Arnold Toynbee on the Rhythms of History

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Contextual Quote

"Toynbee does try to make amends for his original contention that all civilizations are philosophically contemporaneous by distinguishing three different “generations” of cultures: the “primary,” river valley civilizations, then the pre-Christian and pre-Buddhist ones, and finally the Christian and Buddhist civilizations with their offshoots."

- Franz Borkenau [1]


Excerpted from :

"Paying close attention to the ancient Greeks and Romans, Arnold Toynbee did not subscribe to a linear, hierarchical view of civilization. Even Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels's dialectical approach to history resulted in successive stages of development toward a desired end (see Marx and Engels, pp. 23–40). Although Toynbee's own vision of human history was nostalgic for the lost past and pessimistic for the future, his comparative theory of civilizations (East and West) was linked to an acute understanding of Greek philosophy and an essentialist view of Chinese philosophy. Toynbee concentrates on the idea of a "rhythm" of history. On the one hand, Empedocles' ancient Greek philosophy sees the universe caught in the ebb and flow of a rhythmic alternation of the "integrating force" of love and the "disintegrating force" of hate, a unity arising from plurality and a plurality arising from unity (see Toynbee, 1935, pp. 200–201). On the other hand, Chinese philosophy sees the universe caught in the ebb and flow of a rhythmic alternation of the "shadow" force of yin and the "sunshine" force of yang: "Each in turn comes into the ascendant at the other's expense; yet even at the high tide of its expansion it never quite submerges the other, so that, when its tide ebbs, as it always does after reaching high-water mark, there is still a nucleus of the other element left free to expand, as its perpetual rival and partner contracts" (p. 202). Toynbee's assessment of the growth and breakdown of civilizations is a yinyang beating out of "the song of creation" through challenge and response, withdrawal and return, and rout and rally (Toynbee, 1939, p. 324).

Through this rhythm of history, tensions between state and church are disrupted by an interregnum of barbarians that Toynbee calls collectively the Völkerwanderung (the wandering peoples). In the Western world, this refers to Germanic and Slavic tribes from the north on the borders of the Greco-Roman civilization as well as Sarmatians and Huns from the Steppes of Eastern Europe. Although they were all overthrown by stronger forces of civilization, these wandering tribes represent a barbarian "heroic age" (Toynbee, 1939). The Vandals and Ostrogoths were destroyed by Roman counteroffensives, while Visigoths succumbed to both Frankish and Arabian assaults. In the long run, Toynbee felt the barbarians had little impact on Western civilization because the church was more powerful in regard to cultural and philosophical transmissions (see 1935, pp. 58–63, cf. Bury, pp. 177–230).

Toynbee could not apply his yin-yang theory of history in any great detail to China itself. In Reconsiderations, he laments the lack of a classical Chinese upbringing: "I should, of course, have taken Chinese, not Hellenic, history as my model, and I should have seen Chinese history as a series of successive realizations of the ideal of a universal state, punctuated by intermediate lapses into disunion and disorder … the Yin-Yang rhythm would be cyclical without having any regular periodicity" (1960, p. 188)."


More information

The above is excerpted from a well-done introduction to the interplay between 'Barbarism and Civilization', at Barbarism And Civilization