Arnold Toynbee on the Unification of the World

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Ian Hall:

"Toynbee was also deeply concerned by the impact of the West on the rest of the world – that was the central theme of his incendiary The World and the West. His work on Turkey, during the First World War and after, left him well versed in the dynamics of modernization in a non-Western society, under the Ottomans and then under Kemal Ataturk. In his Study of History he ranged much further, examining Peter the Great and then the Bolshevik attempts to modernize Russia, the Meiji Restoration in Japan, and Sun Yat-sen’s attempt to reform post-Qing China. He recognized that the spread of Western technologies to other societies was undercutting the relative power of the West, but he also emphasized that modern weapons and military science were not the only inventions that were aiding the revival of non-Western societies. Political and other ideas, including philosophical arguments and religious beliefs, Toynbee argued, had also changed those societies, and fueling what became known, in the 1950s, as the ‘Revolt against the West’ (Hall 2011).

Although during the course of writing A Study of History, Toynbee offered different accounts of what occurred when civilizations encountered each other, he was consistent in insisting that the effects were much more dramatic than Huntington suggested. Like Edward Gibbon, he argued that ‘major’ religions were the product of the intrusion of ‘foreign’ ideas into a civilization, as Christianity had arisen as Jewish millenarianism, appeared on the fringes of the Greco-Roman world, slowly infected its consciousness and – for the young Toynbee as for Gibbon – destroyed that classical world (Gibbon 2010). Later, as Toynbee shed his liberal rationalist agnosticism and became more sympathetic to religion, his view of the birth of Christianity and other major religions changed (see Toynbee 1956a), but he remained convinced that ideas transmitted by inter-civilizational encounters could bring about major social and political changes within civilizations. Like Huntington, he argued that encounters might lead to the transmission of just one technology or idea and not others, much less to an entire corpus of civilizational ideas and beliefs. In The World and the West, as we have seen, he detailed how modern technology had been transmitted to Russia, Turkey, and the ‘Far East’, while Western religious ideas, for example, had been rejected. Toynbee suggested we understand this process by way of a metaphor borrowed from physics. This was what happened, he argued, ‘when the culture-ray of a radioactive civilization hits a foreign body social’, as the latter’s ‘resistance diffracts the culture-ray into its component strands’ (Toynbee 1953, 67).

Toynbee rightly recognized, however, that modern military technology was not the only thing that had been transmitted to the non-West during the period of Western imperial expansion. He was particularly concerned with the transmission of political ideas, especially nationalism and the concept of the nation-state, ‘an exotic institution’, as he put it, ‘deliberately imported from the West…simply because the West’s political power had given the West’s political institutions an irrational yet irresistible prestige in non-Western eyes’ (Toynbee 1953, 71). A sound internationalist, Toynbee was deeply exercised by this spread of nationalism and the nation-state, an institution he thought both obsolete, given the economic unification of the world, and even more worryingly, prone to being set up as some kind of false idol for the masses to worship (Toynbee 1956a, 27–36).[9] But setting this normative spin aside, his core point – that inter-civilizational encounters spread more than technology and weapons – is surely irrefutable; indeed, the notion that the sovereign state, organized along national lines or not, was spread by Western imperial expansions is the consensus view in contemporary International Relations (see Bull and Watson 1984).

Toynbee was deeply troubled also by the spread of things like Western consumerism, which he thought, like Mohandas Gandhi, could even infect non-Western societies like India to their detriment (Toynbee 1953, 79–80). But at the same time, he outlined a more positive message, which also challenges key elements of Huntington’s thesis, and sits uneasily with other aspects of his own thinking. Although much of Toynbee’s Study of History was taken up by warnings against mimesis or the imitation of others, as well as pleas for authentic creative ‘responses’ to ‘challenges’,[10] he was also convinced that the technological and economic unification of the world by the West had fundamentally changed our – humanity’s – historical perspective.

This change generated a number of effects. First, Toynbee observed, it made it harder for certain societies to think of themselves as a ‘Chosen People’ and uniquely civilized (Toynbee 1948, 71–79). A few in the postwar West, he thought, still suffered from this delusion, but it would pass in time, as they realized that Western history was not as unique as they had been taught (Toynbee 1948, 79). Second, it was now possible to study the thought of others’ civilizations. Non-Westerners, he noted, were doing this in numbers, ‘taking Western lessons at first-hand in the universities of Paris or Cambridge and Oxford; at Columbia and at Chicago’, as was right and proper as the heirs to the riches of all past and contemporary civilizations. Some had ‘caught…the Western ideological disease of Nationalism’, Toynbee lamented, but at least their historical perspective was no longer ‘parochial’ (Toynbee 1948, 83). They, he observed, ‘have grasped the fact that…our past history has become a vital part of theirs [italics in original]’. What was needed was for Westerners to make a similar leap, recognizing that Africa’s or China’s past was also ‘theirs’, in the same way that they regard the histories of the ‘extinct civilizations’ of ‘Israel, Greece and Rome’ as theirs (Toynbee 1948, 89).

The unification of the world, Toynbee argued, meant that all histories belonged to all, and that meant the distinction between Western and non-Western was no longer tenable:

Our own descendants are not going to be just Western, like ourselves. They are going to be heirs of Confucius and Lao-Tse [sic] as well as Socrates, Plato, and Plotinus; heirs of Gautama Buddha as well as Deutero-Isaiah and Jesus Christ; heirs of Zarathustra and Muhammed as well as Elijah…; heirs of Shankara and Ramanuja as well as Clement and Origen;…and heirs…of Lenin and Gandhi and Sun Yat-sen as well as Cromwell and George Washington and Mazzini (Toynbee 1948, 90).

This was heady stuff, of course, and it led Toynbee off toward trying to come up with a plan for a syncretic religion, blending insights from existing ones, that might serve to overcome political conflict and serve as the basis for the future reconciliation of the world (see Toynbee 1956a; Toynbee 1954a). But his core point – that the philosophies and concepts of all civilizations, both ‘living’ and ‘extinct’, were now for the first time available for all to read, study, adopt, and adapt, accepting the challenges of translation – was a powerful one, especially in view of Huntington’s insistence that civilizations are divided along sharp lines, despite the economic and technological unification of the world. "