
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Toynbee's approach may be compared to the one used by Oswald Spengler in The Decline of the West. He rejected, however, Spengler's deterministic view that civilizations rise and fall according to a natural and inevitable cycle.
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 rather than national criteria. Thus, the "Western Civilization", comprising all the nations that have existed in Western Europe since the collapse of the 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. When it fails to respond to a challenge, it enters its period of decline. 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. If leaders of the civilization did not appease or shut down the internal proletariat or muster an effective military or diplomatic defense against potential invading outside forces, it would fall.
He expressed great admiration for Ibn Khaldun and in particular the Muqaddimah, the preface to Khaldun's own universal history, which notes many systemic biases that intrude on historical analysis via the evidence.
Toynbee's ideas have not proved overly influential on other historians; yet, his overall theory certainly 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
The ideas Toynbee promoted enjoyed some vogue (he appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in 1947). They may have been early casualties of the Cold War's intellectual climate.
Rightly or not, 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". For Toynbee's ideas in context, see development of religion.
Toynbee's ideological approach— "metaphysical speculations dressed up as history" is a commonplace modern assessment — was subjected to an effective critique by Pieter Geyl. Toynbee engaged in the public dialogue, which appeared in print (1949, reprinted in 1968) in The Pattern of the Past: Can We Determine It?. This book linked essays by Toynbee and Geyl to an analysis of Toynbee's philosophy of history, contributed by Pitirim A. Sorokin.
An article by Hugh Trevor-Roper, "Arnold Toynbee's Millennium" — describing Toynbee's work as a "Philosophy of Mish-Mash" — was an assault on Toynbee's reputation.
The social scientist Ashley Montagu assembled 29 other historians' articles to form a symposium on Toynbee's A Study of History, published as Toynbee and History: Critical Essays and Reviews, 1956 Cloth, Boston: Extending Horizons Books, Porter Sargent Publishers. ISBN 0-87558-026-2. The book includes three of Toynbee's own essays: What I am Trying to Do (originally published in International Affairs vol. 31, 1955; What the Book is For: How the Book Took Shape (a pamphlet written upon completion of the final volumes of A Study of History) and a comment written in response the articles by Edward Fiess and Pieter Geyl (originally published in Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 16, 1955.)
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 the British imperial role.
An attack on Toynbee for this hardly seems entirely fair given that he is on record as pointing out where the responsibility lay: ‘Arnold J. Toynbee who, before becoming recognized as an eminent world historian had dealt directly with the Palestine Mandate in the British Foreign Office, wrote in 1968: “All through those 30 years, Britain (admitted) into Palestine, year by year, a quota of Jewish immigrants that varied according to the strength of the respective pressures of the Arabs and Jews at the time. These immigrants could not have come in if they had not been shielded by a British chevaux-de-frise. If Palestine had remained under Ottoman Turkish rule, or if it had become an independent Arab state in 1918, Jewish immigrants would never have been admitted into Palestine in large enough numbers to enable them to overwhelm the Palestinian Arabs in this Arab people's own country. The reason why the State of Israel exists today and why today 1,500,000 Palestinian Arabs are refugees is that, for 30 years, Jewish immigration was imposed on the Palestinian Arabs by British military power until the immigrants were sufficiently numerous and sufficiently well-armed to be able to fend for themselves with tanks and planes of their own. The tragedy in Palestine is not just a local one; it is a tragedy for the world, because it is an injustice that is a menace to the world's peace.”’ (Robert John and Sami Hadawi, The Palestine Diary, vol. I (1914-1945), (New World Press, New York, 1970), pp. xiv-xv. Quoted from United Nations Records, Division for Palestinian Rights (DPR) 30 June 1990 The Origins and Evolution of the Palestine Problem: 1917-1988 PART I 1917-1947 “IX. THE ENDING OF THE MANDATE” The transformation of Mandated Palestine c.f. http://domino.un.org/UNISPAL.NSF/561c6ee353d740fb8525607d00581829/aeac80e740c782e4852561150071fdb0!OpenDocument )
It is assumed that Arnold J. is the Toynbee referred to on the Toynbee tiles. His ideas also feature in the Ray Bradbury short story named "The Toynbee Convector", and a lesser-known book called (among other titles) Toynbee 22. 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.