Commentary Magazine

Hellenism, by Arnold J. Toynbee

What Toynbee knows Best1


After many years, the universal historian Arnold Toynbee has given us a book-length work on the particular civilization in which he has been especially interested all his life. Hellenism is, accordingly, an important book for those concerned with Toynbee’s larger work. In it Toynbee attempts both to survey the history of Greece and Rome, using the categories of A Study of History, and to present a moral for our own time. His conclusion is that: “In the field of politics, a revival of the Hellenic worship of idolized local states is, today, the dominant religion of the West. . . . The tragic history of the Hellenic world shows that this Hellenic form of idolatry is a ghost of Hellenism that we harbor at our peril. The modern world must exorcise this demon resolutely if it is to save itself from meeting with its Hellenic predecessor’s fate.”

Underlying this worship of collective human power, according to Toynbee, is a deeper error, man’s worship of himself, which Toynbee calls “Humanism”; his historical diagnosis is that Hellenic civilization floundered because of pride, the Greeks of the 5th century B.C.E. having tainted all of subsequent Hellenic history by sinning against the transcendent in their moment of greatest secular triumph.

As particular exponents of humanism in 5th-century Greece, Toynbee singles out the Sophists, and especially Protagoras, author of the famous saying, “Man is the measure of all things.” But although there is some resemblance between the Sophists’ revolt against traditional Greek morality and the spirit of certain writers of the Italian Renaissance, in the case of the Sophists we certainly cannot talk of humanism in the strictest sense, implying advocacy of a specific, primarily literary, educational program. On the contrary, we have, as evidence of the Sophists’ revolt against the traditional literary education of their time, skeptical statements, suggestions of the relativity of knowledge and morals, and rationalistic explanations of religious belief; and it is just this kind of material that has encouraged earlier writers to talk vaguely about the humanism of the Sophists. Toynbee, however, means by “humanism” something quite different: he insists that there was a religion of humanism among the Greeks of the 5th century B.C.E.: “. . . the Hellenes saw in Man ‘the Lord of Creation’ and worshipped him as an idol in the place of God. . . . What distinguishes the Hellenic experiment in Humanism is that it was the most whole-hearted and uncompromising practice of man-worship that is on record up to date.” Where is the evidence for the existence of such worship? In the fragmentary texts of the Sophists that we possess, there are no injunctions to adore man, and even Protagoras’s dictum, of which Toynbee makes much, is generally interpreted as an epistemological statement, a denial in Heraclitean terms of the possibility of objective knowledge. Presumably as an additional piece of evidence, Toynbee uses as an epigraph the first line of the ode on man from Sophocles’ Antigone, but the poem is not a “humanistic” utterance even by Toynbee’s odd definition. Unfortunately, the Greekless reader cannot judge for himself from the quotation, since Toynbee uses one of Gilbert Murray’s most arbitrary translations.2 Nor does he tell us that the ode concludes with a reminder of the dangers to which man is subject, and that, far from being a declaration of unadulterated “humanism,” the poem is quite orthodox in its fear of hybris.

The only texts, then, which Toynbee seems able to provide in support of his central assertion that the Greeks worshiped man are Protagoras’ epistemological dictum and Sophocles’ poem on the dangers of pride; these and these alone comprise the documentary evidence in Hellenism of a supposed Greek religion of humanism. There is, indeed, no other evidence of any religious worship of Man among the Greeks. There are extant no hymns to man, no prayers to man, no word in ancient Greek for man-worship. True, the city-states had their hero cults, and Alexander the Great was officially deified, yet in each case the one who was worshiped was believed to be, or at least to have become, a god. The worship itself, moreover, was neither intense nor compulsory, for with the exception of the mystery religions—which with their emphasis on sin, suffering, and redemption by a savior god, were certainly not humanistic—the Greeks were not usually over-serious about their religion.

Despite Toynbee’s well-known distaste for the Jews, his own cast of mind is curiously Hebraic: there can be for him absolutely no trifling with divine matters. Seriousness about anything is for Toynbee proof of religious commitment. Thus, because many Greeks in the 5th century B.C.E. took seriously the possibility of human freedom and the reality of human power, Toynbee concludes that they worshiped man; and because they participated in public religious rites he asserts that they worshiped the state as such. He will not recognize the difference between their official state cults, which were generally neither gloomy nor intolerant of more personal religions, and modern totalitarianism. The Greeks loved their city-states, not because, as Toynbee asserts, they were idolatrous, but because their states were beautiful and lovable to them; why then should they not have participated light-heartedly in cults which were as much civic as religious? In any event, this “fundamentally irreligious state religion,” as Nilson describes it, was not nearly as fanatical as Toynbee’s grim phrases suggest.



In Greek philosophy Toynbee sees only what he wishes to see. Certainly his account of Socrates’ position offers an original perspective. According to Toynbee, in a passage which must be quoted at length to give its full subtlety, “One of Socrates’ theories was that wrong-doing was due, not to wickedness, but to ignorance. . . . Man is always trying to do right according to his lights. This Socratic view was also characteristically Hellenic; for an inclination to translate moral issues into non-moral terms was an Hellenic foible. In the idiom of the Greek language in Socrates’ day, the usage of the word ‘kalos,’ meaning ‘beautiful,’ was stretched to stand for ‘good’ in the moral sense as well as the aesthetic. This attempt to reduce moral issues to questions of taste or knowledge . . . was challenged not only by the facts of everyday private life, but also by notorious contemporary public events.”

Toynbee describes as such a public “wrong” the Athenians’ decision to use funds collected from their allies for defense against the Persians to rebuild the Athenian temples destroyed during the Persian invasion in 480 B.C.E. He does not remind the reader, however, that the temples of Athens were razed because the Athenians, unlike many of their neighbors, chose to fight rather than keep their city physically intact by surrendering to the Persians. In any event, having described this second “wrong,” Toynbee concludes thus his refutation of Socrates’ philosophy: “This one discreditable transaction was sufficient proof that Socrates’ analysis of human nature had been too sanguine.”

I do not see why—G. E. Moore to the contrary notwithstanding—it is necessarily a “foible” to translate moral issues into non-moral terms. Toynbee is describing what we call today ethical naturalism, of which there is indeed a deep vein in the work of Plato and Aristotle (and in that of John Dewey, too). Evidently he resents the Greek quest to understand, in so far as it is possible, the things of this life in terms of this life.

The passage just quoted suggests either no reading of Xenophon or Plato (our main authorities on the teachings of Socrates) or a recollection long since twisted awry. For where Toynbee claims that Socrates, unaware of the ambiguities of his own language, confused beauty with moral goodness, both Plato and Xenophon depict Socrates as a master of linguistic analysis, Plato in particular presenting Socrates in a number of dialogues as concerned with just those distinctions to which Toynbee suggests he was blind. In Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates asks: “It seems you do not think that ‘beautiful’ and ‘good,’ or ‘bad’ and ‘ugly’ are identical. . . . [With regard to] all lovely things . . . is there no standard that you refer to by which you call them, severally, beautiful? . . . You term them beautiful either for some pleasure, or their utility, or both?” In the Symposium and the Republic, Socrates is shown as relating deliberately the concepts of beauty and goodness, not using them interchangeably in a naive way, as Toynbee suggests.

The Socrates of our sources is never presented as confusing the process that brings a thing into being with the final product, as Toynbee’s “refutation” does; he does not assume that a thing considered beautiful by the many is necessarily morally good; and he certainly does not believe that men are incapable of acting wrongly. The plain fact is that Plato assigns to Socrates some of the strongest criticisms of Greek imperialism ever voiced; while Socrates’ strictures in the Republic against the moral corruptions that can attend the production and enjoyment of art are surpassed in their severity only by Tolstoy’s arguments in What is Art?



By now, I suspect, the pattern of Toynbee’s prejudices with respect to the Greeks is clear: his gloomy and puritanical outlook forbids him to concede that their greatest thinkers were sophisticated in their attempt to introduce as much harmony as possible into an existence which they knew was only too liable to tragic disruption. Toynbee, however, views with contempt the spectacle of men trying to order their lives without belief in his particular version of Christianity; thus, he cannot understand why the Greeks, who tried to substitute harmony for fear as a means of checking destructive passion, treasured beauty and order as they did.

As for myself, I find less arrogance in the Greeks’ concern with the possibilities and limitations of human life than I do in Toynbee’s ill-concealed assurance that his own religious insight gives him a warrant, not merely to criticize and reject, but to despise the noblest efforts of other men. As a historian Toynbee is singularly lacking in compassion. He calls the break-up of Greek civilization a tragedy—yet throughout his discussion he presents the Greeks as naive, if not actually stupid. And after deciding that stupidity and pride were to blame for the Greeks’ inability to maintain their civilization, he goes on to see in the history of Rome little more than a long decadence:

Before Christianity had become the official religion of the Hellenic world-state, and before the barbarians had established their successor states on what had formerly been Hellenic ground, Hellenism was already dead; and it had died of the Hellenes’ own failure to respond to a challenge with which they had been confronted as far back in their history as the 5th century B.C. . . . the establishment of an Hellenic world-state had been, not a cure for Hellenism’s malady, but merely a temporary palliative.

Once again, Toynbee’s haste to find a moral makes him insensitive to the society he is describing. I will not discuss in detail his exaggerated estimate of the disorder in the ancient world during the last few centuries before the birth of Jesus; suffice it to say that one could never tell from Toynbee’s account that the period he melodramatically labels “The Age of Agony” was not insignificant in the history of human thought. (In keeping with Toynbee’s indifference to Greek science and mathematics, the names of Euclid and Archimedes, to mention only two of the greatest Hellenistic thinkers, do not even appear in his book.)

Toynbee’s discussion of Rome reveals a clash between two of his preoccupations. On the one hand, he is anxious to discover in the ancient world parallels to the unification he believes must take place in our own time. He favors accordingly the program of the Empire, so much so that he does not reflect that local freedom cannot be curtailed without stultification. On the other hand, although Toynbee’s distaste for pluralism explains his view of the Roman imperial system, his concern to apply Spenglerian patterns of growth and decay to civilizations prevents him from admitting that even at its best the Empire could be anything but a “palliative” for an already incurably sick Hellenic civilization. Once Toynbee decides to place Greece and Rome in the category of a single Hellenic civilization, and once he asserts that the civilization committed suicide in the 5th century B.C.E., however much he favors the Empire from the standpoint of unity, he must look on it, even when it appears to be flourishing, as only deceptively promising. The owl of Minerva flies only at dusk: Rome’s attempt to unify the ancient world came too late, since the Greeks, wayward individualists as they were, had already destroyed forever the possibility of success. Can we call this kind of reasoning “historical”?



Such being Toynbee’s handling of Greek and Roman history, where he feels himself most at ease, even the reader unfamiliar with Toynbee’s discussions of the Jews in his other works will be prepared for his treatment of them in Hellenism. His bias is manifest in his choice of language, for we are told of “Judaea’s fanatical religion,” of “the vein of exclusiveness and intolerance that was the dark side of Jewish monotheism,” of “unmitigated Jewish intransigence,” of “the Christian’s aggressive intransigence, both sublime and perverse, and, in both aspects. . . Judaic,” and of “the Judaic vein of exclusiveness and intolerance in the spirit of Christianity.”

In Toynbee’s eyes, the Jews are fanatical and nothing else. Therefore (to give only two of his most outstanding and characteristic judgments on the Jews) the Palestinian Revolt of 66—70 was merely a desperate attempt by the Jews to impose their religion on others by force; and this same arrogance showed itself in the intellectual realm in their refusal to use Hellenic philosophy for the explication of their religious beliefs. As history, these statements too are, of course, nonsense; but if Toynbee does not read Plato carefully, why be surprised at his ignorance of the Old Testament? And if the author of the ten-volume Study of History has forgotten Caligula’s reversal of Augustus’ policy of tolerance, the corruption of the Roman procurators in Palestine, and the ferocious Roman pogroms, who will dare to suggest that he refer to any competent textbook? Finally, if Toynbee finds Euclid and Archimedes too unimportant to refer to in a history of Hellenic civilization, there is no point in being shocked at his neglect of Philo Judaeus, who, like the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls, is not even mentioned. Perhaps the most charitable way of summarizing Toynbee’s attitude towards the Jews is to say that in Hellenism they fare only slightly worse than the Greeks.

Hellenism is a bad book. Its scholarship is shoddy; the cast of mind underlying its premises is disturbing. For although I want peace as much as Toynbee does, I fear that his kind of intellectual intolerance can only exacerbate what he proposes to cure. The nations of the world may not succeed in living together harmoniously without being forced to do so, but if they do, it will be, at least in part, because they will have taken the trouble to understand one another. Such understanding, however, is very similar to good scholarship; both require humility and a willingness to learn, even when what is discovered is not immediately pleasing. But when we are sure in advance that we alone are in possession of the truth, we can be neither good neighbors and citizens nor good scholars. Toynbee’s Hellenism exists as a negative proof of how intimately these virtues are connected.




1 A review of Hellenism, by Arnold J. Toynbee, Oxford, 272 pp., $4.50.

2 The Greek says simply: “There are many strange things but none stranger than man.” Toynbee uses Murray's translation: “Wonders are many, but none there be so strange, so fell as the Child of Man.”

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