By Mubarak Ali
June 4, 2018
In his monumental work, ‘A Study of
history’, British historian Arnold J Toynbee surveyed 23 civilisations. Some of
these civilisations collapsed during their early years while others reached
their ‘youth’ and even attained some semblance of maturity.
According to Toynbee, the survival of a
civilisation depends on a creative minority that is capable of responding to
the challenges of the times and saving it from decline. It provides hope for
Western civilisations to prevent its decline and face the challenges in order
to readjust its institutions.
Toynbee argues that the process of history
cannot be understood rationally because history is a creation of God and man is
just an instrument who helps accomplish a divine plan. Therefore, human nature
should be understood through intuition and by adopting mystical methods. It is
only after comprehending the nature of human beings that we can realise the
divine mysteries of the historical process.
In Toynbee’s opinion, dead civilisations
cannot be restored and new civilisations cannot be born afresh. Although some
of the great civilisations have collapsed, their art, literature, music,
architecture and sculptures remain alive and have been accorded the status of
Furthermore, Toynbee believes that there
are no laws that explain the phenomenon of the rise and fall of civilisations.
Every civilisation passes through its own stages and eventually declines after
reaching its heights. There is no specific duration that marks the ‘life’ of a
civilisation. Therefore, each civilisation should be studied individually. The
trajectory of each civilisation’s progress and downfall needs to be analysed
When Toynbee examined the nature of Western
civilisations, he realised that they are involved in mutual conflict and are
wasting their energies on fighting on another. The creative minority has
acquired political domination and is no longer interested in responding to
serious challenges – a problem which European societies have encountered over
He also lamented that religious beliefs
were on the decline. Industrialisation was creating a chasm between workers and
humanity. The desire to acquire wealth had replaced moral values as the key
guiding principles. He predicted that this process would either turn man into a
machine or render him unemployed. The same is the case with democracy. When a
culture becomes people-oriented, it loses its depth and seriousness. It begins
to popularise itself through cheap literature, music, dance and sensational
news and radio programmes.
Toynbee states that Western civilisations
are arguably the last civilisations that have the blessings of God. If they decline,
it would be a disaster for humanity. The decline of Western civilisations can
only be prevented if both the creative minority and the creative personality
avoid committing grave mistakes. The reason for the decline of Western
civilisations is the growing neglect of religious teachings. As a result, these
civilisations are facing a whole range of serious crises. Therefore, the only
way that these civilisations can save themselves from downfall is by besieging
God and praying for forgiveness of their misdeeds.
In his later years, Toynbee became a
mystic. He proposed the need for a world religion, which should be composed
after accounting for different elements from great religions. He also
emphasised the importance of forming a world government in order to avoid
conflicts and establish peace and order in our world. This is the solution that
will lead to prosperity and peace.
There are basic differences between Toynbee
and Oswald Spengler, another historian and philosopher of history. Spengler
believes that power plays a decisive role in history. However, Toynbee argues
that moral values are important to accomplish the higher aim of humanity.
Spengler accords importance to war, which offers a significant means to create
energy, power and movements in a particular nation.
According to the German historian, history
and politics are beyond moral values. Spengler is of the view that every
civilisation must fall. Meanwhile, Toynbee firmly believes that history and
politics should observe the divine law. Toynbee argues that the overall process
of the rise and fall of various civilisations is different. As a consequence,
it is quite possible for a civilisation to, at some stage, thwart its decline
and regenerate its energies.
Both Toynbee and Spengler believe that
shaping and organising the historical process is the work of the mysterious
forces that are playing a role that goes beyond human comprehension. Both
historians are, therefore, against democracy and its institutions. They are not
in favour of people adopting a strong role in making history. Within their
historical narratives, there is no solution to the impact of industrial and
scientific revolution. According to Spengler, death should be accepted without
any fear whereas Toynbee is a strong proponent of the fact that man should pray
to God for forgiveness and salvation.
Moreover, Spengler is in favour of
feudalism, which is considered the golden period of history as it accomplished
a high culture during its age. But Toynbee is in favour of protecting the capitalistic
system. Interestingly, both historians are afraid of people’s consciousness and
resistance to the exploitative system.
The writer is a veteran historian and