Arnold J. Toynbee

[This document is only a draft.]

Since 2001, the importance of
the relation of America to the world
has increased dramatically,
while the nature of that relation
has gone curiously unexamined and undebated by America’s “elite,”
which has been content to, by and large,
accept without question or debate the party line of the neocons.
Perhaps an alternative view may be of interest,
one propounded a half-century ago
by one of mid-twentieth-century’s most prominent historians.

Between 1934 and 1961 the British historian Arnold Toynbee,
in his twelve volume A Study of History,
organized the societies of the world,
from the dawn of civilization to his time,
into approximately twenty “civilizations.”
(The Clash of Civilizations by Samuel Huntington
may be viewed as a supplement,
covering the developments of the last half of the twentieth century.)

The ideas and terms introduced in A Study
seem extraordinarily relevant
to the large-scale, long-term conflict
the United States (and Israel) has stepped into.
It is a real shame that they do not seem to be referred to much these days.

A Study’s last volume, Reconsiderations,
  • summarized the criticism the first ten volumes had received
    and provided responses to that criticism,
    either a defense or a revision of his original work,

  • filled in some gaps,

  • gave some more personal comments on his work and life, and

  • discussed some relations between then-current events
    and the ideas and examples uncovered in his Study.

Here is an excerpt which combines some self-disclosure
with some broader issues.

The words from here on are those of professor Toynbee
(but internal headings, somewhat ad hoc numbering, emphasis and links
have been added).

Irreverence towards Pretensions to Uniqueness


[pages 623–28]

I will now illustrate my attitude by giving a short catalogue of
pretensions that I reject.

A Chosen People
I reject the pretension to be ‘a Chosen People
in whatever people’s name it is made.

The Jews,
‘the British Israelites’,
the British ‘sahibs’ and Hindu Brahmans in India,
the Japanese,
my fellow Balliol men at Oxford,
my fellow Teutons the German Nazis,
all seem to me to have been chosen by no one except themselves.
And, if that is the truth, it disposes of their claim,
since every human institution, group, and individual
is unique in its estimation.
When Joshua’s and Sampson’s Israelites ask me to acknowledge their uniqueness,
I retort by looking at them through Canaanite and Philistine eyes.
These are, after all,
the eyes through which we should be seeing the Israelites today
if the Books of the Law and the Prophets
had come down to us in the version current in Sidon or Gath
instead of our possessing them, as we do,
only in the version current in Israel and Judah.
As I see it,
the mental dichotomy of mankind into Jews and gentiles, sheep and goats,
is an illusion generated by the universal human malady of self-centredness.
Kipling’s Recessional is eloquent and moving, but
lesser breeds without the law’ is a line in it that makes me smile,
for here the sensitive poet is protruding the British Israelite’s cloven hoof.

Uniqueness of Christianity
I reject the pretension of Christianity to be
a unique revelation of the truth about Reality and
a unique means of grace and salvation.


Uniqueness of Communism
I also reject the pretension of Communism to be
a unique discovery about the truth about Reality

at least in the province of human affairs—
and a unique means of putting right what is wrong with human society,
particularly in its ‘capitalist’ form.

Uniqueness of Western Civilization
I reject the pretension of the Western Civilization to be
a unique representative of the species:
the only civilization truly worthy of the name.

When I ask my fellow Westerners what the West stands for,
and am told, as I usually am,
that it stands for justice, freedom, and humanity,
I ask if there is any civilization on record—
not excluding those once represented by the Assyrians and the Aztecs—
that has not also
claimed to stand for the self-same virtues.

Surely these are virtues to which
all human beings feel themselves constrained to pay homage,
but to which no human beings have ever succeeded in living up.
If I am asked whether I do not consider that the West has lived up to them,
a catalogue of Western atrocities flashes through my mind
faster than the revolutions of an unreeling film:
the Crusades,
the Spanish Inquisition,
the Spanish conquest of Peru,
the Catholic-Protestant Wars of Religion,
the English slave-trade,
plantation slavery in the Old South of the United States,
present-day [1961] racial discrimination there
and in Kenya, in Central Africa, and in South Africa,
two world wars in one lifetime,
the cold-blooded genocide of Jews by Nazis,
the French war of repression against the national resistance movement in Algeria.

Two Jewish scholars, J. L. Talmon and Eliezer Berkovitz,
have analysed my attitude correctly.
Talmon finds that my irritation at the Jews,
like my opposition to a Europocentric presentation of history,
comes from
a sense of guilt towards
the Western colonial powers’ subject peoples.

In my eyes the West is a perpetual aggressor.
I trace the West’s arrogance back to the Jewish notion of a ‘Chosen People.’
And there is, Talmon agrees,
‘a distinctive Jewish ingredient at the very core of Western civilization’.
[That’s not quite the same thing.]
Berkovitz pronounces that, in my eyes,
Nazi Germany’s guilt is the West’s.
‘His loathing of the [Nazi] “caricature” of the West’,
Berkovitz says of me,
‘is really a form of “self-contempt” ’;
and my hostility towards Zionism—which I associate with Nazism—
is an externalization of this agonizing feeling.
‘The unbridled vehemence of Toynbee’s condemnation of Zionism
is out of all proportion to the guilt on the Zionist side.
Accusing Zionism of “Nazism”
reveals the measure of
Toynbee’s condemnation of “Nazism” in his own West.’
This analysis is acute, and I think there is some truth in it.
On reconsideration,
I do not find that I have changed my view of Zionism.
I think that,

in the Zionist movement,
Western Jews have assimilated gentile Western Civilization
in the most unfortunate possible form.
They have assimilated the West’s nationalism and colonialism.
The seizure of the houses, lands, and property
of the 900,000 Palestinian Arabs who are now refugees
is on a moral level with
the worst crimes and injustices committed,
during the last four or five centuries,
by gentile West European conquerors and colonists overseas.

This is still my judgement on the Zionist movement’s record in Palestine
since it first began to resort to violence there.
At the same time, on second thoughts,
I do think it may be true that
the vehemence of my condemnation of Zionism
has been out of proportion to
the magnitude of Zionism’s guilt;
and I also think that, if I have exaggerated,
the psychological explanation of this exaggeration
that has been suggested by Berkovitz
may be the right one.
In the German Nazis, as in the English ‘Black-and-Tans’,
I see the detestable dark side of the countenance of the Western Civilization
in which I myself am an involuntary participant,
and in the Jewish Zionists I see disciples of the Nazis.

The Jews are, of course, not the only persecuted people
that has reacted to persecution
by doing as it has been done by;
and of course too,
the Jews who have reacted in this tragically perverse way
are only one section of Jewry.
Yet the spectacle of any Jews, however few,
following in the Nazis’ footsteps
is enough to drive a sensitive gentile or Jewish spectator almost to despair.
Of all peoples in the World,
the Jews have had the longest and the harshest experience
of what it means to be victims of injustice and cruelty.
That any Jews should inflict on a third party
some of the very wrongs that Jews have suffered at Western hands
is a portent that makes one wonder
whether there may not be something irredeemably evil,
not in Jewish human nature in particular,
nor again just in Western human nature,
but in the human nature common to all men.

At this, Zionists may exclaim in protest:
‘Are our misdeeds really as bad as those of our gentile Western neighbours?’
And gentile Westerners may exclaim:
‘Are our misdeeds really as bad as those of the Aztecs and the Assyrians?’
My answer to such protests would be that, in my eyes,
a synoptic view of the histories of the civilizations gives the impression that
all of them were philosophically equivalent.
I do not think that
the Western Civilization’s record has been below the average,
but I find no evidence that it has been above it,

and certainly no evidence that it is unique in its virtues
any more than its vices.
I also note, with fear and trembling,
that the West’s record is still incomplete,
and, in the Atomic Age into which I have now lived,
my apprehension increases
as I watch the Recording Angel’s ‘moving finger’
indefatigably going on writing.
Talmon is mistaken in thinking that I have
‘missed a truth of awful import, a mystery of tragic grandeur—
the ambivalence with which
the whole of the Western achievement is charged from the start.’