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It seems a fairly safe bet that no one these days reads Toynbee's 12 volume work on the rise and fall of civilizations, A Study of History. Personally, I confess that I've bought the abridgment at book sales more than once and failed to read it. But The World and the West is a very short volume, based on his 1952 Reith Lectures for the BBC, and offers a good entree to his thought. Here, in under 100 pages, the estimable historian spins off so many ideas that now seem prescient or quite possibly predictive of our future that you can easily see why it might have taken him thousands of pages to work them all out. The profundity per page ratio is astonishing.

To begin with, in the deliciously non-PC style of his generation, the author explains his title thus:
In the encounter between the world and the We4st that has been going on for four or five hundred years, the world, not the West, is the party that, up to now, has had the significant experience. It has not been the West that has been hit by the world; it is the world that has been hit--and hit hard--by the West...
And this is the case because:
[T]he secret of the West's superiority to the rest of the world in the art of war from the seventeenth century onwards is not to be found just in Western weapons, drill, and military training. It is not even to be found just in the civilian technology that supplies the military equipment. It cannot be understood without taking into account the whole mind and soul of the Western Society of the day...
This seemingly obvious assertion, about the superiority of Western Civilization, is deeply out of fashion today, and the discussion of entire civilization rather than individual nation-states was unfashionable in his own, but as he takes on a tour of competing civilizations and those of the past and as we consider the subsequent events, his point appears inarguable.

The significant takeaway though is not just that Western Civilization--in its classic Greco-Roman/Judeo-Christian configuration, is superior to its rivals so far, but Professor Toynbee's insight into what the consequences are of the encounters between the West and the others. He notes that attempts to force our entire civilization upon others have met with great resistance and pretty poor results. However, the inferior civilizations have been less reluctant to adopt our technologies, in the belief that they can at least achieve military parity with us:
Perhaps...we have stumbled upon a 'law' (if one may call it that) which applies, not just to a single case, but to all encounters between any civilization. This 'law' is to the effect that a fragment of a culture, split off from the whole and radiated abroad by itself, is likely to meet with less resistance, and therefore likely to travel faster and further, than the culture as a whole when this is radiated en bloc
In application, it is Western technology--and the capitalist/market-based system for producing it--that has been the penetrating splinter. And, with that in mind, there is a vitally important corollary to the law:
Technology operates on the surface of life, and therefore it seems practicable to adopt a foreign technology without putting oneself in danger of ceasing to be able to call one's soul one's own. This notion, that, in adopting a foreign technology, one is incurring only a limited liability may, of course, be a miscalculation. The truth seems to be that all the different elements of a culture-pattern have an inner connexion with each other, so that, if one abandons one's own traditional technology and adopts a foreign technology instead, the effect of this change on the technological surface of life will not remain confined to the surface, but will gradually work its way down to the depths till the whole of one's traditional culture has been undermined and the whole of the foreign culture has been given entry, bit by bit, through the gap made in the outer ring of one's cultural defenses by the foreign technology's entering wedge.
Mr. Toynbee can not have anticipated at the time, but would certainly not have been surprised to observe, the way in which Mikhail Gorbachev's attempt to reform Soviet Marxism, in order to match America's military prowess, instead led to the collapse of the entire system. Indeed, he'd have likely chuckled at the images of Russian rebels faxing their message to the West as the old guard tried putting down Boris Yeltsin and the others demanding Western-style freedoms. Likewise, he'd be amused by the struggles of Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cuban leaders to make their economies capitalist but keep the rest of their culture tightly-controlled:
A loose strand of cultural radiation, like a loose electron or a loose contagious disease, may prove deadly when it is disengaged from the system within which it has been functioning hitherto and is set free to range abroad by itself in a different milieu. In its original setting, this culture-strand or bacillus or electron was restrained from working havoc because it was kept in order by its associations with other components of a pattern in which the divers participants were in equilibrium. In escaping from its original setting, the liberated particle, bacillus, or culture-strand will not have changed its nature; but the same nature will produce a deadly effect, instead of a harmless one, now that the creature has broken loose from its original associations. In these circumstances, 'one man's meat' can become 'another man's poison'.
Having admitted the wedge they can't, in the long term, close the gap it's made.

Two important points follow from this core truth. The first is that, however repelled we may be by truly retrograde and primitivist social revolutionaries--the Khmer Rouge, the PRC's Cultural Revolutionaries, the Taliban, etc.--their complete rejection of Western modernity actually would be, were it possible to sustain, the only way to preserve their preferred "civilizations." The example that he uses is that of Gandhi and his admonition that Indians ought to hand-spin and weave their own Indian cotton:
There was no flaw in Mahatma Gandhi's insight. The Westernization of India that he foreboded and sought to avert was, and is, fast developing out of the original grain of cottonseed; and Gandhi's remedy for India's Western infection was the right one. Only the prophet failed to induce his disciples to follow him in preserving India's cultural independence at this price in economic austerity.
We can almost see the good professor nodding knowingly if he were shown today's bustling and very westernized India. And, as we look around the globe at the few recalcitrant states that have not yet succumbed to the End of History, we must be heartened by the certainty that their peoples will not accept economic austerity as the cost of unWestern culture either.

If the first point tells us something about the most backwards parts of "the world," the second point reveals something about the most "progressed," the post-Christian West. Indeed, it suggests that secular societies ought not properly be considered a part of the West and raises questions about whether they can survive. For what these societies are doing is re-instituting a clash of personal/particularist world views and re-opening a spiritual void that had been successfully filled in the West by Christianity beginning in the Second Century:
An ideal of human fraternity that will overcome the clash of cultures is thus the first secret of the new religions' success, and the second secret is that these new societies, which are open to all human beings, with no discrimination between cultures, classes, or sexes, also bring their human members into a saving fellowship with a superhuman being; for the lesson that human nature without God's grace is not enough has by now been graven deep...
In essence, the neo-paganism of the Brights (atheism being little more than the assertion that I don't need moral guidance from God because I can derive morality myself) represents an ironic turning back of the clock to the situation that prevailed two thousand years ago. The only real question is whether their societies will fail and pass from the scene--as imploding demographic rates and importation of Muslim populations indicates is a likely outcome--or whether these "progressive" Barbarians will be reconverted to Christianity. We know this much, just as pre-Western civilizations can not import just a single Western culture-strand, capitalism, and hope to defend themselves from the political and personal liberties and their spiritual basis, neither can the post-Western world reject that spiritual basis and hope to enjoy its fruits. It's an all or nothing deal and, at least for the moment, Europe is flirting with the nothingness.


Grade: (A+)


Arnold Toynbee Links:

    -PROFILE: The Challenge (SWhittaker Chambers, Mar. 17, 1947, TIME)
[P]rofessor Toynbee, while avoiding the sins that beset Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West—"baffling immensity and enigmatic gloom"—had met the German philosopher's requirement for the writing of 20th Century history: Toynbee had found history Ptolemaic and left it Copernican. He had found historical thinking nation-centered, as before Copernicus astronomical thinking had been geocentric. The nation (Greece, Rome, Japan, the U.S.) was the common unit of history. Toynbee believed that not nations but civilizations were the "intelligible fields of study."

If Toynbee's repudiation of the nation as history's central fact was Copernican, it also had an Einsteinian effect. For the relations of civilizations could not be investigated without introducing a new space-time factor into the study of history. Where, before, there had been nations, dramatizing their buzzing brevity upon the linear scale of history, there were, from Toynbee's vantage point, vertical progressions of human effort. Where there had been a plane, there was now chasmic depth, the all but unimaginable tract of time.

Toynbee had introduced into the theory of history two other ideas of far-reaching consequence:

1) To the theory of Spengler (whom Toynbee, nevertheless, calls "a man of genius") that civilizations are tragic organisms, growing inexorably toward predetermined dooms, Toynbee advanced a dryly lucid counter-proposition: civilizations are not things-in-themselves, but simply the relations that exist between men living in a given society at a given moment of history.

2) He shattered the frozen patterns of historical determinism and materialism by again asserting God as an active force in history. His assertion, implicit throughout the 3,488 pages of A Study of History, implied another: the goal of history, however dimly sensed in human terms, is the Kingdom of God. That aspiration redeems history from being a futile tragedy of blood.

Hence the saying of Toynbee admirers that the writing of history must be dated B.T. and A.T.—Before Toynbee and After Toynbee.

    -BIO: Arnold J. Toynbee (Wikipedia)
    -BIO: Arnold Joseph Toynbee (1889) (Malaspina Great Books)
    -GOOGLE BOOKS ARCHIVE: Arnold Toynbee
    -GOOGLE BOOK: The world and the West (Arnold Joseph Toynbee)
    -ESSAY: The world and the Greeks and Romans: an excerpt from The World and the West (Arnold Joseph Toynbee, April 1953, Harper's)
    -ESSAY: Russia and the West: an excerpt from The World and the West (Arnold Joseph Toynbee, March 1953, Harper's)
    -ETEXTS: Toynbee, Arnold Joseph, 1889-1975 (Project Gutenberg)
    -ESSAY: Sir Lewis Namier and history (Arnold Joseph Toynbee, May 1967, Harper's)
    -ESSAY: Encounters between civilizations (Arnold Joseph Toynbee, April 1947, Harper's)
    -ESSAY: The Far-East's reaction to western civilization (Arnold Joseph Toynbee, September 1927, Harper's)
    -ESSAY: America, England, and world affairs (Arnold Joseph Toynbee, March 1926, Harper's)
    -ESSAY: Ibn Khaldun (Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History : The Growths of Civilizations)
    -EXCERPT: Christianity and Civilization: From Civilization on Trial (Arnold Toynbee)
    -EXCERPT: from A Study of History: Challenge and Response (Arnold J. Toynbee)
    -ESSAY: Bertrand Russell (Arnold J. Toynbee, 1970)
    -LECTURE: Professor Arnold J. Toynbee on the Evolution of Nations Through History (12-Nov-54, National Archives)
    -ARCHIVES: Arnold Toynbee (Find Articles)
    -PROFILE: Arnold Toynbee:The boldest historian (Granville Hicks, February 1947, Harper's)
    -ESSAY: Arnold Toynbee: Study of History (Age of the Sage)
    -ESSAY: H R Trevor-Roper vs. Arnold Toynbee: A post-Christian Religion and a new Messiah in an age of reconciliation? Frederic H R Trevor-Roper vs. Arnold Toynbee: A post-Christian Religion and a new Messiah in an age of reconciliation? Frederic H.R. Trevor-Roper vs. Arnold Toynbee: A Post-Christian religion and a new Messiah in an age of reconciliation (Frederick Hale)
    -ESSAY: The origins of world history: Arnold Toynbee before the First World War (Gordon Martel, September 2004, Australian Journal of Politics and History)
-REVIEW: of The World and the West by Arnold Toynbee (TIME)
    -REVIEW: Professor Toynbee Surrenders the West: Do the Facts Justify This Defeatism?: a review of The World and the West (G. F. Hudson, May 1953, Commentary)
    -REVIEW: of The World and the West (The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science)
    -REVIEW: of A Study of History by Arnold J. Toynbee (Stefan Zenker)
    -REVIEW: of Hellenism, by Arnold J. Toynbee (Maurice Cohen, January 1960, Commentary)
    -REVIEW: of Arnold J. Toynbee: A Life by William McNeill (Samuel Francis, National Review)
    -REVIEW: of Toynbee and History. Critical Essays and Reviews. Edited by M. F. Ashley Montagu (Paul Mattick, 1956, Western Socialist)

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