IS TOYNBEE RELEVANT TODAY?
Summary by V.S.Gopalakrishnan Ph.D.
Arnold J. Toynbee (1889-1972) was a giant for those familiar with his name. A giant of an intellectual, along with Bertrand Russell and Julian Huxley in the history of the 20th century. By the age of eight, he was familiar with Greek and Latin classics. He eventually became Professor of International History in the University of London.
His magnum opus was 'Study of History' brought out in 10 volumes, a study that commenced in 1921 and the tenth volume coming out in 1954, spread over 34 years, a work of gigantic proportions! Who can read those ten volumes?! In 1972, the OUP came out with a one-volume abridged edition of Toynbee's 'Study of History', republished by Strand Book Stall, Bombay, in 1995, a copy of which I happen to have. It has 576 pages and I confess I have not fully read it.
But what I have fully gone through is a book called 'The Intent of Toynbee's History' (1961), edited by Edward Gargan, nearly four decades back. This book appraised Toynbee's monumental work on history.
One finds that microscopic study as opposed to panoramic view of history, has been in fashion. In the 17th Century, Rene Descartes even doubted the utility of historical study or research. Leopold von Ranke in the 19th century dispelled this doubt and showed that historians have a necessary and useful place in society. Before the First World War, Toynbee was shaping as a 'classicist'. After the war, he became increasingly dissatisfied with 'national histories'.
Toynbee began to treat history in terms of 'civilizations', their growth, clash, decay etc. After the Second world War, he began to give greater importance to the part played by religions in shaping human history.
Toynbee's 'Study of History' in 10 volumes, suffered slings of criticisms from scholars. His was too grandiose a synthesis; he brought in unwarranted analogues; there was want of a clear definition of 'civilization'; his impulse of Form or Idea could be wrong; as regards the western civilization, he refused to predict a decline or decay etc. Critics further said that there were incongrueties in his dissertation of the concept of Islamic civization, and in his interpretation of the role of Russia and the place of America. That the churches should be increasingly recognized also came as a surprise to the critics.
Anyway, he scores over Oswald Spengler who sees universal history only as a history of organisms that come up and decay without inter-contacts. For Toynbee the civilizations clash, and there is a steady progress in the unfolding of a common design.
In his foreword to the abridged one-volume edition of 'Study of History', Toynbee says, 'The writing of this book has been one of my responses to the challenge that has been presented to me by the senseless criminality of human affairs.' Wars are proof of the senseless criminality of human affairs. But historians present facts and do nothing more. They are not supposed to give us solutions to stop wars! That is for the experts in politics, sociology. psychology etc! What a topsy-turvy world this is! The one who studies and diagnoses things (that is, the historian) cannot prescribe the remedies!
Again, in the foreword, Toynbee states, ' History is protean. You have no sooner caught history in one shape than it changes shape like a Proteus -sometimes almost out of all recognition'! It means that true history is elusive and is only conjectural, drawn from several sources! In fact, Toynbee himself admitted to several areas of error and ignorance after the critics went after him. For example, he knew nothing of the scientific and technological developments in the recent centuries! I am amused because you will have to have HISTORIES OFte human history! You will need History of Economics, History of Politics, History of Sociology, History of Languages, History of Religions, History of Maths and Sciences, and even "HISTORY OF HISTORY'!
To make up for his errors, Toynbee came out with a volume called 'Reconsiderations' in 1961. He had counted 23 civilizations in the 10 vol.-history, and in 'Reconsiderations' the number is 28. This is just one of the reconsiderations. Well, later on, Toynbee let go of civilizations in a sense and gave importance to religions. He began to look at religions as the means to world unity. A pipe dream?
We have now almost forgotten Toynbee. Modern times seldom witnesses such individuals with life-long and single minded devotion to an immense, panoramic and deep study/research/publication in a single field. Samuel Huntington comes close to Toynbee's concept of civilizational wars.
I feel that we are witnessing polarisation not in terms of nation-states but in terms of religious-states. Countries are slowly attempting to become uni-religious due to incompatibility of certain cultures. Frictions and terrorism -even with child and female suicide bombers- within a society/country, are driving politicians to reconsider citizenship. In the long run, say in 30 or 40 years, this will present problems since the geriatric European nations would then have no alternative but to allow skilled and unskilled immigrants from poorer societies/countries/cultural groups, to run their economies.
Toynbee's studies are relevant even today, and he could not be 'history'. (v.s.gopalakrishnan ph.d., ias retd.)