Once a static, primitive society has responded to a certain intensity of challenge, it shatters the “cake of custom” and begins to change—to differentiate and develop. If the conditions are right, it begins to grow. But what are those conditions, and what exactly does it mean for a society or civilization to “grow”? In this third volume of his mighty Study of History, first published in 1934, Arnold J. Toynbee sets out to answer these questions.
According to Toynbee, the phenomenon he calls Challenge-and-Response continues to operate. The challenges to societies come from two main sources: the physical environment and the “human environment”—other surrounding societies. A challenge that is successfully met produces a change in society that can be called growth. For example, in our own Western civilization, which Toynbee calls Western Christendom, an early challenge to the scattered and disorganized society that existed after the collapse of the Roman Empire was the pressure of barbarians to the north and east of Western Europe, and the response that was created was the set of social, political, and military institutions that we call feudalism. The feudal system remained in place until further challenges provoked further innovations by Western Christendom, which in turn constituted further growth.
Do you find it strange and anachronistic that Toynbee uses the label “Western Christendom” for our society—the one we usually simply call “Western”? Our Western society is so secular, and indeed a cornerstone of our constitutions is the separation of church and state. Not only that, but Toynbee himself says that the two driving forces of our society, which give it its distinctive character, are Democracy and Industrialism. What do these have to do with Jesus Christ?
The answer lies in the original germ of a society. According to Toynbee, this germ is always spiritual. As I understand it, he’s saying that the enthusiasm and energy that cause people to want to work together to build a society can come only from a spiritual source. In the case of Western Christendom, this source was Christianity, which began its life in the Roman Empire as one sect among many that met the needs of the empire’s “internal proletariat” (to use another term of Toynbee’s). The charisma of Jesus Christ and his teachings attracted the oppressed and marginalized members of that antecedent civilization, spurring them to build a religion that eventually was magnetic enough to supplant the preceding state religion of paganism. When the Roman Empire dissolved, the Christian Church had the necessary spiritual, ideological, and administrative structures in place to become the kernel of a new civilization—Western Christendom. Christianity became the DNA of Western civilization (and also of Eastern Orthodox Christendom—a distinct society of its own, according to Toynbee). With civilization, the spirit leads and the physical structures follow.
As for what growth specifically consists of, Toynbee opts for a term of French philosopher Henri Bergson: etherialization. This is the tendency of human things to become more refined and spiritual and intangible as they develop. For example, in commercial life the tendency has been a shift in emphasis from commerce in heavy industry and manufacturing toward the service and then the “information” economy. Growth is in the direction of the less physical and the more abstract.
Along the way, Toynbee explicitly refutes a couple of common notions of what constitutes growth: the conquest of territory and the development of technology. To me, these points were especially interesting because it seems almost universal and unquestioned nowadays to equate growth with one or both of these things. But Toynbee asserts that such utilitarian thinking is nothing more than the habitual tendency of historians in any period to look at all historical events through the lens of the preoccupations of their own age. Our own age is technological and violent, so those are the values we instinctively apply. It’s possible to resist this temptation, though, and that is what Toynbee strives to do.
As a writer Toynbee is excellent. Yes, he is donnish and unfolds his arguments in a sometimes schoolmasterly way, but he is deep, detached, urbane, humble, and very reluctant to criticize other thinkers. The range and depth of his reading and knowledge are almost unbelievable. He makes free use of examples from mythology and literature to make his points, and illustrates them with telling quotations from the Bible and the classics. For example, in one of his infrequent mentions of his own life-experience, he describes how, during the First World War (still the “General War of 1914–18” to Toynbee), when he was walking by the Board of Education offices in London, he saw that they had been converted to a new war office devoted to the study of trench warfare; and this caused him to recall a passage from the Gospel of Matthew:
When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the Prophet, stand in the holy place, (whoso readeth, let him understand), then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the World to this time. And, except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved.”
Toynbee’s work as a whole invites us to consider the sweep of history, the enterprise of humanity in its entirety, not from any single perspective, such as technology, economics, or politics, but in its full depth and range. He has addressed the question with the whole of his spirit, and hence he ranges beyond bland academic and scientific formalisms, even as he is a great student and a great thinker. And he’s inviting us to do the same.
It’s a great invitation, and well worth accepting.
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