Arnold Toynbee

Arnold Toynbee

Born: 1889. Died: 1975.


- The proper study of history involves studying civilizations rather than nations or cultural periods.

- Civilizations arise by the response of creative individuals to challenges presented by situations of special difficulty.

- Progress in civilization consists in meeting difficulties by responding in creative ways that are internal and spiritual rather than external and material.

- The breakdown of society occurs when creative individuals fail to lead through the exercise of creative power, resulting in withdrawal of the allegiance of the majority and a subsequent loss of social unity.


British historian whose twelve-volume analysis of the rise and fall of civilizations, A Study of History, 1934-1961, (also known as History of the World) was very popular in its time.

Toynbee, a prolific author, was the nephew of a great economic historian, Arnold Toynbee, with whom he is sometimes confused. Born in London, Arnold Joseph was educated at Winchester College and Balliol College, Oxford. He worked for the Foreign Office during both World War I and World War II. He was Director of Studies at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (1925-1955) and Research Professor of International History at the University of London.

Toynbee was interested in the seeming repetition of patterns in history and, later, in the origins of civilisation. It was in this context that he read Spengler’s Decline of the West and although there is some superficial similarity, both men describe the rise, flowering and decline of civilisations, their work moved in different directions.

Toynbee agreed with Spengler that there were strong parallels between their situation in Europe and the ancient Greco-Roman civilization. Toynbee saw his own views as being more scientific and empirical than Spengler's, he described himself as a "metahistorian" whose "intelligible field of study" was civilization.

In his Study of History Toynbee describes the rise and decline of 23 civilisations. His over-arching analysis was the place of moral and religious challenge, and response to such challenge, as the reason for the robustness or decline of a civilisation. He described parallel life cycles of growth, dissolution, a "time of troubles," a universal state, and a final collapse leading to a new genesis. Although he found the uniformity of the patterns, particularly of disintegration, sufficiently regular to reduce to graphs, and even though he formulated definite laws of development such as "challenge and response," Toynbee insisted that the cyclical pattern could, and should, be broken.

Toynbee’s books, huge in scale, achieved wide prominence but he was more admired by the History reading public than by fellow historians, who criticised him for contorting information to fit his alleged patterns of history.

The ideas he promoted had some vogue (Toynbee actually appeared on the Cover of Time magazine in 1947). They have not however proved to be of decisive influence on other historians. Toynbee's work was subject to an effective critique by Pieter Geyl and an article written by Hugh Trevor-Roper, "Arnold Toynbee's Millenium" - descibing Toynbee's work as a "Philosophy of Mish-Mash" - dramatically undermined Toynbee's reputation.

Major Books of Arnold Toynbee

- An Historian's Approach to Religion, 1956
- A Study of History, Volumes 1-6 & Volumes 7-12, 1934-1961
- Change and Habit: The Challenge of Our Time, 1966
- Cities on the Move, 1970
- Civilization on Trial, 1948
- Hellenism: The History of a Civilization, 1959
- Surviving the Future, 1971

Major Articles of Arnold Toynbee

- 1923, The East after Lausanne, Foreign Affairs
- 1929, The Modernisation of the Middle East, Journal of the Royal Institute of International Affairs
- 1931, Historical Parallels to Current International Problems, International Affairs
- 1931, World Sovereignty and World Culture: The Trend of International Affairs Since the War, Pacific Affairs
- 1939, A Turning Point in History, Foreign Affairs
- 1950, A Turning-Point in the Cold War?, International Affairs
- 1955, A Study of History: What I am Trying to Do, International Affairs
- 1961, Communism and the West in Asian Countries, Annals
- 1970, A Centenary View of Lenin, International Affairs
- 1971, What Can Man Believe In?, Journal of Religion and Health
- 1972, The Century of Alienation, International Affairs

Quotes from Arnold Toynbee

- "A sudden crushing defeat is apt to stimulate the defeated party to set its house in order and prepare to make a victorious response." (from "A Study of History", 1934)

- "The brotherhood of Man presupposes the fatherhood of God." (from "A Study of History", 1934)

- "The emergence of a superman or a great mystic or a genius or a superior personality inevitably precipitates a social conflict. The conflict will be more or less acute, according to the degree in which the creative individual happens to rise above the average level of his former kin and kind. But some conflict is inevitable, since the social equilibrium which the genius has upset by the mere fact of his personal emergence has eventually to be restored either by his social triumph or by his social defeat." (from "A Study of History", 1934)

- "Familiarity breeds acquiescence as well as contempt." (from "A Study of History", 1934)

- "Mythology ... is an intuitive form of apprehending and expressing universal truths." (from "A Study of History", 1934)

- "No being can be what he is unless he is putting his essence into action in his field." (from "A Study of History", 1934)

- "The problem of bringing the uncreative rank and file into line with the creative pioneers ... cannot be solved in practice, on the social scale, without bringing into play the faculty of sheer mimesis [i.e., imitation]-one of the less exalted faculties of Human Nature which has more in it of drill than of inspiration." (from "A Study of History", 1934)

- "Rulers who have adopted the religion favored by the most numerous, or at any rate the most vigorous, section of their subjects have generally prospered, whether actuated by religious sincerity or by political cynicism." (from "A Study of History", 1934)

- "The Intoxication of Victory." (from "A Study of History", 1934)

- "Civilizations ... come to birth and proceed to grow by successfully responding to successive challenges. They break down and go to pieces if and when a challenge confronts them which they fail to meet." (from "Civilization on Trial", 1948)

- "God genuinely puts His created works in jeopardy ... in order to win an opportunity for creating something new." (from "Civilization on Trial", 1948)

- "History is not a cyclic and not a mechanical process. It is the masterful and progressive execution, on the narrow stage of this world, of a divine plan." (from "Civilization on Trial", 1948)

- "Man cannot live by technology alone." (from "Civilization on Trial", 1948)

- "Man has been a dazzling success in the field of intellect and "know-how" and a dismal failure in the things of the spirit." (from "Civilization on Trial", 1948)

- "Personalities are inconceivable except as agents of spiritual activity." (from "Civilization on Trial", 1948)

- "The One True God had taken this opportunity of the opening of men's minds through the collision and collapse of their old local traditions; He had taken advantage of this excruciating experience, in order to illuminate these momentarily open minds with a fuller and truer vision of His nature and purpose than they had been capable of receiving before." (from "Civilization on Trial", 1948)

- "Religion, after all, is the serious business of the human race." (from "Civilization on Trial", 1948)

- "There has been so great a revolution in our time-scale that, if I were to try to plot out to scale, on one of these pages, a chart of the history of this planet since its birth, I should not be able to make so short a period as eleven hundred years visible to the naked eye." (from "Civilization on Trial", 1948)

- "The things that make good headlines attract our attention because they are on the surface of the stream of life, and they distract our attention from the slower, impalpable, imponderable movements that work below the surface and penetrate to the depths. But, of course, it is really these deeper, slower movements that, in the end, make history, and it is they that stand out huge in retrospect, when the sensational passing events have dwindled, in perspective, to their true proportions." (from "Civilization on Trial", 1948)

- "The universe becomes intelligible to the extent of our ability to apprehend it as a whole." (from "Civilization on Trial", 1948)

- "We have to abolish War and Class-and abolish them now-under pain, if we flinch or fail, of seeing them win a victory over man which, this time, would be conclusive and definitive." (from "Civilization on Trial", 1948)

- "It is the historical function of civilizations to serve, by their downfalls, as stepping stones to a progressive process of the revelation of always deeper religious insight, and the gift of ever more grace to act on this insight." (from "Civilization on Trial", 1948)

- "Christ has emptied Himself of His divine power and glory to become incarnate as a man and to suffer death upon the cross for your sake. And for our sake likewise a bodhisattva who has reached the threshold of Nirvana has refrained from taking the last step into bliss. This heroic pathfinder has deliberately condemned himself to go on haunting the sorrowful treadmill of existence ...; and he has made this extreme sacrifice for the love of fellow sentient beings whose feet he can guide into the day of salvation so long as he pays the huge price of himself remaining sentient and suffering." (from "The World and the West", 1953)

- "After the Greeks and Romans had conquered the world by force of arms, the world took its conquerors captive by converting them to new religions which addressed their message to all human souls without discriminating between rulers and subjects or between Greeks, Orientals, and barbarians. Is something like this historic denouement of the Graeco-Roman story going to be written into the unfinished history of the world's encounter with the West? We cannot say, since we cannot foretell the future. We can only see that something which has actually happened once, in another episode of history, must at least be one of the possibilities that lie ahead of us." (from "The World and the West", 1953)

- "Every historic culture-pattern is an organic whole in which all the parts are interdependent." (from "The World and the West", 1953)

- "The Graeco-Roman offensive has spent its force; a counter-offensive is on its way; but this counter-movement is not yet recognized for what it is, because it is being launched on a different plane. The offensive has been military, political, and economic; the counter-offensive is religious." (from "The World and the West", 1953)

- "A human being may be defined as a personality with a will of its own capable of making moral choices between good and evil." (from "A Study of History", 1954)

- "A life which does not go into action is a failure." (from "A Study of History", 1954)

- "Action taken on any plane will be in danger of going wrong if it is not taken in the light of the truth and of nothing but the truth; but it will be in equal danger of getting nowhere if it is not also taken in the light of no more of the truth than the minimum that is relevant to the particular piece of action that is on the current agenda." (from "A Study of History", 1954)

- "In London in the southern section of the Buckingham Palace Road, walking southward along the pavement skirting the west wall of Victoria Station, the writer, once, one afternoon not long after the end of the First World War-he had failed to record the exact date-had found himself in communion, not just with this or that episode in History, but with all that had been, and was, and was to come. In that instant he was directly aware of the passage of History gently flowing through him in a mighty current, and of his own life welling like a wave in the flow of this vast tide." (from "A Study of History", 1954)

- "It is a man's task to execute, within the time that God allots to him on Earth, a human mission to do God's will by working for the coming of God's Kingdom in Earth as it is in Heaven." (from "A Study of History", 1954)

- "The regular social process through which a growing society advances from one stage in its growth to another is a compound movement in which a creative individual or minority first withdraws from the common life of the society, then works out, in seclusion, a solution for some problem with which the society as a whole is confronted, and finally re-enters into communion with the rest of the society in order to help it forward on its road by imparting to it the results of the creative work which the temporarily secluded individual or minority has accomplished during the interval between withdrawal and return." (from "A Study of History", 1954)

- "The historian's elemental question!:] "How has this come out of that?"" (from "A Study of History", 1954)

- "[My teacher] H. J. Haselfoot ... taught me the sovereign intellectual art of deliberately taking time-even when time is short-to let the mind play round a problem and try to grasp it as a whole before plunging into any attempt to solve it in detail." (from "A Study of History", 1954)

- "History [is] a vision of God's creation on the move." (from "A Study of History", 1954)

- "In the summer of A.D. 1936, in a time of physical sickness and spiritual travail, he dreamed, during a spell of sleep in a wakeful night, that he was clasping the foot of the crucifix hanging over the high altar of the Abbey of Ampleforth and was hearing a voice saying to him Amplexus expects ("Cling and wait")." (from "A Study of History", 1954)

- "Jewry, in the form in which it collided with Western Christendom, was certainly an exceptional social phenomenon, but it was also certainly not unique. Jewry was exceptional in being a fossilized relic of a civilization that was extinct in every other shape." (from "A Study of History", 1954)

- "Plato taught me, by example, not to be ashamed of using my imagination as well as my intellect. He taught me, when, in a mental voyage, I found myself at the upper limit of the atmosphere accessible to the Reason, not to hesitate to let my imagination carry me on up into the stratosphere on the wings of a myth." (from "A Study of History", 1954)

- "Roads, sea routes, and their orderly maintenance serve others beside the Government, e.g., St. Paul's use of Roman roads [to spread Christianity]. Will the higher religions of the present day make similar use of the worldwide communications provided by modern technology?" (from "A Study of History", 1954)

- "Human souls have an absolute value in the sight of God." (from "Ten Basic Questions-and Answers" published in New York Times Magazine, 1955)

- "In the long run, I believe that communism will fail to captivate mankind because ... communism has very little spiritual help or guidance to offer to men and women in the personal trials and troubles of their individual lives." (from "Ten Basic Questions-and Answers" published in New York Times Magazine, 1955)

- "My expectation is that the challenges presented to Western civilization in our time are going to arouse us to repent, to reform and to lead a new life." (from "Ten Basic Questions-and Answers" published in New York Times Magazine, 1955)

- "True religion [is] right belief and right feeling taking effect in right action. Without right action, right feeling and right belief have no virtue in them." (from "Ten Basic Questions-and Answers" published in New York Times Magazine, 1955)

- "Human society is a network of relations-spiritual, animate, physical-between human beings, alive, dead, and still unborn." (from "An Historian's Approach to Religion", 1956)

- "I do not know whether the nature of the Ultimate Reality is personal or is supra-personal." (from "An Historian's Approach to Religion", 1956)

- "One generic evil of an institution of any kind is that people who have identified themselves with it are prone to make an idol of it." (from "An Historian's Approach to Religion", 1956)

- "God has created Man to be God's free partner in the work of creation." (from "Man Owes His Freedom to God" published in Collier's, 1956)

- "Western Civilization stands for not technology, but the sacredness of the individual human personality." (from "Man Owes His Freedom to God" published in Collier's, 1956)

- "[I am] convinced of [Hitler's] sincerity in desiring peace in Europe." (from "Arnold Toynbee's Millennium" by H. R. Trevor-Roper, 1957)

- "A state may be defined as a nonvoluntary system of impersonal relations that is maintained partly by force exercised by a governing minority and partly by the consent, or at least the acquiescence, of this governing minority's subjects." (from "A Study of History", 1961)

- "Anybody who set up in the present-day world to be a prophet ... would rightly be treated as a figure of fun." (from "A Study of History", 1961)

- "The distinctive characteristics of human nature are the freedom of the human consciousness and the human will." (from "A Study of History", 1961)

- "If mankind cannot now bring itself at last to live as one family, the penalty, in our new situation, must be genocide sooner or later." (from "A Study of History", 1961)

- "In an age in which mankind's collective power has suddenly been increased, for good or evil, a thousand-fold through the tapping of atomic energy, the standard of conduct demanded from ordinary human beings can be no lower than the standard attained in mes past by rare saints." (from "A Study of History", 1961)

- "The objective of "conditioning" is to deprive human beings permanently of their capacity to think and to will, and, since this is the capacity that makes us human, for good or for evil, "conditioning" is an attempt to destroy human nature itself. Perhaps we do not yet know enough about its results, up to date, to be able to tell whether or not its aim is actually attainable. We do know, however, that this has been the aim of its practitioners in our time; and we also know that the new science of psychology has equipped them with devilish devices which, in the past, were not at the drill sergeant's, priest's, or advertiser's disposal." (from "A Study of History", 1961)

- "One's actual temperament ... is the foundation of one's personality." (from "A Study of History", 1961)

- "Only through a harmonization of human wills, in a compact freely entered into in the light of divine necessity, can peace prevail among men." (from "A Study of History", 1961)

- "Since the rise of civilization, war has been one of its two chief scandals and scourges-the other being the system of social and economic inequality and injustice which expresses itself in class distinctions and which finds its extreme form in the institution of slavery." (from "A Study of History", 1961)

- "Technology: the invention, manufacture, and use of tools." (from "A Study of History", 1961)

- "Unless we can bear self-mortification, we shall not be able to carry self-examination to the necessary painful lengths. Without humility there can be no illuminating self-knowledge." (from "A Study of History", 1961)

- "The value of the goal lies in the goal itself; and therefore the goal cannot be attained unless it is pursued for its own sake." (from "A Study of History", 1961)

- "Historical events are not inevitable; it's only in retrospect that they seem so." (from "Comparing Notes: A Dialogue Across a Generation", 1963)

- "The human race's prospects of survival were considerably better when we were defenseless against tigers than they are today when we have become defenseless against ourselves." (from Observer, 1963)

- "The first hope in our inventory-the hope that includes and at the same time transcends all others-must be the hope that love is going to have the last word." (from "Conditions of Survival" published in Saturday Review, 1964)

- "There is going to be a race between mass self-education and mass self-destruction." (from "Conditions of Survival" published in Saturday Review, 1964)

- "The action of the creative individual may be described as a twofold motion of withdrawal-and-return: withdrawal for the purpose of his personal enlightenment, return for the task of enlightening his fellow men." (from "A Study of History", 1965)

- "The most stimulating challenge is one of mean degree between an excess of severity and a deficiency of it, since a deficient challenge may fail to stimulate the challenged party at all, while an excessive challenge may break his spirit." (from "A Study of History", 1965)

- "It is said to have been reported to one of the Roman emperors, as a piece of good news, that one of his subjects had invented a process for manufacturing unbreakable glass. The emperor gave orders that the inventor should be put to death and the records of his invention should be destroyed. If the invention had been put on the market, the manufacturers of ordinary glass would have been put out of business; there would have been unemployment that would have caused political unrest, and perhaps revolution." (from "Change and Habit: The Challenge of Our Time", 1966)

- "Thinking for oneself is always arduous and is sometimes painful. The temptation to stop thinking and to take dogma on faith is strong. Yet, since the intellect does possess the capacity to think for itself, it also has the impulse and feels the obligation. We may therefore feel sure that the intellect will always refuse, sooner or later, to take traditional doctrines on trust." (from "Change and Habit: The Challenge of Our Time", 1966)

- "God's love is unlimited but ... his power is not." (from "Experiences", 1969)

- "I girdled Asia, bore her blows,
Her summer suns, her winter snows,
Trod plain and hill from Rum to Ch'in: Yet
all I learnt I found within." (from "Experiences", 1969)

- "My advice to any traveler who is traveling in order to learn" would be: "Fight tooth and nail to be permitted to travel in what is technically the least efficient way."" (from "Experiences", 1969)

- "No human being-not even a hermit in the desert-can contract out of being a social creature; sociality is a built-in feature of human nature." (from "Experiences", 1969)

- "The spiritual reality behind the phenomena is ... the ultimate objective of all curiosity. It is in virtue of this that curiosity has something divine in it." (from "Experiences", 1969)

- "When prayer-the communion between human person and divine person-has been raised to its highest degree of spiritual intensity, it is transmuted into another kind of experience. At this higher spiritual level, personality is transcended, and, with it, the separateness that is personality's limitation. At this supra-personal spiritual height, the experience is unitive. At this height, God and man do not commune with each other because, at this height, they are identical." (from "Experiences", 1969)

- "Write regularly, day in and day out, at whatever times of day you find that you write best. Don't wait till you feel that you are in the mood. Write, whether you are feeling inclined to write or not." (from "Experiences", 1969)

- "The greater the power that we have to change the World into something nearer to our ideal, the greater becomes our distress and our failing to perform those beneficient and useful acts of creation which we know to be within our power." (from "Surviving the Future", 1971)

- "Man is a spiritual being." (from "Surviving the Future", 1971)

- "Material power that is not counterbalanced by adequate spiritual power, that is, by love and wisdom, is a curse." (from "Surviving the Future", 1971)

- "The space program is morally indefensible, not in itself, but because it has been given priority over the feeding and clothing and housing of the poor majority of the human race." (from "Surviving the Future", 1971)

- "The study of history would be meaningless if it did not have an ultimately religious significance and religious goal." (from "Surviving the Future", 1971)

- "The best safeguard against fascism is to establish social justice to the maximum possible extent." (from "The Toynbee-Ikeda Dialogue: Man Himself Must Choose", 1976)

- "Character is formed by an interaction between a person's heredity and his response to his environment." (from "The Toynbee-Ikeda Dialogue: Man Himself Must Choose", 1976)

- "Compassion is the desire that moves the individual self to wide-the scope of its self-concern to embrace the whole of the universal self." (from "The Toynbee-Ikeda Dialogue: Man Himself Must Choose", 1976)

- "The development of atomic power for peaceful progress is desirable and is indeed indispensable." (from "The Toynbee-Ikeda Dialogue: Man Himself Must Choose", 1976)

- "Human dignity ... can be achieved only in the field of ethics, and ethical achievement is measured by the degree in which our actions are governed by compassion and love, not by greed and aggressiveness." (from "The Toynbee-Ikeda Dialogue: Man Himself Must Choose", 1976)

- "If the world's present emergency were to make a temporary world dictatorship the only alternative to the self-imposed extinction of mankind, ... our attitude ought to be that of travelers who submit to a captain's dictation while they are en voyage, but, as a matter of course, resume their personal freedom of action as soon as their perilous journey is over." (from "The Toynbee-Ikeda Dialogue: Man Himself Must Choose", 1976)

- "Individual enlightenment is the indispensable means of social reform." (from "The Toynbee-Ikeda Dialogue: Man Himself Must Choose", 1976)

- "Introspection has two possible alternative objectives. It may be a retreat into one's self from contact with other people and with the universe, or it may be a search, in the subconscious depths of the psyche, for contact with the ultimate spiritual reality. Introspection with the first of these objectives is isolationist; introspection with the second objective is unitive. The first is negative; the second is positive." (from "The Toynbee-Ikeda Dialogue: Man Himself Must Choose", 1976)

- "It ought to be made possible for everyone to earn his living by doing work that is of intrinsic value and that is felt to be such by the worker himself. At present, most people do their work in order to earn the maximum remuneration and not for the sake of the value of the work itself. The profit motive ought no longer to be given top priority. But this most desirable change of motivation can be brought about only by a change of heart." (from "The Toynbee-Ikeda Dialogue: Man Himself Must Choose", 1976)


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