Civilization on Trial.
by Arnold J. Toynbee.
Oxford University Press. 263 pp. $3.50.
“By ‘the age in which we are living’ I mean the last five or six thousand years within which mankind, after having been human for at least six hundred thousand years before that, attained the modest level of social and moral achievement that we call ‘civilization.’” This sentence supplies the key to Dr. Toynbee’s historical thinking. That age, which on the cosmic time scale is “of such infinitesimal brevity” that it could hardly be shown “on any chart of the whole history of this planet,” has seen nineteen distinct civilizations, of which five survive. “I mean by a civilization the smallest unit of historical study at which one arrives when one tries to understand the history of one’s own country.” Thus his work is a protest against what he calls “our own unconscionable parochial-mindedness,” “the parish-pump politics of our Western society as recorded in the national and municipal archives of ephemeral ‘Great Powers’”; and he himself tries to envisage the history of the last five or six thousand years as one whole, within which “the histories of all societies of the species called civilizations” are “in some sense parallel and contemporary.” Indeed, “the philosophical contemporaneity of all civilizations” is a basic tenet of his historical outlook.
Dr. Toynbee studied, and next taught, Literae Humaniores at Oxford, a discipline based almost entirely on the Greek and Latin classics. “As a training-ground,” he writes, “the history of the Graeco-Roman world has its conspicuous merits.” It is visible in perspective and can be seen as a whole; its surviving materials are manageable in quantity and “well-balanced in their character,”—“statues, poems, and works of philosophy count here for more than the texts of laws and treaties”; and “its outlook is oecumenical rather than parochial”—Athens educated all Hellas, while Rome made the whole Greco-Roman world into a single commonwealth. Here then was his starting point: a thorough knowledge of a civilization, distant and “ancient” according to our usual norms, and dead, which none the less lives in us, and in that sense, too, is “contemporaneous.” But Dr. Toynbee did not stop at that, or at the Byzantine world. To certain reminiscences which he quotes in his book from the time, forty years ago, when we both were undergraduates at Balliol College, I shall add two: I think of a night when we sat on the floor in his room, poring over a large map, he tracing the journeys of Marco Polo, and I the Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela; and we were comparing the two—his reading already extended to Central Asia and Old Cathay. And next I remember how he staggered me when, towards the end of our time in college, he told me that he had worked an average of ten hours a day: no mean feat while all that Oxford offers and claims invades the undergraduate’s time table. It is the range of his interests combined with a supreme capacity for sustained work which have enabled him effectively to extend his vision and knowledge beyond what even the most widely read historians have attempted.
The First World War made Dr. Toynbee study the problems of Europe as a unit, and in the Political Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office, in which we two again worked together, his thorough acquaintance with Greece, a byproduct of his classical studies, caused his being put in charge of Near Eastern affairs, which then meant fighting the “unspeakable Turk.” But soon after the war, Dr. Toynbee changed from a pro-Greek into a pro-Turk and, fascinated by Islam, became an eager student of its history and culture: a third “civilization” swam into his ken, and carried him far into those regions of Central Asia which already at an earlier stage had excited his imagination. He tried to jump clear of his “native Western standing-ground,” that remote corner “at the extreme western tip of one of the many peninsulas of the Continent of Asia,” and survey the world from its center, the old meetingplace “of the religions and philosophies of India, China, Iran, Syria, and Greece.” “Our first task is to perceive . . . all the known civilizations, surviving or extinct, as a unity,” as so many “essays in a single great common human enterprise,” which is “to transcend the level of primitive human life.”
Dr. Toynbee was born and bred in Victorian England, at “the noon of a halycon day” which was “fatuously expected to endure to eternity.” But to him the mood of Kipling’s Recessional appealed more than that of Kipling’s self-confident imperialism: Dr. Toynbee did not expect (perhaps hardly wished) the British Empire to endure, nor the supremacy of Europe, nor the ascendancy of the West—possibly not even man’s rule on the globe. There is a marked strand of pessimism in him, even of defeatism; and he was to witness historical developments which seem to justify every one of his doubts: if now he tries to re-assure himself and others, at least concerning the future of the human race as such, his attempts seem rather strained, are emotionally less accentuated than his forebodings of doom, and on the whole fail to carry conviction. His “morphology of the species of society called civilizations” concerns itself with the “recurring pattern in the process of their breakdowns, declines, and falls” much rather than with their rise—for which there is, however, also a valid objective reason: “breakdown means loss of control” and a consequent lapse into automatism, and “automatic processes are apt to be uniform and regular”—therefore more amenable to systematization. And here is his diagnosis: the cause of death of civilizations has invariably been “either war or class or some combination of the two”; and “the regular pattern of social disintegration is a schism of the disintegrating society into a recalcitrant proletariat and a less and less efficient dominant minority.” The outstanding achievement of Western civilization is to have unified mankind which previously inhabited many mansions but now is gathered under one roof: “it looks almost as though a radical Westernization of the entire world was now inevitable.” In that unification technology is “the most obvious ingredient”—but “man cannot live by technology alone.”
“Our Western ‘know-how’ has unified the whole world . . . and it has inflamed the institutions of War and Class, which are the two congenital diseases of civilization, into utterly fatal maladies.” In the past their ravages “have not yet ever been all-embracing.” The lower strata of society usually survived, and when one society collapsed, it did not necessarily drag down others with it. But now class has “become capable of irrevocably disintegrating society, and war of annihilating the entire human race.” Their victory over man “would be conclusive and definite.” Man who “is relatively good at dealing with non-human nature,” is bad at dealing “with human nature in himself and in his fellow human beings”: “a dazzling success in the field of intellect . . . and a dismal failure in the things of the spirit.” Yet the question whether our civilization is doomed, Dr. Toynbee answers emphatically in the negative. “What shall we do to be saved? In politics, establish a constitutional cooperative system of world government. In economics, find working compromises . . . between free enterprise and socialism. In the life of the spirit, put the secular super-structure back onto religious foundations.”
“War or class or some combination of the two.” War is an armed conflict between nations or states, or between parties within them, while class is an order of stratification of society: two disparate concepts co-ordinated as causes. But class is only one among the elements generating strife, rather over-emphasized as such in our time; and Dr. Toynbee’s formula, reduced to a single denominator, predicates no more than that conflicts between human aggregates have invariably been the cause of the downfall of civilizations; and naturally the more powerful the material and technical means evolved, the more devastating become such conflicts.
Ultimately the problem is psychological: why does that social animal, man, who progresses by working in groups, periodically wipe out his achievements in inter-group conflicts? Psychologists explain that communal life is based on a suppression of hostile impulses within the group, and that these seek release outside it. But if such conflicts are mere occasions for the unloading of destructive human passions—and history seems to bear out this view—rational advice such as above is beside the point. As Dr. Toynbee says, man is bad at dealing with his own nature, and “there is no warrant for supposing that, within ‘historical times,’ there has been any progress in the evolution of human nature itself, either physical or spiritual.” And to fill what might be described as “a hollow place” within Dr. Toynbee’s own system, he seems to turn, more and more, toward religion.
In the diffusion of civilizations, “spiritual waves of radiation . . . weaken as they travel outwards,” but gain new life when they collide and coalesce with other such waves. “The coalescence of a Greek wave with an Indian wave has generated the Buddhist civilization of the Far East. . . . The same Greek wave has also coalesced with a Syrian wave, and it is this union that has generated the Christian civilization of our Western world” (“Syrian” is significant). In another passage he speaks of religion as the weak spot in the Greek’s armor “at which the Oriental counter-stroke went home and made history.” Here religion appears as a historically determined phenomenon.
But Dr. Toynbee’s attitude towards religion has changed, or is changing, as can be seen in one of the latest essays in this volume: on “Christianity and Civilization,” and the various views about their relation. “One of the oldest and most persistent views is that Christianity was the destroyer of the civilization within whose framework it grew up”—this he rejects, as the decay of the Greco-Roman civilization had set in at a much earlier stage: “The rise of the philosophies, and a fortiori that of religions, was not a cause; it was a consequence.” According to a second view, “Christianity is, as it were, the egg, grub, and chrysalis between butterfly and butterfly. Christianity is a transitional thing which bridges the gap between one civilization and another, and I confess that I myself held this rather patronizing view for many years.” A similar part can be ascribed to Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism within their own spheres.
A third possible view is “the exact reverse of the second”: that so far from religion being a “subsidiary to the reproduction of secular civilizations . . .the successive rises and falls of civilizations may be subsidiary to the growth of religion.” Then, “if our secular Western civilization perishes, Christianity may be expected not only to endure but to grow in wisdom and stature as the result of a fresh experience of secular catastrophe.” And in another essay Dr. Toynbee enjoins on us “to relegate economic and political history to a subordinate place and give religious history the primacy.” But then he must decide from the very outset whether religion should be treated as revealed truth or as a historically conditioned phenomenon; and if he writes as a believing Christian, he will have to revise a good deal in his own system (he will hardly be able to write again, as on page 24: “. . . about AD 1500, to reckon in terms of our Western parochial era. . . .”).
If truth is the core of religion, origins matter more than subsequent developments; the questions of “evolution” and “growth” hardly arise for it; and Sinai and Calvary assume a transcendent character. Then the history of the Jewish people, so closely bound up with these two events, acquires peculiar significance; so does perhaps what that fervent Catholic, Leon Bloy, calls “the Jewish Mystery,” and refuses to call “the Jewish Question”; and so does the Return. Hitherto Dr. Toynbee, when surveying world history through a telescope, has never yet perceived the Jewish people: it simply does not enter into his purview.
So far his attitude towards Zionism has been negative, not to say hostile, and his influence, especially through Chatham House, has contributed to the anti-Zionist turn in British policy; though, to my knowledge, no anti-Jewish feeling ever entered into his attitude. What did count for a great deal was his pro-Islamism, which is marked even in this collection of essays, and which sometimes results in surprising statements. Thus, according to him, as late as the 16th century “Islam inspired hysteria in Western hearts” because “it wielded a sword of the spirit against which there was no defence in material armaments,” and Westerners were in danger of “turning Turk.” Is he not projecting onto others a phase in his own development? For who were these potential converts to Islam? He can hardly generalize from the exceptional case of the Bosnian Bogumils, who were not even sincere converts. On page 76, he makes a Moslem claim that Islam has retrieved “the revelation of the One True God” from “polytheism and idolatry.” But when on page 87 he writes that “Islam’s creative gift to mankind is monotheism, and we surely dare not throw this gift away,” it is by no means clear that he is merely reproducing a Moslem claim. And on page 88 he declares that Islam has “a mighty spiritual mission still to carry out.” But in the essay on “Islam, the West, and the Future,” he admits that “nationalism, and not Pan-Islamism is the formation into which the Islamic peoples are falling; and for the majority of Muslims an inevitable, though undesired, outcome of nationalism will be submergence in the cosmopolitan proletariat of the Western world.”
None the less, he still discerns a mission for Islam. “Two conspicuous sources of danger . . . in the present relations of this cosmopolitan proletariat with the dominant element in our modern Western society are race consciousness and alcohol; and in the struggle with each of these evils the Islamic spirit has a service to render which might prove, if it were accepted, to be of high moral and social value.” The pro-Moslems in Britain are legion; but few there are who will join Dr. Toynbee in setting up their Moslem hero as a sort of “dry” John Brown.
Whatever the weaknesses of Dr. Toynbee’s work, due to excessive generalizations which the very nature of his attempt imposes on him, or to his idiosyncrasies, his ability to survey continents and ages in one great sweep is impressive, and so is the freshness and creative quality of his imagination. Among the thirteen essays which compose this volume, the one that best illustrates his style of thought is perhaps “The Unification of the World and the Change in Historical Perspective”: on the way in which the Western voyages of discovery transformed “man’s human environment” and the historical outlook, at least of the non-Western peoples.
About AD 1500 there was a “belt of civilizations girdling the Old World from the Japanese Isles on the Northeast to the British Isles on the Northwest: Japan, China, Indo-China, Indonesia, India, Dar-al-Islam, the Orthodox Christendom of Rum, and another Christendom in the West.” They were in touch with each other, but not so close as to feel members of the same society. The main line of communication was provided by a chain of steppes and deserts that cut across that belt from the Sahara to Mongolia. “The Steppe was an inland sea . . . of higher conductivity for human intercourse than the saltwater sea ever had been before the close of the r5th century of the Christian era. This waterless sea had its dry-shod ships and its quayless ports. The steppe-galleons were camels, the steppe-galleys horses, and the steppe-ports ‘caravan cities’— . . . Petra and Palmyra, Damascus and Ur, Tamerlane’s Samark-and, and the Chinese emporia at the gates of the Great Wall.”
In seeking a vantage-ground for his survey, Dr. Toynbee asked himself “who was the most centrally placed and most intelligent observer . . . among notable non-Westerners” then alive, and found his man in the Emperor Babur, the author of a brilliant autobiography written in Turkish. Babur was a descendant of Tamerlane, the Transoxanian conqueror who made the last attempt to unify the world by land operations; and Babur himself in 1519 invaded India.
At that time Babur’s capital, Farghana, was “the central point, and the Turks were . . . the central family of nations”; and there was some justification for “a Turco-centric history” seeing that from the 4th century of the Christian era, when the Turks “pushed the last of their Indo-European-speaking predecessors off the steppe,” down to the 17th century, which witnessed the collapse of Turkish power in Europe, Iran, and India, “the Turkish-speaking peoples really were the keystone of the Asiatic arch from which the pre-da Gaman belt of civilizations was suspended”; and their conquests extended from Manchuria to Algeria, and from the Ukraine to Deccan.
Yet, Dr. Toynbee points out, the Emperor Babur in his memoirs never once mentions Western Christendom, though he must have been aware of the existence of the “Franks”; nor even Vasco da Gama’s landing in India, twenty-one years before his own invasion of that sub-continent. It may have escaped his attention, or else he may have felt that “the wanderings of these water-gipsies were unworthy of a historian’s notice.” He did not realize that “these ocean-faring Franks had turned the flank of Islam and taken her in the rear.” And with “the substitution of the Ocean for the Steppe as the principal medium of world-communication . . . the centre of the world made a sudden jump . . from the steppe ports of Central Asia to the ocean ports of the Atlantic.” After hovering round Seville and Lisbon, it settled for a time in London: to remove in our own lifetime to New York.
Thus about 1500, the social structure of the half dozen civilizations was remarkably uniform: primitive peasantries ruled by a minority enjoying a monopoly of power, leisure, and skill. And there was a similar uniformity in their historical outlook: each had its own version of the “Chosen People” myth. China was “All that is under Heaven”; Japan, “the land of the Gods”; to the Brahmans all outside the Aryan Holy Land were untouchables; Moscow was “the Third Rome”; and the “Franks” were “solemnly asserting AD 1500” that they, and not Orthodox Eastern Christendom, were the true heirs of Israel, Greece, and Rome.
And while the others, shaken by the impact of Western civilization, have since given up their pretensions, “the Franks are still singing the same old song: singing it solo now. . . .” Their technology has unified the world; but they themselves still require an “educative toss.” And it is by no means certain where the world centre of gravity will be in an age when neither the steppe, nor the ocean, but the air will be the medium of human intercourse.