Arnold Toynbee

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"Arnold J. Toynbee was born in London on April 14, 1889, the son of Harry V. Toynbee, a social worker, and Sarah Edith Marshall Toynbee, a historian. Showing academic promise at a young age, Toynbee won scholarships to attend Winchester School from 1902 to 1907, and then Balliol College, Oxford, where he studied Classics and graduated in 1911. In the same year, Toynbee pursued his interest in ancient Greek history by studying at the British Archeological School in Athens. In 1912, he became a fellow and tutor at Balliol College, a position he held for three years. Unable to perform military service because of his health, during World War I he worked in the Political Intelligence Department of the War Office and was a member of the British delegation at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. He also held the Koraes Chair of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies at London University in 1919.

In 1925, Toynbee began a thirty-year tenure as director of studies at the Royal Institute of International Affairs and professor of international history at London University. He was a prolific author, writing more than 140 articles and books between 1921 and 1934, including The Western Question in Greece and Turkey (1922), Greek Historical Thought (1924), Greek Civilisation and Character (1924), the annual Survey of International Affairs (1923-1927), and A Journey to China (1931). He was also at work on A Study of History, for which he is best known. The first three volumes of this investigation into the rise and fall of civilizations were published in 1934; volumes 4-6 followed in 1939.

From 1943 until 1946, Toynbee directed the Research Department at the Foreign Office. He also attended the second Paris Peace Conference as a British delegate. In 1954, volumes 7-10 of A Study of History were published. An abridged version, prepared by D. C. Somervell with Toynbee's cooperation, appeared in two volumes (1947 and 1957).

Toynbee's massive work made him one of the best-known historians of his time although it also proved controversial. The final, twelfth volume, Reconsiderations (1961), was an attempt to answer his many critics.

After finishing A Study of History, Toynbee continued to publish at a prolific rate. Between 1956 and 1973, he wrote sixteen books. These included An Historian's Approach to Religion (1956), in which he advocated a return to spiritual values, Change and Habit: The Challenge of Our Time (1966), in which he suggested that China might emerge as a unifying influence in world affairs, and the autobiographical Experiences (1969).

Toynbee married Rosalind Murray in 1912, and they had two children. The marriage ended in divorce in 1945. In 1946, Toynbee married Veronica Marjorie Boulter, a research associate and writer. They collaborated in writing the Survey of International Affairs.

Toynbee died in York, England, on October 22, 1975."


Contextual Quotes


"That Oswald Spengler, one of the most famous philosophers of history in the twentieth century, profoundly changed his ideas on world history after publishing his major work, The Decline of the West, is virtually unknown to scholars contributing to the literature in English on his thought. Yet it is not unheard of for speculative philosophers of history to experience a sea change in how they formulate their bold answers to the riddle of history. Indeed, Spengler's renowned successor, Arnold Toynbee, went so far as to transform his philosophy of world history in the middle of his massive work, A Study of History."

- John Farrenkopf [1]


"An authority on Toynbee has recently suggested that he may have been well advised to have written a second book on world history instead of completing A Study of History. "Toynbee's transvaluation of values between the time he planned his great work and the time he completed it was so far-ranging that he might have been wiser to abandon his original outline entirely in 1946, and write a new and different book to explain his revised vision of the pattern and meaning of history."

- Cited by Farrenkopf: William H. McNeill, Arnold J. Toynbee: A Life (New York, 1989), 227. [2]


"Whereas Braudel was a man of the cultural establishment, Toynbee half endured, half cultivated the role of an outsider, compared, for example, to a quintessential insider like George Macaulay Trevelyan, the best-selling doyen of British historical studies in the fi rst half of the twentieth century.20 Toynbee was never appointed to a major chair in the British university system (the Stevenson Chair at the LSE of 1948 was more or less a formality) or a leading position at an Oxbridge college. He taught very little and had hardly any influence on academic students. He was never awarded a knighthood, as his contemporary Lewis Namier was, or a life peerage like the cultural historian Kenneth Clark, also a Toynbee Prize winner. "

- Jurgen Osterhammer [3]


Krishan Kumar:

"There are signs today that “civilization” is making something of a comeback both as a concept and mode of analysis. Might that offer the opportunity to revive and reconsider Toynbee? Of all twentieth-century scholars, Toynbee was the greatest historian and analyst of civilization. He was superior in style and erudition to Oswald Spengler, his closest rival. Toynbee's biographer, the great world historian William McNeill, compares him to Herodotus, Dante, and Milton, remarking, “Toynbee should rank as a twentieth century epigon to his poetic predecessors, for he, like them, possessed a powerful and creative mind that sought, restlessly and unremittingly, to make the world make sense” (1989: 287).

Toynbee's greatest popularity and influence occurred in the 1950s and 1960s, when he was courted by presidents, prime ministers, and princes. He lectured at universities all over the world, and at the height of his popularity, in the mid-1950s, could attract hundreds and even thousands of listeners. At the University of Minnesota in the winter of 1955 he addressed an overflow audience of ten thousand people, many of whom had come hundreds of miles through the snow to hear him (ibid.: 243). Nor was he, at that time, disdained by his colleagues in the historical profession. Not only did he hold a professorship at the University of London, but Cambridge University in 1947 offered him the Regius Professorship of History, one of the two premier chairs of history in the United Kingdom (ibid.: 208). Numerous universities in the United States also offered him distinguished positions, and he twice gave the Lowell Lectures at Harvard.

Nevertheless, at some point in the 1950s some very prominent and influential figures in the discipline of history began the attacks on Toynbee that in the ensuing decades led to the eclipse of his reputation among historians and, increasingly, among other scholars as well.1 Right up to his death in 1975 Toynbee continued to enjoy great popularity in several quarters of the globe, notably in Japan (ibid.: 268–73), but his scholarly reputation waned. Students of history were discouraged from reading him, and references to him, in all the scholarly disciplines, were likely to be treated with contempt. These days, so it seems, few people read Toynbee, and if they do, it is most likely to be in the form of D. C. Somervell's skilful and highly successful two-volume abridgement of A Study of History (1947), rather than the full twelve volumes.

Does the return—if such it is—of an interest in civilization suggest that people are more likely now to be sympathetic to Toynbee's work, which was basically a comparative study of civilizations?"


Toynbee as a critic of Western Imperialism

Ian Hall:

“In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Toynbee transformed himself from a scholar and public intellectual into a seer and prophet, warning of the dire consequences that would occur if the world—and especially the West—did not acknowledge its sins and atone for them, both spiritually and politically.

This mission brought Toynbee ‘‘fame and fortune,’’ as his biographer notes, but prefigured the collapse of his academic reputation.

In the mid-1950s, Toynbee came under assault from his fellow historians—most notably Pieter Geyl and Hugh Trevor-Roper—for what they regarded as his dubious historical methods and tendentious political conclusions.

His standing among scholars never recovered. Toynbee’s fall from grace has generally been attributed to changes in historiographical fashion and to professional jealousy on the part of his critics.

These explanations, I argue, tell only part of the story. Toynbee’s downfall was also a function of his politics—or, more specifically, of his attempt to indict Western imperialism as the source of most of the evils of the modern world. In two short books, Civilization on Trial (1948) and The World and the West (1953), Toynbee condemned imperialism as the greatest crime of the contemporary era. He called for both acknowledgement of this fact and atonement for the victims. This argument drew an angry response in the press and in scholarly journals, which in turn prepared the ground for the more famous attacks on Toynbee’s reputation that were to come in the mid-1950s. Toynbee’s anti-imperial mission to reform the West— his attempt to act as a convector, moving the West to build a good and just future for all the world — came to shuddering halt.”


Comparing Toynbee's views with Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations

Ian Hall:

"Defining Civilizations

There are many differences between Huntington and Toynbee’s projects, especially in their conclusions and their policy prescriptions, but they had similar aims and assumptions. Both sought to use civilizational history to explain contemporary phenomena. Huntington’s aim was to try to provide a parsimonious explanation for what he perceived as new patterns of behavior by states (and some non-state actors) in post-Cold War international relations, patterns that he argued could not adequately be explained by existing state-centric theories (Huntington 1998, 19–39). In particular, he was interested in the agitation and civil conflict that had emerged towards the end of the 1980s in parts of the Muslim world, in the soon-to-be-dissolved Soviet Union and state of Yugoslavia, between Hindu nationalists and Muslims in India, and between Tibetans and Han Chinese (Huntington 1993). Toynbee too was interested in explaining the causes of conflict, but his objective was to explain why the West had so catastrophically descended into a devastating war in 1914 and why international disorder persisted after 1919. Struck at the outset of the First World War by the apparent parallels between what he knew of ancient Greek history, especially of the Peloponnesian War, and the present, he set out to ascertain whether other past civilizations had experienced similar episodes of conflict – ‘Times of Troubles’, as he called them – and to determine whether the episodes had similar causes (Toynbee 1956b, 8; see also Hall 2014).

Both Huntington and Toynbee determined that the best way to explain the causes of contemporary conflicts was to look at civilizations rather than at states or other kinds of political or social groups. Toynbee began to explore this possibility first in The Western Question in Greece and Turkey (1922), which tried to explain the ferocity of the Greco-Turkish war of 1919–22, with its grim episodes of what later became known as ethnic-cleansing,[4] but only set it out in full in the first volume of his Study of History (1934). His argument was that historians must take a civilizational view of the past, because the histories of lesser social bodies made little sense in isolation. Civilizations, on this view, were the necessary context within which historical events must be interpreted, rather than things like nation-states, which were modern inventions (Toynbee 1934, 44–50). Huntington’s account of a civilization was strikingly similar. In the book version of The Clash of Civilizations he defined a civilization as ‘the broadest cultural entity’ and argued that ‘none of their constituent units can be fully understood without reference to the encompassing civilization’ (Huntington 1998, 43 and 42). For both, only a civilizational view was sufficient to explain the phenomena they wanted to analyze.

Contacts and Clashes

Both Toynbee and Huntington acknowledged, of course, that these understandings of civilizations generated problems for the stories that they wanted to tell. Toynbee knew from the start that using a civilization to frame the interpretation of some historical episode might not, in fact, be sufficient. Civilizational boundaries (in so far as we can define them) are porous; civilizations interacted with others, and thus it might be necessary for historians to place things in an even wider context if they were to explain them properly. He had done this in the Western Question, a study of what happened when two civilizations came into contact ‘in space’, to use his language, but he had also long been concerned with contacts ‘in time’, where a civilization drew up inherited knowledge or beliefs from an earlier one.[5] In particular, as a classicist, Toynbee was interested in contacts between the ancient Greek or ‘Hellenic’ civilization, which he considered ‘dead’, and later civilizations, especially the transmission and mediation to the West of ideas and practices by the medieval Byzantine empire, but also the influence of the Hellenic ideas on both the Muslim and Hindu worlds.

What Toynbee found in his Study of History, indeed, was that civilizations are rarely immune from outside influence, either from past civilizations or present ones. Only a couple of examples rose and fell in relative isolation, unaffected by others. Most emerged either out of a pre-existing civilization, drawing on its legacy of ideas and beliefs in a process Toynbee called, in his peculiar idiom, ‘Apparentation-and-Affiliation’(1934, 97–105). Thus the West and the Orthodox world drew on Hellenic civilization; what he called the Babylonian and Hittite civilizations drew on the Sumerian; the two branches of the modern Islamic world, Arabic (Sunni) and ‘Iranic’ (Shia), drew on the pre-Islamic ‘Syriac’ civilization; and what he took to be contemporary ‘Far Eastern’ civilization, in China, Korea, and Japan, drew on a pre-existing but distinct ‘Sinic’ civilization, and so on (Toynbee 1954b, 107).[7] Then there were encounters between ‘living’ civilizations that shaped those involved. Some led to ‘fruitful’ exchanges (Toynbee gave the examples of the influence of Hellenic thought and art on ancient India, and then later on both medieval Christianity and Islam, as well as the Renaissance); some to the near total collapse of civilizations (such as those in the Americas); and some to retrenchment and resistance (as occurred in parts of the ‘Far East’ and the Muslim world when they encountered the modern West) (Toynbee 1954b).

Huntington, for his part, also wrestled in The Clash of Civilizations with the issue of boundaries and inter-civilizational contacts.

He conceded that:

- Civilizations have no clear-cut boundaries and no precise beginnings and endings. People can and do redefine their identities and, as a result, the composition and shapes of civilizations change over time. The cultures of peoples interact and overlap.

He recognized too that civilizations ‘evolve’, observing that ‘[t]hey are dynamic, they rise and fall, they merge and divide’ (Huntington 1998, 44). But Huntington insisted that ‘[c]ivilizations are nonetheless meaningful entities, and while the lines between them are seldom sharp, they are real’ (Huntington 1998, 43). Moreover, he asserted that, historically, civilizations had rarely interacted, and there were few instances of inter-civilizational contact that led to really significant changes in the one or the other, until the modern era. Prior to 1500 CE, he argued, contacts between them were either ‘nonexistent or limited’ or ‘intermittent and intense’ (Huntington 1998, 48). Distance and transport technologies prevented anything more.

Only after 1500 CE, with the invention of new technologies that permitted more people to travel longer distances, Huntington maintained, did situations arise in which civilizations could be substantially changed by encounters with others. Importantly, however, he asserted that not all civilizations were changed to the same extent, and implied that some elements of a civilization – its cultural or religious kernel – could not be changed, though it could be destroyed. Instead, in the modern period, he argued ‘[i]ntermittent or limited multidirectional encounters among civilizations gave way to the sustained, overpowering, unidirectional impact of the West on all other civilizations’ (Huntington 1998, 50). The result was the ‘subordination of other societies to Western civilization’. This occurred not because of the superiority of Western ideas, Huntington insisted, but because of the superiority of Western technology, especially its military technology (Huntington 1998, 51). And despite their ‘subordination’ to Western power, he maintained, non-Western societies remained culturally distinct and resistant to Western cultural influence.

The technological unification of the world by the West thus brought into being, for Huntington, a ‘multicivilizational system’ characterized by ‘intense, sustained, and multidirectional interactions among all civilizations’ (Huntington 1998, 51). It had not, he went to great pains to argue, generated anything like a ‘universal civilization’.[8] No universal language is in the process of formation, he argued; rather, languages once marginalized by imperial powers are being revived. Nor are we seeing a universal religion emerge; instead, adherents of major religions are becoming more entrenched in their beliefs, some even more fundamentalist. In sum, modernization has taken place without Westernization, strengthening non-Western cultures insofar as they have acquired new technologies, including new weapons, and reducing ‘the relative power of the West’ (Huntington 1998, 78)."



  • An indispensable instrument for working on Toynbee is S. Fiona Morton, A Bibliography of Arnold J. Toynbee (Oxford, 1980).

A Study of History


"Arnold Toynbee's multi-volume A Study of History is one of the major works of historical scholarship published in the twentieth century. The first volume was published in London in 1934, and subsequent volumes appeared periodically until the twelfth and final volume was published in London in 1961. A two-volume abridgement of volumes 1-10 was prepared by D. C. Somervell with Toynbee's cooperation and published in 1947 (volume one) and 1957 (volume two) in London.

A Study of History in its original form is a huge work. The first ten volumes contain over six thousand pages and more than three million words. Somervell's abridgement, containing only about one-sixth of the original, runs to over nine hundred pages. The size of the work is in proportion to the grandeur of Toynbee's purpose, which is to analyze the genesis, growth, and fall of every human civilization ever known. In Toynbee's analysis, this amounts to five living civilizations and sixteen extinct ones, as well as several that Toynbee defines as arrested civilizations.

Toynbee detects in the rise and fall of civilizations a recurring pattern, and it is the laws of history behind this pattern that he analyzes in A Study of History.

From the outset, A Study of History was a controversial work. It won wide readership amongst the general public, especially in the United States, and after World War II Toynbee was hailed as a prophet of his times. On the other hand, his work was viewed with skepticism by academic historians, many of whom argued that his methods were unscientific and his conclusions unreliable or simply untrue. Despite these criticisms, however, A Study of History endures as a provocative vision of where humanity has been, and why, and where it may be headed."


The success of Somervell Two-Volume Abridged Version

Jurgen Osterhammel:

"What accounts for Toynbee’s success? First of all, Mr. Somervell. A two-volume abridgement of A Study of History, cleverly done by the English schoolmaster David Churchill Somervell on his own initiative was the true key to Toynbee’s worldwide fame.22 This slimmed-down, though still door-stopping version sold very well, was translated into many languages (whereas there seems to have been not a single complete translation of all twelve volumes), and has remained in print ever since the publication of the first volume in 1946. Still, one of those Toynbeean paradoxes prevails.

Even Somervell’s space-and-time-saving digest is a difficult book — “putdownable” for those who believe world history should be enjoyable reading. Earning the eternal gratitude of the serious reader, Somervell — no doubt with the author’s consent — preserved the original structure of the work. What he discarded were volumes ten to twelve and four thousand pages of material from the other volumes. A brief glance at the intricate table of contents reveals that this is not a narrative world history from Sumer to Harry Truman’s America. The book is arranged systematically in a way requiring careful study and puzzling the unprepared reader. It is hard to imagine what to expect behind chapter headings such as “The Stimulus of Hard Countries” or “The Mechanicalness of Mimesis.”23 This enigmatic attraction, as we might call it, must have drawn a certain type of adventurous reader right into a book that presents itself as some kind of enchanted garden with mysteries behind every bush. Why such a complex theoretical work became a bestseller among the less adventurous as well is not difficult to explain. Somervell’s resistance to popularization put the abridgement in a relation to the original like that of a bottle of brandy to a cellar full of good white wine. In other words, you get the same value at a fraction of the cost and eff ort. Whether read or resting untouched on the shelf: the high-proof digest preserves the mystique of the original. This also implies the advice to the Toynbee novice to tackle Somervell with a good conscience. His one thousand pages are indeed the essence of Toynbee’s work. From here, it is absolutely no problem to turn to the full version and go deeper into any matter of personal interest. Inversely however, the success achieved by the good history master at Tonbridge School casts a shadow on Toynbee’s own skills as a writer of history and theory. Imagine anyone condensing Edward Gibbon or Marc Bloch, Chris Bayly or Natalie Zemon Davis! So much for the size and oversize of books and, by the way, for the supreme artistry that makes Gibbon’s more than three thousand pages a perennial pleasure to read."


More information

  • Critique from the establishment figure Hugh Trevor Roper, “Arnold Toynbee’s Millennium,” in id., Men and Events: Historical Essays (New York, 1957),