Toynbee’s Metahistorical Approach Sparks Debate Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When the famous British historian Arnold J. Toynbee issued the first three volumes of his multivolume classic A Study of History, his metahistorical approach was challenged and championed by other historians, social scientists, and politicians around the world.

Summary of Event

In 1934, Oxford University Press published the first three volumes of the historian Arnold J. Toynbee’s monumental work A Study of History (1934-1961; 12 volumes). Volumes 4, 5, and 6 followed in 1939, and volumes 7, 8, 9, and 10 were released in 1954. In 1959, a historical atlas and gazetteer was added as volume 11, and finally, in 1961, Toynbee published his response to criticisms of his work in volume 12, titled Reconsiderations. D. C. Somervell, Somervell, D. C. a British schoolmaster, published an abridgment of volumes 1-6 of A Study of History in 1946, and a second, of volumes 7-10, in 1957. The Somervell condensation of the twentieth century’s most massive single-authored historical work made it accessible to a far larger audience. Toynbee sought to glean meaning from the entire course of human history, and the monumental work of erudition and speculation he produced was vigorously attacked by professional historians and widely read (especially in the Somerville abridgment and in the decades immediately after World War II). Arguably, Toynbee proposed a view of human history that was more expansive than that of any previous historian. [kw]Toynbee’s Metahistorical Approach Sparks Debate (1934)[Toynbees Metahistorical Approach Sparks Debate (1934)] [kw]Metahistorical Approach Sparks Debate, Toynbee’s (1934) Study of History, A (Toynbee) History, study of [g]England;1934: Toynbee’s Metahistorical Approach Sparks Debate[08530] [c]Historiography;1934: Toynbee’s Metahistorical Approach Sparks Debate[08530] [c]Sociology;1934: Toynbee’s Metahistorical Approach Sparks Debate[08530] [c]Publishing and journalism;1934: Toynbee’s Metahistorical Approach Sparks Debate[08530] Toynbee, Arnold Joseph Spengler, Oswald Marx, Karl McNeill, William H.

Toynbee began his inquiry by identifying the basic intelligible unit of historical study: those societies he called “civilizations,” which he distinguished from “primitive” societies. He identified twenty-one different civilizations (although later he would expand the number to twenty-six). In his first six volumes, Toynbee’s basic questions focused on the geneses of civilizations from primitive societies; the growth, breakdown, and disintegration of civilizations; and the emergence of what he called “universal states” out of civilizations’ disintegration. In short, Toynbee sought to compare the historical development of all human civilizations in an effort to fathom the deeper meanings of the human past. It was an effort similar to that of German cultural historian Oswald Spengler in his Die Untergang des Abendlandes (1918-1922; The Decline of the West, 1926-1928). Decline of the West, The (Spengler) After reading Spengler’s work in 1920, Toynbee had determined to pursue his own inquiry into the comparative history of civilizations so provocatively anatomized in The Decline of the West.

Toynbee argued that civilizations emerge out of a process he termed “challenge and response.” The challenge a particular primitive society might face could be environmental or social, but a successful response to challenge, mediated by the leadership roles played by creative individuals, put that society on the path toward civilization. Interestingly, although Toynbee’s most basic concept was “civilization,” he never clearly defined this idea in the twelve volumes of A Study of History. Civilizations were inadequate units of studying the historical development of humankind, Toynbee ultimately determined, and several volumes of his work are devoted to the search for the best unit for this type of study. If any one civilization was a model or paradigm of what a civilized society should be, from Toynbee’s point of view, it was the Hellenic civilization of ancient Greece and Rome. (Toynbee had become intimately familiar with these cultures during his training as a classical scholar at Oxford University.)

If the leadership of creative individuals guides a civilization’s growth, the breakdown of a civilization occurs, Toynbee argued in volume 4, when this creative minority loses its élan and the majority no longer follows it. The minority rest on their laurels, so to speak, and are therefore unprepared for further challenges. Disintegration ensues, as Toynbee showed in the next two volumes, and this disintegration of a civilization takes a specific form: A “dominant minority” emerges, which is the formerly creative minority, and it is joined by both an “internal proletariat,” the mass of people who no longer follow the minority and may rebel against it, and an “external proletariat,” which lives outside the civilization’s boundaries and may launch attacks against it.

Although the internal proletariat may react with violence against the dominant minority, creative leaders within it may also produce a “higher religion.” (The intellectual inspiration behind Toynbee’s discussion of internal and external proletariats was the work of Karl Marx, but Toynbee transformed Marx’s key ideas into political and religious categories.) As a civilization disintegrates, the dominant minority regroups and creates what Toynbee calls a “universal state.” These universal states have two functions: They bring unity to the areas over which they rule, and they can act as a chrysalis out of which a higher religion will emerge. The archetype for such a universal state was the Roman Empire and the development of Christianity within it.

Toynbee had developed these arguments in the first six volumes of A Study of History (1934-1939). However, the combined impress of World War II and Toynbee’s personal and spiritual development led Toynbee to shift his emphasis in volumes 7-10. In the earlier volumes, he had seen the higher religions essentially as by-products of ongoing civilizational development, but he now argued that the deeper meaning of civilizational development was to produce the “higher” religions, such as Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. Their emergence was the ultimate product and final meaning of the story of humankind’s development. These universal religions now became a third kind of society in human history, in addition to primitive and civilized societies. During the last several decades of his life, Toynbee became increasingly convinced that the future hope of humanity lay in the values of expressed by these higher religions, especially love, compassion, and selflessness.


Among the community of professional historians, Toynbee’s A Study of History met with widespread criticism. For many, his work smacked more of the speculative philosophy of history that dated to Augustine than of the sober empirical approach to the past favored by academic historians. On the other hand, within the broader literate public, Toynbee’s work, especially in Somervell’s excellent abridgment, was widely read. During the last decades of his life, Toynbee became a public intellectual whose pronouncements on world affairs were listened to around the world. In fact, his willingness to offer his interpretation of current events and to make pronouncements on the current and future condition of humankind was a second reason for the severely critical response Toynbee’s work received. Many historians disliked the idea of a pundit and prophet who made metahistorical speculations.

Toynbee himself, of course, always saw himself as a historian, and he took enormous care to respond to all the criticisms of his work in what constituted the twelfth volume of A Study of History. Although the popularity of Toynbee’s monumental volumes lessened, his belief in the unity behind humankind’s history and his conviction that this unity can be made understandable inspired later academic historians led by important figures such as William H. McNeill. Toynbee’s lifelong intellectual and spiritual endeavor to understand the modern world and to critically probe the human condition made significant contributions to the twentieth century’s intellectual history. Study of History, A (Toynbee) History, study of

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McIntire, C. M., and Marvin Perry, eds. Toynbee: Reappraisals. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989. Interesting compilation of essays examining Toynbee’s work from multiple perspectives.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McNeill, William. Arnold J. Toynbee: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Excellent biography of Toynbee by a renowned world historian who knew and was inspired by Toynbee.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Navari, Cornelia. “Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975): Prophecy and Civilization.” Review of International Studies 26 (2000): 289-301. An article situating Toynbee’s theory of international relations and his concern with the future of Western civilization in his grand narrative of universal historical process.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Perry, Marvin. Arnold Toynbee and the Western Tradition. New York: Peter Lang, 1996. Sees Toynbee’s historical vision as a response to the intellectual and political crises of the twentieth century and a call for critical reflection on the Enlightenment tradition and the human condition.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Toynbee, Arnold J. A Study of History. 2 vols. Abridged by D. C. Somervell. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1957. Somervell’s excellent condensation of A Study of History received the imprimatur of Toynbee himself and made the basic arguments of his massive work accessible to a wide reading public.

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