Monday, December 07, 2009

Arnold Toynbee and Fantasy

Toynbee on the cover of Time Magazine 1947

Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) used to be a well known public intellectual, best known for his monumental A Study of History that was published in 12 volumes and attempted to Analyse Human history in order to find patterns and universal historical laws.1

Today the volumes are little read or remembered and most academics never took them seriously as academic history. In fact today Toynbee, among academics, is largely remembered for his specialist publications which are models of deep research and extensive familiarity with the sources.2

Here I will explore just one problem with Toynbee’s system; Toynbee’s list of civilizations.

Toynbee lists 21 civilizations3 which are:

Far-Eastern (China)
Far-Eastern (Japan)
Orthodox Christian (Main body)
Orthodox Christian (Russian)

Now what are the problems with this list?

Well let us start with what is a Civilization? The fact is it is nothing more than a label that is attached to a collection cultural characteristics. It has no fixed definition. However Toynbee commits the biological fallacy and analogises Civilizations to biological organisms. Toynbee assumes Civilizations are born live and die. This is special pleading, collections of cultural traits are not born, neither do they live or die.

A civilization is then an arbitrary collection of traits that are arbitrarily defined. One can not say the same of living organisms.

Toynbee in his book defines Civilization by language, by cultural traits, by religion in a contradictory way that indicates that his “civilizations” as living organisms do not exist.

For example Arabic and Iranian are defined in terms largely of Arabic as against Persian language. The same is true of Sumeric versus Babylonic. Frankly the only noticeable cultural difference between Sumeric versus Babylonic is in fact language. The cultural similarities between the two are so huge one would hesitate to call them two separate civilizations.

Meanwhile Hellenic even though it comprised Greek and Latin speakers is considered one Civilization. Orthodox Christianity is considered two Civilization although why for the life of me Russia is considered separate except in terms of language is beyond me.

Despite massive cultural, historical and language similarities early Mayan civilization is considered a different civilization from later Mayan Civilization (Yucatec) is inexplicable. The same is true for the distinction between Indic and Hindu Civilizations and Sinic and Far Eastern (China). The division between Far-Eastern (China) and Far-Eastern (Japan) also makes no sense.

Hittite and Minoan are names given to cultures which shared an enormous amount of similarity with the societies around them, again there chief difference with other Civilizations seems to be language / political, not cultural.

The difference between Western (Christian) and Orthodox and Islamic Civilizations seems to be religious. Although I note that Toynbee does not create separate Sunni and Shia Civilizations. Instead he divides Islamic into two Civilizations based on language. Arabic v. Iranic!

Syriac was Toynbee’s special creation supposedly emerging in Syria. What it actually was simply a culture, like many others, affected by both Mesopotamia and Egypt. Supposedly the Universal state of Syriac Civilization was the Persian Empire and then the Early Caliphate of Islam. This is nonsense. Toynbee just assumed that the Persian Prophet Zarathustra was akin to a Hebrew Prophet. Toynbee ignored the well known similarities between Zarathustra’s ideas and the Rig-Vedas of Hinduism. The fact that Syriac Civilization was originally supposedly created by Semitic speakers, but then Toynbee has it taken over by Indo-European speakers; (the Persians) didn’t seem to create any problems in Toynbee’s mind. But then I suppose if your definition of what a Civilization is; is in fact arbitrary it may create no problem at all.

If the alleged distinction between Sumeric and Babylonic is largely imaginary / nonexistent the same goes for the distinction between Indic and Hindu and Sinic and Far-Eastern. In order to create the distinctions Toynbee must go into contortions about the “breakdown” of a Civilization to explain how one was replaced by another when apparently there was massive continuity.

Also Toynbee implicitly assumes that the decline and fall of the Roman Empire (i.e., Hellenic Civilization) is the template for all human history. This is a common conceit among Western Academics who seem to assume the fall of Rome was the fulcrum of all human history. So Toynbee tried to impose the pattern of classical antiquity and its end on all human history. So if the Indians and the Chinese never had anything like a “Fall of Rome”, Toynbee would create one for them by wishful thinking and fantasy.

In other words Toynbee was arbitrary and cavalier with his “facts”. If his list of civilizations cannot be trusted than neither can any theory based upon the idea that these “Civilizations” are distinct units.4

Perhaps another time I will discuss other aspects of Toynbee’s system.

1. Toynbee, Arnold J., A Study of History, 12 Volumes, Oxford University Press, Oxford, v. 1-3, 1934, v. 4-6, 1939, v. 7-10, 1954, v. 11, 1959, v. 12, 1961. See also the Abridgement of v 1-6, by Somervell, D.C., A Study of History, v. 1, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1946, Abridgement of v. 6-10, by same abridger, A Study in History, v. 2, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1957.

2. Examples are Toynbee, Arnold J., Hannibal’s Legacy, Two Volumes, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1965, Constantine Porphyrogentis and His World, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1973.

3. Toynbee sometimes adds and subtracts from his list by fusing and dividing. See Somervell, v. 1, reproductions of tables at end of book, no page numbers, for list of Civilizations.

4. Rather than list a lot of footnotes I will simply list my sources here:

Geyl, Pieter, Toynbee’s System of Civilizations, in Toynbee and History, Editor, Montagu, M. F., Porter, Sargent Pub., Boston, 1956, pp. 39-72.

Stone, Lawrence, Historical Consequences and Happy Families, in Montagu, pp. 111-114.

Taylor, A. J. P., Much Learning, in Montagu, pp. 115-117.

Trevor-Roper, Hugh, Testing the Toynbee System, in Montagu, pp. 122-124.

Dawson, Christopher, The Place of Civilization In History, in Montagu, pp. 129-139.

Coulborn, Ruston, Fact and Fiction in Toynbee’s Study of History, in Montagu, pp. 148-166.

Boer, W. Den, Toynbee and Classical History, in Montagu, pp. 221-242.

Altree, Wayne, Toynbee’s Treatment of Chinese History, in Montagu, pp. 243-272.

Kaufmann, Walter, From Shakespeare to Existentialism, Doubleday & Co. Inc., New York, 1959, See Toynbee and Super-History, pp. 387-402, Toynbee and Religion, pp. 403-428.

Tainter, Joseph, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1988, pp. 39-41, 79-86.

McNeill, William H., The Rise of the West, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1963, pp. 154-157, 170-177.

Pierre Cloutier

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