If History is Useful for Anything – 4 Individuals

“Every individual matters. Every individual has a role to play. Every individual makes a difference,” Jane Goodall

We’ve arrived at the smallest people group to which we can try to apply Toynbee’s Arguments: You and Me – as Individuals.

Can we actually consider an individual person a people group? To answer that, I suggest we must take two questions into account. First, who asks the most commonly raised question (either openly or silently) in the world, “What’s in it for me?” And second, what are the only components that come together to form Networks, Organizations, and Civilizations? There one correct answer for both, our unit of historical study here, is


Granted, it may seem that I am taking a few liberties in interpreting how Toynbee’s Arguments could/should/would apply to individuals and these may appear on a few occasions to be a bit weak. But remember, Toynbee was deducing patterns for large people groups that were, in effect, generalizations based on the consequences of the behaviors of a very large number of individuals over time. And thereby hangs the key to all that follows.

The Affiliation Argument

This is an easy one. We were born; we had ancestors; we are affiliated with them, every one of the countless thems.

One additional element of Toynbee’s affiliation argument is that a series of states are experienced, his sequence of universal state/time of troubles/interregnum (& migration)/recovery or disintegration. Speaking from experience (and not just a few observations of others’ experiences): we were born, and it was a happy time; until we grew up a bit and began to experience ‘troubles;’ we learned a lot more which began to mold and modify our ‘values,’ and our family may have moved around causing more ‘troubles’ (loss of friends and issues in making new ones); and then we experienced some form of recovery before another cycle appeared. It is safe to say, if you are reading this, that you made some form of recovery through all this.

Life happens; the cycles are there; and we mostly learn to adapt to them.

The Challenges Argument

Can we rephrase Toynbee’s Main Thesis to the following, “Man achieves individuality, 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 ‘time of troubles’) which rouses him/her to make a hitherto unprecedented effort”? I think the answer is, ‘Yes,’ and I can recall the events that shaped who I have become, that shaped my family, children, friends, acquaintances, and uncounted historical figures. And Toynbee is correct; these challenges came predominantly from the human environment, from people in the ‘dominant minority’ role, or from others who aspired to that role.

What are your memories?

Important and valid conclusions to this Thesis are Toynbee’s following statements, here rephrased for our study, “In other words, the genesis of individuals rests on difficult rather than easy conditions (circumstances) to produce these achievements,” and our “growth occurs when our response to a particular challenge is not only successful but provokes a further challenge which again meets with success.” I remember the first time I bloodied the nose of the bully picking on me, which I discovered brought that cycle to an end. (Ok, so that is a ‘guy’ thing. Sorry, but it was a major discovery of self-determination.)

“Ease, Complacency, and their cousin, Entitlement, will get you nowhere.

The System of Relations Argument

Individuals who cannot relate cannot therefore enter into relationship with others, whether in Networks, Organizations, or Civilizations. The inherent nature of these people groups is that they are based on relationships. The ‘fields of action’ are among the individuals as members of the groups, and the ‘sources of the action’ are in the individuals themselves.

“Society does not consist of individuals, but expresses the sum of interrelations, the relations within which these individuals stand,” Karl Marx, Grundrisse (A comment on Marx here: Even with a solid foundation, one can build a flawed, poorly designed structure that neither serves people well nor appeals to them.)

The Growth Argument

For Toynbee, group (or macro) ‘growth’ originates from creative individuals in the group who either solve a problem or achieve their inspiration or discovery, and transfer acceptance of this new behavior or solution to the group. We need to ask if this can be rephrased slightly while still retaining the crux of the intent. I suggest the following,

“Growth originates in an individual when he/she responds to a challenge by using his/her specific creative giftings that are perfectly suited for that particular challenge.”

I truly feel that every individual is born with certain gifts and talents, and it is the discovery and exercise of these that leads to our individual growth and attainment of our potential. There are probably two Eureka! or Ah-Ha! Moments here: the first when we realize that we actually achieved something, and the second (‘mimesis’) when we accept that we are capable of doing it again.

Unfortunately, not everyone ultimately experiences these two Moments at the same rate or to the same level. This is partially due to our uniqueness as individuals, and partially due to what ‘value’ is/was placed on this form of ‘creativity’ in the individual’s human environment (family, culture). I always took the view with our children and my students that every ‘event’ was a learning and growth opportunity (well, almost all. After all, some Stuff does happen, where discipline is the only option of choice).

The Breakdown Argument

Toynbee’s observations for civilizations are that breakdown occurs through the loss of the capacity for self-determination, and that this loss is catalyzed by the negative influence of one group (the ‘dominant minority’) on the rest of the body. Can this observation be recast to apply to the Individual? Certainly we can picture a breakdown being associated with a loss of an individual’s self-determination, but whether this is caused by forces external to the individual (‘others,’ such as the ‘dominant minority’) or caused by internal decisions or insecurities has to remain an open question. I have seen, and experienced, both causes. What remains is that an individual’s breakdown in growth and creativity occurs through the loss or relinquishing of self-determination.

What I have also observed is that if well-managed ‘self-determination’ and creativity based on discovered gifts and talents are not developed at an early age, it is near impossible to coax them out at a later age. And if ‘self-determination’ had sufficiently budded but was repressed at a later age, it is also difficult to revive, but not impossible. This appears to have significant consequences for the larger people groups of Networks and Organizations.

What is true is that if this ‘self-determination’ and creativity are properly nurtured to a self-sufficient level, that they will be sustained and continue to encourage the individual’s creative and pioneering spirit throughout life. To keep them aimed at constructive goals and targets, however, also takes an ample instilling of sustaining moral values and principles.

The behaviors that Toynbee identifies that are both passive and active Nemeses of Creativity in civilizations can be seen not only to originate in Individuals, but to affect the growth and health of the very same Individuals:

-Idolization of Self (‘I solved the last issue, I will solve the next one’);
-Idolization of Traditions (‘this is the way I am supposed to think’);
-Idolization of Techniques (‘this is the way I am supposed to do things’); and
-Material surfeit and/or excessive recognition (esteem) resulting from success.

While civilizations and other people groups can breakdown or fracture into Toynbee’s three subgroups, it does not seem possible for this to occur with an Individual. But, an individual’s breakdown (loss of ‘self-determination,’ creativity, and growth) can be significantly influenced by both internal and external forces, such as,

-An external ‘dominant minority’ or controlling leadership that questions the ‘self-determination’ and creativity;
-An ‘internal proletariat,’ that is (a new thought here), those self-image thoughts and insecurities that are ‘in’ the individual due to personal baggage, but not ‘of’ the individual’s previously active ‘self-determining’ state;
-‘External Proletariats,’ outsiders who actually work against the health of the Individual, under the guise of ‘really helping.’

Certainly breakdown causes ‘self-determination’ and creativity to be replaced by alternate forms of behavior. For the Individual, these may include, as Toynbee describes them, ‘Archaism’ (‘let me go back to the way I did it before’) as well as ‘Futurism’ (‘I should now do things a completely different way’), in the attempt to restabilize his/her environment.

Occasionally, if previously developed to a sufficient level, ‘self-determination’ and creativity can manifest themselves again as a means to reverse a period of breakdown. This observation leads us to a consideration of cycles.

The Cycles Argument

Toynbee associates the disintegration of civilizations with a series of three and a half cycles of routs and rallies. From experience, I can suggest that this number of cycles does not hold for Individuals. Some Individuals appear not to be able to flourish even after early challenges whether these are great in number or not (consider an abusive childhood), while others appear to be able to survive long repeated confrontations with different challenges (consider your own experience. I know mine was readily ‘salted’ with challenges on many levels).

While we have been talking here primarily about successful responses to life’s challenges, our outcomes do not always fall neatly into either the ‘successful recovery’ or ‘disintegration’ categories Toynbee describes. Sometimes on an Individual level there is merely ‘survival,’ and it is these occasions that contribute to various forms of ‘baggage’ we all certainly carry.

“Nobody, who has not been in the interior of a family, can say what the difficulties of any individual of that family may be,” Jane Austin, Emma


Overall, I see Toynbee’s Arguments readily applicable to the Individual, although there are some minor exceptions. In tallying satisfactory subjective matches with the summary bullet points of Toynbee’s Argument, I come to 20.5 out of 23. Very reasonably compelling and confirming.

What is needed now is a common thread that ties each of the people groups – Individuals, Networks, Organizations, and Civilizations, together.

Do you see one?

Next: The Common Thread


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 05: People, 11: Growth, 13: Values & Self, Lessons from History and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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