Saturday, March 17, 2007
The Tears of Things
This post is a continuation of the dialogue that began on this site and has continued, at a tangent, on Henry's blog in reference to what could be called “the general will to life among Western Euro people.” The dialogue was sparked by Henry’s post “The Seeking of Asylum,” in which he writes: “I wish to speak about the propensity of the brightest and most capable young people of my generation to seek their place overseas and in other cultures.” He concludes:
“Perhaps the distant cultures are a refuge from the guilt-mongering, anti-vitality, anti-masculine, anti-culture nature of our present country. After all, we live in the most unnatural of conditions right now, where men are disparaged or simply poked fun at (have you seen how almost every single television commercial depicts men?), where white people are under a self-inflicted, suicidal attack from their own treasonous elite. It is perhaps the only culture where we are told to feel guilt at the circumstances surrounding the very founding of our country. Our folklore is scorned or forgotten. It seems that in the context of this homogenization/demoralization, we are being compelled to do what no human can ever do; namely live without a history, community, or sense or strength. And it is from this most unnatural circumstance that our youth flee. In a strange irony of the modern world, the adoption of an utterly alien culture is the only way to have an identity which we can be proud of, and communities that are not denigrated.”
Paul (my brother and Henry’s Dad) responded by picking up a thread in reference to Toynbee:
“There is so much in it to comment upon that I hardly know where to start. I’m tempted to drag out yet again Ortega’s comment about Arnold Toynbee ---- ‘It seems as if in the heart of this man doubts have started to ferment about whether or not it makes sense to keep on being English......’ and further on ‘... we have to approach and understand with great respect this hidden spiritual state, ... because in it lies nothing less than a great secret about the future for all of us.’ I asked Caryl about this, and she replied: ‘I was aware of Ortega's judgment on Toynbee, and I discussed it with no less an authority than John Lukacs - who himself does not seem to be altogether pro-Toynbee. However, he said he thought Ortega's statements about Toynbee were ‘unfair.’”
While I do not agree with Ortega’s specific charge, I do think that there are currents in the Toynbee phenomenon taken as a whole – the life and the work - which raise questions about being Western and modern – and what being Western and modern means in relation to Christianity. These questions may be subtle, but I think they are also important, and perhaps by addressing them we can get another handle on the questions raised by Henry’s post.
The first thing to note is how frequently in his letters, and also in The Study of History, Toynbee alludes to the First World War and the fact that half of his classmates and school fellows lost their lives in that conflagration. Toynbee’s own exemption from military service was owing to an episode of dysentery he had contracted while travelling abroad. There was in Toynbee a strain of “survivor’s guilt,” of which he seemed to be aware, and which was later exacerbated during his divorce from Rosalind Murray. In a bad moment, she had accused him, on another issue, of “cowardice” – but it seemed to touch upon this former one.
Toynbee had been much in love with the aristocratic Rosalind, the daughter of Gilbert Murray, the classicist. Perhaps he had indeed treated her too much as a “goddess” – as his father-in-law once told him. Three sons were born of their union – Tony, Philip and Lawrence. Toynbee was not a “hands-on” father – if not absent, he was frequently absorbed by his work. His son Philip later wrote in a memoir: “[He] simply had no understanding of children and young people, and no great interest in them either. My two brothers and I attracted his attention largely as nuisances. How clearly, even today, I can see his head poking out of the window of his study, his face a mask of nervous irritation, as he sternly reproved us for making too much noise.” The oldest son, Tony, shot himself “in a fit of pique,” and died a few days later on 15 March 1939. Philip was devastated and considered putting an end to his own life as well. But after a youthful fling with Communism he settled down eventually into a writing career. Both sons married and produced, between the two of them, eleven grandchildren – all girls with the exception of one male grandchild.
Lawrence, the youngest, had always been Rosalind’s favorite. When she converted to Catholicism in 1932, she brought Lawrence with her into the fold. Lawrence was educated at Ampleforth Abbey, a Benedictine establishment. While visiting Ampleforth in 1936, Toynbee met Fr. Columba Cary-Elwes, a monk with whom he carried on a correspondence lasting for 39 years. These letters, gathered into the volume An Historian’s Conscience: The Correspondence of Arnold J. Toynbee and Columba Cary-Elwes, Monk of Ampleforth, (Beacon Press, 1986) form an illuminating commentary on the time – full of upheavals both historical and spiritual. And by no means are all the “illuminations” solely those of Toynbee himself. Fr. Columba’s side of the correspondence addresses weaknesses in Toynbee’s philosophy as well. This loyal son of the Church was unable to convert Toynbee to Catholic Christianity but his penetrating comments helped to ensure a strong Catholic “presence” in The Study of History.
In 1937 Toynbee stated his mission: “I am trying to digest a large lump of modern knowledge and understanding of the material world which has grown up (so vigorously but yet so lopsidedly and without deep roots) during the last 250 years, and to re-place it in the Christian setting from which it has broken out.”
Fr. Columba was a great admirer of The Study of History, comparing it both to the Civitate Dei of St. Augustine and the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas. But, he wrote – “You have not yet made the deepest synthesis of all – that between faith and reason, and the message will be blurred.” He believed that modern humanity was “too smug” in not baptizing science as St. Thomas baptized Aristotle. He disagreed with Toynbee on the matter of “assertiveness.” Toynbee had written that “Wherever one sees self-assertiveness, one can be sure one is not in God’s presence.” Fr. Columba pointed out that “a Truth may be asserted for its own sake, or because it is your Truth. In the latter case you have pride, in the former not.” Not to assert Truth, in fact, is to “fail in charity” – for “good diffuses itself.”
Fr. Columba’s learned to appreciate Toynbee’s “ecumenical” approach to religion, but he also noted: “You are trying to be fair to all religions. One tends on those occasions to be unfair to one’s own (family) (religion).” Toynbee acknowledged the justice of this remark – “What you say about leaning over backwards from one’s own religion in trying to be fair to the others is very true.” In 1959 Toynbee confessed that the “uniqueness” of Christianity was, for him, the stumbling-block. He later wrote that “Our spiritual vocabulary is entirely analogical (e.g. spirit = breath). This is why I believe the different descriptions refer to identical experiences.” But this is just what it cannot be.
Toynbee's remark puts me in mind of something Owen Barfield once said about language - in connection with translation, what is of interest is the slightly different thing that is said. For example, tree, arbre, Baum, all refer to the same thing, but are they really the same? Where the Englishman sees primarily the trunk, the Frenchman emphasizes the boughs and the German sees the root. It is the same with spiritual language, only in this case there can be no “identical experiences” if spiritual reality concerns spiritual Being.
Fr. Columba replied along these lines, when he pointed out that the language used to describe spiritual reality refers to different “levels.” The question of the different “levels of Being” may essentially demarcate the Protestant from the Catholic sensibility. Rosalind Toynbee, in her book about her agnostic father, written after her conversion, The Good Pagan’s Failure, “… attributed the triumph of barbarism and egalitarianism in the late 1930’s to the abandonment of the Catholic view of the human and celestial hierarchy.”
Toynbee occupied a middle ground – or perhaps a no-man’s land – between a secular-academic world that criticized him for his view of faith and religious imagery  and a Catholic sensibility which may have felt at times that Toynbee’s religion amounted to no more than “an eradicable belief in his own religiousness.” 
Perhaps it is owing to the fact that The Study of History lived in this middle or no-man's land area, committed neither to one side or the other, that Toynbee himself finally saw his work as “really a myth about the meaning of history.” Yet it is just in the sense of “mythology” that I find Toynbee’s History so appealing. For what kind of mythology will become possible for mankind in the modern, modernist, and postmodern dispensation? What kind of zest for life or raison d’être is possible for us, who have lost all of our “naïve beliefs” and unself-conscious hopes and strivings? 
In this respect, Toynbee’s encounter with Henry Luce is revealing. Toynbee’s work was initially highly favored by Luce and Time Magazine. But the two men had their differences. Luce said: “Toynbee regarded America as simply a peripheral part of European civilization. I regarded America as a special dispensation – under Providence – and I said so. My spiritual pastors shake their heads about this view of mine. They say it tends to idolatry – to idolatry of a nation. I knew well the dangers of that sin. But I say we must have courage to face objective facts under Providence.”
So I want to conclude with two remarks. I think that Toynbee did have conflicts about being a man, a father, a Christian, and about rationalism, science, and maybe even “being English.” But believing in being what one is – English or American – is a danger when this self-belief is disconnected from the whole - which it is the task of “pastoral counsel,” of the kind to which Henry Luce alluded, to teach. I think that Ortega criticized Toynbee’s weakening of self-belief without seeing how The Study of History was an attempt to counterbalance and to overcome it. For individual self-belief cannot be sustained without the sense for the whole of which it is a part. Thus The Study of History is “pastoral counsel” in this sense. The "whole" is the sweep of history itself, in which Western man is to be reminded of his origins and also to be reminded about the nature of the historical enterprise itself. The mythos comprises the poetic language – and scholarly bulk – of the work itself. But the lesson is lacrimae rerum - the “tears of things.” It is this lesson which we Americans, in our reckless march to Empire, seem to be unable or incapable of hearing.
 Pieter Geyl, the Dutch historian, wrote: “God became man in Christ is to him the veritable sense of history.” The views of Hugh Trevor-Roper have been previously described in an earlier post. Toynbee said of the latter: "I was told that he [Trevor-Roper] has an almost physical horror of my attitude to life."
 The quote is from George Gissing’s description of an Englishman’s religion; cited by Maurice Samuels in his book, The Professor and the Fossil(1956). Toynbee’s views did not win many friends among the Jewish community because he believed that Judaism was a “fossilized” religion. Thus Samuels: "We [Jews] are here, it seems, and we have been here these two thousand years, not because we know how to live, but because we do not know how to die; or rather because, dead without knowing it, we cannot perform the act of self-burial."
 I suspect that Toynbee must have read Joseph de Maistre [1753-1821], who wrote: "Human reason left to its own resources is completely incapable not only of creating but also of conserving any religious or political association, because it can only give rise to disputes and because, to conduct himself well, man needs beliefs, not problems." My contention is that Toynbee attempted to transcend particularist beliefs, e.g. about being English or being Catholic, with a belief in "universal history" because he saw that in the modern age particularist beliefs could not sustain without a larger spiritual vision. The question of particularism vs. universality is an interesting one and I hope that people will take up this thread in discussion.