Civilization is a movement and not a condition; a voyage and not a harbor. –Arnold Toynbee
Arnold J. Toynbee (1889–1975) was a British historian and philosopher who is best remembered for his monumental Study of History, released in twelve volumes between 1934 and 1961. In this work he traced the rise and fall of twenty-one civilizations, which he defined as the self-contained political and cultural product of a creative minority.
In the early days of their ascent, they win power and prestige by responding creatively and successfully to external challenges—war, natural disaster, encounters with other cultures, etc.—and their superior position is the just reward of that accomplishment. So, in the early days of Rome, the Roman Senators (to take an example) produced Coriolanus and Brutus, Scipio and Fabius, and won the admiring obedience of the whole of Roman society.
However, when these elites cease to respond creatively to changing circumstances, and simply mimic an idealized past, they lose their legitimacy as elites. So Caesar and Pompey, though great in their own right, responded less creatively and more oppressively to the challenges of their own day than their predecessors, and later on Constantine and Justinian continued the trend. When once-inspiring leadership degenerates into oppression in the name of a remote and irrelevant mythology, the elite loses its legitimacy, and the civilization becomes internally divided. Then it becomes easy prey to disasters, like the plague, or foreign enemies, like the Germanic tribes. “Civilizations die from suicide,” Toynbee said, “not from murder.”
When this happens the elite declare a “universal state,” the imagined universality of which seems to compensate for their diminishing power in the real world. Similarly, the people declare a “universal church,” which preserves their values in the face of internal and external oppression. So both the Emperors and Patriarchs of Constantinople continued to declare the universality of their institutions even as their actual sphere of influence diminished with every generation, until at last the Sultan marched into Constantinople and put an end to their pretensions. According to legend, the last Roman Emperor, Constantine XI, was turned into a statue and whisked away at the last moment by an angel. “The marble emperor” was then hidden in a cave, there to sleep away the ages until Rome should rise again. So the story of the decline and fall of the Empire could well be told, according to Toynbee, as the transformation of an actual into a dreamlike power, which it continues to exercise to this day.
Toynbee was an immensely popular and influential historian in his time. The full twelve volume set has sold over seven thousand copies, and the abridgement over three hundred thousand. He was featured in Time Magazine and the BBC, and came as close to being a celebrity as a modern historian is likely to get. His reception among other historians was much cooler. He was frequently criticized for making sweeping generalizations, and his taxonomy of pre-civilizations, full civilizations, fossil civilizations, etc., appeared to many both arbitrary and unilluminating. Civilization studies in general have been rejected for just this reason, and also because they seem to imply that some societies are intrinsically better (i.e., “more civilized”) than others—an assumption with which modern historians, living as they do in a post-imperial age, are no longer comfortable. Instead, they usually prefer to reject all such world-historical schemes, and work on tightly focused monographs that treat a manageable amount of evidence.
However, world history has survived the abandonment of the “study of civilizations” approach epitomized by Toynbee’s Study of History, and continues to make substantial contributions to our knowledge of the past. Toynbee remains, in that sense, an important figure in the history of history.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the history of Science and Technology of nineteenth-century Germany. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.