Commentary Magazine

Toynbee and History, edited by Ashley Montagu

Toynbee as Ideologue
by Bernard W. Wishy
Toynbee and History. Edited by Ashley Montagu. Porter Sargent. 385 pp. $5.00.

The well-known social scientist Ashley Montagu has collected over thirty articles to form a symposium on Toynbee’s A Study of History which includes the views of such distinguished scholars as Pieter Geyl, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Geoffrey Barraclough, A. J. P. Taylor, and Walter Kaufmann. Collectively, these essays represent the best criticism that Toynbee is likely to receive in our generation, and their very appearance together in this book marks Toynbee’s emergence, not as a great historian, but as a figure of cultural significance.

The consensus of opinion of the historians among the contributors is not surprising. Had Toynbee presented his work merely as personal reflections on the old questions about the nature, “pattern,” and “meaning” of history, he might have escaped some of the criticism leveled at him here. But he has repeatedly asserted that, unlike Spengler, he has been loyal to fact, and it is precisely on grounds of fact that fellow historians have found him most vulnerable.

The eminent Dutch historian, Pieter Geyl indicates the general direction of the complaints against Toynbee: that he chooses the facts to fit his theses, basing far too broad generalizations about “civilizations” on much too narrow a foundation of factual truth, and isolating single facts—i.e. Holland’s struggle against the sea—to the exclusion of others in accounting for the rise of a given civilization. Geyl finds Toynbee vague about the intensity of the “challenges” and “responses” which allegedly determine the course of civilizations. Further, his choice of the “creative individuals” who have shaped history seems purely arbitrary: St. Paul, Peter the Great, Machiavelli, Dante, the Buddha—but not others of equal importance. These particular figures are chosen on the basis of another of Toynbee’s principles of interpretation—“withdrawal and return”—according to which the major changes in history are brought about by men (or groups) who first “withdraw” from society for meditation and then return to make it over in the light of their new wisdom. But “withdrawal and return” is as vague a concept as “challenge and response.” It covers both voluntary seclusion (the Buddha) and enforced exile (Dante). It cannot explain why, though both the Puritans and the Catholics “withdraw” in early 17th-century England, only the Puritans “return” with “omnipotence.” The extent to which this, like so many other of Toynbee’s generalizations, violates all sense of proportion is perhaps best seen in his extravagant assertion that England’s “withdrawal” from the Continent in the 15th and 16th centuries made possible the Royal Society, the Glorious Revolution, the colonization of North America, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the steam engine, the Reform Bill of 1832, British control of India, Darwin’s Origin of the Species, and the British Commonwealth of Nations!



The main discontent historians have felt with Toynbee, however, has revolved not so much around his subsidiary generalizations as his claim that over twenty different “civilizations” have experienced a common course of development. In this book, Gotthold Weil effectively challenges Toynbee’s interpretation of the development of Islam, Wayne Altree takes him to task on China, Abba Eban on the Jews, and W. den Boer on ancient Greece (the civilization Toynbee knows best). Other contributors to the symposium attack his views on geography, renaissances, and religions, and Professor Geyl has elsewhere refuted most of the ideas about the contemporary world expressed by Toynbee in The World and the West. Very little of Toynbee’s “system” has survived these assaults.

Though Toynbee’s critics are remarkably free from that petty ill-informed hostility which the very idea of philosophy of history sometimes arouses, they seriously doubt that any system of “laws” like his can possibly encompass all they have learned from patient tedious research. After a century of “scientific history” during which an incalculable amount of sheer factual knowledge has been collected, many historians have given up an earlier hope that facts would supply “answers” or that they could find immutable “laws” of historical development. After all the possible “facts” are in and the historians have followed Croce’s and Collingwood’s and Beard’s advice to use their moral imagination and “get inside the past,” we are still left with many of the mysteries and ambiguities that Toynbee and other philosophers of history would like to have resolved—indeed, the mysteries seem deeper than ever.

But for all this, Toynbee remains an attractive mind to many people, and Edward Fiess’s essay, “Toynbee as a Poet”—an appreciation with which Toynbee has himself expressed satisfaction—suggests the nature of this attraction. Walter Kaufmann shrewdly remarks that “people begin to think of Toynbee as a poet only where he has raised other expectations and then failed to fulfill them.” Toynbee’s “poetry,” in other words, rather than being the result of a heightened feeling for the color and the nuance of history, is really a product of his vagueness. It is another word for abstraction. “Challenge and response,” for example, the abstraction that Toynbee uses not only to characterize the process by which civilizations rise and fall, but to judge their spiritual resources, covers such a variety of events and beliefs that it loses all precision—and imprecision is hardly a quality of good poetry.

Moreover, judgment of a whole civilization seems impossible to start with: everywhere, men succeed in some respects and fail in others. In every generation, as Herbert Butterfield has said, there occurs a clash of wills out of which emerges something that no one ever really willed. The sense of mystery about the past that this view implies, and the sobriety it entails, make wide generalizations extremely suspect and confound prophecy. But a mind like Toynbee’s cannot bear to live in a world as bafflingly complex as ours, and is driven by a need to subject life—as understood, if not as conducted—totally to the control of reason. It is, in short, the mind of an ideologue, doing with the past what other rationalists would like to do with the present.



Toynbee’s commitment to abstraction, and his sense of history as a titanic drama, provide another symptom of the dangerous contemporary taste for apocalypse. Life is seen as a continuing series of crises culminating in Victory or Death. The fate of a civilization is always at stake; destruction is always imminent. Human beings are conceived in relation to “waves of the future”: there is little sense of the mass of unrecorded minor loyalties and smaller destinies, of people living out their daily lives without direct reference to the great issue of the age. History takes place only on the barricades and men achieve identity or fulfillment only as they become associated somehow with the universalist messianic movement of the latest “internal proletariat.”

Toynbee musters a mass of facts to prove his case and to do justice to other civilizations than our own. Because he fails to maintain vital intellectual and moral distinctions while “appreciating” other cultures, his attempt at cultural pluralism degenerates into the worst kind of eclecticism and syncretism. Only a few of the enormous number of ideas he discusses are fully understood or worked out, and a huge ragbag of cultural information is presented—and taken—as scholarship and learning or even piety, viz. Toynbee’s incredible “prayer” to Mother Mary, Mother Isis, Mother Ishtar, et al.

The terrible thing is the waste all this involves. Toynbee obviously has great gifts, but he has refused to impose on himself a discipline that could turn them to better account than the occasional insights or “interesting ideas” that his critics grant him. He has remained singularly undisturbed by their dissent from his views, and impervious to their sense of fact. If, as Geyl says, he conceives of himself as a prophet, he has done himself the injustice of accepting and paying court to some of the worst vices of our time instead of correcting them in true prophetic style. His work, consequently, tells us less about history than it does about himself and the tastes of our age.


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