'A Study of History' Is Still Worth a Read
Historical scholarship has greatly benefitted from specialists who burrow deep into their particular areas or subjects of study to produce remarkably detailed information about specific events, time periods, and major historical figures. Some historians, however, take a broader approach and endeavor to discern general historical trends or patterns throughout human history.
In August 1934, the first three volumes of Arnold J. Toynbee’s A Study of History were published under the auspices of Britain’s Royal Institute of International Affairs. Over the next 27 years, Toynbee wrote nine more volumes to complete his remarkable “comparative study” of 21 human civilizations. It was Toynbee’s lifelong effort, wrote his biographer William H. McNeill, “restlessly and unremittingly, to make the world make sense.”
Toynbee was born on April 14, 1889, in London. From an early age and under the influence of his mother, Toynbee was drawn to history, especially military history and the clash of nations and empires. At age 13, he entered Winchester public school where he studied the classics and learned “to compose both prose and verse in the ancient languages.” He wrote essays on Venetian and Byzantine history, and even at a young age, according to McNeill, “insisted on approaching the past on a grand scale, bridging time and space as specialists habitually refused to do.”
Later, at Balliol College, he was influenced by Eduard Mayer’s Geschicte des Altertums, described by McNeill as a five-volume synthesis of centuries of European history and scholarship. In one letter, the young Toynbee expressed his desire to become a “great gigantic historian.”
Prior to the outbreak of the First World War, Toynbee spent a year traveling in Italy and Greece, adding geographical knowledge to his studies of ancient history. He had, McNeill wrote, “a thirst for big views and general perspectives, superimposed upon impressive mastery of details.” When war broke out, he served his country not by fighting at sea or on the Western front, but by developing and writing British propaganda tracts designed largely to persuade the United States to enter the war on Britain’s side. Later in the war, he worked with other academics at the Political Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office and joined the British delegation to the Versailles Peace Conference.
In 1919, Toynbee was appointed Koraes Professor of Modern Greek and Byzantine History, Language and Literature at King’s College, the University of London. His experiences during the war and his study of history convinced him that “the great tragedies of history—that is, the great civilizations that have been created by the spirit of man—may all reveal the same plot, if we analyze them rightly.” “[A]fter 1921,” wrote McNeill, Toynbee “set out to organize the history of a much larger part of the world around a series of parallel, separate civilizations, whose rise and fall conformed to the tragic pattern he had” previously discerned.
In 1924, Toynbee joined the Royal Institute of International Affairs, headquartered at Chatham House on St. James Square in London, and served as its Director of Studies from 1925 to 1954. He wrote, commissioned, and edited the Institute’s influential annual Survey of International Affairs.
He began to write A Study of History in 1930, and four years later the first three volumes were completed and released to mostly rave reviews. In these volumes, Toynbee identified 21 separate civilizations and discussed their birth and growth. One of his most valuable insights in comparing the development of separate civilizations was the factor of “challenge and response.” He used Biblical and mythological stories, as well as historical events to portray the genesis and growth of civilizations as the result of encounters between opposing forces.
Often, the encounter involved human reaction to physical challenges provided by nature and the environment. For example, he explained that the Egyptiac and Sumeric civilizations grew in response to the desiccation of the Afrasian grasslands. “The desiccation of Afrasia,” he wrote, “which impelled the fathers of the Egyptiac Civilization to penetrate the jungle-swamp of the Lower Nile Valley and transform it into the Land of Egypt, likewise impelled the fathers of the Sumeric Civilization to come to grips with the jungle-swamp in the Lower Valley of the Tigris and Euphrates and transform it into the Land of Shinar.” Similarly, the Mayan Civilization of the New World developed in response to the challenge of tropical forests, while the Minoan Civilization responded to the challenge of the sea.
Challenges also arose from the human environment as nations and empires repeatedly clashed throughout history. Toynbee in much of Volume II of A Study of History analyzed the various human stimuli that challenge nations, often referred to as the struggle for power, including how Viking raids from the sea and barbarian raids from the Eurasian steppe shaped the development of European (Western) Civilization. In Volume III, he showed how civilizations grew as they increased command over both human and physical environments.
Toynbee in several of his later volumes analyzed the decline, breakdown, and disintegration of civilizations due to many factors, including ease, luxury, internal schism, and the loss of spirit, all of which affect responses (or the lack thereof) to challenges. When he completed his last volume of A Study of History in 1961, he did not agree with Oswald Spengler that Western Civilization was in inevitable decline, but he did not discount the possibility of the West’s internal decay resulting in an unwillingness or inability to meet future challenges.
Toynbee wrote many more books, including Christianity and Civilization, The World and the West, Mankind and Mother Earth, and Civilization on Trial. Toward the end of his life, he sat for a fascinating series of introspective interviews with George Urban that later appeared in book form with the title Toynbee on Toynbee. He died in 1975.
He will always be remembered, however, for his magnum opus. Whittaker Chambers described A Study of History as “the most provocative work of historical theory written in England since Karl Marx’s Capital.” The political philosopher James Burnham was deeply influenced by Toynbee’s ideas in his description of the fundamental aspects of the Cold War. Toynbee had his share of critics, but in the end, wrote William McNeill, the lasting significance of A Study of History is that it “expanded the range of historical consciousness beyond anything conceived by historians before him.”