Study of History

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* Book: A Study of History. Arnold Toynbee.



"“English historian whose 12-volume A Study of History (1934–61) put forward a philosophy of history, based on an analysis of the cyclical development and decline of civilizations, that provoked much discussion.” [1]

1. From the Wikipedia:

"A Study of History is a 12-volume universal history by the British historian Arnold J. Toynbee, published from 1934 to 1961. It received enormous popular attention but according to historian Richard J. Evans, "enjoyed only a brief vogue before disappearing into the obscurity in which it has languished."[1] Toynbee's goal was to trace the development and decay of 19 or 21 world civilizations in the historical record, applying his model to each of these civilizations, detailing the stages through which they all pass: genesis, growth, time of troubles, universal state, and disintegration.

The 19 (or 21) major civilizations, as Toynbee sees them, are: Egyptian, Andean, Sumerian, Babylonic, Hittite, Minoan, Indic, Hindu, Syriac[disambiguation needed], Hellenic, Western, Orthodox Christian (having two branches: the main or Byzantine body and the Russian branch), Far Eastern (having two branches: the main or Chinese-Korean body and the Japanese branch), Persian, Arabic, Hindu, Mayan, Mexican and Yucatec. Moreover, there are three "abortive civilizations" (Abortive Far Western Christian, Abortive Far Eastern Christian, Abortive Scandinavian) and five "arrested civilizations" (Polynesian, Eskimo, Nomadic, Ottoman, Spartan), for a total of 27 or 29."


2. From

"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."



Daniel A. Dombrowski:

"His magnum opus, A Study of History, is a twelve-volume work where his processual view of civilizational rise and fall is developed in detail. The first six volumes appeared between 1927 and 1939, the last of which appeared just before the start of World War Two in Europe. Volumes seven through ten appeared in 1954, with volume eleven (a historical atlas) in 1959 and volume twelve (containing reconsiderations regarding the previous eleven volumes) in 1961. An illustrated one volume summary of the entire work appeared in 1972."



From the Wikipedia:

Publication of A Study of History

  1. Vol I: Introduction: The Geneses of Civilizations, part one (Oxford University Press, 1934)
  2. Vol II: The Geneses of Civilizations, part two (Oxford University Press, 1934)
  3. Vol III: The Growths of Civilizations (Oxford University Press, 1934)
  4. Vol IV: The Breakdowns of Civilizations (Oxford University Press, 1939)
  5. Vol V: The Disintegrations of Civilizations, part one (Oxford University Press, 1939)
  6. Vol VI: The Disintegrations of Civilizations, part two (Oxford University Press, 1939)
  7. Vol VII: Universal States; Universal Churches (Oxford University Press, 1954) [as two volumes in paperback]
  8. Vol VIII: Heroic Ages; Contacts between Civilizations in Space (Encounters between Contemporaries) (Oxford University Press, 1954)
  9. Vol IX: Contacts between Civilizations in Time (Renaissances); Law and Freedom in History; The Prospects of the Western Civilization (Oxford University Press, 1954)
  10. Vol X: The Inspirations of Historians; A Note on Chronology (Oxford University Press, 1954)
  11. Vol XI: Historical Atlas and Gazetteer (Oxford University Press, 1959)
  12. Vol XII: Reconsiderations (Oxford University Press, 1961)
  • Abridgements by D. C. Somervell:
    • A Study of History: Abridgement of Vols I–VI, with a preface by Toynbee (Oxford University Press, 1946)[4]
    • A Study of History: Abridgement of Vols VII–X (Oxford University Press, 1957)

* A Study of History: Abridgement of Vols I–X in One Volume, with new preface by Toynbee & new tables (Oxford Univ. Press, 1960)


Content Summary


Chapter 1: The Unit of Historical Study

In A Study of History, Toynbee first identifies the unit that should be the object of the historian's study. This unit is not an individual nation but an entire civilization. Toynbee identifies five living civilizations: Western Christian, Orthodox Christian, Islamic, Hindu, and Far Eastern. In addition there are sixteen extinct civilizations from which living civilizations developed. Toynbee then makes a distinction between primitive societies, of which there are many, and civilizations, which are comparatively few. He dismisses the idea that there is now only one civilization, the West, and also the notion that all civilization originated in Egypt.

Chapter 2: Geneses of Civilizations

How do civilizations emerge from primitive societies? For Toynbee, the answer does not lie in race; nor does an easy environment provide a key to the origins of civilization. On the contrary, civilizations arise out of creative responses to difficult situations. It is difficulty, rather than ease, that proves the stimulus. Toynbee identifies five challenges that aid the process: a hard environment; a new environment; one or more "blows," such as a military defeat; pressures, such as a frontier society subjected to frequent attack; and penalizations, such as slavery or other measures in which one class or race is oppressed by another. Some challenges, however, prove to be too severe and do not result in a civilization's growth.

Chapter 3: Growths of Civilizations

After examining why some civilizations (Polynesian, Eskimo) cease to develop, Toynbee discusses how the growth of a society is to be measured. He concludes that neither military nor political expansion, nor advances in agricultural or industrial techniques, are reliable criteria. These are external indicators, whereas what is important is "etherialization." In this process, the energies of a society are directed away from external material obstacles, which have been overcome, towards challenges that arise from within and require an inner or spiritual response. Growth happens because of creative individuals who exhibit a pattern of withdrawal from and return to society.

Chapter 4: Breakdowns of Civilizations

The breakdown of a civilization, Toynbee holds, is not due to some inevitable cosmic law. Nor is it caused by loss of control over the physical or human environment, a decline in technology, or military aggression. A breakdown happens when the creative minority loses its creative power and the majority no longer follows it, or follows it only because it is compelled to do so. This results in a loss of social unity and the emergence of a disaffected "proletariat." Creative minorities lose their power because they have a habit of "resting on their oars" following their success and becoming infatuated with the past. Therefore they fail to meet the next challenge successfully.

Chapter 5: Disintegration of Civilizations

When a civilization disintegrates, it splits into three factions: a "dominant minority," which is a degenerate stage of a formerly creative minority; an "internal proletariat," which is a mass of people within the civilization who no longer have any allegiance to the dominant minority and may rebel against it; and an "external proletariat" that exists beyond the frontiers of the civilization and resists being incorporated into it. An internal proletariat may react violently against the dominant minority, but later there may be a more peaceful reaction, culminating in the discovery of a "higher religion."

Social changes in a disintegrating civilization are accompanied by changes in behavior, beliefs, and ways of life. There is either a sense of "drift," in which people believe the world is ruled by chance, or a sense of sin, both of which are substitutes for the creative energy that has been lost. There may also be "archaism," a desire to return to the past, or "futurism," a revolutionary mode in which old institutions are scrapped. Disintegration of a civilization proceeds in a rhythm of "routs" followed by "rallies." During this process, creative personalities will emerge as different kinds of "saviours."

Chapter 6: Universal States

A universal state appears as part of the "rally" stage in the disintegration of a civilization; it follows a "Time of Troubles" and brings political unity. However, it is still part of the process of disintegration. Although universal states fail to save themselves, they do offer unintended advantages to other institutions, such as the higher religions of their internal proletariats. Universal states provide high "conductivity" between different geographic areas and between social classes. They are often ruled with tolerance, which helps to facilitate the spread of higher religions. Many of the institutions established by a universal state, such as communications, legal systems, weights and measures, money, and civil services, are made use of by communities other than those for which they were designed.

Chapter 7: Universal Churches

Toynbee analyzes the relationship between churches and civilizations. He repudiates the idea that a church is like a social cancer that leads to the decline of the universal state. But the idea that churches act as chrysalises, keeping civilization alive as it evolves from one manifestation into the next, is not the entire truth either, he writes. Toynbee argues that, rather than religion being a by-product of civilization, the whole purpose of a civilization is to provide an opportunity for one of the higher religions (Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam) to emerge.

Chapter 8: Heroic Ages

When a disintegrating civilization is destroyed by barbarians who have previously co-existed alongside it, the result is a Heroic Age. The barbarians are not sufficiently advanced to benefit from the legacy of the civilization they have destroyed although they may commemorate their victories in epic poetry. A Heroic Age is an interlude between the death of one civilization and the birth of another. It leads to a Dark Age, out of which civilization reemerges.

Chapter 9: Contacts between Civilizations in Space

When diverse civilizations come into contact with each other, there is usually conflict, with disastrous results. A civilization under assault may fight back by military means; with ideological propaganda (as the Soviet Union did against the West); by intensely cultivating its own religion; or by creating a higher religion. A victorious civilization will sometimes become militarized, to its own ultimate cost. It also pays the price of having the culture of the alien civilization seep into its own social life, which may have adverse consequences. A civilization that subjugates another may make the mistake of regarding the conquered people as "heathens," "barbarians," or "natives."

Chapter 10: Contacts between Civilizations in Time

Toynbee surveys the many renaissances in history in which one civilization has drawn new inspiration from a civilization of the past. The best-known example is the influence of the dead Hellenic civilization on Western Christendom in the late medieval period (the Italian Renaissance).

Chapter 11: Law and Freedom in History

Does history unfold according to laws of nature or is the process random? Toynbee argues for the former. He cites examples from human affairs such as business and economics that show the operation of predictable laws. Then he points to a cyclic pattern of war and peace in modern Western history and notes that disintegrating civilizations follow a similar pattern of rout-and-rally. Humankind can harness these laws of nature to its benefit although the extent to which it is able to do so depends on its own psychology and on its relationship with God, who represents a higher law than the law of nature.

Chapter 12: Prospects of Western Civilization

Worship of the nation-state and militarism are negative aspects of modern Western civilization, Toynbee holds, but it has also achieved positive results in promoting democracy and education. Toynbee discusses prospects for world peace, world government, and issues arising from modern technology. The price a society pays for freedom from want is increasing regimentation, which encroaches on personal freedom. Toynbee holds out the hope that in a mechanized society in which there is more leisure, people will have more energy to devote to spiritual matters."



The Civilizational Cycle

From the Wikipedia:

Genesis and Growth

"Toynbee argues that civilizations are born out of more primitive societies, not as the result of racial or environmental factors, but as a response to challenges, such as hard country, new ground, blows and pressures from other civilizations, and penalization. He argues that for civilizations to be born, the challenge must be a golden mean; that excessive challenge will crush the civilization, and too little challenge will cause it to stagnate. He argues that civilizations continue to grow only when they meet one challenge only to be met by another, in a continuous cycle of "Challenge and Response". He argues that civilizations develop in different ways due to their different environments and different approaches to the challenges they face. He argues that growth is driven by "Creative Minorities": those who find solutions to the challenges, who inspire (rather than compel) others to follow their innovative lead. This is done through the "faculty of mimesis." Creative minorities find solutions to the challenges a civilization faces, while the great mass follow these solutions by imitation, solutions they otherwise would be incapable of discovering on their own.

In 1939, Toynbee wrote,

"The challenge of being called upon to create a political world-order, the framework for an economic world-order … now confronts our Modern Western society."

Breakdown and Disintegration

Toynbee does not see the breakdown of civilizations as caused by loss of control over the physical environment, by loss of control over the human environment, or by attacks from outside. Rather, it comes from the deterioration of the "Creative Minority", which eventually ceases to be creative and degenerates into merely a "Dominant Minority".

He argues that creative minorities deteriorate due to a worship of their "former self," by which they become prideful and fail adequately to address the next challenge they face.

Results of the breakdown

The final breakdown results in "positive acts of creation;" the dominant minority seeks to create a Universal state to preserve its power and influence, and the internal proletariat seeks to create a Universal church to preserve its spiritual values and cultural norms.

Universal state

He argues that the ultimate sign a civilization has broken down is when the dominant minority forms a "universal state", which stifles political creativity within the existing social order. The classic example of this is the Roman Empire, though many other imperial regimes are cited as examples. Toynbee writes:

"First the Dominant Minority attempts to hold by force—against all right and reason—a position of inherited privilege which it has ceased to merit; and then the Proletariat repays injustice with resentment, fear with hate, and violence with violence when it executes its acts of secession. Yet the whole movement ends in positive acts of creation—and this on the part of all the actors in the tragedy of disintegration. The Dominant Minority creates a universal state, the Internal Proletariat a universal church, and the External Proletariat a bevy of barbarian war-bands."

Universal church

Toynbee developed his concept of an "internal proletariat" and an "external proletariat" to describe quite different opposition groups within and outside the frontiers of a civilization. These groups, however, find themselves bound to the fate of the civilization.[5] During its decline and disintegration, they are increasingly disenfranchised or alienated, and thus lose their immediate sense of loyalty or of obligation. Nonetheless an "internal proletariat," untrusting of the dominant minority, may form a "universal church" which survives the civilization's demise, co-opting the useful structures such as marriage laws of the earlier time while creating a new philosophical or religious pattern for the next stage of history.

Before the process of disintegration, the dominant minority had held the internal proletariat in subjugation within the confines of the civilization, causing these oppressed to grow bitter. The external proletariat, living outside the civilization in poverty and chaos, grows envious. Then, in the social stress resulting from the failure of the civilization, the bitterness and envy increase markedly.

Toynbee argues that as civilizations decay, there is a "schism" within the society. In this environment of discord, people resort to archaism (idealization of the past), futurism (idealization of the future), detachment (removal of oneself from the realities of a decaying world), and transcendence (meeting the challenges of the decaying civilization with new insight, e.g., by following a new religion). From among members of an "internal proletariat" who transcend the social decay a "church" may arise. Such an association would contain new and stronger spiritual insights, around which a subsequent civilization may begin to form. Toynbee here uses the word "church" in a general sense, e.g., to refer to a collective spiritual bond found in common worship, or the unity found in an agreed social order."


Discussion 2

Evaluating its impact

By Krishan Kumar:


It was in this climate that Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West (1991 [1918–1922]) appeared, which goes a long way toward explaining its enormous impact and popularity in the immediate postwar period (Hughes 1952: 89–97). Spengler accepted the multiplicity of civilizations, and also that Western civilization had been among the most creative. But now he saw Western civilization in its death-throes, following the cycle of birth, rise, and decline that he discerned in all civilizations. Using the German terms that had been established by Kant, Herder, and others in the late eighteenth century (Elias 1994: 3–28), Spengler distinguished between the creative Kultur of a society, and its hardening and descent into mere Zivilisation. But he gave the distinction his own special twist by employing them to indicate successive phases of social evolution. “The Civilization is the inevitable destiny of the Culture, and in this principle we obtain the viewpoint from which the deepest and gravest problems of historical morphology become capable of solution. Civilizations are the most external and artificial states of which a species of developed humanity is capable.… They are an end, irrevocable, yet by inward necessity reached again and again” (1991: 24). We have it in Arnold Toynbee's own words that the appearance of Spengler's book almost stopped him in his tracks, as apparently answering a question that he had been pondering for many years. What had led a few societies in humanity's whole history to transcend the level of “primitive human life” to embark upon “the enterprise called civilization? What had roused them from a torpor that the great majority of human societies had never shaken off? This question was simmering in my mind when, in the summer of 1920, Professor [Lewis] Namier … placed in my hands Oswald Spengler's Untergang des Abendlandes. As I read those pages teeming with firefly flashes of historical insight, I wondered at first whether my whole inquiry had been disposed of by Spengler before even the questions, not to speak of the answers, had fully taken shape in my own mind” (Toynbee 1948: 9).

Toynbee was perhaps relieved—as any scholar might be—to discover on closer examination of Spengler's book that it did not really answer the question of the geneses of civilizations at all, adopting instead “a most unilluminatingly dogmatic and deterministic” approach, according to which “civilizations arose, developed, declined, and foundered in unvarying conformity with a fixed time-table, and no explanation was offered for any of this” (ibid.: 10). Moreover, though there are interesting correspondences between Spengler's and Toynbee's works, and though Toynbee quotes Spengler many times, it is clear that Toynbee had arrived at his basic conception of civilizations, and of their dynamics, before he read The Decline of the West. This had a lot to do with Toynbee's training as a classicist, because it was fundamentally from classical literature and classical history, the literature and history of what he called Hellenism, that Toynbee drew his inspiration for his understanding of the pattern of all civilizations.

Already in May 1920, before he knew of Spengler's work, Toynbee in a lecture to Oxford students, entitled “The Tragedy of Greece,” had sketched out some of the main ideas that were to govern his great Study in subsequent decades. He declared, “civilization is a work of art,” and that an understanding of it can be derived as much from literary and artistic sources as from more conventional historical ones. Toynbee then proceeded to argue that the study of the history of Greek civilization has particular advantages over that of others, especially the modern West, because “in Greek history the plot of civilization has been worked out to its conclusion” (1921: 5, 10). The history of Hellenism—the history of Graeco-Roman civilization—had to be seen, he said, as a unified one: “The first emergence of the Greek city-state in the Aegean and the last traces of municipal self-government in the Roman empire are phases in the history of a single civilization.… You cannot really draw a distinction between Greek history and Roman history.… The Roman Empire was essentially a Greek institution … the pulse of the Empire was driven by a Greek heart” (ibid.: 17–18, 20).

Thus seen, Greek history had to be considered a “tragedy” in three acts, each producing its characteristic mood and expression, and each contributing to the tragic denouement, the decline and fall of Greek civilization. Toynbee was particularly concerned with the third and final act because it was in considering its course that he hit upon the idea that civilizations do not merely die, but rather in the process of their dying they throw up their successors. The Roman Empire, which was “the decline and fall of Greek civilization,” the third act in the Greek tragedy, was highly oppressive of the Roman proletariat, but in such a way as to give rise to “a rival civilization of the proletariat—the Christian Church” (ibid.: 35, 37). “Thus the empire of which Marcus [Aurelius] and Paul [of Tarsus] were citizens was more than the third act in the tragedy of Ancient Greece. While it retarded the inevitable dissolution of one civilization it conceived its successor.… By the seventh century after Christ, when Ancient Greek civilization may be said finally to have dissolved, our own civilization was ready to ‘shoot up and thrive’ and repeat the tragedy of mankind” (ibid.: 41).

Certainly at least up to the appearance of volume six of the Study, in 1939, this classical conception seems to have undergirded the structure of the whole massive enterprise. While all the relevant terms are not in the 1920 lecture, it is clear that Toynbee had by then convinced himself that in the vicissitudes of Graeco-Roman civilization he could discern the “tragic” course of all civilizations. “Hellenic Society” (or Civilization18) had the further advantage of showing unambiguously something else that came to loom large in the Study: the way civilizations are often “apparented” and “affiliated” to each other—how one civilization might derive from an earlier one while in turn giving rise to a later one. Thus Hellenic Society is seen as affiliated to an earlier Minoan-Mycenean Society, while subsequently being “apparented” to later Western Society. Hellenism demonstrated for Toynbee, in a highly satisfactory way, both the distinctiveness and the connections between civilizations. It was this that enabled him to distance himself further from Spengler, with the latter's much stronger insistence on the separation of civilizations.

It is easy to see, when observed on the larger canvas of the Study, the way in which Toynbee converted the local and particular phases of Hellenic civilization into the key terms for his analysis of civilization tout court. Civilizations, he argues, begin with a heroic and hard-won response to a challenge from the environment, at first the physical environment but then increasingly a social and political one. This response, carried out by “creative minorities,” hardens over time to rule by less adaptable and less creative “dominant minorities” (see Spengler on the move from Kultur to Zivilisation). This in turn generally leads to a “Time of Troubles,” in which the different states composing the civilization war with each other, leading to a peace of exhaustion in the creation of a “Universal State.” Meanwhile, large sections of the population withdraw into the status of an “internal proletariat,” while outside the frontiers of the civilization an “external proletariat” of “barbarians” threatens. The internal proletariat throws up a “Universal Church” that offers hope and the promise of salvation. The Universal Church then becomes the chrysalis of a new civilization that is thereby “affiliated” to the old.19

Hellenic civilization, in Toynbee's understanding of it, had gone through precisely this course. Thus an original, creative response in the Greek city-states is consolidated by Alexander in his empire (at the cost of the independence of the city-states). The break-up of Alexander's empire leads in turn to a “Time of Troubles” in which warfare convulses the Hellenic world. Eventually Rome emerges as the dominant force, with a “dominant minority” that creates a “Universal State” in the Roman Empire. At the same time an “internal proletariat,” made up of peoples from all parts of the empire, emerges, to develop the “Universal Church” of Christianity. On the borders of the empire are the barbarian tribes, the “external proletariat,” which eventually break through only to be absorbed by the emerging new civilization of Western Christendom. The Roman Empire is also “apparented” to a second new civilization, that of Orthodox Christianity, which rises with the Byzantine Empire and is continued within the body of the Ottoman Empire and elsewhere, such as Russia (1962–1964: I, 52–63).20

Such was the conception that underlay Toynbee's vast undertaking, the labor of a lifetime. Over a period of forty years—the work as a whole was first conceived, he tells us, in 1921—he produced a succession of volumes amounting in the end to the twelve volumes of A Study of History. Volumes I–III appeared in 1934, IV–VI in 1939, and VII–X—interrupted by war work—in 1954. A Historical Atlas and Gazetter, published as XI, appeared in 1959, followed finally by a volume of Reconsiderations, published as XII in 1961. Oxford University Press from 1962 into 1964 published a paperback edition of all twelve volumes (conveniently, pagination was the same as for the hardback edition).

A Study of History is, by any measure, a stupendous achievement. There is really nothing comparable to it in any other language or society. Even its severest critics, such as Pieter Geyl, remark on its “miraculous learning,” the “wealth of its examples,” “its splendid, full and supple style.” They commend it for the range of disciplines it draws upon—anthropology, sociology, psychology, philosophy, theology, biology, and literature. For all his criticisms, says Geyl, “I shall ever remain grateful to the author for profound remarks, striking parallels, wide prospects, and other concomitant beauties” (1955: 91, 97). William McNeill, Toynbee's more sympathetic biographer, writes, “After more than half a century reading Toynbee's pages still remains an adventure. The dazzling range of his information, the boldness of his comparisons, the perspicacity of his reflections … all combine to make his volumes worth anyone's attention” (1989: 165).

These observations are important, since they point toward the possibility that, even if readers were to be unconvinced by the overall framework of Toynbee's Study, they might still find much to admire and learn from it. It is all the more regrettable then, that, discouraged by the dismissal of Toynbee by most professional historians, few people read him today. They therefore do not discover for themselves the “firefly flashes of historical insight”—what Toynbee found of value in Spengler—that are to be found scattered throughout the twelve volumes, and which make them worth the attention of anyone, however unfashionable Toynbee's general approach has become. Toynbee can be read for the parts as well as the whole; it is possible that the parts are indeed better—more instructive, more interesting—than the whole.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to attempt an assessment of the general features of Toynbee's analysis of civilizations. It is probably here that Toynbee has come in for the most severe criticism.21 Critics have not been persuaded by the model of “challenge and response” as the source of civilizational genesis and growth. They have accepted that Toynbee differs from Spengler in not working with the analogy between the individual and the social organism, each with their cycles of birth, youth, maturity, and decline into old age. But they see similar weaknesses in the common pattern that Toynbee discerns of growth and decline through the sequence of a creative minority becoming a dominant minority, a Time of Troubles leading to a Universal State and a Universal Church, and the emergence of a new civilization on the basis of the Universal Church created by the internal proletariat. For many critics, while some of the concepts work for the particular pattern of Hellenic Society, they are highly unconvincing when transposed across all twenty-one civilizations.

I share some of these concerns. Toynbee's overall framework can often seem Procrustean; the intricate relationships of “apparentation-and-affiliation” between civilizations often seem too ingenious to be convincing; the fondness for analogies and metaphors drawn from the mechanical, physical, and life sciences often seems to lead to fanciful comparisons. Moreover, civilizational analysis, especially of the comparative kind, is always going to be problematic, given enduring disagreements about definitions and units of analysis. Thus Toynbee's listing of twenty-one civilizations might seem highly questionable; many of his critics have come up with very different lists, equally convincing (or not).

But to say this is not to dismiss Toynbee—far from it. A Study of History is far more than a schematic account of civilizational rise and fall in the manner of earlier “conjectural histories” or evolutionary “philosophies of history.” It is far more, in other words, than the sum of its parts. Its strength lies precisely in “the parts”—in the examination of particular civilizations, in tracing the links between them, in providing illuminating insights into all manner of historical questions that have preoccupied historians and others for a long time. None of this, probably, would have been possible, for Toynbee at least, if he had not approached his study from a lofty and philosophical height. But whatever our feelings about the project as a whole, it is open to us to find in this vast study many particular gems, discussions of particular issues that throw light on subjects of major importance. Toynbee had an encyclopedic knowledge and a penetrating mind. His way of thinking about history provides him with a vantage point from which to look at some familiar questions in a quite unfamiliar way."


Toynbee’s theory of decay

From the Wikipedia:

"In his acclaimed 12-volume work, A Study of History (1934–1961), the British historian Arnold J. Toynbee explored the rise and fall of 28 civilizations and came to the conclusion that civilizations generally collapsed mainly by internal factors, factors of their own making, but external pressures also played a role.[1] He theorized that all civilizations pass through several distinct stages: genesis, growth, time of troubles, universal state, and disintegration.

For Toynbee, a civilization is born when a "creative minority" successfully responds to the challenges posed by its physical, social, and political environment. However, the fixation on the old methods of the "creative minority" leads it to eventually cease to be creative and degenerate into merely a "dominant minority" (that forces the majority to obey without meriting obedience), which fails to recognize new ways of thinking. He argues that creative minorities deteriorate from a worship of their "former self", by which they become prideful, and they fail in adequately addressing the next challenge that they face. Similarly, the German philosopher Oswald Spengler discussed the transition from Kultur to Zivilisation in his The Decline of the West (1918).

Toynbee argues that the ultimate sign a civilization has broken down is when the dominant minority forms a Universal State, which stifles political creativity. He states:

First the Dominant Minority attempts to hold by force - against all right and reason - a position of inherited privilege which it has ceased to merit; and then the Proletariat repays injustice with resentment, fear with hate, and violence with violence when it executes its acts of secession. Yet the whole movement ends in positive acts of creation - and this on the part of all the actors in the tragedy of disintegration. The Dominant Minority creates a universal state, the Internal Proletariat a universal church, and the External Proletariat a bevy of barbarian war-bands.

He argues that as civilizations decay, they form an "Internal Proletariat" and an "External Proletariat." The Internal proletariat is held in subjugation by the dominant minority inside the civilization, and grows bitter; the external proletariat exists outside the civilization in poverty and chaos and grows envious. He argues that as civilizations decay, there is a "schism in the body social", whereby abandon and self-control together replace creativity, and truancy and martyrdom together replace discipleship by the creative minority.

He argues that in that environment, people resort to archaism (idealization of the past), futurism (idealization of the future), detachment (removal of oneself from the realities of a decaying world), and transcendence (meeting the challenges of the decaying civilization with new insight, as a prophet). He argues that those who transcend during a period of social decay give birth to a new Church with new and stronger spiritual insights around which a subsequent civilization may begin to form after the old has died. Toynbee's use of the word 'church' refers to the collective spiritual bond of a common worship, or the same unity found in some kind of social order.

The historian Carroll Quigley expanded upon that theory in The Evolution of Civilizations (1961, 1979). He argued that societal disintegration involves the metamorphosis of social instruments, which were set up to meet actual needs, into institutions, which serve their own interest at the expense of social needs.[96] However, in the 1950s, Toynbee's approach to history, his style of civilizational analysis, started to face skepticism from mainstream historians who thought it put an undue emphasis on the divine, which led to his academic reputation declining. For a time, however, Toynbee's Study remained popular outside academia. Interest revived decades later with the publication of The Clash of Civilizations (1997) by the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, who viewed human history as broadly the history of civilizations and posited that the world after the end of the Cold War will be multipolar and one of competing major civilizations, which are divided by "fault lines."


A Processual View of Civilizations


"In one sense, history is clearly relative to the perspective of the historian, as Toynbee readily admits. But in another sense, there are good reasons to reject or at least to criticize some historical perspectives, say those that foster the industrialization of historical thinking. Like Whitehead (especially in Adventures of Ideas), Toynbee thinks it is disastrous when human beings (and nonhuman animals) are seen as mere sticks and stones. Granted, there are problems with the pathetic fallacy, wherein inanimate objects are described as having feelings. However, there are also problems with what Toynbee (and Hartshorne 2011, 40-41) calls “the apathetic fallacy,” wherein clearly sentient beings are seen as mere lifeless cogs or pawns in the historical drama. Industrialism, nationalism, communism, and other “isms” that have motivated some historians have encouraged this latter fallacy (30-38). It should be noted that the intelligible field of study that Toynbee (and Whitehead) have in mind is not the individual nation or state, in supposed isolation from other nations or states, but nations or states in relation with each other as parts of a civilization, say Western civilization as opposed to England or France or the United States individually. Civilizations (or societies, as Toynbee sometimes labels them) involve a vast network of relations, as opposed to the atomization of either an individual, on the one hand, or a nation-state, on the other. As in Whitehead (and Plato), the real is dipolar in the sense that each instance of it has both an “in itself ” character as well as an “in relation with others” character and it is primarily the latter that makes historical reality intelligible (39-43; also see Dombrowski forthcoming).A crucial point of convergence between Toynbee and Whitehead occurs when the former explicitly cites the latter in rejection of the idea that the rise and flourishing of civilizations is primarily due to increases in food production and advances in technology. Rather, civilizations rise and flourish due to “some profound cosmological outlook,” as Whitehead puts the point and as endorsed by Toynbee. Behind every great civilization there is a vision (44; also see Whitehead 1967, 13-14; Frankfort 1951, 57-58).

As Toynbee suggests:

- "Following Whitehead’s lead, I would define civilization in spiritual terms. Perhaps it might be defined as an endeavor to create a state of society in which the whole of Mankind [sic] will be able to live together in harmony, as members of a single all-inclusive family. This is, I believe, the goal of which all civilizations so far known have been aiming unconsciously, if not consciously".

In addition to the practical benefit that might result from understanding the rise, flourishing, and decline of civilizations, there is also the intrinsic value found in the acquisition of such knowledge. Toynbee is primarily motivated by curiosity or Aristotelian wonder. In response to the aforementioned contemporary threats to Western civilization (the threat of authoritarianism, threats from microorganisms, and the threat of ecological disaster), I have frequently of late found myself wondering: Why have these threats occurred? To what extent were they preventable? Toynbee’s point would seem to be that such questions require a comparative study of civilizations such as that developed in his own A Study of History. A civilization is not only larger than a nation-state, it is also more intelligible in the sense that it is nearer to the standard of being self-contained, although not even individual civilizations are strictly self-contained in that they are not fully intelligible apart from relations with other civilizations (46-47).The comparative study of civilizations includes a consideration of previous civilizations out of which contemporary ones develop, as in Western civilization arising out of the compost of the previous Greco-Roman civilization as well as the Syriac civilization that contained the biblical people. There is a sharp contrast between the strong cultural (including religious) unity of the Greco-Roman civilization and its political disunity for much of its history before Alexander the Great. This is quite different from the politically liberal world in which we live, which is characterized by pervasive cultural-religious pluralism, but relative stability in politics, at least at the level of individual states. That is, the spiritual core of Western civilization must, given the widespread pluralism of religious beliefs (or lack thereof), involve toleration of various religious beliefs rather than the imposition of one comprehensive doctrine on many others who do not believe it.

We would be well served to view Toynbee not only as a process thinker, in general, but also as a process philosopher of religion, in particular. One indication of this was noted above when Toynbee gives evidence of moving away from the traditional theistic belief in divine omnipotence, a rejection he shared with Whitehead and Hartshorne. The obvious evil Toynbee saw in history means that God could not be both omnibenevolent and omnipotent and, given the forced choice between these two divine attributes, the logic of perfection requires that we retain the former and reject the latter. This is due to the primacy of the good that Toynbee realizes can be traced back as far as Plato.

History looks quite different when there is no all-controlling God hovering over it so as to be responsible for its outcome, including the evils exhibited in it. That is, belief in divine omnipotence entails that when evil occurs, it is either sent by God or is at least permitted by this omnipotent being. It is much more intelligible to view God as a final cause or as an ideal lure than as a Grand Puppeteer who pulls all the strings in human history (162, 169, 244, 349; also see Dombrowski 2006; Hartshorne 1962). Another similarity between Toynbee and process theists consists in Toynbee’s belief that, although the function of religion is to enable human beings to enter into a direct relationship with ultimate reality, this does not necessarily entail commitment to otherworldliness or asceticism. The ascetic assumes that engagement with historical forces will encourage too much of an attachment to “this” world. Although we should avoid otherworldliness, it is also important in Toynbee and in all of the world’s great religions to avoid egocentrism. But egocentrism comes in many forms, including the orgiastic cult of Dionysus or Bacchus in Greco-Roman civilization or in hedonistic versions of capitalism, on the one hand, and the cult of self-denial in several religions, on the other, which, when carried to an extreme, is usually due to a desire to escape from a world conceived to be intolerable. This latter approach is as barren and as destructive of civilization as the self-indulgent rites of the ecstatics, Toynbee thinks. God is to be found in this world through civilization (218-219). Civilizations flourish when there is widespread evidence of people being both seized by the inwardness of the spiritual core of the civilization and willing to actin ways that encourage the civilization to respond creatively to new challenges. Toynbee often (along with Whitehead, Bergson, Hartshorne, and Teilhard) castigates reified and fossilized institutions, whether political/economic, religious, or aesthetic, that halt creative advance (547; also see Bergson 1932, 98-99, 177-178, 251).Finally, it is significant that Toynbee and the process thinkers mentioned in this article were all politically liberal internationalists. Given the famous global village in which we now live and given the enormity of the environmental problems that we face (see, e.g, Henning 2015; Gare 2010; Schulz 2020), the only rational hope for us consists in either the peaceful unification of civilizations around the globe or at least the pacification of relations among them (see Teilhard. Although Teilhard’s prediction of an Omega Point at which there will be a common-consciousness shared by all of humanity assumes an evolutionary goal-directedness and an optimism greater than that found in Toynbee and other process thinkers, in some sense all of these thinkers, including Toynbee, indicate the practical necessity and spiritual desirability of some sort of unity of the world’s civilizations (see Romein 1956, 350). For all of our sakes it is to be hoped that Trumpism and other forms of authoritarian rule, and the deleterious effects such rule has had on efforts to deal with the pandemic and the climate crisis, are temporary impediments in the processual road to the flourishing of all of the world’s current civilizations."



Methodological critiques (from the point of view of process philosophy):

Gordon Martel and Particular Origins


"This author notes that Toynbee’s A Study of History was a phenomenal publishing success in its day, but Toynbee came under severe criticism from academic historians. Further, Martel emphasizes the fact that Toynbee’s global concerns arose out of a very particular background in the intellectual world of pre-1914 Great Britain, especially in terms of Toynbee’s education at Winchester and Oxford. Martel concentrates on both the methodological concerns historians had with Toynbee (in terms of his alleged overreliance on the Greco-Roman world, his vague definitions, his reliance on secondary sources, etc.) and the fact that he is one of the fathers of a major contemporary intellectual movement: world history. The latter is commendable, according to Martel, due to its critique of the self-centeredness, parochialism, and overspecialization in the way academic history has been written for quite some time. Not to mention the nationalism and jingoism of much historical work. That is, Toynbee’s insistence on comparative history should become imperative (Martel 2004, 344).The underlying reality of mutual interdependence is a commonplace in the process-relational thought of Whitehead and Hartshorne, in particular, such that Toynbee should be seen as applying this process-relational view to history in addition to its use in Whitehead and Hartshorne in physics, biology, and metaphysics. Further, it is hard not to take seriously Toynbee’s seminal idea that civilizations typically fall not due to external contacts. Rather, they commit suicide when a group that profits from the status quo, the dominant minority, gets in the way of creative advance and selfishly protects its own interests. In order to avoid becoming an “arrested” civilization that preserves “fossilized remnants” of previous greatness, either the dominant minority must change or be replaced by a new dominant minority (Martel 2004, 345).Even if Toynbee put too much confidence in his overall method, it is arguable that he nonetheless made valuable contributions in discerning patterns in the classical past, as when he noted that when Roman proconsuls got used to despotic rule in Spain, Africa, or Gaul, they then harmed Rome a great deal when they brought these despotic habits back home. These habits eroded the inner life of the civilization. Toynbee’s own habit of analogical thinking is at the core of the comparative method he used to counteract aforementioned parochialism (Martel 2004, 346-351).The important thing, as Martel rightly states, is to face directly the problem of change and to realize that change is the core of reality and remains stubbornly real. From his time at Oxford Toynbee had embraced this insight, which he derived from the thought of Bergson. But change does not occur haphazardly, hence the need to understand how it has played out historically on a comparative basis. In early adulthood Toynbee spent a year in Greece and wondered how it was that in one age the Greeks had established a great civilization and in the contemporary period had fallen into dissolute decay. This question hardly arises without a synoptic view that uses a wide- angle lens, both spatially and temporally. In this regard he was not served well as a student by a curriculum that assumed the permanence of the Greek genius (Martel 2004, 352-354).What Toynbee found sobering at the time of World War One is what we might find sobering today: that we might be facing the decline and fall of Western civilization and perhaps of civilization itself. In this regard we ignore Toynbee at our peril and we would be well served to try to improve his project rather than to abandon it altogether (Martel 2004, 355-356; also see McIntire and Perry 1989).


Ian Hall and the Time of Troubles

"This author is astute to note that much ofthe ire that was directed at Toynbee was due to the view he held from the 1930s on that religion or a worldview or a cosmological outlook or a vision are at the core of a civilization. This is much like the criticism that Whitehead attracted when, like Toynbee, he abandoned a youthful religious skepticism and defended a version of theism different from the traditional one. Religious skeptics never forgave him for “going over” to religion, and religious traditionalists were angered by the processual character of his neoclassical theism. This interest in processual or Bergsonian open religion and metaphysics in both Whitehead and Toynbee is precisely what led them out of the academic mainstream more than their globalism or their liberal internationalism in politics (Hall 2014, 24-29; also see Dombrowski 2017). This turn to religion, broadly conceived, was no doubt influenced by existential crises: in Whitehead’s case by the death of his son in World War One and in Toynbee’s case by the suicide of his son in the 1930s. But it is also due in Toynbee’s case to the belief that Western civilization was beyond its genesis and growth phases and that only a resurgence of Bergsonian creativity would prevent it from decay and possible fall. In short, for the past century we have been in a “time of troubles.” Yet there is a very strong sense in Toynbee that we can avoid becoming one of the fossil civilizations like the Sumeric, Hittite, Babylonic, Andean, Mayan, Yucatec, and Mexico. The schism between the dominant minority and the internal proletariat and the threat of an external proletariat that have typically been found in previous civilizations does not of necessity have to condemn our own (Hall 2014, 30-31; also see Dombrowski 2017, 90). Toynbee was convinced that the time of troubles is largely due to political leaders, and the citizens in democracies who elect them, who are unable to move beyond the interests of local or parochial sovereign states. A thoroughgoing internationalism is the only viable alternative, he thinks, to the breakdown of modern civilizations. It would be a mistake, he also thinks, not to learn from the Romans that suppression of an internal proletariat and war against an external one are not long-term solutions to the problem of bringing about civilizational flourishing. As the title to one of Toynbee’s many books puts it, civilization at present is on trial. Toynbee’s internationalism and his turn toward religion are connected in that he thought that Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism, etc., are different paths up the same mountain, at the summit of which are to be found cognate ideas like: God is love, compassion is the key, and so on. The presence of Buddhism in this list indicates that there can be versions of nontheistic religion that are conducive to the sort of spiritual renewal that Toynbee has in mind (Hall 2014, 32-34).If Toynbee is today somewhat unfashionable, there might be some good reasons for this, given the understandable concerns on the part of those historians who see the benefits of staying close to the evidence without undue speculation, but there are also some really bad reasons for Toynbee (and Whitehead, Bergson, Hartshorne, and Teilhard) being out-of-step with contemporary academe. Desire for spiritual renewal does not have to be associated with supernaturalism in the pejorative sense, with a belief in miracles, or with denigration of the body. Thankfully, there are also aspects of Toynbee that have now become common wisdom and that might help us see our way through this time of troubles: that Western imperialism is not to be defended, that there are great civilizations in addition to that of the West, etc. (Hall 2014, 35-36)."


Krishan Kumar and the Return of Civilization

"This author argues that “civilization” in recent years has made something of a comeback, which bodes well for Toynbee studies in that Toynbee was the greatest historian and analyst of civilization in the 20th century. The criticisms of Toynbee’s work that surfaced in the 1950s themselves now look a bit dated. The return of civilization studies noted by Kumar is due at least in part to the work of Samuel Huntington on the clash of civilizations, most notably the clash between Western civilization and Islamic civilization, but also involving Byzantine civilization as embodied in Russia and Chinese civilization. That is, the “return of civilization” forces us to look East, to literally “re-orient” ourselves in order to understand where we are at present. The threats not only to Western civilization, but to civilization itself, are also highlighted in Jared Diamond’s influential scholarship (see Kumar 2014, 815-818). In addition to the clash of civilizations revitalizing the study of the sort of subject matter treated by Toynbee, there is also the impetus that comes from environmental studies wherein an ecological mode of thinking seems to be welded to an equally expansive civilizational mode of thinking, in contrast to thinking at the level of national prejudice. Global history is quite understandably “in,” as is (unfortunately) the explosive reaction against globalization (Kumar 2014, 819-820). Of course, the very idea of civilization is controversial. The word was apparently first used in 18th century France, a use that had a moral and prescriptive sense and, it should be noted, a processualsense of gradually moving away from barbarism. But the odious character of this conception of civilization may very well be due to the ethnocentric way in which the concept was been applied, rather than to the concept itself. The word “barbarism” itself is derived from the Greek barbaros, a word that mimics how those who spoke languages other than Greek sounded to ancient Greek speakers: ba ba ba. It is precisely this sort of ethnocentrism that Toynbee’s synoptic view is meant to counteract. One can admire Norbert Elias’s related work The Civilizing Process without giving in to ethnocentrism or to Western exceptionalism. Or again, defense of the civilizing process does not necessarily entail unfair or oppressive treatment of other cultures or of “arrested” civilizations, as post-colonial followers of Jean-Jacques Rousseau might think in their defense of indigeneity. Of course, there are uses of “primitive” and “savage” that are very bothersome, but there are other more literal uses where “primitive” (from the Latin) means first, as in the honorific Canadian designation of indigenous people as “First Nations.” Likewise, when Henry David Thoreau says, with the approval of environmentalists everywhere, that in wildness lies the preservation of the world, it is noteworthy that in French “wildness” would be rendered as sauvage(Kumar 2014, 821; Thoreau, “Walking”).It is of paramount importance that in reference to Toynbee we speak of civilizations in the plural and that we avoid any suggestion that the Western variety exhausts the historical evidence. Even as the term “civilization” fell into disfavor, in several disciplines it was transmuted into “culture” and clearly there are a great number of cultures in the world. As Kumar puts the point, “anthropologists were digesting civilization and regurgitating it as culture” (Kumar 2014, 825). “Society” is another cognate term that is used by Toynbee himself. What is crucial is that civilizations (or cultures or societies) be seen in flux and as liable to degeneration and that some sense be made of how to reverse the degeneration. One of the reasons why history is needed (and not merely sociology, political science, and other social sciences) is that only by studying previous civilizations are we able to see how the plots of civilizations work out their conclusions. Further, civilizations doe not merely die, but they also in the process of dying prepare the way for their successors. Civilizations are not static conditions, but dynamic movements of an evolutionary kind, movements that can (but not necessarily) come to an end (Kumar 2014, 826-831).Civilizational analysis, especially of a comparative kind, always seems to involve disputes regarding the units of analysis, but the fact that these units can arise, flourish, decline, and fall is a given. Kumar also wishes to defend the thesis that collective memories and practices in a civilization can be traced back to an ancient past, a tracing that eludes the grasp of interpreters whose units of analysis are too small. Such a tracing is obvious in the case of longstanding civilizations like the Indic or the Sinic, but it is also in evidence in the history of Germany, where the extent of the flourishing of Catholicism in the southern part of that country covers roughly the same territory as the advance of the Roman Empire into that part of the world centuries before. Affection for (or disaffection from) Rome is historically conditioned by forces deep in the past. One wants, indeed one needs, a unit of analysis with a long reach."



Arnold Toynbee on the Process of Civilizational Transition

From the reading notes of Michel Bauwens, 2023:

Contra Spengler, Toynbee affirms:

- "Growths of civilizations are not predestined to any uniform duration

- We have failed to find any reason, a priori, why a civilization should not go on growing indefinitely

- Breakdowns overtake them at widely different ages." (p. 367)


"Differences between growing civilizations are extensive and profound. >< Disintegration tends to conform, in all cases, to a standard pattern:

1. a horizontal schism splitting society into three fractions 2. the creation, be each of these fractions, of a characteristic institution." (p. 368)

(i.e. "universal state, universal church, and barbarian warbands)


These institutions are something more than products of the disintegration process .. In particular, 'universal churches' (may be) .. representative of another species of society, which is at least as distinct from the sphere of 'civilizations', as the latter are distinct from 'primitive societies'." (p. 368)

More information

Excerpts via [2]

A selection from Civilization on Trial, a collection of essay's and lectures by Arnold Toynbee published in 1948 [3]

Sorokin’s summary of Toynbee:

  • John David Ebert recommends
  1. the 2-volume abridged version, which was approved by Toynbee.
  2. a one volume abridged and illustrated version, written by Toynbee himself in 1972, 3 years before he died.

Online version at

* Article: The Return of Civilization—and of Arnold Toynbee? By Krishan Kumar. Cambridge University Press: 03 October 2014


"This paper considers the history of the concept of civilization, and argues for the continuing importance and relevance of Toynbee's multi-volume A Study of History within that tradition. The claim is that, whatever the weaknesses of Toynbee's general approach, the civilizational perspective he adopts allows him to cast an illuminating light on many important historical questions. Moreover his belief in the “philosophical contemporaneity” and equal value of all civilizations should make him peculiarly attractive to those many today who reject Eurocentrism and who are increasingly persuaded of the need to consider the total human experience from earliest times up to the present."