If History is Useful for Anything … – 1

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (George Santayana)

It’s time to go back and pick up a thread from earlier and to delve into a significant book, Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History. There are multiple reasons for this, not just because it is a major contribution to the field, but that during my reading it appeared to me that Toynbee’s theses dovetailed with a number of thoughts I have posted previously, thus offering a measurable flow of confirmation as well as providing a host of opportunities across the millennia through which to test a number of hypotheses and propose perhaps a few more.  It is also one of my personal examples of Fundamental Principle 11: I Read, I Do, I Become.

My first problem, however, was coming up with a suitable title. After abandoning multiple ideas, I recalled a comment I made in one of my first posts that struck me as more than appropriate – after all, it was indeed from an earlier post (history) and is a potentially tantalizing lead-in for applying Toynbee’s ideas (useful). Rather like a post-title as self-fulfilling post-comment.  Or perhaps as a self-fulfilling recursion (refer to post again).

But this is going to take some time, patience, and a number of posts, not unlike, I think, the time I spent on Integrity and Character. I am trusting it will be worth wading through the process and the time involved. I will endeavor to make that so by making it interesting.

Let us begin then with a bit about exactly what is Arnold Toynbee’s study, which has been called “one of the greatest achievements of modern scholarship.” His writing style is like no other history book I have read: it was easy to read, enjoyable, didn’t put me to sleep, and I finished reasonably quickly (relatively speaking).

He began it in the early 1930s as an analysis of the rise and fall of human civilizations, and by the time it was finished in the mid-1940s it comprised fully 10 volumes.

I did not read these.

Captured by the breadth of the study and Toynbee’s theses, his contemporary D. C. Somervell undertook an abridgement of the first six volumes in which he preserved Toynbee’s “method, atmosphere, texture, and, in many instances, the very words of the original.” The resulting edition, praised by Toynbee himself, was published in 1947 and comprised over 600 pages.

This is what I read.

In his abridgement, Somervell wisely included a section where he reduced the core of Toynbee’s arguments and theses to 27 pages.

This I also read, repeatedly, and wrote copious notes.

So, please permit me to continue in this progression and reduce Somervell’s summary 27 page Argument section to a more palatable set of 23 bullet points (with some comments thrown in). This is just to whet your appetite. The fun will begin with the implications of Toynbee’s study and compelling argument.

Toynbee’s Argument

  • The units of historical study are really ‘societies,’ or rather, ‘civilizations,’ not nations.
  • Certain civilizations are ‘affiliated’ or linked to earlier (possibly extinct) civilizations, going back to the earliest recorded civilizations.
  • The characteristics of these affiliated/linked relationships (and later ones) are
    • the existence of an earlier ‘universal state,’ itself the outcome of a ‘time of troubles,’
    • an ‘interregnum,’ or interval between the close of one affiliated civilization and the onset of the next, during which appear
      • a ‘church’ (the product of an internal ‘proletariat’), and
      • a ‘völkerwanderung’ (migration) (the product of an external ‘proletariat.’
      • (‘proletariat’ is used to describe a group or segment of people that is ‘in’ but not ‘of’ any given society)
  • 21 examples of ‘civilizations’ are identified extending back in recorded history (15 of these are affiliated with previous ones, and 6 arise directly from primitive societies).
  • Many primitive societies were ‘dynamically progressive’ (i.e., creative and thus leading to advances and eventually the 15 affiliated civilizations), but current primitive societies are static. The study looks to answer the question: Why?
  • The main thesis: “man achieves civilization, not as a result of superior biological endowment (race) or geographical location (environment), but as a response to a challenge in a situation of special difficulty (the ‘times of troubles’) which rouses him to make a hitherto unprecedented effort.”  In other words, the genesis of civilizations rests on difficult rather than easy conditions (circumstances) to produce these achievements.
  • These challenges have not come primarily from geographical factors but from the human environment, i.e., from the society’s ‘dominant minorities,’ a previously creative ‘ruling class’ that has ceased to lead and has become oppressive.
  • Growth occurs when the response to a particular challenge is not only successful but provokes a further challenge which again meets with success.
  • Real progress occurs after first overcoming material obstacles and then focusing on challenges which are internal rather than external, spiritual rather than material (‘self-determination’).
  • Regarding the individual and society: two traditional views are shown to be unsatisfactory:
    • society is considered as just an aggregate of ‘atomic’ individuals;
    • society is considered as an ‘organism’ with individuals just a part of it.
  • Toynbee’s view: society (civilization) is a system of relations between individuals:
    • it is the ‘field of action’ common to a number of individuals, but
    • the ‘source of action’ is in the individuals.
  • Thus, all growth originates with creative individuals (the ‘creative’ ruling class) or small minorities of creative individuals, through:
    • the achievement of their inspiration or discovery, and
    • the conversion of society to this new way of life (creating acceptance within the society).
  • The conversion is through ‘mimesis’ (the imitation of the new practices) by which the rank and file (the ‘internal proletariat’ or, unfortunately, the ‘uncreative majority’ for this particular achievement) can follow the leaders (the ‘dominant minority’) (and learn).
  • Of the 21 civilizations identified, all but one (ours, Western in the 1940s) are shown to have already broken down (ceased growing and begun disintegrating).
  • Breakdown occurs through the loss of the capacity for self-determination:
    • leadership (the creative ruling class) may become infected with the mechanicalness of their followers practice of ‘mimesis,’ and/or
    • leadership may exchange a Pied Piper’s pipe of persuasion for the whip of compulsion:
      • the creative minority becomes a dominant minority, and
      • the ‘disciples’ become a reluctant and alienated ‘proletariat.’
  • The impact of civilization (the process of ‘becoming civilized’) redirects ‘mimesis’ away from its place in primitive societies (directed towards the traditions of the tribe) towards pioneers (the creative minority).
    • However, historically too often the pioneers selected are not actually creative leaders but either commercial exploiters or political demagogues.
  • The Nemeses of Creativity (passive forms that induce the breakdown of civilizations):
    • Idolization of Self: history shows that the group that successfully responded to one challenge is rarely the successful respondent to the next (hubris);
    • Idolization of Traditional Institutions: e.g., of kings, parliaments, and ruling castes;
    • Idolization of Techniques: perfect adaptation to an environment often proves an evolutionary ‘cul de sac’ and less specialized organisms prove their survival power (i.e., for species, technologies, and processes: But We’ve Always Done It That Way!).
  • The Nemesis of Creativity (active):
    • surfeit (excess), outrageous behavior (hubris), destruction.
  • The criterion of disintegration is the fracture of the social body into three factions:
    • a dominant minority: e.g., historically: militarists, exploiters, legists, administrators, philosophers, etc.;
    • an internal proletariat: those ‘in’ but not ‘of’ the society. In the Western world, this includes the ‘intelligentsia’ as agents of the dominant minority;
    • an external proletariat: historically, if a civilization is growing, its cultural influence radiates and permeates into its neighbors, who become part of the (unfortunately named) ‘uncreative majority’ who follow the creative minority’s lead. When the civilization has broken down, the ‘charm ceases to act’ and the historical ‘barbarians’ (external proletariat) become hostile. Time works on the side of the barbarians.
  • The breakdown induces alternative forms of behavior, feeling, and life in the society. Among many the very interesting include:
    • archaism: an attempt to escape from an intolerable present by reconstructing an earlier phase in the life of a disintegrating society. Archaizing movements generally either prove sterile or transform themselves into their opposite, namely:
    • futurism: an attempt to escape the present by a leap into the darkness of an unknown future.
  • Historically, in the growth stage creative individuals lead successful responses to successive challenges. In the disintegration stage they appear as saviors of or from the disintegrating society.
  • Historically, disintegration proceeds not uniformly but by an alternation (cycles) of routs and rallies:
    • a universal state (e.g., Roman Empire) is a rally after a ‘time of troubles’ (Toynbee takes this first rout as the ‘time of troubles’ occurring after the initial (generally long) blossoming of the civilization);
    • the dissolution of the universal state is the final rout;
    • the normal (repeatable) rhythm seems to be rout-rally-rout-rally-rout-rally-rout, or three and a half beats.
  • From Somervell’s Table V (characteristics of the 21 civilizations) the duration of some of these historical periods can be estimated:
    • Initial blossoming: between ~700-1000 years (but 200-3500 at the extremes);
    • Times of Troubles: ~400 years;
    • Universal State: ~400 years.

From a layperson’s standpoint, it is easy to see why looking at history as a series of ‘snapshots’ (recognizing noticeable changes) is much easier than trying to identify more gradual changes. For most of us, experiencing certain ‘changes’ in the course of living only 30-40 years out of a cycle of 400-700 years seems more like ‘irrelevant noise’ than significant and permanent change.

This is similar to putting a frog in a kettle. If the water is already hot, he’ll try to jump out. If it’s cold and you put the kettle over a fire, he’ll adjust to the slowly heating water until he is cooked.

So pay attention – when your elders tell you that they “walked two miles to school, through the snow, uphill both ways,’ pay attention. There’s bound to be something useful there somewhere.

Back to Toynbee. It seems to me that quite a number of his assessments are more broadly applicable than to just civilizations on the macro level. Where to start? Given the history of this blog, there is only one place – starting in the middle once again.

Next: Organizations





About Jim Edmonds

I am a husband, father, mentor, who once was a chemist turned physicist turned marketer turned executive turned missionary turned professor. And survived it all.
This entry was posted in 11: Growth, 14: Behavior and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to If History is Useful for Anything … – 1

  1. Jennifer says:

    “From a layperson’s standpoint, it is easy to see why looking at history as a series of ‘snapshots’ (recognizing noticeable changes) is much easier than trying to identify more gradual changes. For most of us, experiencing certain ‘changes’ in the course of living only 30-40 years out of a cycle of 400-700 years seems more like ‘irrelevant noise’ than significant and permanent change.” Jim – VERY interesting analysis. What this all means to me is: I would be arrogant and incorrect to think I don’t need to incorporate the wisdom of my “elders” let alone ask for their perspective.


    • Jim Edmonds says:

      :-)), to a certain extent. Even then, that’s probably only ~100 years out of the 400+ years and therefore still subject to being an “incomplete perspective.” Knowledge of this should drive us all to look at evidence for the really longer view, and to distinguish the things that matter from those that don’t.


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