Arnold J. Toynbee

This article is about the universal historian Arnold Joseph Toynbee. For his uncle, the economic historian, see Arnold Toynbee.
Arnold J. Toynbee
Born Arnold Joseph Toynbee
(1889-04-14)14 April 1889
London, England, UK
Died 22 October 1975(1975-10-22) (aged 86)
York, England, UK
Nationality British
Alma mater Winchester College
Balliol College, Oxford
Occupation Historian
Known for Universal History
Spouse(s) Rosalind Murray
Veronica M. Boulter
Children Antony Toynbee
Philip Toynbee
Lawrence Toynbee
Relatives Arnold Toynbee (uncle)
Jocelyn Toynbee (sister)
Somervell's abridgement of Toynbee's magnum opus

Arnold Joseph Toynbee CH (/ˈtɔɪnbi/; 14 April 1889 – 22 October 1975) was a British historian, philosopher of history, research professor of International History at the London School of Economics and the University of London and author of numerous books. Toynbee in the 1918–1950 period was a leading specialist on international affairs.

He is best known for his 12-volume A Study of History (1934–1961). With his prodigious output of papers, articles, speeches and presentations, and numerous books translated into many languages, Toynbee was a widely read and discussed scholar in the 1940s and 1950s.


Toynbee (born in London on 14 April 1889) was the son of Harry Valpy Toynbee (1861–1941), secretary of the Charity Organization Society, and his wife Sarah Edith Marshall (1859–1939); his sister Jocelyn Toynbee was an archaeologist and art historian. Toynbee was the grandson of Joseph Toynbee, nephew of the 19th-century economist Arnold Toynbee (1852–1883) and descendant of prominent British intellectuals for several generations. He won scholarships to Winchester College and Balliol College, Oxford (Literae Humaniores, 1907-1911),[1] and studied briefly at the British School at Athens, an experience that influenced the genesis of his philosophy about the decline of civilizations. In 1912 he became a tutor and fellow in ancient history at Balliol College, and in 1915 he began working for the intelligence department of the British Foreign Office. After serving as a delegate to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 he was appointed professor of Byzantine and modern Greek studies at the University of London. From 1921 to 1922 he was the Manchester Guardian correspondent during the Greco-Turkish War, an experience that resulted in the publication of The Western Question in Greece and Turkey.[2] In 1925 he became research professor of international history at the London School of Economics and director of studies at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.

His first marriage was to Rosalind Murray (1890–1967), daughter of Gilbert Murray, in 1913; they had three sons, of whom Philip Toynbee was the second. They divorced in 1946; Toynbee then married his research assistant, Veronica M. Boulter (1893-1980), in the same year.[3] He died on 22 October 1975, age 86.

Academic and cultural influence

Toynbee on the front cover of Time magazine, 17 March 1947. read the Time article

Michael Lang says that for much of the twentieth century:

"Toynbee was perhaps the world’s most read, translated, and discussed living scholar. His output was enormous, hundreds of books, pamphlets, and articles. Of these, scores were translated into thirty different languages....the critical reaction to Toynbee constitutes a veritable intellectual history of the midcentury: we find a long list of the period’s most important historians, Beard, Braudel, Collingwood, and so on."[4]

In his best-known work, A Study of History, published 1934–1961, Toynbee:

...examined the rise and fall of 26 civilizations in the course of human history, and he concluded that they rose by responding successfully to challenges under the leadership of creative minorities composed of elite leaders.[5]

A Study of History was both a commercial and academic phenomenon. In the U.S. alone, more than seven thousand sets of the ten-volume edition had been sold by 1955. Most people, including scholars, relied on the very clear one-volume abridgement of the first six volumes by Somervell, which appeared in 1947; the abridgement sold over 300,000 copies in the U.S. The press printed innumerable discussions of Toynbee's work, not to mention there being countless lectures and seminars. Toynbee himself often participated. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1947, with an article describing his work as "the most provocative work of historical theory written in England since Karl Marx’s Capital”,[6] and was a regular commentator on BBC (examining the history of and reasons for the current hostility between east and west, and considering how non-westerners view the western world).[7][8]

Canadian historians were especially receptive to Toynbee's work in the late 1940s. The Canadian economic historian Harold Adams Innis (1894–1952) was a notable example. Following Toynbee and others (Spengler, Kroeber, Sorokin, Cochrane), Innis examined the flourishing of civilizations in terms of administration of empires and media of communication.[9]

Toynbee's overall theory was taken up by some scholars, for example, Ernst Robert Curtius, as a sort of paradigm in the post-war period. Curtius wrote as follows in the opening pages of European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (1953 English translation), following close on Toynbee, as he sets the stage for his vast study of medieval Latin literature. Curtius wrote, "How do cultures, and the historical entities which are their media, arise, grow and decay? Only a comparative morphology with exact procedures can hope to answer these questions. It was Arnold J. Toynbee who undertook the task."[10]

After 1960, Toynbee's ideas faded both in academia and the media, to the point of seldom being cited today.[11][12] However, his work continued to be referenced by classical historians, at least, because "his training and surest touch is in the world of classical antiquity."[13] His roots in classical literature are also manifested by similarities between his approach and that of classical historians such as Herodotus and Thucydides.[14] Comparative history, by which his approach is often categorized, has been in the doldrums.[15]

Political influence in foreign policy

While the writing of the Study was under way, Toynbee produced numerous smaller works and served as director of foreign research of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (1939–43) and director of the research department of the Foreign Office (1943–46); he also retained his position at the London School of Economics until his retirement in 1956.[5]

Toynbee worked for the Political Intelligence Department of the British Foreign Office during World War I and served as a delegate to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. He was director of studies at Chatham House, Balliol College, Oxford University, 1924–43. Chatham House conducted research for the British Foreign Office and was an important intellectual resource during World War II when it was transferred to London. With his research assistant, Veronica M. Boulter, Toynbee was co-editor of the RIIA's annual Survey of International Affairs, which became the "bible" for international specialists in Britain.[16][17]

Meeting with Adolf Hitler

While on a visit in Berlin in 1936 to address the Nazi Law Society, Toynbee was invited to have a private interview with Adolf Hitler, at Hitler's request.[18] Hitler emphasized his limited expansionist aim of building a greater German nation, and his desire for British understanding and cooperation. Toynbee believed that Hitler was sincere and endorsed Hitler's message in a confidential memorandum for the British prime minister and foreign secretary.[19]


Toynbee was troubled by the Russian Revolution, for he saw Russia as a non-Western society and the revolution as a threat to Western society.[20] However, in 1952 he argued that the Soviet Union had been a victim of Western aggression. He portrayed the Cold War as a religious competition that pitted a Marxist materialist heresy against the West's spiritual Christian heritage—a heritage that had already been foolishly rejected by a secularized West. A heated debate ensued; an editorial in the London Times promptly attacked Toynbee for treating communism as a "spiritual force."[21]

Greece and the Middle East

Toynbee was a leading analyst of developments in the Middle East. His support for Greece and hostility to the Turks during World War I had gained him an appointment to the Koraes Chair of Modern Greek and Byzantine History at the University of London. However, after the war he changed to a pro-Turkish position, accusing Greece's military government in occupied Turkish territory of atrocities and massacres. This earned him the enmity of the wealthy Greeks who had endowed the chair, and in 1924 he was forced to resign the position.

His stance during World War I reflected less sympathy for the Arab cause and took a pro-Zionist outlook. He also expressed support for a Jewish State in Palestine, which he believed had "begun to recover its ancient prosperity" as a result. Toynbee investigated Zionism in 1915 at the Information Department of the Foreign Office, and in 1917 he published a memorandum with his colleague Lewis Namier which supported exclusive Jewish political rights in Palestine. In 1922, however, he was influenced by the Palestine Arab delegation which was visiting London, and began to adopt their views. His subsequent writings reveal his changing outlook on the subject, and by the late 1940s he had moved away from the Zionist cause and toward the Arab camp.

The views Toynbee expressed in the 1950s continued to oppose the formation of a Jewish state, partly out of his concern that it would increase the risk of a nuclear confrontation. However, as a result of Toynbee's debate in January 1961 with Dr. Yaakov Herzog, the Israeli ambassador to Canada, Toynbee softened his view and called on Israel to fulfill its special "mission to make contributions to worldwide efforts to prevent the outbreak of nuclear war."[22][23]

Dialogue with Daisaku Ikeda

In 1972, Toynbee met with Daisaku Ikeda, president of Soka Gakkai International (SGI), who condemned the "demonic nature" of the use of nuclear weapons under any circumstances. Toynbee had the view that the atomic bomb was an invention that had caused warfare to escalate from a political scale to catastrophic proportions and threatened humanity's very existence. In his dialogue with Ikeda, Toynbee stated his worry that humankind would not be able to strengthen ethical behavior and achieve self-mastery "in spite of the widespread awareness that the price of failing to respond to the moral challenge of the atomic age may be the self-liquidation of our species."

The two men first met on 5 May 1972 in London. In May 1973, Ikeda again flew to London to meet with Toynbee for 40 hours over a period of 10 days. Their dialogue and ongoing correspondence culminated in the publication of Choose Life, a record of their views on critical issues confronting humanity. The book has been published in 24 languages to date.[24] Toynbee also wrote the foreword to the English edition of Ikeda's most well-known book, The Human Revolution, which has sold more than 7 million copies worldwide.[25]

An exhibition celebrating the 30th anniversary of Toynbee and Ikeda's first meeting was presented in SGI's centers around the world in 2005, showcasing contents of the dialogues between them, as well as Ikeda's discussions for peace with over 1,500 of the world's scholars, intellects, and activists. Original letters Toynbee and Ikeda exchanged were also displayed.[26]

In 1984 his granddaughter Polly Toynbee wrote a critical article for The Guardian on meeting Daisaku Ikeda.[27]

Challenge and response

With the civilizations as units identified, he presented the history of each in terms of challenge-and-response, sometimes referred to as theory about the law of challenge and response. Civilizations arose in response to some set of challenges of extreme difficulty, when "creative minorities" devised solutions that reoriented their entire society. Challenges and responses were physical, as when the Sumerians exploited the intractable swamps of southern Iraq by organizing the Neolithic inhabitants into a society capable of carrying out large-scale irrigation projects; or social, as when the Catholic Church resolved the chaos of post-Roman Europe by enrolling the new Germanic kingdoms in a single religious community. When a civilization responded to challenges, it grew. Civilizations declined when their leaders stopped responding creatively, and the civilizations then sank owing to nationalism, militarism, and the tyranny of a despotic minority. According to an Editor's Note in an edition of Toynbee's A Study of History, Toynbee believed that societies always die from suicide or murder rather than from natural causes, and nearly always from suicide.[28] He sees the growth and decline of civilizations as a spiritual process, writing that "Man achieves civilization, not as a result of superior biological endowment or geographical environment, but as a response to a challenge in a situation of special difficulty which rouses him to make a hitherto unprecedented effort." [29][30]

Toynbee Prize Foundation

Named after Arnold J. Toynbee, the [Toynbee Prize] Foundation was chartered in 1987 'to contribute to the development of the social sciences, as defined from a broad historical view of human society and of human and social problems.' In addition to awarding the Toynbee Prize, the foundation sponsors scholarly engagement with global history through sponsorship of sessions at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, of international conferences, of the journal New Global Studies and of the Global History Forum.[31]

The Toynbee Prize is an honorary award, recognizing social scientists for significant academic and public contributions to humanity. Currently, it is awarded every other year for work that makes a significant contribution to the study of global history. The recipients have been Raymond Aron, Lord Kenneth Clark, Sir Ralf Dahrendorf, Natalie Zemon Davis, Albert Hirschman, George Kennan, Bruce Mazlish, John McNeill, William McNeill, Jean-Paul Sartre, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Barbara Ward, Lady Jackson, Sir Brian Urquhart, Michael Adas, and Christopher Bayly.

Allusions in popular culture

Toynbee's ideas also feature in the Ray Bradbury short story named "The Toynbee Convector". He appears alongside T. E. Lawrence as a character in an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, dealing with the post-World War I treaty negotiations at Versailles. He also receives a brief mention in the Charles Harness classic, The Paradox Men (a working title was Toynbee 22). Frederick Buechner also mentions him in the 1957 novel The return of Ansel Gibbs. Most versions of the Civilization computer game refer to his work as a historian as well. Toynbee receives mention in Pat Frank's post-apocalyptic novel "Alas, Babylon". A character in the P. Schuyler Miller short story "As Never Was" adopts the name Toynbee "out of admiration for a historian of that name". He is also mentioned in the Tom Robbins novel, Another Roadside Attraction. "Toynbee" is also the title of a song by the modern rock group Manic Bloom from the album In Loving Memory, the lyrics of which refer to the inevitability of the fall of society given the opportunity at hand to reclaim the future. The Toynbee tiles may be a reference to Toynbee.

Toynbee's works

(Oxford University Press 1934)
(Oxford University Press 1939)
(Oxford University Press 1954)
(Oxford University Press 1959)
(Oxford University Press 1961)
The three sets of lectures published separately in the UK in 1962 appeared in New York in the same year in one volume under the title America and the World Revolution and Other Lectures, Oxford University Press.
(Oxford University Press 1965)

See also

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Arnold J. Toynbee.
Wikiquote has quotations related to: Arnold J. Toynbee


  1. Orry, Louise (1997). Arnold Toynbee, Brief Lives. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 537. ISBN 0198600879.
  2. Toynbee, Arnold J. (1922). The Western Question in Greece and Turkey: A Study in the Contact of Civilisations (PDF). London: Constable and Company Ltd.
  3. McNeill, William H. (1989). Arnold J. Toynbee: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 124. ISBN 9780195058635.
  4. Lang, Michael (December 2011). "Globalization and Global History in Toynbee". Journal of World History. 22 (4): 747–783. doi:10.1353/jwh.2011.0118.(subscription required)
  5. 1 2 "Arnold Toynbee". Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. 6 Apr 2014. Retrieved 6 April 2014.(subscription required)
  6. Kennan, George F. (1 June 1989). "The History of Arnold Toynbee". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved 23 July 2014.
  7. Montagu, M. F. Ashley, ed. (1956). Toynbee and History: Critical Essays and Reviews. Boston: Porter Sargent. p. vii.
  8. "The Psychology of Encounters—Arnold Toynbee: The World and the West: 1952". BBC Radio 4. The Reith Lectures. 14 December 1952. Retrieved 8 April 2014.
  9. Massolin, Philip Alphonse (2001). Canadian Intellectuals, the Tory Tradition, and the Challenge of Modernity, 1939–1970. University of Toronto Press. p. 162. ISBN 978-0802035097.
  10. Curtius, Ernst Robert (1953). European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Princeton University Press.
  11. McIntire, C. T.; Perry, Marvin, eds. (1989). Toynbee: Reappraisals. University of Toronto Press. ISBN 978-0802057853.
  12. Perry, Marvin (1996). Arnold Toynbee and the Western Tradition. American University Studies—5—Philosophy. 169. New York: Peter Lang. ISBN 978-0820426716.
  13. Gruen, Erich S., ed. (1970). "Rome on the Brink of Expansion". Imperialism in the Roman Republic. European Problem Studies. Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Intro, page 10. ISBN 978-0-030-77620-5.
  14. "Is a History of Humanity Possible?". University of Oxford History Podcasts. Retrieved 1 July 2014.
  15. Cohen, Deborah (Fall 2001). "Comparative History: Buyer Beware" (PDF). GHI Bulletin. Washington, D.C.: German Historical Institute. No. 29: 23–33. Retrieved 8 April 2014.
  16. McNeill, William H. (1989). Arnold J. Toynbee: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195058635.
  17. Brewin, Christopher (1995). "Arnold Toynbee, Chatham House, and Research in a Global Context". In Long, David; Wilson, Peter. Thinkers of the Twenty Years' Crisis: Inter-War Idealism Reassessed. Oxford University Press. pp. 277–302. ISBN 9780198278559. Retrieved 11 April 2014.
  18. Brody, J. Kenneth (1 October 1999). The Avoidable War—Volume 2: Pierre Laval and the Politics of Reality, 1935–1936. Transaction Publishers. ISBN 978-0765806222.
  19. McNeill, William H. (1989). Arnold J. Toynbee: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press. Chapter 8. ISBN 9780195058635.
  20. Paquette, Gabriel B. (June 2000). "The Impact of the 1917 Russian Revolutions on Arnold J. Toynbee's Historical Thought, 1917–34". Revolutionary Russia. 13 (1): 55–80. doi:10.1080/09546540008575717. Retrieved 13 April 2014.
  21. McNeill, William H. (1989). Arnold J. Toynbee: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 223–4. ISBN 9780195058635.
  22. Friedman, Isaiah (Spring 1999). "Arnold Toynbee: Pro-Arab or Pro-Zionist?". Israel Studies. 4 (1): 73–95. doi:10.1353/is.1999.0019. Retrieved 11 April 2014.(subscription required)
  23. "This is how we ruined Toynbee's theory". Haaretz. Retrieved 19 December 2014.
  24. "Choose Life—Arnold Toynbee and Daisaku Ikeda" Exhibition Opens in Hiroshima". Soka Gakkai International. 23 July 2005. Retrieved 13 April 2014.
  25. Ikeda, Daisaku (2004). The Human Revolution. Santa Monica: World Tribune Press. Preface. ISBN 0915678772.
  26. "Thirtieth Anniversary of Toynbee-Ikeda Dialogue". SGI Quarterly. January 2003. Retrieved 13 April 2014.
  27. Toynbee, Polly (19 May 1984). "The Value of a Grandfather Figure". Manchester Guardian.
  28. Arnold J. Toynbee (1947). A Study of History: Abridgement of Volumes I to VI. Oxford University Press. p. 273.
  29. Graeme Snooks (2002). The Laws of History. Taylor & Francis. p. 91.
  30. Arnold J. Toynbee (1987). A Study of History: Volume I: Abridgement of. Oxford U.P. p. 570.
  31. "The Toynbee Prize Foundation". Toynbee Foundation. Retrieved 14 April 2014.


Further reading

External links

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