This first volume of Toynbee’s 10-volume investigation of how civilizations arise, flourish, and die provides a fresh and exciting panorama of the whole terrain of human history.
The first reference to Toynbee’s work that I can recall was in Joseph Campbell’s The Masks of God series, where Campbell, who as a young man had been a big fan of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, makes a rather dismissive remark about Toynbee, whom he sees as being too attached to a Christian viewpoint. Looking at other references and reviews, I see that dissing Toynbee seems to be an accepted practice, almost a consensus.
But so far, I disagree. Toynbee is a great thinker and a great writer, and his ideas deserve careful consideration.
I decided to read Toynbee when my own research into the epic genre (especially reading the excellent The Epic Cosmos edited by Larry Allums) had brought me to see epics as being essentially about the birth or transformation of societies. What exactly is a society or civilization? What are its boundaries, its defining features?
This is Toynbee’s hunting ground. I started off by buying and reading D. C. Somervell’s two-volume abridgement of the 10-volume work. I was excited and stimulated enough by that to decide to take the plunge on the original volumes.
At the outset Toynbee states that he was driven by his own dissatisfaction with the tendency of historians to focus on the history of nation-states, which in his view was an artificial and arbitrary way of slicing up the subject area. He sought the “natural” units of history: entities that could truly be regarded as individuals, cohesive and relatively self-contained. He determined that this unit is the “civilization”: a collection of people who share a culture, the core of which is a spiritual system or faith. In volume 1 he sets out to defend this thesis, and to identify and inventory the civilizations that have been known to exist since the beginning of history. He comes up with a total of 21 (give or take–Toynbee recognizes that there are uncertainties of identification, especially as you get into the deep past), provides labels for them, and sketches an overview of each. (Not to keep you in suspense: our own civilization–that is, the one in which I sit right now as I type–he calls Western Christendom.)
In talking about the “geneses” of civilizations, he discusses the difference between primitive societies and civilizations, and speculates plausibly on how, very occasionally, a primitive society undergoes the transformation into a full-blown civilization with intricate institutions, arts, sciences, and a well-developed religion.
No matter how large a civilization is, its members feel relatively at home as long as they are within it. That means that as a Canadian, if I travel to places such as, say, the United States, or to France or Italy or Denmark, even while I’m in a foreign country I nonetheless feel myself in a culture that is congenial and familiar. But if I travel to, say, Egypt, part of what Toynbee calls the Arabic Society, I’m in a place where not only is the language unfamiliar, but the culture as a whole is very different and much more foreign to me. Its basic ideas and premises, its spiritual foundation, are fundamentally different from those of my own civilization. And when I traveled to Russia in 1982 it was the same again, and, Toynbee would say, not simply because it was then still the USSR, but rather because Russia itself is not part of Western Christendom, but part of Eastern Christendom, a zone that also includes Greece and other places built around Orthodox Christianity.
Toynbee in one sense takes his time in developing these ideas–the whole work is 10 big volumes–but in another sense it seems that he’s speeding along, since his subject-matter is so vast. He’s an excellent writer, with an arch, ironic, self-deprecating style, and makes many interesting asides, the longest of which he places as annexes at the back of the book. He’s fond of homely extended metaphors, like regarding the notion of world “ages” (Ancient History vs. Medieval, etc.) as an extendable chimney-cleaning brush.
But his mind is deep and sharp: he likes getting to the root of things. His erudition is tremendous; his prose is salted with quotations from the classics and especially the Bible, usually in the original language. His knowledge of history is encyclopedic. One of the stretches for the reader is following Toynbee’s shifts from discussing events in the history of, say, ancient India, to events in Precolumbian Mexico or medieval Hungary or the Khmers of Cambodia. He seems to know it all.
So while it seems that Toynbee’s work has been deemed a safe target for criticism and even ridicule, I have to wonder how many of his critics have even 10% of his command of the subject area. Toynbee spent 20 years writing these volumes; they are the considered, mature work of a brilliant man. Reading them, to me, seems like the very opposite of a waste of time.