My rating: 3 of 5 stars
One of the perennial infirmities of human beings is to ascribe their own failure to forces that are entirely beyond their control.
One day, a couple years ago, as I was walking to Grand Central Station from my office in Manhattan—hurrying, as usual, to get to the 6:25 train in time to get a good seat by the window, which meant arriving by 6:18 at the latest—while crossing an intersection, I looked down and found a Toynbee tile lying in the middle of the street.
Toynbee tiles are mysterious plaques, pressed into the asphalt in city streets, that have appeared in several cities in the United States. Small (about the size of a tablet) and flat (they’re made of linoleum), nearly all of them bear the same puzzling message: “TOYNBEE IDEA MOVIE ‘2001 RESURRECT DEAD ON PLANET JUPITER.” Sometimes other little panicky or threatening messages about the Feds, Gays, Jews, and instructions to “lay tile alone” are scribbled in the margins. Nobody knows the identity of the tile-maker; but they are clearly the work of a dedicated conspiracy theorist with a tenuous grasp on conventional reality; and considering that they’ve been appearing since the 1980s, all around the US and even in South America, you’ve got to give the tile-maker credit for perseverance. (Click here for more on the tiles.)
I was stunned. I had heard of the tiles before, but I never thought I’d see one. I walked across that intersection twice daily; clearly the tile had been recently installed, perhaps just hours ago. I wanted to bend down and examine it closely, but the traffic light soon changed and I had to get out of the way. Reluctantly I moved on towards Grand Central; but I felt gripped by curiosity. Who is this mysterious tile maker? What is he hoping to accomplish? Suddenly I felt an overpowering desire to unlock his message. So instead of jumping on my usual train—I wasn’t going to get a window seat, anyway—I stopped by a bookstore and picked up Toynbee’s Study of History.
Toynbee, for his part, was apparently no lover of mystery, since he tried to explain nothing less than all of human history. The original study is massive: 12 volumes, each one around 500 pages. This abridgement squeezes 3,000 pages into 550; and that only covers the first five books. (Curiously, although the cover of this volume says that it is an abridgement of volumes one through six, it is clear from the table of contents that it only includes one through five. Similarly, though the next volume of the abridgement says it begins with book seven and ends with book ten, it actually begins with book six and ends with book twelve. This seems like a silly mistake.)
The abridgement was done by an English school teacher, D.C. Somervell, apparently just for fun. He did an excellent job, since it was this abridged version that became enormously popular and which is still in print. All this only proves what Toynbee says in the preface, that “the author himself is unlikely to be the best judge of what is and is not an indispensable part of his work.”
As a scholar, Toynbee achieved a level of fame and influence nearly incomprehensible today. His name was dominant in both academe and foreign affairs. In 1947, just after this abridgement of his major work became a best-seller, he was even featured on the cover of Time magazine. This, I might add, is a perverse index of how much our culture has changed since then. It is nearly impossible to imagine this book—a book with no narrative, written in a dry style about an abstract thesis—becoming a best-seller nowadays, and equally impossible to imagine any bookish intellectual on the cover of Time.
But enough about tiles and Toynbee; what about the book?
In A Study of History, Toynbee set out to do what Oswald Spengler attempted in his influential theory of history, The Decline of the West—that is, to explain the rise and fall of human communities. In method and content, the two books are remarkably similar; but this similarity is obscured by a powerful contrast in style. Where Spengler is oracular and prophetic, biting and polemical, literary and witty, Toynbee is mild, modest, careful, and deliberate. Spengler can hardly go a sentence without flying off into metaphor; Toynbee is literal-minded and sober. Toynbee’s main criticism of his German counterpart seems to have been that Spengler was too excitable and fanciful. The English historian seeks to tread the same ground, but with rigor and caution.
Nevertheless, the picture that Toynbee paints, if less colorful, is quite similar in outline to Spengler’s. The two of them seek to divide up humans into self-contained communities (‘cultures’ for Spengler, ‘societies’ for Toynbee); these communities are born, grow, break down, collapse, and pass away according to a certain pattern. Both thinkers see these groups as having a fertile early period and a sterile late period; and they both equate cultural vigor with artistic and intellectual innovation rather than political, economic, or military might.
Naturally, there are significant divergences, too. For one, Toynbee attempts to describe the origin and geographic distribution of societies, something that Spengler glosses over. Toynbee’s famous thesis is that civilizations arise in response to geographic challenge. Some terrains are too comfortable and invite indolence; other terrains are too difficult and exhaust the creative powers of their colonizers. Between these two extremes there is an ideal challenge, one that spurs communities to creative vigor and masterful dominance.
While I applaud Toynbee for the attempt, I must admit that I find this explanation absurd, both logically and empirically. The theory itself is vague because Toynbee does not analyze what he means by a ‘challenging’ environment. How can an environment be rated for ‘difficulty’ in the abstract, irrespective of any given community? A challenge is only challenging for somebody; and what may be difficult for some is easy for others. Further, thinking only about the ‘difficulty’ collapses many different sorts of things—average rainfall and temperature, available flora and fauna, presence of rival communities, and a host of other factors—into one hazy metric.
This metric is then applied retrospectively, in supremely unconvincing fashion. Toynbee explains the dominance of the English colony in North America, for example, as due to the ‘challenging’ climate of New England. He even speculates that the ‘easier’ climate south of the Mason-Dixon line is why the North won the American Civil War. Judgments like these rest on such vague principles that they can hardly be confirmed or refuted; you can never be sure how much Toynbee or ignoring or conflating. In any case, as an explanation it is clearly inadequate, since it ignores several obvious advantages possessed by the English colonists—that England was ascendant while Spain was on the wane, for example.
Now that we know more about the origins of agriculture, we have come to exact opposite conclusion as Toynbee. The communities that developed agriculture did not arise in the most ‘challenging’ environments, but in the areas which had the most advantages—namely, plants and animals that could be easily domesticated. But Toynbee cannot be faulted for the state of archaeology in his day.
The next step in Toynbee’s theory is also vague. The growing society must transfer its field of action from outside to inside itself; that is, the society must begin to challenge itself rather than be challenged by its environments. This internal challenge gives rise to a ‘creative minority’—a group of gifted individuals who innovate in art, science, and religion. These creative individuals always operate by a process of ‘withdraw-and-return’: they leave society for a time, just as Plato’s philosopher left the cave, and then return with their new ideas. The large majority of any given society is an uncreative, inert mass and merely imitates the innovations of the creative minority. The difference between a growing society and either a ‘primitive’ or a degenerating society is that the mass imitate contemporary innovators rather than hallowed ancestors.
Incredibly, Toynbee sees no relation between either technological progress or military prowess with a civilization’s vigor. Like Spengler, he measures a culture’s strength by its creative vitality—its art, music, literature, philosophy, and religion. This allows him to see the establishment of the Roman Empire, as Spengler did, not as a demonstration of vitality but as a last desperate attempt to hold on to Hellenic civilization. Toynbee actually places the ‘breakdown’ of Hellenic society (when they lost their cultural vitality) at the onset of the Peloponnesian War, in 431 BCE, and considers all the subsequent history of Hellene and Rome as degeneration.
But why does the creative minority cease to be genuinely creative and petrify into a merely ‘dominant’ minority? This is because, after one creative triumph, they grow too attached to their triumph and cannot adapt to new circumstances; in other words, they rest on their laurels. What’s more, even the genuine innovations of the creative minority may not have their proper effect, since they must operate through old, inadequate, and at times incompatible institutions. Their ideas thus become either perverted in practice or simply not practiced at all, impeding the proper ‘mimesis’ (imitation) by the masses. After the breakdown, the society takes refuge in a universal state (such as the Roman Empire), and then in a universal church (such as the Catholic church). (As with Spengler, Toynbee seems to have the decline and fall of the Roman Empire as his theory’s ur-type.)
To me—and I suspect to many readers—Toynbee’s theories seem to be straightforward consequences of his background. Born into a family of scholars and intellectuals, Toynbee is, like Spengler, naturally inclined to equate civilization with ‘high’ culture, which leads naturally to elitism. Having lived through and been involved in two horrific World Wars, Toynbee was deeply antipathetic to technology and warfare. Nearly everyone hates war, and rightly; but in Toynbee’s theory, war is inevitably a cause or an effect of societal decay—something which is true by definition in his moral worldview, but which doesn’t hold up if we define decay in more neutral terms. The combination of his family background and his hatred of violence turned Toynbee into a kind of atheistic Christian, who believed that love and non-violence conquered all. I cannot fault him ethically; but this is a moral principle and not an accurate depiction of history.
Although the association is not flattering, I cannot help comparing both Toynbee and Spengler to the maker of the Toynbee tiles. Like that lonely crank, wherever he is, these two scholars saw connections where nobody else had before, and propounded their original worldviews in captivating fashion. Unfortunately, it seems that coming up with a theory that could explain the rise and fall of every civilization in every epoch seems to be just about as possible as resurrecting the dead on planet Jupiter. But sometimes great things are accomplished when we try to do the impossible; and thanks to this unconquerable challenge, we have two monuments of human intelligence and ambition, works which will last far, far longer than linoleum on asphalt.