Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Universal State

The Universal State
Saturday January 13, 2007

In A Study of History, Arnold J. Toynbee [April 14, 1889 - October 22, 1975] studies the genesis, growths and breakdowns of world civilizations but ultimately pursues the question of the role of the higher religions in history. Writing in the middle of the 20th century after having witnessed two violent World Wars, Toynbee’s mind regarding the role of religion underwent a sharp metamorphosis from his earlier views, which were more in line with late 19th-century rationalism and optimism.

Instead of seeing the reproduction of a civilization “as an end in itself,” he becomes converted to the view that civilizations play a secondary and subordinate role in the history of religion. The best fruit of a “Universal State” such as ancient Rome may have been that its existence made possible the arising of Christianity. That is, the importance of civilizations may lie in their effects upon Religion, and not the other way around. This view was held by the Church Fathers Ambrose and Augustine, and later argued by Bossuet, the French historian. Gibbon’s history of the Roman Empire, which argued that the collapse of Rome was “the triumph of barbarism and religion” – a view certainly not friendly to Christianity – helped to fuel the unfolding rationalism of post-Reformation Western society.

Toynbee, looking at all of this from the perspective of the “last generation of Western neo-pagans” – those “rational, unenthusiastic and tolerant” men who were swept away in the cataclysms of the 20th century, finds Gibbon and his heirs mistaken. For the “Universal State” is already symptomatic of spiritual decline.[1] But that such a State should die fruitlessly – for such would its death be, if it were seen as an end in itself-- it would mean that human life was “a tragedy without a catharsis.”Toynbee thus turns his interest from seeing civilizations and their climactic “Universal States” not as ends, but as the means, through their agonies of dissolution, of giving birth to the Higher Religions. Such a view would not have been welcome in the high tide of Western post-Reformation civilization, riding high on its scientific discoveries [2] and in the process of re-instituting “the worship of Leviathan.”

He comments that Westerners of the writer’s generation not only took it for granted that the Christian Church had served its turn in bringing a new civilization to birth in the West; they looked upon this new civilization as having been immature so long as it had remained under Christian auspices; and after having waited with impatience for it to get through its medieval Christian childhood, and having joyfully greeted the repudiation of its Christian origins with which it had celebrated its coming of age, they had focused their attention on the rise of a Modern Western secular way of life…(p. 446, vol VII)

But what if this secular movement that so elicited their admiration were merely one of “the vain repetitions of the heathens” – “an almost meaningless repetition of something that the Hellenes had done before them, and done supremely well – then the greatest new event in the historical background of a Modern Western Society would be seen to be … very different. The greatest new event would then not be the monotonous rise of yet another secular civilization out of the bosom of the Christian Church in the course of these latter centuries; it would still be the Crucifixion and the Crucifixion’s spiritual consequences.” [Italics mine]

Perhaps the “agonies of dissolution” of Two World Wars made people in England and America momentarily receptive to Toynbee’s message -- as indicated by the cover of Time Magazine -- but I think his hope that it might strike a deeper root has gone unfulfilled. Toynbee’s encompassing yet detailed vision of human civilizations has been succeeded by the scrapings of little men and little women, generations of the small-minded, positivists, data-gatherers, pontificators of progress, anti-spiritual and anti-metaphysical to the bone. [3]

Yet I think that Toynbee’s canvas is as large and as generous as the view of the world offered by Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy, only it is more accessible than the latter because it is oriented towards the known world of history rather than the unknown realm of the occult and the spiritual. Yet both of these large canvasses, had they been received in the spirit in which they were offered, would have had the power to set Western culture upon a new path instead of the terrible hardening of the arteries and suicide of intelligence that are everywhere in evidence today.

Fantasy and technology have come to occupy the niche formerly assigned to the operations of intelligence, and almost no subject in the so-called “human affairs” departments – which include everything from diplomacy to painting – has any grounding any more. Such departments of knowledge only exist in the sense of being related to words that once carried with them certain obligations about life and “deportment.” But all “deportment” has been vacated to the status of mere “departments,” and the message about how to live one’s life in these “departments” of knowledge has been lost.The generations of Western mankind have been succeeded by a generation of mayflies, all buzzing fretfully yet with zealous unanimity toward the creation of the Universal State of Incoherence… with the climate, politics, economy, and everything else not far behind.

Truly, Toynbee came at a time and with the message of a pearl of great price – the pearl of wisdom gained through suffering. It was a rare, unique, and unrepeatable historical opportunity for Western man to expand, deepen and integrate his intelligence through a Christian re-appropriation of his history.It was an opportunity murdered, missed, lost, squandered, obliterated, buried -- as far as I can tell, for the past five decades in the history of the West, for now, and to all appearances for the foreseeable future. But whether that promise can reawaken remains the centrally important question of our being. This is the challenge buried in our souls and in our history that cries out for response.

[1] “…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…Universal States are symptoms of social disintegration, yet at the same time they are attempts to check this disintegration and to defy it.” Pps.3, 4, vol VII]

[2] “One of Man’s fundamental and perennial errors – an error that is both an intellectual and a moral lapse – is to idolize discoveries of his own making that enhance his power.” P. 468]

[3] Such ones attacked Toynbee’s work as “metaphysical speculation dressed up as history” – the worst word in the modern vocabulary being, apparently, “metaphysical.”It is interesting that, of Western philosophers contemporary or later than Toynbee, only Ortega y Gasset really heard the message of life, and turned his philosophy to its good account in his essays on “vital reason.” Yet even Ortega was not wholly in Toynbee’s camp. He thought that Toynbee showed too little esteem in being English – and he thought it boded ill for the future of the world that such a man felt no particular partiality for his own people and nation. Kedourie, an economist, attacked Toynbee for not taking responsibility for the retreating British Empire and in failing to uphold democratic values in countries it had once controlled. But in the light of Toynbee’s view of “Universal States” and their imperialism, this criticism seems to beg the question of the very spiritual disintegration that A Study of History was in large part describing. But in a more particular sense, especially in relation to Palestine, this criticism does not seem just. Of Palestine, Toynbee remarked that it was not just a local tragedy, but “a tragedy for the world.” He was very aware of the menace to democratic values represented in the fate of Palestine. Perhaps Toynbee's views on this matter were especially unwelcome in the circles of our culture, which already viewed with distrust his comprehensive view of history, deeply informed by a Christianized intelligence.

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