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
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
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
- 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
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...