Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975)

Arnold Toynbee

Historian Arnold J. Toynbee,
Time Magazine, May 17, 1947

British macrohistorian Arnold Toynbee rejected Spengler's view that civilizations rise and fall according to an inevitable cycle. He dismissed racial degeneration as a cause of civilizations breaking down, and he dismissed ecology as a factor. The Athenians, he pointed out, responded to overpopulation on a thin soil by taking to the sea as a commercial empire.

Toynbee chose to explain history not by the successes and failures of empires, nation-states or ethnicity but by a civilization's response to its challenges. For Toynbee a civilization fails when it ceases to exist. He is described as saying that civilizations are not murdered, they commit suicide by not meeting their challenges. Toynbee wrote that Nomadic civilization failed because of energies consumed in providing pasture for herds. He wrote that the Polynesians failed because they responded to the challenge of the sea with no instrument better than a canoe. The question of Toynbee's definition of failure emerges.

About people meeting their civilization's challenges, Toynbee wrote of Gandhi with his spinning wheel trying to reconstruct an imaginary past. He wrote of Lenin attempting to leap into an imagined future. And he wrote a lot about the place of Jesus Christ in history. In his article "Christianity and Civilization," Toynbee does a summing up, describing Christianity as a means of meeting the challenge that Western civilization faces:

Thus the historical progress of religion in this world, as represented by the rise of the higher religions and by their culmination in Christianity, may, and almost certainly will, bring with it, incidentally, an immeasurable improvement in the conditions of human social life on Earth.

The Dutch historian, Peter Geyl, described Toynbee's work as "metaphysical speculations dressed up as history."

Toynbee categorized five civilizations that have survived: 1) Western civilization: Western Europe, the Commonwealth of Nations, the U.S., Latin America. 2) Orthodox Christian civilization: Russia and the Orthodox sections of southeastern Europe. 3) Islamic civilization. 4) Hindu civilization. 5) Far Eastern civilization: China, Korea, Japan.

Toynbee described humanity's ordeal with a lot of specifics, but he left much that needed explanation. For many historians his civilization categories are not useful. His civilizations are cultural, and since ancient times cultural diffusion has been frequent and significant. People have changed culturally, and their response to new challenges can be described in a worthwhile manner without considering Toynbee's civilization labels. This is especially so as the world has become more globalized. The different civilizations that Toynbee has categorized have blended. His so-called civilizations will grow or decay together in what has become a smaller and more interconnected world.

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