In recent years there has been an increasing anxiety about the fate and future of Western civilization, and there has been no lack of prophets of doom, lay and professional, either in Great Britain or America. The noted British historian Arnold J. Toynbee has been commonly classed with the Cassandras, especially since one of his chief themes has been the decline and disintegration of civilizations. In this provocative essay he again takes up this central question of our times—and emerges with an answer in which the reader may find a certain degree of guarded optimism. Viewing the current disturbed state of the world against the background of some twenty dead and dying cultures, Professor Toynbee finds some unpleasant parallels to our own—but no strict analogy. 



I fancy it is a rather new idea to think of looking at current affairs in the light of history, at all events remote history. This point of view has not, I think, been common in England at any rate. Take people of about my own age—fifty-nine. When I was a child growing up in London, I had the impression that history, so far as England was concerned, had really ended with the Battle of Waterloo. We had won the Battle of Waterloo, and getting out of history had been one of the rewards of our victory.

One thought of history as something rather unpleasant that happened to other people. As one grew up and became conscious of other countries, one became aware that the United States, for example, had been in history in the 1860’s and that France had been in history in 1870. One knew that the Balkans were still in history, but then the Balkans were so backward: they would be still in history. But the English were manifestly out of it. True, in the 1890’s and the first years of the present century, the French and the Southerners of the old South in the United States felt themselves still in history, because they were conscious of unpleasant things that had happened to them in the recent past. But, on the whole, these two recently defeated peoples were exceptions in the Western world. The attitude we in England then had towards history was the prevailing one. It was the attitude of most of continental Europe and North America.

Our expectation about our own future in the West was very accurately put by Gibbon, in a passage which he wrote, as far as I can make out, in 1781. It is at the end of his general observations on the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, about half way through The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Here Gibbon pauses to consider whether a catastrophe of this kind could overtake the modern Western world; and of course he concludes that this could not conceivably happen. Gibbon was writing at a time when England was at war with France and Spain and Holland, as well as with the Thirteen Colonies, and when the Northern powers, in their “armed neutrality,” were what nowadays would be called “non-belligerents,” unfriendly towards us. This might have seemed to be rather a critical time for England; yet at this juncture Gibbon could write:

In war, the European forces are exercised by temperate and undecisive contests. The balance of power will continue to fluctuate, and the prosperity of our own or the neighbouring kingdoms may be alternately exalted or depressed; but these partial events cannot essentially injure our general state of happiness, the system of arts and laws and manners, which so advantageously distinguish, above the rest of mankind, the Europeans and their colonists.

Already, in 1781, Gibbon is quite sure that Western Christendom is safely out of history.



If One looks back now to that complacent I view of Western prospects which we can trace back into the 18th century and which maintained itself right through the 19th century till within living memory, it is extraordinary to consider the change that has come over our outlook—the outlook of England and the Western world as a whole, and not least the outlook of the Americans. The Americans seem today to stand on a pinnacle of power and riches and prosperity; yet the American middle class is perhaps more apprehensive and more anxious at this moment than any other.

We know the outstanding events which during the last thirty-five years have caused this great revolution in our point of view. I need only indicate the high lights: two world wars in one lifetime; at the end of the second war the discovery of atomic warfare; Communism; and the revolutionary transfer of power of all kinds into new hands.

The shock caused by Communism is not, of course, something entirely unprecedented in the history of Christendom. You have to go back rather a long way, but if you do go back to the sudden emergence of Islam and the seizure of great provinces of the early Christian world by the primitive Moslem conquerors, and if you recall the general challenge of Islam, not only to Christendom’s possession of certain territories but to the whole Christian belief and way of life, you do get back to something comparable to the shock which Communism has given to the Western world since 1917.



There are, I think, closer likenesses. Islam might be described as a heretical version of Christianity, a version which seized upon certain elements of Christianity, took them out of their context, exaggerated them, and made something out of them which was a criticism of Christianity as it was practiced at the time.

Similarly in Communism certain social precepts of Christianity have been taken from their context, exaggerated and turned into a potent criticism of the Christian world in our time. In one sense, I suppose Communism is more formidable as a missionary religion than Islam. The Moslem missionary never had much success in still unconquered Christian countries. Islam gradually converted those Christians who were conquered by the Moslems, and, in the Ottoman Empire, down to the 17th century of our era, Christian converts were mostly found among Western Christian deserters or prisoners, and subject Eastern Christians who had been conscripted in childhood as public slaves and had been brought up by the Turks. What most horrifies people in the West in facing Communism today is that this is a missionary religion which, unlike Islam, has “cells” in our own world. If you could imagine, in medieval and early modem Europe, there being centers of Moslem propaganda in France, in England, in Christian Spain, and so on, that would be more comparable to the present fear that we have of the missionary penetration of Communism.



Perhaps most important of the factors that have changed our point of view is the last mentioned—the revolutionary transfer of power.

As between countries, the power has been transferred from Europe to the outer ring of the Western world. Down to 1914, out of eight great powers then existing in the world, the metropolitan territories of no less than four—France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy—were on the continent of Europe; the British Empire and the Russian Empire were partly in Europe and partly out of Europe; only two great powers—the United States and Japan—were wholly out of Europe. Today there are only two great powers of the highest caliber, and they are both out of Europe; for Russia is much more out of Europe today than she was before the War of 1914-18 and the Revolution of 1917. And all round the little countries in Europe there is a new great ring of giants rising; for the United States and Russia are merely the two giants who have already grown to full stature; there are other countries in the outer circle—countries like Canada, and perhaps Brazil and the Argentine, and perhaps India and China too in time—that are already all on a much bigger scale than the average country in Europe and are going, in time, quite to overshadow us.

Then there has been a transfer of power between classes—a transfer of power from the middle class to the industrial working class. I can remember Sidney Webb saying to me some time late in the 920’s that, looking back at his life from that point, he was astonished at the extent of the transfer of purchasing power in England that he had lived to see. He meant, of course, transfer through taxing well-to-do people in order to provide social services for the poorer people. And this has gone very much further in England and in other Western European countries, and even in the United States, since then. Before 1914, the West European middle class really ran the world. When one thinks of that, one sees that in terms of political power the situation has indeed changed.

So I am inclined to think that, if we are now interested in seeing current events in the light of history, it is because we are now wondering whether, as a result of what has been happening in the last thirty-five years, we may not, after all, now be back in history, in the sense that the unpleasant things that have happened to other civilizations in the past may be going to happen to our civilization in its turn. It is this, I think, that is the root cause of the present anxiety in the Western world—an anxiety which, as I have said, seems to be even more intense among middle-class people in the United States at this moment than among corresponding people on the European side of the Atlantic.

It is a curious phenomenon: one would expect Communism to seem less menacing on the other side of the Atlantic than in Europe. It is not so; it is rather the other way round. It may be that the American middle class still has more to lose than the West European middle class, and that they are not yet broken in to the idea of losing what they have. The present attitude of the American middle class towards current changes is not unlike the attitude of the corresponding people in England in the 1890’s or the early 1900’s—the attitude prevalent at Oxford at the time when I was an undergraduate. If one goes from England to America now, one has a sensation of traveling back about the length of one generation in time and recapturing what was the middle-class attitude in the England of 1910 or 912 towards the working- class movement.

But perhaps the deepest reason for the strength of present American apprehensiveness is that, even more than the English after the Battle of Waterloo, the Americans after the War of Independence were convinced that they were now “out of history.” They imagined that they had somehow contracted themselves out of the troubles and ills and misfortunes and weaknesses of the Old World. They had got out of history in order to lead a new life in their own American way. One can estimate a fortiori what a shock it is to the Americans today to find that, in spite of having plucked up their roots in Europe and crossed the Atlantic to start a new life overseas, they have now been caught up by an Old World which has put out its tentacles and dragged them back into history. I think it is their disappointed expectations that make Americans so upset at the present time.



When one talks about the unpleasant things that have happened to other civilizations, perhaps one should define more clearly what one has in mind in using those words. Primarily, I suppose, one refers to what is the subject of Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which perhaps might be better described as the decline and fall of the Greco-Roman civilization, because the decline began long before the Roman Empire was dreamed of.

In February 1947, when I was on a visit to the United States, I had the good fortune to hear Mr. Marshall make, at the University of Princeton, the first of his big public speeches after being appointed Secretary of State. One of the striking things he said to his audience that afternoon was that he wanted them to be intelligent citizens, and he advised them to educate themselves by studying the history of Greece in the generation before the Peloponnesian War. What he meant was that they should study the crucial moment in ancient Greek history that foreshadowed the disintegration to come. Obviously he dated the catastrophe that led to the decline and fall of Greco-Roman society as far back as the 5th century BC though the decline did not work itself out to a final collapse until the 5th century of our era in the West, and not till the 7th century in the heart of the Greco-Roman world.

What we fear is the possibility that what has happened to other civilizations may happen to ours. We fear that, as a sequel to the catastrophes that we have witnessed in our own time, there may be a long drawn-out decline, culminating in some such revolution as that which occurred at the breakup of the Roman Empire. The final collapse in that case could perhaps be analyzed into several different aspects. There was a catastrophic fall in the material standard of living—and comfort means a great deal to us nowadays. There was a fall in intellectual cultivation—a return to ignorance. There was a setback in social manners and customs. Above all, there was a great deterioration in law and order.

The drop in the material standard of living was probably the least serious of these experiences, though, for the people affected, it must have been very unpleasant. From about the 5th century of our era onwards, in the Western part of the Greco-Roman world, people lost their possessions. But they also got rid of their income-tax inspectors and collectors. In any case there were a great number of well-to-do people who, before the system collapsed, gave away their goods and became hermits without possessions.

I do not mean that they had not deep religious reasons for doing that; but I sometimes wonder whether the burden, on property- owners, of filling in forms and being assessed by the income-tax authorities may not have also had a bit to do with these withdrawals from the world.

A still more striking symptom is that there were people—cultivated people—who welcomed the barbarians because they found the simpler and cruder form of government more tolerable than the extremely complicated government of the later Roman Empire. The later Roman Empire does, then, present some facets that are familiar to us—for instance, the spectacle of people being “directed” forcibly into prescribed occupations. The system had some good sides—it was highly equalitarian by contrast with the aristocratic government of the early Roman Empire and of classical Greece. But the price of this was an oppressive governmental regimentation and control of people’s daily lives; and perhaps getting rid of that was not an unmixed misfortune. For myself, the really dreadful thing to face—if we contemplate that it might happen again—is the drop in the intellectual level, and the deterioration in social habits and in law and order, that were also features of the decline and fall of the Greco-Roman civilization.



Still, if the decline and fall of the Greco- Roman civilization were the only case we knew of, we might feel that we need not think much about it. It might then be no more than an exceptional disaster, like a railway accident or like a house being burned down by fire. Such disasters are great misfortunes for the people to whom they happen, but they are so rare that, when we read of them, we do not feel that there is any great likelihood of their happening to ourselves. But if we look further afield, we shall soon find other examples of the same historical phenomenon.

Behind the Greco-Roman civilization was one that a great English archaeologist has discovered in our own lifetime: the Minoan civilization of ancient Crete. We can say, with the knowledge we have now recovered by excavation, that, just as our modem Western civilization came out of a dark age following the breakdown of the Greco-Roman civilization, so, at the beginning of Greek history, the Greek civilization arose out of a dark age that followed the collapse of that Minoan civilization which Sir Arthur Evans has disinterred.

If one looks round—not just backwards in time, but round the globe, in other quarters of the world—there can be found in the Far East a series of civilizations with a history of their own which, till lately, has been independent of ours in the West; yet in this other stream of history there are similar phenomena. There was a great decline and fall of the ancient Chinese civilization which came to a head about 200 AD, when the Chinese equivalent of the Roman Empire broke up. There is no need to list all the other cases; but there are more of them to collect, if we choose. To be more exact, there are about twenty examples. And, when we have surveyed them, our own situation does begin to look rather more serious, because the breakdown of a civilization that happens to be the predecessor of ours does not then seem to be just a curiosity of history.

If one tries to total up all the civilizations that have existed up to date, including both those that have come and gone and are now dead and buried, and those which are still living, the conclusion is probable that all of them have either already declined and fallen or are at present in decline. The symptoms that can be identified as those of decline and fall in cases where the process has worked itself out to the end and the civilization has disappeared, are also to be found in most of our living contemporaries: in the present Far Eastern civilization and the civilization of India among others. Perhaps the only civilization about which it is not certain that it is in decline already is our own; but, if we look at it like that, it puts us in rather an uncanny position. Our living Western civilization is like someone standing in a room where there are a lot of dead people lying about and a lot of very sick people. We can detect the symptoms of the disease the dead people have died of, whatever that may be, and the sick people are exhibiting the same symptoms and are probably going to die. Do the same symptoms show in us? Is this swelling a mark of the bubonic plague? We are like a group of people trying to diagnose whether they are plague-stricken or not. That being our position, little wonder that people in the Western world, and particularly in the United States, are so anxious today.



What bearing may these precedents from past history have on our prospects? But at this point I would like to say that I myself am most emphatically not a determinist. There are people, like the famous German philosopher of history, Spengler, who take a very pessimistic view. They believe that a civilization, like an individual living organism, has a specific life-span which, even in cases of extreme longevity, can never exceed a certain maximum. They think that, after evolving through a regular series of phases, most civilizations die after, say, one thousand years. They may live as long as twelve hundred years, but about one thousand years is the average span. I believe this thesis is non-proven, and I am equally sure it would be a great misfortune if we were to allow ourselves to be terrorized by a belief that we are doomed. There are many reasons for not believing that.

One reason is that, so far, we have very few examples of the history of a civilization—twenty or thirty cases at the most; and any statistician will tell you that when you are dealing with such small quantities as twenty or thirty the margin of error in your inferences from the statistics is bound to be very high. If the world were a million or two years older and we had hundreds of thousands of civilizations to work on instead of a mere twenty or thirty within a very short period of five or six thousand years, we might then command the statistical evidence for working out our own civilization’s expectation of life in the insurance sense.



Let us consider for a moment the contrasted case of the insurance business, where experts can make statistical inferences with a very high degree of accuracy. They can make very close estimates of the percentage of the total number of houses, standing in a given city or country, that are going to be burnt down in the next twelve months, or of the percentage of the total number of people, of a certain age or in a certain state of health, who are going to live or die. But, of course, they have hundreds of thousands of cases to strike the average from,

Further, while the expert can predict approximately what percentage of the existing houses will be burnt down in the coming twelve months, he could never predict that this particular house will be burnt down in this particular year. This particular house may be burnt down tomorrow and may be built up again and then burnt down again a week later, or it may stand for three or four hundred years without ever catching fire. You just cannot tell about a particular house. There is no procedure, mathematical or magical, for forecasting that. No expert is able to tell about individual cases. What he can work out is an average: a certain percentage of the houses in existence will be burnt down in a certain time. But even that average only holds rebus sic stantibus: so long, that is, as the conditions for building houses and for living in them remain invariable.

If, for instance, one could imagine a house being built entirely of asbestos, with asbestos furniture and curtains and cloths and with no open fires inside, then the whole situation would be changed; the average would change with it; and the insurance expert would have to work out quite a new set of tables in order to be able to continue to quote premiums.

My point is that all these averages, wonderfully though they are worked out, depend on the provisional stability of certain circumstances which may suddenly change if some new factor comes into the picture.

Let us apply this to the question of the “goodness” or “badness” of the “life” (in the insurance sense of the words) of civilizations in general and of our own civilization in particular. It is evident, I think, that, if twenty or thirty civilizations have come and gone in five or six thousand years, our own risk is fairly high. But it is also clear, from the life or fire insurance analogy, that we are not doomed. We are not fated to perish. And it is also possible that, under the stress of a danger to which we are now so keenly alive, we might take the opposite line. We might be stimulated to invent something quite new in the field of international politics or of social affairs in general—to rise to some quite new standard of good behavior that would transform the situation to such an extent that these precedents would cease to be relevant to our case.



If you look at the deaths of civilizations—speaking very roughly and crudely—you can see that they have mostly died of one or other or both of two things: war between local states and another kind of warfare—war between classes.

It is notable that before dying they seem almost always to have solved these two problems in some sort of way by managing to establish a universal peace. The Roman Empire or the Chinese Empire may serve as an example. However, in these and also in most of the other known cases, the establishment of a universal peace has only postponed the fall and has not averted it permanently. It has only postponed it and not averted it because the universal peace has been achieved too late, after the devastation has gone too far. I am not thinking so much about the material devastation of war and class war as about what I might call the psychological devastation—the upsetting of people, which is much more difficult to put right than it is to rebuild buildings knocked down by bombs or shells.

Another adverse point is that, in most cases in which a universal peace has been established, it has been imposed by force as a result of a knockout blow which one great power has delivered to all other powers in its world. For example, in 220 BC there were five great powers in the Greco-Roman world. In 168 BC only one was left—Rome. In 230 BC there were, I think, seven in the ancient Chinese world, and, less than ten years later, in 221 BC, only one. That one had taken less than ten years to knock out the other six. These historical precedents are unpleasantly pertinent, because, within our lifetime, as the result of two world wars, the number of great powers in our world has been reduced from eight to two. I am using the term “great power” to mean a completely independent power. I suppose you might say that the United States and Russia are completely independent of each other, while, in differing degrees, all the other states in the world today are in some measure dependent—most of them on the United States and a few of them on Russia, but none completely independent of one or other of these two powers. In that situation the line of least resistance would be for our world to be unified politically by force, in the old-fashioned way, through a third war in which one of the two surviving powers would knock out the other and impose peace on the world.

Looking back a bit into our Western history in the light of the wars and social upheavals which we have had in our lifetime, we can see further disturbing parallels. We can see now that the relative peace and prosperity of the Western world in the 8th and 19th centuries, which we took for granted in our childhood, and which our predecessors likewise took for granted, was not a stable or normal condition but only a lull between two bouts of trouble. Gibbon, looking back to the Wars of Religion, felt that, in his day, the Western world had got out of the “enthusiasm,” as he called the spirit that had caused the religious wars. Yet since Gibbon’s time, we have drifted into ideological and nationalistic wars fanned by enthusiasms of their own.

But is it absolutely necessary that the world be united politically in the near future? Cannot it go on living politically as our Western world has been living for the last three or four hundred years, as a collection of more or less independent states, going to war with each other from time to time in a barbarous and unpleasant way, but not in a way that has meant destruction for our society as a whole? My own guess would be that in this respect the situation has now entirely changed. There are factors like our immensely greater economic and cultural interdependence, our greater power of exhausting ourselves in war by the more effective mobilization of our resources, and our invention of much more deadly weapons than our predecessors had. For these reasons political unification of some kind would seem inevitable for our world in the rather near future—though here, of course, I am verging dangerously on prophecy.

But if one goes on from that point to ask oneself the obvious next question—the question whether, if political unification is inevitable, it is bound to come about by the traditional method of the knockout blow- by wars going on increasing in intensity and frequency until only one great power alone is left—I would answer emphatically: No! For, even if unification is inevitable, we might achieve it in a new way—the way, not of force, but of consent taking institutional shape in some kind of voluntary cooperative form of union. If we should accomplish that, it would be a new achievement by means of which we might win all the benefits of the unity that was imposed by the Roman and by the Chinese Empires, without the prohibitive price that the Greeks and Romans and the Chinese were forced to pay for arriving at their universal peace at a stage when it was already, in a sense, too late. This is the question that now faces us,



There are really two questions. Can we find a middle way in international affairs between the old anarchy of independent states jostling against each other—an anarchy which, I believe, cannot go on much longer in its old form—and the extreme opposite regime of a world peace imposed by some single power on all the rest? And can we find some middle course not only in the arena of international politics, but also in the social field, between the old inequality of classes, leading to subterranean class warfare, and a social revolution leading to the forcible abolition of class, which is the program for which Communism stands? Can we find a middle way between these two social extremes? I believe that, in both these fields of endeavor, which are such very important fields in the world at this stage, my own country—England—may have a great part to play.

We English are conscious that we have lost our wealth and, with it, other forms of material power to a large extent, but we have not lost our gift for steering the middle course, for finding ways out of difficult situations that are not drastic, extreme ways. Such a middle course can play a fine part in saving the world from a possibility of disaster that obviously might overtake us, yet also, as I see it, is not bound to be our destiny—if only we have the spirit to defy the bogey of Fate and to recognize that, with God’s help, we can still be the makers of our own future.



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