A Study of History

A Study of History

Cover of D. C. Somervell's abridgement of A Study of History
Author Arnold J. Toynbee
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Subject World history
Published 1934–61

A Study of History is a 12-volume universal history by British historian Arnold J. Toynbee, published in 1934–61. It received enormous popular attention but according to historian Richard J. Evans, "enjoyed only a brief vogue before disappearing into the obscurity in which it has languished."[1] Toynbee's goal was to trace the development and decay of 19 world civilizations in the historical record, applying his model to each of these civilizations, detailing the stages through which they all pass: genesis, growth, time of troubles, universal state, and disintegration.

The 19 major civilizations, as Toynbee sees them, are: Egyptian, Andean, Sinic, Minoan, Sumerian, Mayan, Indic, Hittite, Hellenic, Western, Orthodox Christian (Russia), Far Eastern, Orthodox Christian (main body), Persian, Arabic, Hindu, Mexican, Yucatec, and Babylonic. There are four "abortive civilizations" (Abortive Far Western Christian, Abortive Far Eastern Christian, Abortive Scandinavian, Abortive Syriac) and five "arrested civilizations" (Polynesian, Eskimo, Nomadic, Ottoman, Spartan), for a total of 28.

Titles of the volumes

The 12-volume work contains more than 3 million words and about 7,000 pages, plus 412 pages of indices.[2]


Toynbee argues that civilizations are born out of more primitive societies, not as the result of racial or environmental factors, but as a response to challenges, such as hard country, new ground, blows and pressures from other civilizations, and penalization. He argues that for civilizations to be born, the challenge must be a golden mean; that excessive challenge will crush the civilization, and too little challenge will cause it to stagnate. He argues that civilizations continue to grow only when they meet one challenge only to be met by another. He argues that civilizations develop in different ways due to their different environments and different approaches to the challenges they face. He argues that growth is driven by "Creative Minorities": those who find solutions to the challenges, which others then follow.

In 1939, Toynbee wrote, "The challenge of being called upon to create a political world-order, the framework for an economic world-order … now confronts our Modern Western society."


Toynbee does not see the breakdown of civilizations as caused by loss of control over the physical environment, by loss of control over the human environment, or by attacks from outside. Rather, it comes from the deterioration of the "Creative Minority", which eventually ceases to be creative and degenerates into merely a "Dominant Minority"—which forces the majority to obey without meriting obedience. He argues that creative minorities deteriorate due to a worship of their "former self", by which they become prideful and fail adequately to address the next challenge they face.

Universal state

He argues that the ultimate sign a civilization has broken down is when the dominant minority forms a "universal state", which stifles political creativity within the existing social order. The classic example of this is the Roman Empire, though many other imperial regimes are cited as examples. Toynbee writes:

"First the Dominant Minority attempts to hold by force—against all right and reason—a position of inherited privilege which it has ceased to merit; and then the Proletariat repays injustice with resentment, fear with hate, and violence with violence when it executes its acts of secession. Yet the whole movement ends in positive acts of creation—and this on the part of all the actors in the tragedy of disintegration. The Dominant Minority creates a universal state, the Internal Proletariat a universal church, and the External Proletariat a bevy of barbarian war-bands."

Toynbee developed his concept of an "internal proletariat" and an "external proletariat" to describe quite different opposition groups within and outside the frontiers of a civilization. These groups, however, find themselves bound to the fate of the civilization.[5] During its decline and disintegration, they are increasingly disenfranchised or alienated, and thus lose their immediate sense of loyalty or of obligation. Nonetheless an "internal proletariat" may form a "universal church" which survives the civilization's demise, co-opting the useful structures of the earlier time while creating a new philosophical or religious pattern for the next stage of history.[6]

Before the process of decay, the dominant minority had held the internal proletariat in subjugation within the confines of the civilization, causing these oppressed to grow bitter. The external proletariat, living outside the civilization in poverty and chaos, grows envious. Then, in the social stress resulting from the failure of the civilization, the bitterness and envy increase markedly.

Toynbee argues that as civilizations decay, there is a "schism" within the society. In this environment of discord, people resort to archaism (idealization of the past), futurism (idealization of the future), detachment (removal of oneself from the realities of a decaying world), and transcendence (meeting the challenges of the decaying civilization with new insight, e.g., by following a new religion). From among members of an "internal proletariat" who transcend the social decay a "church" may arise. Such an association would contain new and stronger spiritual insights, around which a subsequent civilization may begin to form. Toynbee here uses the word "church" in a general sense, e.g., to refer to a collective spiritual bond found in common worship, or the unity found in an agreed social order.


It remains to be seen what will come of the four remaining civilizations of the 21st century: Western civilization, Islamic society, Hindu society, and the Far East. Toynbee argues two possibilities: they might all merge with Western Civilization, or Western civilization might develop a 'Universal State' after its 'Time of Troubles', decay, and die.

List of civilizations

The following table lists the 23 civilizations identified by Toynbee in vol. Vii. This table does not include what Toynbee terms primitive societies, arrested civilizations, or abortive civilizations. Civilizations are shown in boldface. Toynbee's "Universal Churches" are written in italic and are chronologically located between second- and third- generation civilizations, as is described in volume VII.

1st Generation 2nd Generation Universal Church 3rd Generation
Minoan Hellenic (Greek and Roman) Christian Western; Orthodox-Russian; Orthodox-Byzantine
Syriac Society (Ancient Israel, Phoenicia etc.) Islam Islamic (at early stages divided into Iranian and Arabic, civilizations, which later were unified)
Shang Sinic (see also Han Dynasty) Mahayana (Buddhism) Chinese; Japanese-Korean ("Far Eastern")
Indus Indic Hinduism Hindu
Egyptiac - -
Sumeric Hittite; Babylonian - -
Andean; Mayan; Yucatec; Mexic - -


The social scientist Ashley Montagu assembled 29 other historians' articles to form a symposium on Toynbee's A Study of History, published as Toynbee and History: Critical Essays and Reviews (1956 Cloth ed.). Boston: Extending Horizons Books, Porter Sargent Publishers. ISBN 0-87558-026-2.  The book includes three of Toynbee's own essays: "What I am Trying to Do" (originally published in International Affairs vol. 31, 1955; What the Book is For: How the Book Took Shape (a pamphlet written upon completion of the final volumes of A Study of History) and a comment written in response to the articles by Edward Fiess and Pieter Geyl (originally published in Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 16, 1955.)

David Wilkinson suggests that there is an even larger unit than civilisation. Using the ideas drawn from "World Systems Theory" he suggests that since at least 1500 BC that there was a connection established between a number of formerly separate civilisations to form a single interacting "Central Civilisation", which expanded to include formerly separate civilisations such as India, the Far East, and eventually Western Europe and the Americas into a single "World System".[7] In some ways, it resembles what William H. McNeill calls "the closure of the oecumene", in his book The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community.

After 1960, Toynbee's ideas faded both in academia and the media, to the point of seldom being cited today.[8][9]

Jews as a "fossil society"

Volume 1 of the book, written in the 1930s, contains a discussion of Jewish culture which begins with the sentence "There remains the case where victims of religious discrimination represent an extinct society which only survives as a fossil. .... by far the most notable is one of the fossil remnants of the Syriac Society, the Jews."[10] That text has been the subject of controversy, and some reviewers have interpreted the text as antisemitic (notably after 1945).[11][12][13][14][15] In later printings, a footnote was appended which read "Mr. Toynbee wrote this part of the book before the Nazi persecution of the Jews opened a new and terrible chapter of the story...".


  1. Richard J. Evans (2000). In Defense of History. p. 47.
  2. Brander, Bruce G. (1998). Staring into Chaos. Dallas, Texas: Spence Publishing Company. p. 168. ISBN 978-0-9653208-5-6.
  3. The Table of Contents for all the volumes is presented at this website A Study of History some volumes being given in greater detail than others. Selected portions of the text are also provided, as keyed to the Table of Contents.
  4. This first abridgement by Somervell has been translated into Arabic, Danish, Dutch, Finish, French, German, Gujarati, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Portuguese, Serbo-Croat, Spanish, Swedish, and Urdu. William H. McNeill, Arnold J. Toynbee. A life (Oxford University, 1989), text at 285, note 5 [337].
  5. Arnold J. Toynbee, A Study of History (Oxford University 1934–1961), 12 volumes, in volume V The Disintegration of Civilizations (Part One) (Oxford University 1939), at 58–194 (internal proletariats), and at 194–337 (external proletariats).
  6. Toynbee, A Study of History (1934–1961), e.g., in volume VII Universal States, Universal Churches (Oxford University 1954), at 70–76, and in volume VIII Contacts between Civilizations in Space (Oxford University 1954) at 82–84 (referring to Islam, Christianity, Mahayana Buddhism, and Hinduism).
  7. Wilkinson, David (Fall 1987). "Central Civilization". Comparative Civilizations Review. 17. pp. 31–59.
  8. McIntire, C. T.; Perry, Marvin, eds. (1989). Toynbee: Reappraisals. University of Toronto Press.
  9. Perry, Marvin (1996). Arnold Toynbee and the Western Tradition. New York: Peter Lang. ISBN 978-0820426716.
  10. A Study of History, Volume 1, Section VII, at 135–139.
  11. Franz Borkenau, "Toynbee's Judgment of the Jews: Where the Historian Misread History", Commentary (May 1955).
  12. Eliezer Berkovits, Judaism: Fossil or Ferment? (Philosophical Library, 1956).
  13. Nathan Rotenstreich, "The Revival of the Fossil Remnant: Or Toynbee and Jewish Nationalism", Jewish Social Studies, Vol. 24, No. 3 (July 1962), pp. 131–143.
  14. Abba Solomon Eban, "The Toynbee heresy: address delivered at the Israel", in Toynbee and History: Critical Essays and reviews, ed. by Ashley Montagu (Porter Sargent, 1956).
  15. Oskar K. Rabinowicz, Arnold Toynbee on Judaism and Zionism: A Critique (W.H. Allen, 1974).

Further reading

External links

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