Arnold Toynbee

Part of a Series on the Philosophy of History

Nick Nielsen
8 min readApr 14, 2022


Today is the 133rd anniversary of the birth of Arnold Joseph Toynbee (14 April 1889 to 22 October 1975), who was born on this date in 1889.

The influence of Toynbee can be perhaps only compared to that of Oswald Spengler; both are pervasively discussed in the philosophy of history, even if only to be perfunctorily dismissed; there is almost an obligation to mention both, and both dominated their respective generations. Sidney Pollard compared the two in these terms:

“Both look upon cultures or civilizations as the units or personae of history, though Toynbee enumerates many more, some twenty-one in all of which four were stillborn and eight were still operating, all of which makes the ‘obviousness’ of the unit less convincing. Both claim to have discovered a regular pattern of emergence, growth, decline and disintegration for each civilization, with the natural corollary that Western Civilization, now long past its prime, will also follow precedents and decay in the foreseeable future.” (The Idea of Progress, p. 172)

Thus as Spengler dominated the thought of post-WWI Europe, so Toynbee dominated the thought of the post-WWII Anglosphere. Both, also, were spectacularly popular for a short period of time, and then fell into neglect. Few today feel a need to make their way through Toynbee’s multi-volume A Study of History, but, in its day, the work held enormous sway. After the first six volumes of A Study of History had appeared, Pitrim Sorokin wrote of Toynbee:

“Regardless of the subsequent criticism, Arnold J. Toynbee’s A Study of History is one of the most significant works of our time in the field of historical synthesis. Although several volumes of it are yet to come, six published volumes display a rare combination of the thoughtfulness of a philosopher with the technical competence of a meticulous empiricist. The combination insures against the sterile scholarship of a thoughtless “fact-finder,” as well as against a fantastic flight of an incompetent dilettante. Hence its significance for historians, philosophers of history, sociologists, political scientists, and for anyone who is interested in the how and why of emergence, growth, decline, and dissolution of civilizations.” (“Toynbee’s Philosophy of History,” in The Pattern of the Past by Pieter Geyl, p. 95)

And indeed Toynbee received his full measure of criticism, and then some. Historians kept their distance, and philosophers had no wish to claim him as one of their own. There are, however, a few philosophers who have had something worthwhile to say about Toynbee. Bogdan Ivaşcu’s 2017 paper “Toynbee’s Study of History: An ‘Abortive’ Idealist Philosophy of History?” is worth reading, though it is a difficult paper to obtain. I had to get a copy of it through Interlibrary Loan, and I don’t have it with me as I write this so I can’t quote it here.

Among the best things in Toynbee, as I see it, are not the big ideas of challenge and response, or departure and return, or creative minorities and the external proletariat, but the imaginative asides that are to be found in every volume, which show Toynbee as a creative and imaginative thinker more than an analytical thinker. Here is one of my favorite such asides from Volume One:

“If Christendom had succumbed to the Vikings — falling under their dominion and failing to convert them to its faith — we can imagine the Mass being celebrated mysteriously for centuries in the underworld of a new society in which the prevailing religion was the worship of the Aesir. We can imagine this new society, as it grew to full stature, failing to find satisfaction in the religion of the Scandinavian barbarians and seeking the bread of spiritual life in the soil on which the new society had come to rest. In such a spiritual famine the remnant of an older religion, instead of being stamped out as our Western Society stamped out witchcraft when it caught the attention of the Church, might have been rediscovered as a hidden treasure; and some religious genius might have met the needs of his age by an exotic combination of the submerged Christian rite with latter-day barbarian orgies derived from the Finns or the Magyars.”

In this brief passage we find Toynbee’s focus on religion that runs through all the volumes, and which has been the occasion of comment by other scholars. Of Toynbee’s treatment of religion Walter Kaufmann wrote:

“If a single factor accounts more than any other for Toynbee’s popularity in the United States, it is surely his concern with religion — not simply the fact of his concern but above all the nature of his concern. In an age in which books become bestsellers because they seem to prove scientifically that the Bible is right, Toynbee could hardly fail to be a popular success. His frequent references to God and Christ and his thousands of footnote references to the New Testament, which record his every use of a biblical turn of speech, assure the Christian reader that the Bible is proved right, while his growing hope for a vast syncretism pleases those who feel that the one thing needful is a meeting of East and West. Toynbee makes a great show of religion, which the Hebrew prophets did not, but he presses no unequivocal or incisive demands, which the prophets did. Unlike the religion of most, if not all, of mankind’s great religious figures, Toynbee’s religion is ingratiating — like that of the politicians and our most successful magazines. He offers us history, social science, anecdotes, schemes, entertainment — all this and heaven, too.” (From Shakespeare to Existentialism, Chapter 20, “Toynbee and Religion,” section 3)

Kaufmann’s From Shakespeare to Existentialism includes two essays highly critical of Toynbee, “Toynbee and Super-History” and “Toynbee and Religion” (quoted above), and I think that it was in this context that I first encountered Toynbee. While I do not disagree with Kaufmann’s specific criticisms, and I do not endorse the specifics of Toynbee’s treatment of civilization and religion, there is nevertheless something important that Toynbee identifies but others have not recognized (and this may be related to Toynbee’s imaginative asides, which demonstrate his knack for counterfactual insights).

Toynbee is among the few to recognize the possibility that the epoch of civilization is not necessarily the end-state of human development, and that there may yet be another social institutions distinct from the social institution of civilization, which could someday supplant and supersede civilization, and this is the possibility of what Toynbee calls “Universal Churches.” Much of what Kaufmann criticizes in Toynbee’s treatment of religion is Toynbee’s focus on particular religious developments to the neglect of others. On this Kaufmann wrote:

“Toynbee manages to discuss this dawn [of the Higher Religions] without a single mention of Moses, the Upanishads, or the Bhagavad-Gita. Needless to say, he throws little light on the dawn of Judaism or Hinduism, either pre- or post-Buddhaic, or for that matter the dawn of any other religion, high or low.” (Op. cit., section 3)

Toynbee’s partiality, however, has a purpose; Toynbee is attracted to those religions that he believes will provide the seed for the Universal Churches that will supplant civilization. It takes a long time for Toynbee to come to this development. He wrote six volumes of his A Study of History with civilizations or “Universal States” at the center of his exposition, then in Volume VII he makes a distinction between Universal States as ends and Universal States as means, which allows him to then pivot from civilizations being at the center of history to civilizations being merely the means to bring about the appearance of Universal Churches in history.

In VII, A, III, he refers to Universal Churches as a “higher species of society” and in III(a) he engages in “A Revision of our Classification of Species of Society” in which he takes back some of what he said (and much of what he implied) in regard to civilizations being the basic unit of history and the end-state of human society and points to Universal Churches as a post-civilizational institution of human society:

“…we shall have first of all to revise our previous tacit and uncritical assumptions about the raison d’etre of civilizations. We shall have to think of the civilizations of the second generation as having come into existence, not in order to perform achievements of their own, and not in order to reproduce their kind in a third generation, but in order to provide an opportunity for fully-fledged higher religions to come to birth; and, since the genesis of these higher religions was a consequence of the breakdowns and disintegrations of the secondary civilizations, we must regard the closing chapters in the secondary civilizations’ histories chapters which, from their standpoint, spell failure as being their justification for existence and their title to significance.” (A Study of History, Vol. VII, p. 422)

Whether Toynbee set out on the composition of his A Study of History with the intention to make this sudden pivot from Universal States to Universal Churches, or whether in the course of his extensive exposition of his conception of history and civilization brought him, more than half way through the work, to make this revision, I do not know. Maybe a Toynbee scholar would be able to parse all the material and give an answer, but a Toynbee scholar would likely be invested in the answer to a greater extent than the rest of us.

Ultimately, how Toynbee came to the insight doesn’t matter, but it is an insight into history that is worth cultivating further. Even among those who disclaim any philosophy of history, or indeed who deny the very possibility of a philosophy of history, will likely agree that human beings passed through a period of prehistory, after which civilizations appeared, and while we do not know how long civilizations can endure, whether on Earth or beyond, the development of civilization must eventually come to an end, after which time human beings either are extinct, or whatever human beings remain return to some condition approximating pre-history, with no more complex institutions.

This periodization is an implicit and inchoate philosophy of history, and if we recognize the possibility of post-civilizational institutions, then this implicit and inchoate philosophy of history is incomplete. Whether some post-civilizational institution takes the form of Toynbee’s Universal Churches or some other social formation is not the point, but rather the larger conception of history is what is at stake here. Toynbee can point us in the direction of this larger conception of history, even if we disagree with him on the details of his exposition.



Nick Nielsen