5. Arnold Toynbee’s “A Study of History”

Arnold J. Toynbee (1889-1975) was born in London and inherited the fascination for history from his mother, Sarah Edith Marshall (1859-1939), who authored published histories of England and Scotland.[1] As a schoolboy, Toynbee excelled in history and languages, but struggled with maths and natural sciences.[2] An academic education in history was an obvious next step. After having graduated from the elitist Winchester College, Toynbee enrolled in Balliol College at Oxford University in 1906. Toynbee, who was very skilled in Greek and Latin, mainly specialized himself in ancient history. At Oxford, Toynbee was a student of Gilbert Murray, Regius Professor of Greek, who had been among the intellectual team that had assisted Wells with The Outline of History. Murray and Toynbee developed a close relationship, and in 1913 the professor’s daughter became Toynbee’s first wife. At his last year as a student at Balliol, Toynbee won the prestigious Jenkins prize, which allowed him to travel through Italy and Greece in 1911 and 1912, to visit ancient ruins and famous sites from classical history. Toynbee had made such an impression as a student that upon returning to Britain he became a don at Balliol College. He became engaged in teaching ancient history. A conventional academic career seemed in the making.

But Arnold Toynbee aspired nothing of the sort. At Winchester College the scope of history education was largely confined to Athens and Rome, and also at Oxford there was nothing that encouraged macrohistorical thinking.[3] Yet Toynbee thought big. From a very young age he demonstrated a tenor towards a historical perception that far transcended the conventional geographical focus of British historiography. He sought to integrate far off places in Eastern Asia into the same framework as the orthodox areas of historical interests, such as the Roman Empire. The root of this mindset cannot be determined with absolute certainty. A possible original source is a historical atlas that the young Toynbee got as a gift from his uncle, the chemist Percy Frankland (1858-1946), when he was recovering from pneumonia at age thirteen or fourteen. Toynbee would later state that he “learnt volumes from it”.[4]

Toynbee’s broad outlook on history made him realize that his contemporary Western-led world was only a transitory phase. While a student at Balliol, he noticed that “at present the world lies between the English public school man and the German,” to which he added: “that is, till China comes and eats us up”.[5] At this time he was already pondering a grand historical work to express his broad perspective of world history. Toynbee found inspiration in the 5-volume Geschichte des Alterums (1884-1902), written by the German Oxford historian Eduard Meyer (1855-1930), which integrated Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Greek, and Roman history into one synthesis of ancient history. Toynbee wanted to do with ancient and modern times what Meyer had done with just the ancient era, but the young English historian was struggling with the question how to organize such a comprehensive work.

The rhythm of academic life increasingly started to displease Toynbee. He did not like teaching, particularly because it took time away from writing the grand historical synthesis that he considered his magnum opus to be. He stayed out of the Great War as the result of a dubious claim of a dysentery infection, allegedly contracted two years prior after drinking from a contaminated stream in Greece. He left Balliol College in 1915 to work for a British government propaganda outfit that was primarily engaged in affecting public opinion in the United States. In May 1917 he took another government job as he transferred to the Political Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office where he was mainly engaged in getting intelligence on affairs concerning the Ottoman Empire and the rest of the Islamic world. During the war, he became a fierce advocate for internationalism and the end of nationalism. McNeill suggests that this position stemmed from the guilt that Toynbee felt for not enlisting while on the continent his peers were slaughtered in the trenches. Staying out of the war had to be justified by attacking the war’s motives.[6] Toynbee aspired a peace-building role in international politics after the war had ended. In 1919, he attended the Paris Peace Conference as a delegate of the Foreign Office, but this experience ended in a disappointment.

From 1916, Toynbee received a monthly endowment from the Countess of Carlisle, his wife’s grandmother, in order to be able to start working on his grand synthesis. However, this did not allow him with sufficient income to maintain his desired social status, and in 1919 he took another academic job to become the Koraes Professor at King’s College of the University of London. This chair was concerned with the study of Greek history, and was funded by the Greek community of London. Toynbee surely was very knowledgeable on Greek history, but he had world history on his mind. Toynbee identified Greece as the eastern outpost of European civilization, which thereby was positioned on the crossroads between East and West. Throughout its history, Greece had been continuously influenced by developments from both Eastern and Western civilization. Studying Greek history, Toynbee argued, was studying all of these developments. He enlarged the geographical scope of his chair far beyond the small Kingdom of Greece, almost equating Greek history with the history of the world. Evidently, the funders of the Koraes Chair were not happy with this approach. They complained that Toynbee was abusing his position to explore topics unrelated to Greece. Also Toynbee’s outspoken support for the Turks in the Greek-Turkish War of 1919-22 was very unpopular among the funders of his chair. He was forced to resign from his position in 1924.

But before that time came, Toynbee experienced a breakthrough in his thinking about his aspired world historical synthesis.[7] In 1920, Toynbee delivered a lecture at Oxford that was thereafter published as “The Tragedy of Greece”.[8] In this delivery, he argued that Greek civilization had to come to its end as the result of “the failure of interstate federation” which had happened during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE).[9] The lecture summarized the plan for a history of Greece that Toynbee had been working on for a couple of years, but now the Great War had intervened. All of a sudden his estimation of the end of Greek civilization appeared to have a perfect parallel in the political situation of contemporary Europe. Toynbee had been contemplating a cyclical perception of history for some years. As an undergraduate student he had distinguished parallels between the Persian invasion of Greece in the fifth century BCE and the Ottoman attack on Europe in the fifteenth century CE.[10] And when travelling Italy and Greece in 1911 and 1912, the local landscape revealed repetitive patterns to him. Ancient, medieval, and modern sites – often constructed with a similar function – all lay within the same sight. In Toynbee’s perception, ancient and modern history were integrated into the same grand pattern. But until the early 1920s, the structure of this cyclical pattern had not yet appeared to him.

Now Toynbee recognized that the cyclical pattern of history consisted of recurring tragedy. The human mind was set to lead affairs always back towards a state of war and destruction. In that destructive state all civilizations eventually ceased to be. The concept of civilization was central in this tragic perception of the pattern of the past. In his student days, Toynbee perceived history as a recurring encounter between the two grand cultural blocks of the East and the West; a common historical perception in which Toynbee was mainly influenced by Herodotus. During the time of his Koraes appointment, he abandoned this understanding of the past, and replaced it for a notion of world history that was composed of multiple civilizations. Each of these was defined by its particular culture (geographical, political, and economic factors were irrelevant in defining a civilization). Toynbee regarded civilizations as complete wholes that were closed to external cultural influences and could not be disintegrated in accurate historical analysis. Toynbee argued that no single nation-state, the conventional subject of historical study, had a history that was self-explanatory. National history could only be understood by studying historical developments at the level of the civilization to which the nation belonged. All civilizations were going in their entirety and on their own behalf through the universally similar trajectory of rise and inevitable decline.

Toynbee’s conception of the closed nature of civilizations was mainly derived from Oswald Spengler’s Untergang des Abendlandes. The German author believed that civilizations were essentially different from each other, which prevented cross-civilizational influences and cultural borrowing.[11] This conception contrasted to that of another author, F.J. Teggart (1870-1946), whose work also was inspirational to Toynbee. Teggart, born in Ireland and lecturing at the University of California in Berkeley, argued that a comparative study of civilizations could not be confined to the Near East, but also needed to take India and China into account. The plea for a broad geographical scope appealed to Toynbee. But, very much opposite to Spengler, Teggart argued that human progress occurred as the result of contacts between different societies. Toynbee thus was familiar with world historical works that opposed each other on the nature of relations between civilizations. That Toynbee chose to follow Spengler over Teggart probably stemmed from his experiences in the Greek-Turkish War of the early 1920s, which he followed as a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian.[12] The brutalities that the two parties inflicted upon each other, in a struggle that Toynbee understood as a clash between different civilizations, confirmed the Spenglerian perspective of the impossibility of beneficial intercultural interaction.

In 1925, Toynbee became the Director of Studies at the British Institute of International Affairs (becoming the Royal Institute of International Affairs one year later). The mission statement of his function was to encourage a spirit of international cooperation and peace. His main task consisted of writing an annual survey on international affairs, which he took on with great vigour. The work on the surveys allowed him to do research that could be used for his great historical synthesis. The annual surveys also helped him to appreciate the diversity of ‘the East’, which before he had always perceived as one uniform civilization. Toynbee began writing the manuscript for what would become A Study of History in 1930. The first three volumes of the monumental work were published in 1934. Volumes four, five and six followed in 1939. At this time, Toynbee was hoping that by guiding public opinion he could contribute to the prevention of another war. But then tragedy struck. On March 15th 1939, his son Tony took his own life. The very same day Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. His family was devastated and it was clear that a new world war would not be avoided.

Toynbee’s A Study of History applies a worldwide scope, but its organizational structure is based on European historical experience. Toynbee believed that civilizations could succeed each other in a process that he referred to as ‘apparentation-and-affiliation’.[13] Historical continuity had the form of new generations of civilizations emerging from previous ones, like a child descends from its parents. Toynbee derived this model of succeeding civilizations from the presumed historical succession of modern Western society from Hellenic civilization.[14] Toynbee defined Hellenic civilization as embracing both Greek and Roman history. For the best part of its history, Hellenic civilization had been divided into multiple political units. Then troubled times came around the years of the Hannibalic War. Hellenic society was no longer creative and was facing decline. But this process could be arrested for some time by unifying the entire civilization into the Roman Empire.[15] Toynbee defined this as the ‘universal state’: the political entity that encompassed the whole of the (previously politically divided) civilization. But the decline of the Hellenic civilization could not be averted. The civilization came to its end with the fall of the Roman Empire. The fall of the Hellenic civilization was followed by the ‘interregnum’; the period between the disappearance of the Hellenic civilization and the emergence of Western society. The interregnum was dictated by two powers, which Toynbee labelled the ‘external and the ‘internal proletariat’ because both of these powers rebelled against the ruling class of Hellenic society. The external proletariat were the barbarians that invaded the Roman Empire from outside and dealt the dying Hellenic civilization its final blow. The internal proletariat was the Christian Church, which developed as an underground institution in the days of the universal state (the Roman Empire) but became dominant in the interregnum. The Christian Church formed the bridge between the Hellenic and the Western civilization. The Church would develop into a ‘universal church’: accomplishing the spiritual unification of the new civilization. In the transition from Hellenic to Western society, the centre of the civilization shifted. What had been the frontier of the Hellenic civilization became the centre of the new Western civilization.

This pattern was used as the mould for the whole of world history. There is established a universal state in the last age of a civilization that subsequently is destroyed by outside invasions, but gives birth to a predecessor civilization through the ‘internal proletariat’ that becomes its universal church and unites the civilization on a spiritual level. All civilizations that Toynbee identified were explained in these same terms. Evidently, not all civilizations equally fitted into this pattern, which required some peculiar reasoning. The sudden emergence of the Ummayad Caliphate in the seventh century left Toynbee with a universal state without a clear pre-existing civilization that it had united. He solved this problem by introducing the concept of a “Syriac” civilization, which he argued had gone underground for a thousand of years – around the time of Alexander’s conquest – yet still had an unconscious presence in the minds of the Arab conquerors of the seventh century.

Other anomalies were dealt with by introducing the concepts of ‘abortive’ and ‘asserted civilizations’. Abortive civilizations had ceased to be while still in a premature phase, as the result of untypical severe challenges, and therefore had never reached the phase of a universal state. Arrested civilizations were faced with a very specific challenge – social or environmental – that demanded their complete focus and all of their energy. By directing all their efforts towards one problem, these societies were able to overcome the particular severity that they were faced with, but had not developed the versatility that characterized the fully-grown human civilization. Therefore, Toynbee claimed, these arrested civilizations had taken the retrogressive path from humanity to ‘animality’. Toynbee’s creativity in dealing with anomalies weakened the persuasiveness of his model, but it allowed him to incorporate societies from a wide geographical scope. His worked included, amongst other, the civilizations of Egypt, China, India, the Andes, and Mexico, but also the aborted or asserted civilizations from Europe’s Celtic fringe, the Eskimos, and the Polynesians. Such a large geographical and cultural diversity within one synthesis was without precedent.

Toynbee had developed a model of genealogical successions of civilizations, in which multiple civilizations could spring from the same predecessor and wherein two previously separated societies could merge to form one new civilization (the Iranic and Arabic civilization had merged to form the Islamic). At this point, Toynbee had parted with the historical philosophy of Spengler, who believed that all civilizations emerged from – and eventually returned to – an a-historical primitive natural condition. Toynbee regarded his work to be an improvement upon that of Spengler, as he had liberated the study to the development of civilizations from the mystical dogmatism of the German author. Toynbee’s main contribution, so he believed, was his empirical explanation for the rise and fall of civilizations, which Spengler had omitted. But in its core, Toynbee’s argument remained close to Spengler’s. The model of civilizational succession, or the complete merger of two civilizations, should not be confused by inter-civilizational exchanges. Civilizations had fixed cultural boundaries, and the moment they started to be breached by barbaric invasions was the moment the civilization was coming to its end.

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[1] Arnold J. Toynbee, Experiences (London, New York and Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1969) 90.

[2] The biographical information about Arnold J. Toynbee is largely based on: William H. McNeill, Arnold J. Toynbee: A Life (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).

[3] McNeill, Arnold J. Toynbee, 16, 30.

[4] Toynbee, Experiences, 295.

[5] Cited in: McNeill, Arnold J. Toynbee, 32.

[6] McNeill, Arnold J. Toynbee, 78.

[7] Ibid., 95-100.

[8] Arnold J. Toynbee, The Tragedy of Greece. A lecture delivered for the Professor of Greek to Candidates for Honours in Literae Humaniores at Oxford in May 1920 (Oxford, 1921).

[9] Ibid., 96.

[10] McNeill, Arnold J. Toynbee, 32.

[11] Ibid., 101.

[12] McNeill, Arnold J. Toynbee, 101-103.

[13] I have consulted the abridged version the first six volumes of A Study of History from 1946. Arnold J. Toynbee, A Study of History. Abridgement of volumes I-VI by D.C. Somervell (London, New York, and Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1946).

[14] Toynbee, A Study of History, 12.

[15] Toynbee used the terms ‘civilization’ and ‘society’ interchangeably.