Thursday, February 08, 2007

Dissing Toynbee

Dissing Toynbee
February 8, 2007

Comments on H.R. Trevor-Roper’s “Arnold Toynbee’s Millennium,” Encounter, June, 1957.

The historian Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote a long dismissive piece on Arnold J. Toynbee’s A Study of History for Encounter Magazine in June, 1957. This article may have done more to sink Toynbee’s reputation than any other critical notice, and as it is a window into the world we have today, it seemed to me of interest to discuss it.

First of all, I should say I have not read all of Toynbee’s twelve volumes, so I am at a disadvantage in commenting on Trevor-Roper’s criticisms. On the other hand, it is difficult to ascertain just what T-R’s criticisms consist of. He begins by asserting that Toynbee’s opus “has not been well received by professional historians,” with almost every chapter of it “shot to pieces by the experts,” but that he does not intend to discuss its historical truth or falsehood, its empirical validity or invalidity. We are thus given to understand that Toynbee has errors, but not just what those errors are. He finds it an interesting phenomenon of the time, and notes that Toynbee’s opus is popular with the masses – “as a dollar-earner, we are told, it ranks second only to whisky.”

The main charge that T-R levels against Toynbee is that Toynbee does not believe in rationalism. “In spite of its Hellenic training, his mind is fundamentally anti-rational and antiliberal.” Well and good. But it would have been more honest if T-R had stated more forthrightly, “I do not like it.” Instead, he charges Toynbee with an “obscurantist” message – which he likens, in a later passage, to Belloc and Chesterton. Chesterton “obscurantist” ? One may dislike Chesterton’s message – and if one is not Christian or Catholic, one will probably not like it – but it impossible to read Chesterton without getting his message. Chesterton is anything but “obscurantist.” My point is that T-R dislikes Toynbee, Belloc, and Chesterton, and he probably dislikes Christianity – although he doesn’t actually say so. But instead of owning to his dislike, he climbs a little platform called “rationalism” and from there, throws stones at Toynbee and the defenders of Christianity.

As for anti-rationalism: there is a difference between anti-rationalism and what I find in Toynbee, which might be called “integralism." The soul has many parts, and reason or rationalism has a place, but not pride of place. But that reason or rationalism should have a “place” is an idea inherently distasteful to the modernist mind-set of Trevor-Roper.

Milton’s Satan expresses this view of placeless, timeless, discarnate and ungrounded Reason when he enters Hell to take possession of it: “… and thou profoundest Hell/Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings/A mind not to be chang’d by Place or Time.” Paradise Lost, I, 251-3

But the second point to be noted about the modernist reason is, when it is not viewed like a Satanic machine – that is, not dependent upon the personal or the circumstantial, it can be deployed as a useful accusation to mask likes and dislikes. Trevor-Roper calls reason that which he likes, and he calls unreason or anti-rationalism that which he dislikes. For example, he accuses Toynbee of being “moved by a detestation of human reason and all its works.” This is a little hard to believe. Toynbee states at the outset of his investigations that he wants to bring forth an empirical study of the phenomenon of “human civilizations,” and he spends a great deal of time discussing the problem of how you can go about studying the empirical facts of something which has been known to occur only twenty-one times, or of which there are only seven living cases and fourteen extinct ones to be found - civilization having only been in existence for some 6,000 years. This is his thesis, which he presents through rational argument, narrative, example, illustration, description and the demonstration of concrete instances. In arguing this thesis – in a clear, though admittedly at times complex prose style - he discusses the laws of statistics, historical sources, theories of primitive or pre-civilizational man, sociality, race, environment, the views of scientists regarding the age of the earth and the cosmos – and all of this (hardly an exhaustive list of his “incidental” or supporting topics) merely in the first volume before he actually turns to discussing societies. This is “antirational”?

Evidently, T-R considers the vast foundation of Toynbee’s learning to be merely the normal acquirements of an Englishman of his time and class, and thus hardly meriting comment. Is this merely a historical blind spot or does it point to a deeper failure to grasp what is comprehended in the spiritual nature of man? An anthropologist once remarked that humanity is but one generation removed from barbarism. The spiritual nature of man is the crux of Toynbee’s thesis, and goes far in explaining why civilization is a rare fruit on the human tree, and why it is perpetually in danger of being lost. My sense of Toynbee thus far is not that he welcomed the prospect of the defeat of Western civilization (his “messianic defeatism,” according to T-R) so much as he realized its uncertainty – its fragility.

If nothing else, Toynbee’s emphasis on the importance of religion to civilization ought to serve as a warning to the danger that reason faces when reason becomes All in All. When Reason becomes God, it soon degenerates to Unreason and further into a crusading zeal for Destruction. We are seeing this dynamic play out today, with horrifying consequences.

All of this, of course, lies far into the future, at least where Trevor-Roper was concerned – though perhaps not too far. It seems to me a historian, like any student of human affairs, ought to examine first his own presuppositions and ask whether his own rationalism is reasonable, and secondly, whether his rationalism is merely a mask for his likes and dislikes. And on this point again Toynbee, who in one of his later volumes devotes quite a bit of discussion to the new researches of C.G. Jung and psychology, seems more integral – more developed and open than his critic. See, for example, the discussion in Volume Seven – “… for the Subconscious, not the Intellect, is the organ through which Man lives his spiritual life for good or evil. It is the fount of Poetry, Music, and the Visual Arts, and the channel through which the Soul is in communion with God when it does not steel itself against God’s influence…” pp500 et seq. It is not only that Hugh Trevor-Roper could not have written this. He appears unable even to appreciate it. And “appreciation” too is also an important part of the story of a reasonable rationalism, attesting to the capacity of reason to throw light onto hitherto neglected aspects of its comprehension, and thus setting out possibilities for future growth.

Toynbee may not have understood that the idea of the Subconscious from psychology would metamorphose into new dogmas of determinism – that it was not altogether the liberating idea it may have initially appeared to him to be. Nevertheless, Toynbee’s quest is keyed to the search for the whole man, the wholeness of the person who is more than an intellect wired to a body. It is only the human being in his wholeness who can create and sustain a civilization. In this sense Toynbee’s interest in what were, for his time, new discoveries in the field of psychology is understandable. They seemed to promise a way toward the whole in an era in which the Western mind was ferociously closing down all its options of being except the one offered by a monotonously intellective rationalism.

It is true that Toynbee and Trevor-Roper inhabit different universes. Toynbee is on a spiritual quest, and because his mind is oriented spiritually, he is not impressed by the things in which Trevor-Roper takes such pride – such as the Renaissance, the Reformation, modern science and modern rationalist civilization. Toynbee always looks above and below; Trevor-Roper looks straight ahead, and thus to Trevor-Roper, Toynbee’s attitude toward Western civilization was one of “messianic defeatism.” But blinders that serve a horse ill-serve man – though men of these latter days often conceive of themselves as beasts – though never beasts of burden but rather beasts of conquest. [3. A perhaps ironic culmination of Darwinianism.]

These are two different kinds of men: the man of the distance and the man of the age, and the tensions between these two different human types have long been a theme of history and myth and perhaps even politics – Cain and Abel, Prometheus and Epimetheus, liberal and conservative. [4. Toynbee’s work is rich with allusion and reflection on Greek mythology. In V. IX, pps 149 et seq he makes much Atlas and Anteaus. – the “Atlantean stance and the Antaean rebound”. Atlas has to hold up the weight of the Heavens upon his shoulders; Antaeus could not be defeated so long as he was able to evade his enemy’s grasp and touch the earth once again with his feet. Toynbee’s finds in these two contrary movements great meaning for the historical fate of civilizations responding to challenge. The danger of the Atlantean stance is to rigidify into “mimesis” and obsession. The Antaean rebound enables new beginnings, the reappropriation of culture from the depths.] This leads up to our final point.

Trevor-Roper’s essay is twenty pages long, and exactly half of it argues that Toynbee believed himself to be the Messiah of a new civilization that would arise in the decomposing heap of Western civilization. Since I have not read the tenth volume of A Study of History, in which according to T-R Toynbee reveals himself as said Messiah, I will wait to reserve judgment. But I think Trevor-Roper’s charge here is interesting for what it says about the psychology of “mass man” – the type of man of our time who resents the exceptional man, even the idea of superiority. I would go so far as to say that if even Toynbee thought of himself as a sort of new historic type – thus violating one of our most cherished beliefs, that of equality – that it is not in how he saw himself that is the issue, but how he saw everything else. The twelve volumes of A Study of History seem to me to justify the view that Toynbee was an exceptional soul. He is vastly learned, knowledgeable in several languages, in religion, mythology, literature, conversant with the science of his day, and attentive to a vast range of details of human societies in a cosmopolitan range of races, cultures, and circumstances. Given the generosity of his vision of civilization and his steadfast loyalty to the Christian – and Protestant – religion in which he was raised, I’d say that even a Toynbee claiming to be a Messiah is a better bargain than Trevor-Roper as a critic. Toynbee’s faults need to be measured against his striving to comprehend the supernatural in the context of the historical. His day is yet to come. Trevor-Roper’s day is over.

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