A Study of History - Arnold J. Toynbee
Arnold J. Toynbee.
Arnold J. Toynbee

In the summer of 1960 I worked as an apprentice in a laboratory at ASEA (nowadays ABB) in Västerås, Sweden. (A total of six months of "real-life" training was one of the requirements to obtain an M.S. degree at the R. Institute of Technology.) I used to spend part of the lunch hour at the very attractive public library. Unlike the Stockholm public libraries, where the books were bound in dull red or blue protective covers, the Västerås library used transparent jackets made of polyester film. This made a huge difference in browsing the library shelves.

One of my serendipitous discoveries was Toynbee's "A Study of History", describing the rise and fall of 23 civilizations in human history. (Well, the fall of 22, as the industrialized Western civilization could still be considered viable.) I am pretty sure that I did not read it in its original form, for the massive work consisted of twelve volumes published between 1934 and 1961. More probably, the book I borrowed at the library was the abridged version published in 1957.

You have to admire the sheer audacity and scale of the project. No matter how well-read, painstaking and meticulous the professor was, any attempt to not only describe 23 civilizations, but also to explain their rise and fall, was bound to be savaged by critics. For every single one of these civilizations, there must have been dozens of eminent scholars - egyptologists, sinologists, hellenists etc. - who would take offense at a generalist's sweeping statements within their field of expertise. Academic critics tend to be ferocious. It must have taken a lot of confidence to offer "A Study of History" as a target for their slings and arrows.

In contrast to Oswald Spengler, who thought that the rise and fall of civilizations was as inevitable as the march of the seasons, Toynbee maintained that the fate of civilizations is determined by their response to the challenges facing them. "Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder." The unifying theme of his book is challenge and response.

One of the attractive things about the book is that it draws attention to the fact that there have been many highly developed civilizations in human history. Understandably, history lessons in the West focus on western civilization and its roots in the Greek and Roman cultures, but the achievements of the Chinese, Indian, Mayan, Islamic and many other civilizations deserve recognition, and their successes and failures merit discussion.

According to Toynbee, civilizations start to decay when they lose their moral fibre and the cultural elite turns parasitic, exploiting the masses and creating an internal and external proletariat. He has been criticized for exaggerating the role of religious and cultural value systems while underestimating the importance of economic factors in shaping civilizations. It appears that with advancing age, Toynbee became even more convinced of the importance of the spiritual dimension. This may have contributed to a decline in his influence among modern historians .

Clio, the muse of History.
Clio, the muse of History.

Toynbee's theory of challenge and response may explain such things as the relative stability of the Egyptian civilization and the rise of the Hellenic civilization. The Pharaonic culture thrived in the Nile valley and faced few challenges from the outside world. There was little incentive for military or technological development in a stable environment. It is noteworthy that more time elapsed from the construction of the Great Pyramid to the age of Cleopatra than from Cleopatra to the present! - The ancient Greeks, on the other hand, faced constant pressure from the outside world due to their location at the crossroads between Europe, Asia and Africa in the east Mediterranean. There was nothing inevitable about their success, but their responses to the challenges facing them created the conditions that led to the rise of the Hellenic civilization. - Perhaps the rise of Prussia can be seen in a similar light as a response to the 30-year war and its aftermath?

An interesting theory is advanced by Toynbee regarding the era of the Vikings. In his opinion, all the conditions were right for a Viking civilization to rise and dominate Europe. The reason that this did not happen was that their religion and value system succumbed to the spread of Christianity, eradicating much of their cultural identity.

Much of what Toynbee suggests seems quite plausible to me, such as the stability of civilizations in a stable environment, and the thesis that an unstable environment will pose challenges that may unlock previously untapped sources of creativity and energy. This seems reminiscent of the theory of "punctuated equilibrium" in biological evolution. The same effect can often be observed in individuals. Was it just coincidence that Angela Davis became a professor and a prominent left-wing political figure in the U.S. after four close friends were killed in the Birmingham church bombing in 1963? Challenge and response!

Clearly there is a limit to the insights that can be gained from a study of history. Our civilization is unique in many respects. It has already become a "global village", where instant world-wide communications are a reality. - I was amused when, a few years ago, the Ericsson telephone company reported: "Last year we added half a million customers. A day." The day before yesterday, a billion people watched the World Cup final in Berlin. - On the dark side, our weapons have become destructive beyond imagination. And our capability to trigger "natural" disasters is unprecedented.

In my opinion, there is an exaggerated tendency among scholars and historians to look for cultural and ideological explanations for the great shifts in human affairs. Toynbee is no exception. To me it seems that unpredictable events such as pestilence, famines due to shifts in the climate, and even far-reaching decisions by individual leaders have been very important in forming our destiny. Such events may become even more significant with increasing globalization. Above all, I believe that there has been a tendency to play down the importance of technology in shaping our civilization and our perception of reality.

At the risk of being labelled a "technology freak", let me suggest some points for consideration:

The uncle of my maternal grandfather died at age 10 in 1864.

  • Gutenberg's invention of book printing is generally agreed to have been a very significant event, but what about photography? Until well into the 19th century any death in the family meant a slowly fading memory of the face of the loved one. There was no way to record what he or she looked like, except for painted portraits for the privileged few. For that matter, there were very few images of any kind until newspapers and magazines became generally available in the 19th century. - Today there is hardly an hour or a minute when we and our children are not exposed to images superimposed on the immediate reality surrounding us: images from TV, newspapers, magazines, films, games, photos, advertising billboards, books, the Internet... It is hard for us to even begin to understand what a world devoid of images was like. And the impact of television on our world view cannot be overstated. When we judge the thoughts, aspirations, actions of kings and commoners of past generations, we should bear this in mind.
  • Our ancestors a few generations back usually had no first-hand experience of the world outside the local town or village and its closest neighbors. They married people born and raised just a few miles from home. Our present reality is very different. The increased mobility made possible by trains, cars and aircraft has not just generated economic benefits - it has enriched our lives immensely.
  • In stark contrast to many of my ancestors, and to my father in the aftermath of two world wars, I have never known hunger. Admittedly, this can be credited to political decisions, but surely modern agricultural technology has also played a role.
  • The changed role of women in our society during the past century has not been the result of ideological debate, contrary to what some feminists like to believe, but rather of the absence and shortage of men during and after WW I, and of the general availability of running water, central heating, household appliances - and the Pill. Previously, to run a family and a home was a full-time occupation.
  • Globalization has not primarily resulted from political decisions. It has been a consequence of the plummeting costs of economic transactions, thanks to modern information technology (including the Internet) and the efficient transportation of goods. Probably, the standardized freight container should be ranked among the top innovations of the past century.

Today, if you compare daily life of the middle class in Sweden with that of most other parts of the world (even including China and India), you will probably find much greater resemblance than a comparison with the daily life of even the most affluent persons a century ago. We may miss being pampered by servants; but a refrigerator, a telephone, a car and a TV set, not to mention hospitals equipped with X-ray facilities, offer more than adequate compensation, I think.

Overall, things are going comparatively well, finally, after two world wars and the very real threat of a third one during the Cold War. We may consider ourselves blessed to live in a Golden Age in human history. I realize that this will sound extremely offensive and cynical to people in the Palestine, Darfur, and many other places, and I recognize that a sizeable part of the world's population still live in the most appalling conditions. Yet, in my lifetime, there has been phenomenal economic growth in the most populous areas of the world. The most dire predictions of the Club of Rome around 1970 have not (yet?) been fulfilled.

Talk of a "Golden Age" should not be understood as a statement of optimism on my part, however; quite the opposite. With the exception of continued economic growth in developing countries and probable medical advances in the near future, it is difficult to imagine what could surpass the opportunities offered to the present generation, while the challenges and dangers facing future generations seem considerable. Please, do not confuse me with Candide!

But then, being a piece of flotsam from WW II, I never had much sympathy for the 1968 youth rebellion. I felt that we should count our blessings. - A few years later, I was immensely pleased to see the slogan "Status Quo" painted on a wall! Alas, I soon discovered that it referred to a British pop band...

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    Last edited or checked May 2, 2011.  

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