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Universal Churches and the Role of Religion in Arnold J. Toynbee’s A Study of History

Phyllis Amenda


Religion has always been one of the universal attributes of human society. All civilizations look for an explanation of how the world works and try to decipher their own place in that world. No world historian should attempt to study either individual societies or a global society without seriously studying the place that the search for the divine has played in the human story.

Arnold J. Toynbee paid particular attention to the role of religion in the later volumes of his twelve volume work, A Study of History. He became particularly interested in the relationship between what he called universal religions and universal states. Toynbee’s interest in religion mirrored the publication history of A Study of History. Volumes I-VI were published in 1939 and have little mention of religion as Toynbee develops his civilizational paradigm. The next four volumes, VII-X, were published fifteen years after the first six, in 1954. Toynbee makes no secret of the fact that the war changed his outlook on civilizations and their history. His writing on religion is a significant part of this change, some might say that Toynbee becomes obsessed with religion, but there certainly is no doubt that religious concerns become a dominant theme in the later volumes of A Study of History. To understand Toynbee’s understanding of religion, this paper will first summarize the role of religion in the first six volumes of the work and then undertake an analysis of the section on “Universal Churches” in Volume VII.

Basic concepts in A Study of History

In the first six volumes of his history, Toynbee lays out his “Challenge-Response-Mimesis” paradigm, concentrating on the Challenge and Response phases in Volumes I-III. Volumes IV through VI deal with the breakdown of civilizations. In the first three volumes, there is little mention of religion, except as a characteristic of a given civilization. In Volumes IV-VI, Toynbee begins to look at what makes civilizations decline. “The Disintegrations of Civilizations” is Toynbee’s title for the fifth section of his work which comprises both Volumes V and VI. In Volume V, Toynbee begins to look at various social groups which comprise a civilization, particularly, “external” as well as “internal proletariats.”

In using the term, “proletariats,” Toynbee draws on the Latin etymology:

derived from a Latin word coined for the statistical purposes of the Roman census to describe a category of Roman citizens ‘who had nothing but their children to enter in their returns as their contribution to the common weal.’

Proletariats, as conceived of by Toynbee, are those who are on the outside; those who are not in control or who have a large stake maintaining the social order.

[A] social element or group which in some way is ‘in’ but not ‘of’ any given society at any given stage of society’s history . . . The true hall-mark of the proletarian is neither poverty nor humble birth but a consciousness—and the resentment which this consciousness inspires. . .

This consciousness can be exhibited by groups both geographically within as well as without the society.

External proletariats are those who have geographically separated from the society by some act of withdrawal with a clearly defined frontier separating them from the dominant minority. Toynbee usually characterizes the external proletariat as “primitive” or “barbarian war bands.” The barbarian hordes provide an external threat to a disintegrating society and will continue to pester the society from without until they can break through its defenses and conquer. Their ultimate victory will occur when the society is sufficiently weakened from within that it cannot fight off the external threat any longer.

This internal weakening will be the result of class warfare between the dominant minority and the internal proletariat. Toynbee’s concept of the internal proletariat is much closer to the conventional meaning of ‘proletariat’ that we associate with Marx and socialism. In Volume V, Toynbee describes the internal proletariats of the various civilizations he has identified. In discussing the dynamics of the internal proletariats in various societies, Toynbee begins to develop his thesis that this disaffected social group plays a role in introducing new religious ideas. According to Toynbee, philosophy and the concept of public service come from the dominant minority, but “[a]mong the works of the Internal Proletariat the counterparts of the philosophies are ‘higher religions’, while the counterpart of the universal state is a universal church.”

Toynbee distinguishes between primitive and higher religions: “[F]or a primitive religion is merely one expression, among many, of the corporate life of some local human community, whereas a ‘higher religion’ is the worship of a Godhead that is conceived of as transcending the whole of human life as well as the whole of the Material Universe.” For Toynbee, it is the study of these higher religions and their role in civilization that will become a larger focus in the later volumes of A Study of History.

Breakdown and the Rise of Universal States

In Toynbee’s Challenge-Response-Mimesis paradigm, creative responses to the challenges facing a society enable a society to grow. The group that leads the society through the challenges is called the creative minority by Toynbee. As long as these supermen (in the Nietzchean sense) are the impetus for the society, that society will be on the ascendant phase of its evolution. But what happens if the creative minority loses its edge, for some reason no longer has the “mystically inspired personalities” which are needed to maintain the creativity of response that gives a civilization its uniqueness? Toynbee calls this point the “breakdown” of the Challenge-Response-Mimesis paradigm. Costello defines this as “the breakdown of civilization [which] occurs in the moral failure of the leading minority and the consequent secession of their potential successors.” The creative minority, through its leadership, becomes the dominant minority, but when the dominant minority loses its cultural hegemony, the response of the proletariats becomes mechanical and ritualistic. It is at this point that the internal proletariat begins seeking for a new value system, a new aspiration, to replace the rigid, unsatisfying gods that have been forced upon them by the dominant minority.

The polity that is controlled by a dominant (but no longer creative) minority is called a universal state by Toynbee. He devotes the first half of Volume VII to describing universal states. Toynbee begins Volume VII by describing the features of a universal state:

In the first place, universal states arise after, and not before, the breakdowns of the civilizations to whose bodies social they bring political unity. They are not summers but ‘Indian Summers’, masking autumn and presaging winter. In the second place, they are the products of dominant minorities: that is, of once creative minorities that have lost their creative power . . .

Toynbee goes on to quote a lengthy passage by Amand Bazard which states that the hallmark of their establishment is negativeness. A third feature is that universal states are the answer of the society to “a Time of Troubles” which earns the gratitude of the populace by establishing order and seemingly stopping the disintegration of the society.

The paradox of universal states is that they appear to be immortal just at the moment they are about to commit euthanasia and succumb to an alien intruder. For examples, one needs only look at the Roman Empire or the British Raj in India. By the time they appeared immortal, they had already swallowed the poison of their ultimate demise. If Toynbee views the universal state as civilization in decline, does he see any positive virtue to them? He finds two purposes of the universal state. The first is as peacemaker. “Whereas parochial states prey on one another . . . universal states come into existence to put a stop to wars and to substitute co-operation for bloodshed.” The second purpose is to spend itself in service to others. The second purpose raises the question: Who are its beneficiaries of this service? Toynbee answers that there are only three choices, a contemporary alien civilization, its external proletariat or its internal proletariat, “and in serving the internal proletariat a universal state will be ministering to one of the higher religions that make their epiphany in the internal proletariat’s bosom.”

It is in serving the higher religions that find a home in the internal proletariat that universal states find their highest purpose in Toynbee’s thinking. But how do universal states provide the conditions (or services) that allow alien higher religions to flourish?

As mentioned above, the first benefit provided by a universal is a time of peace from both internal and external threats. Toynbee labels this benefit, “The Psychology of Peace.” Toynbee claims that while eliminating fratricidal warfare, the dominant minority is unable to impose a “fancy religion” or philosophy from above, but that the “pacific atmosphere” will allow internal proletariats to establish their own religions from below upwards. Both the freedom to travel permitted by peace itself, and the communications network created by the universal state, will allow religious ideas to move in and gain a hearing in the society. Within the society, who is more willing to hear new ideas? Is it the dominant minority which seeks to maintain the existing power structure? Or is it the already alienated internal proletariat, who have no stake in the state religion or the power structure that state religion inevitably supports? The answer is obvious, while enjoying the peace established by the dominant minority, the internal proletariat is going to be willing to examine new religious ideas which will eventually challenge the dominant minority’s power.

The Establishment of Higher Religions

As noted above, Toynbee does not place much emphasis on religion in the earlier volumes of A Study of History. However, with the publication of Volume VII in 1954, fifteen years after the publication of Volume VI, the work takes a major turn in examining the post-breakdown phase of civilizations, which Toynbee calls universal states. It is at this point in the work that Toynbee becomes focused on religion. In his view the primary beneficiary of a universal state is unequivocally the universal religion that arises from it. Halfway through Volume VII, Toynbee begins a new section entitled “Universal Churches.” It is in this section that the change in Toynbee’s thought after World War II becomes more pronounced. While still discussing past civilizations and attempting to find a universal paradigm of development, it is clear that Toynbee’s focus has shifted to the spiritual side of human existence.

One reason for Toynbee’s emphasis on religion is the rejection he saw in post-war intellectual thought of spiritual values. He argues that man has discarded the worship of primitive nature for the worship of “the man-god Caesar” and has transformed nature “from an object of worship into an object of exploitation.” The antidote for such idolatry is the message of the higher religions.

The message of the higher religions had been that Man, like Nature, is not God but is God’s creature; and this message had won Man’s ear at the moment when the collapse of a man-made mundane civilization had been demonstrating to Man the limitations of his power through the first-hand evidence of a painful and humbling experience

While this could obviously be true of the fall of the Roman Empire, it could equally be true of post-war England.

Parasitic Religion

Another reason that Toynbee emphasizes the positive role of higher religions in the human story is that he wants to refute modern scholarship that denigrates religion, especially Christianity. He opens the beginning the book on “Universal Churches” with a section entitled, “Churches as Cancers.” Toynbee admits that because the universal churches that have developed out of the higher religions are the primary beneficiaries of the universal states, they might be perceived as a parasite on that site, sucking the life out of it until the universal state drops dead. But he counters that “[t]his diagnosis is as attractive as it is exacerbating; for it always easier, both intellectually and morally, to debit one’s ills to the account of some outside agency than to ascribe responsibility to oneself.” He then spends the next ten pages debunking two well known scholars who attack Christianity as being an outside parasite, Edward Gibbon and Sir James George Frazer.

Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published in 1932. Toynbee sums up all seventy-one chapters with a nine word quotation, “I have described the triumph of Barbarism and Religion.” Because Gibbon sees that the decline of the Empire was synonymous with rise of Christianity, he concludes that the latter is responsible for the former. Toynbee rebuts Gibbon by claiming that Gibbon misread the point of breakdown in the Roman Empire. The Empire (or as Toynbee would say, the Hellenic civilization) had passed the point of breakdown long before the entrance of Christianity. Without the breakdown of Hellenic civilization, Christianity and other Oriental religions would have found no market in Rome for their ideas.

Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough takes what is implicit in Gibbon about the parasitic nature of Christianity and expands the concept. Toynbee includes a lengthy quotation from The Golden Bough in which Frazer claims that Oriental religions completely undermined the “conception of the subordination of the individual to the community” and replaced it with the “selfish and immoral doctrine” of individual salvation. The selection quoted by Toynbee ends with hope that with the revival of classicism in the Renaissance and post-Renaissance eras will restore Roman virtue in the modern world. According to Frazer:

The revival of Roman Law, of the Aristotelian philosophy, of ancient art and literature at the close of the Middle Ages marked the return of Europe to native ideals of life and conduct, to saner, manlier views of the world. The long halt in the march of civilization was over. The tide of Oriental invasion had turned at last. It is ebbing still.

To which Toynbee ironically replies,

It was indeed still ebbing . . . on the 4th March, 1948...the present writer was wondering what that gentle scholar would have had to say . . . about some of the ways in which Europe’s return to ‘native ideals of life and conduct’ had manifested itself during the forty-one years that had now passed since . . . 1907.

Toynbee sees a straight line between the “rational, unenthusiastic” neo-paganism of Gibbon and Frazer to the “demonic, emotional, violent-handed” neo-pagans of Hitler’s Germany.

Toynbee argues that the love of God and love of Man are joined together in all the higher religions and therefore doing one will require doing the other. The difference between the pagan and the Christian (or the Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist) is that the Christian can see beyond his own small kingdom to the world as a totality. By seeking the will of God on earth, the Christian is shooting for a larger goal than the small-minded pagan, and therefore has a greater chance at hitting at least some part of that target. He quotes Robert Browning, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s a heaven for?”

As an example of that goal of serving man by serving God, Toynbee gives an account of Saint Daniel the Stylite, a Syrian anchorite, who left his pillar and journeyed to Constantinople to save the Christian faith, and thereby the Empire, and compares this example to the Hindu sage, Purun Baghat, who left his hermitage to warn villagers of an impending landslide, thus saving their lives. Both holy men sought to live in isolation to better contemplate the divine, but when their fellow man needed them, they gladly returned to the world to serve their fellow man, and thereby gain a fuller understanding of divine providence.

Having made his case against Gibbon and Frazer that religion is not a parasite on the universal state, Toynbee seeks to explore the possibility that religion may actually be a “higher species of society.” To understand what Toynbee means by that, we first need to understand what Toynbee means by “higher religions” and the role those religions have played in the evolution of society.

Religion and Society

In his chapter, “Churches as a Higher Species of Society,” Toynbee differentiates between what he calls “lower religions” and “higher religions.” These different stages of religious development have different types of relationships with the dominant minority and the state apparatus they exist under. Furthermore, these two stages have different relationships with rationalism and rationalism’s study of science. In studying these stages and why the conflict with rationalism is important, Toynbee makes a very powerful polemic for man’s need of religious truth and worship.

Lower Religions

As mentioned earlier, Toynbee identifies lower religions as a local phenomenon while higher religions view the deity as a global unity, concerned about all mankind, not just an individual tribe or nation. Toynbee argues that lower, primitive religions are the by-product of parochial states, but “the establishment of universal states obliterates the raison d’être of these religions. . .” There was no concept of personal choice in belief because the point of lower religions is not orthodox belief, but orthodox praxis. Toynbee explains: “The pith of Primitive Religion is not belief but action, and the test of conformity is not assent to a theological creed but participation in ritual performances.”

The emphasis on praxis over belief is why Toynbee believes that there is no disagreement between philosophy (the search for intellectual truth) and religion as defined by ritual. The people in primitive societies understand that their creation myths are “not statements concerning matter of fact that can be labeled ‘true’ or ‘false’. ” Therefore the philosopher who does make statements which have truth claims suffers no collision with the dominant minority “so long as the philosopher continues to carry out his hereditary religious duties.” Toynbee’s example is Confucius, who reconciled his moral philosophy with the traditional practices of Sinic religion by presenting his ideas as the meaning of those rites. Praxis over belief was Toynbee’s presentation of primitive religions. When the higher religions emerged, their novelty was the emphasis on belief over praxis. This led to what Toynbee refers to as the “paradox,” that the greatest advances in religious thought were usually seen as lapses in religion by their founders’ contemporaries. Thus the incredulity of Pompey when he found no object of worship in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, and charges of atheism against early Christians by their pagan neighbors while the Jews denounced these same Christians as blasphemers.

The Superiority of Higher Religions

If these early Christians were not bound by the rituals of the either the Jews or the pagans, then what was their appeal? Likewise, how did the philosophy of Gautama Siddhartha become the Buddhist religion of today? In other words, what accounts for the rise of the higher religions?

Toynbee seeks to place the rise of the four higher religions (Christianity, Islam, Mahayana and Hinduism) in his paradigm of civilizational breakdown. Thus, in general, the higher religions came out of the breakdown of the second generation of civilizations. These civilizations did not all break down at the same moment of history, so as the four higher religions emerged, they often took elements from prior religions and civilizations. For example, Christianity arose during the breakdown of the Hellenic civilization from both Jewish and Zoroastrian roots. The Zoroastrian root merged into Judaism during the Jews Babylonian exile, which occurred during the time of troubles that led to Cyrus founding the Achaemenian universal state. The earlier, Jewish roots of Christianity, arose out of the breakup of the “New Empire of Egypt” when Moses led the Hebrew internal proletariat away from that troubled land and founded their own parochial state.

Toynbee argues that religious developments are more likely to occur during a time of troubles than during times of peace and prosperity. He goes so far as to call it a “law” that “the circumstances favourable to spiritual and to secular progress are not only different but are antithetical.” His explanation will sound familiar to those familiar with the phenomenon of “no atheists in foxholes.”

Spiritual and secular ideals are at variance; they are perpetually striving with one another for mastery over human souls; and it is therefore not surprising that souls should be deaf to the call of the Spirit in times of secular prosperity, and sensitive to the neglected whisper of the still small voice when the vanity of the This World is brought home to them by secular catastrophes and when their hearts are softened by the sufferings and sorrows that these catastrophes inflict.

Toynbee is obviously not only thinking of the past, but also of the post-WWII present:

When the house that Man has built for himself falls in ruin about his ears and he finds himself standing again in the open at the mercy of the elements, he also finds himself standing again face to face with a God whose perpetual presence is now no longer hidden from Man’s eyes by prison walls of Man’s own making.

If Toynbee seems to be saying that post-war Europe was in a time of troubles (which included both World Wars), then he has hope for the future.

If this is the truth, the interregna which punctuate secular history by intervening between the submergence of one civilization and the emergence of a successor may be expected to have, as their counterparts in religious history, no breaches of continuity or pauses in the pulsation of life, but flashes of intense spiritual illumination and bursts of fervent spiritual activity.

Religious insights come out of troubled times. Each troubled time is different, just as societies are individual even while they follow the same basic paradigm of rise and fall. Each civilization’s troubles are unique, so each civilization’s religious response will highlight a different facet of the Deity.

Toynbee has made a case for churches springing up out of a civilization’s decay. But might things work the other way? Could churches have a role in creating new civilizations? Toynbee argues that they do, and an exploration of his ideas on the subject will further illuminate the importance of religion in human history.

Birth out of Death: Churches and the Creation of New Civilizations

If the universal state is already dying by the time a higher religion becomes a universal church, then what role does religion play in the funeral of the dead civilization and the birth of a new one? Toynbee’s concept is that of the church as a chrysalis for new civilizations. Toynbee confesses that at one time, he believed that this was raison d’être for universal churches, but that when writing Volume VII, he had come to believe that universal churches had a much larger reason for existence. As mentioned before, it is obvious that the experiences of World War II had a significant effect in expanding Toynbee’s appreciation of religion. Still, Toynbee admits that while the universal churches serve a much greater purpose than simply as a chrysalis for new civilizations, it is useful to study that facet of their mission. It is important to understand Toynbee’s ideas regarding civilizational cycles and the role that religion plays in those cycles.

The Chrysalis Concept

Toynbee claims that all of the extant civilizations in 1952 were affiliated to earlier civilizations through universal churches. He traces the Western and Orthodox Christian civilizations back to the Hellenic civilization through Christianity; the Far East back to the Sinic through Mahayana; the Hindu back to the Indic; and the Arabic through Islam to the Syriac. He goes on to argue that the fossils of several extinct civilizations were preserved in a religious expression, for example, Judaism, Jainism and several offshoots of Buddhism.

The transition process from old civilization to new begins with what Toynbee calls the “conceptive” role of the church. In this phase, the universal state has been established out a time of troubles. The state has seized all political power and left the bulk of the population as an internal proletariat. They have willingly given up their freedom in exchange for peace and safety, but they have paid a price. This cost of freedom is frustration, a loss of that creative impulse that Toynbee calls “a psychic stream” and modern psychologists call “libido” by the alienated majority. This “life-force” will seek expression, and one way it does so is in new religions. Toynbee quotes Lord Macauley: “It [Christianity] excited all the passions of a stormy democracy in the quiet and listless population of an overgrown empire . . .it changed men, accustomed to be turned over like sheep from tyrant to tyrant, into devoted partisans and obstinate rebels.”

In this first conceptive phase of the chrysalis, the state has suppressed the energies and creativity of the masses. The successful new religions are those which can take those energies and use them to further their message. When the new religion is able to channel these unleashed energies, it enters the “gestative phase” of its encounter with the universal state. This is an institution-building phase of the religion’s life cycle. Toynbee compares this to the building of secular institutions that accompany the building of the civilization. The universal state is not using this creative energy, so the churches appropriate it and provide an outlet to “those men of mark who have failed to find scope for their genius as public servants.” Toynbee claims that at this stage, the masses sense that the state is sinking and are looking for some institution that promises them hope for the future, thus the gestative phase is marked by mass conversions. Toynbee provides examples from his second generation civilizations of the growth of the new higher religions. It is during this phase that civilization which gave birth to the religion completely “dissolves into a social vacuum.” To illustrate his point, Toynbee uses an Islamic myth, which teaches that the bridge over Hell to Paradise is as narrow as a razor’s edge. The avatar of the Prophet Mohammed appears as a ram who will surefootedly cross the bridge with the true believers clinging to him as a tick in the ram’s wool. Unbelievers are left to cross on their own, which they are unable to do, therefore falling into eternal damnation. The ram, representing the universal churches, is the vehicle by which the benefits and learning of the prior civilization will cross the abyss between the old and new civilizations.

Once the old universal state is dead and gone, a new dynamic is needed. Toynbee calls this the “parturient” phase. During this phase, the church opens the floodgates and releases the energy it has been keeping within its own institutions during the death throes of the prior state. Church leaders are released to serve in secular roles, and new parochial states begin to build out of the creative energy stored by the religious institutions, responding to new challenges and beginning the whole Challenge-Response-Mimesis paradigm all over again. At least, that is the general idea. On this phase of his argument, Toynbee admits that the evidence breaks down. Unlike the neat examples he was able to provide for the first two phases of his paradigm, he admits that the evidence is not universal for the parturient phase. It worked in Western Europe during the Medieval period and to a degree in India with the Brahmins, but not very well with either Ottoman Orthodoxy or Islam. This leads Toynbee to discuss the inadequacy of the chrysalis concept.

The main drawback of the churches as chrysalis concept is that only works for one generation of civilizations. Going from the first generation to the second generation, Toynbee can only describe rudimentary higher religions. He says in fact that it “never occurred in the corresponding transition from the second generation from the first.” (See Chart of Civilizations and Religions at conclusion of paper.) It is only after the second generation of civilizations that Toynbee can detect the emergence of universal churches. He attempts to delineate a group of secondary higher religions arising out of the third generation of civilizations (see Chart), but none of these secondary religions has truly taken hold in the way that the primary four higher religions did.

Toynbee admits that the chrysalis concept is very limited even looking at the second and third generations. Looking at his Chart, he comments that while all the tertiary civilizations came from secondary civilizations via chrysalis churches, not all the secondary civilizations parented tertiary civilizations. Only four of the eight secondary civilizations gave birth to a succeeding generation. He also admits that he did not see the cycle repeating in his own time. Writing after World War II, he does speculate as where Communism fits into his schema. He does call Marxian Communism a religion, speculating that if the Soviet Union was the universal state for the Western World, then Communism would then be the religion of the dominant minority, and reap a reward of “Dead Sea fruit.” In other words it would not triumph, but would languish as all dominant minorities do, waiting for their internal proletariats to discover a vision of the divine that meets their needs, not the needs of their commissars.

In analyzing Toynbee’s concept of the chrysalis, it appears to be even more limited that he thought it was. While Toynbee’s list of tertiary civilizations makes sense, his secondary religions are purely derivative of the four higher religions (Christianity, Islam, Mahayana and Hinduism). Looking at this paradigm in 1998, it does not hold up. At least two of the four primary religions (Christianity and Islam) are continuing to win adherents around the globe, even as Western Christian Civilization (at least the Western part, with or without the Christian) is becoming a global civilization. Buddhism and Hinduism are continuing to hold their ground as major world religions and have spread world wide as a result of increased global immigration. By contrast, while a some of his secondary religions such as Baha’ism and Sikhism are still in existence, they have not become major world religions and these two sects have been severely persecuted in their lands of origin (Iran and India).

Toynbee has discussed the function of churches in birthing civilizations, but what about the function of civilizations in birthing churches. If religion is as important to mankind as Toynbee came to believe that it did, what might be the role of secular institutions in illuminating the divine?

Civilization as an Egg to Hatch A New Religion

As Toynbee’s conviction that religion was the overarching link between civilizations, both in time and space, grew after WWII, his writing in A Study of History, reflected that change. In the chapter discussed above, “Churches as a Higher Species of Society,” Toynbee urged his readers to

“open our minds to the possibility that the churches might be the protagonists and that vice versa the histories of the civilizations might have to be envisaged and interpreted in terms, not of the own destinies, but of their effect on the history of Religion.”

In the next chapter, “The Role of Civilizations in the Lives of Churches,” Toynbee asks the reader to invert the paradigm he used in the first six volumes. Instead of considering civilizations paramount and religion subordinate, he wants to “make the new departure of dealing with civilizations in terms of churches.” Toynbee believes that this approach will answer a question posed by Plato, “[w]hich . . . are the true catastrophes: the breakdowns of civilizations or their births?” Toynbee’s answer is that the birth of a civilization is a catastrophe if it results in a regression from higher religion, but a success if the new civilization gives rise to a new church. Toynbee’s example of a successful new church is Christianity, which took vocabulary and customs from the Hellenic (both Greek and Roman) culture and infused them with sacred significance. He uses the metaphor of an egg, which must be broken for the new life within to grow and mature. The Hellenic civilization existed for one reason, to bring forth Christianity. In so doing, its death was not in vain, but a life cycle expended for a noble purpose. But what about the other side of the drachma, the case where a civilization does not give rise to a new church, but regresses back to a prior civilization?

Unsuccessful Civilizations

After Toynbee sets forth his example of the Christian church transforming the Hellenic world into a new entity, devoted to showing the divine light to the people, he considers whether a civilization which arose out of such a religious ethos might have regressed back to the level of its parent civilization. Using the same methodology of tracing word etymology from one source to another, Toynbee traces a number of words and customs from the church to a purely secular connotation. He concludes that much of the sacred has reverted back to a purely secular meaning. In a revision of the normally accepted view, Toynbee views the so-called Renaissance as a regression of European civilization because it rejected the religious base of that society in favor of the secular works of the Hellenic civilization. He further claims that this is not merely a Western problem, but it has also occurred in the Far East, where the rejection of Mahayana in favor of the prior Sinic culture has been more complete than the rejection of Christianity in the West.

What causes this rejection? Why do societies reject the higher religions that Toynbee feels are clearly superior to any other choices they have? Toynbee seeks answers to these questions in the chapter, “Causes of Regression.” He looks at the Hildebrandine papacy, Saint Benedict and Pope Gregory the Great. He concludes that to the degree those in charge of the Civitas Dei get ensnared in the affairs of the world of men, their legacy is a degraded spirituality. He acknowledges that the three holy men he studies were not attempting to take worldly power for its own sake, but were forced into taking that power by the challenge of exercising their spiritual authority. Therefore he reasons that the real problem is not with the institutions per se. The real problem is innate in human nature, Original Sin.

If our problem is Original Sin, an intractable evil in the human soul, is there any hope of progressing either in terms of civilization or religion? Was the flowering of the four higher religions the apex of human development? Toynbee is very concerned with these questions in the chapter, “The Bow in the Cloud.” The chapter title comes from the account in Genesis where God tells Noah that the rainbow is a sign to man that God will never again destroy the world by water. He reminds the reader that secular progress and spiritual progress are polar opposites, so if civilization has seen great secular advances, it is to be expected that the spiritual life of that society would have declined.

Looking at the Western World after both world wars, he offers two choices to the Western civilization: The first is to let the Neo-Paganism that almost destroyed the West in the twentieth century have its way and grind our civilization into the dust. The second is for modern man to awake from his slumber, repent of his Man-worship and return to the higher religions revealed to his forefathers. Toynbee believes that one will end in the death of the West, the other offers a hope of new life.

Toynbee believed that the future of civilization depended on man’s religious choices and that our previous civilizations were merely a vehicle for the spiritual side of man to develop and flourish. It would seem from Volume VII that the only unit of study worth the historian’s time or effort would be man’s quest for God.

In fact, one might ask, given Toynbee’s focus on religion as the prime element in civilization, why did Toynbee not just categorize his civilizations by their religions, instead of all the other criteria of space, time, etc. He answered that very question in an annex to Volume VIII, titled “The Relativity of the Unit of Classification to the Object of Study.” He notes that the modern societies based on Christianity and Islam arose out of the same parent society at about the same time, and that both of them are apt to conjure up renaissances of the dead parent society. Why not treat them as the same society? Toynbee answers because they conjure up different aspects of the dead parent society in response to different challenges. So Toynbee returns to his Challenge and Response paradigm from the first three volumes. Even when societies have the same religion and the same heritage, each time and each place presents different challenges to the society and to grow and thrive, each society must respond creatively and appropriately, based on the need and capabilities of the moment. Likewise, when a society goes into breakdown, it will break down for reasons unique to its own time, its own failed challenges, and the course of that breakdown will be unique to that society. Even the universal churches that arise from the breakdown are not the same. While Toynbee finds striking similarities between Christianity, Islam, Mahayana and Hinduism, they all have very unique features that met the challenges of their own times and places of origin.

The unit of study for a historian will always be bound by time and geography. While on one level, one could discuss only two second generation civilizations, the Syriac (Christian/Islam) and the Indic (Mahayana/Hindu), in fact, one would be painting with too broad a brush. One would have a unit of study that is so large that one could never catch hold of it. By necessity one would have to break it down by time or region just to look at a piece small enough to examine.

In discussing the history of large civilizations whether the Syriac and Indic of Toynbee, or the world systems of later world historians, one runs into the same problem. One must either skim the surface of many times and places, looking for a very simple paradigm to organize history, or one can dive in to a specific time or place and look for patterns of history. While earlier twentieth century historians like H. G. Wells or Toynbee wrote multi-volume works that purported to do both, in reality they failed. Even with twelve volumes, Toynbee could only cover a few time periods in the most superficial manner.

The later volumes of A Study of History become a polemic for what Toynbee sees as the gaping abyss facing Western man. He uses his paradigm of universal states, universal churches and proletariats to urge his readers to wake up and find God before the Western world kills itself in an orgy of violence. This teleological, even eschatological urgency overwhelms Toynbee. The urge to preach is an inherent one for the world historian. Toynbee is not the only twentieth century prophet who has used a world history to promulgate his individual gospel. H. G. Wells desired a world state. Oswald Spengler figured that the West was done for, but wanted to explain why. Pitirim Sorokin wanted everyone to shake off Sensate Culture and discover how to love each other. Immanuel Wallerstein wants us to see how we are bound by the Capitalist World-System so we can stop exploiting the periphery states and live in Marxist peace and harmony.

The question becomes, not if a world historian has an agenda, but why does the discipline appear to demand one. Arnold J. Toynbee can furnish us with one possible answer to this question. To study a very large unit, even one civilization at a specific time, one needs some kind of organizing device, a meta-narrative. The quest to study many civilizations over the course of human history requires not merely a meta-narrative, but an all encompassing vision of human existence. Religion can provide this kind of encompassing vision, as can pseudo-religious ideologies, such as Marxism. Religious visions whether of the overtly spiritual type, such as Christianity, or the putatively materialist variety, such as Marxism are by nature teleological. They have a vision of where mankind is going and what awaits him at the end of his road.

Toynbee’s vision is rooted in his Christianity. Even his universalist tendencies were rooted in the similarities between the other higher religions and Christianity. His vision of history is therefore by nature, religious. In a spiritually motivated view, God or man’s attempts to find God (religion), will be the organizing principle. It is not surprising that he changed course in his view of civilization between volumes VI and VII. Given the calamity that was Europe during the fifteen year interregnum between those volumes, it would have been more surprising if there was no change in vision; because it would have meant that Toynbee had not been part of his world, not just as a historian, but as a human being.

Last Updated: 12/19/17