Arnold Toynbee on the Geographic Boundaries and Historical Horizons of 'Western Christian Civilization'

From the first volume of A Study of History by Arnold Toynbee (1934):


I. The Unit of Historical Study

"... no single nation or national state of Europe can show a history which is in itself self-explanatory. If any state could do so it would be Great Britain. In fact, if Great Britain (or, in the earlier periods, England) is not found to constitute in herself an intelligible field of historical study, we may confidently infer that no other modern European national state will pass the test.

Is English history, then, intelligible when taken by itself? Can we abstract an internal history of England from her external relations? If we can, shall we find that these residual external relations are of secondary importance? And in analysing these, again, shall we find that the foreign influences upon England are slight in comparison with the English influences upon other parts of the world ? If all these questions receive affirmative answers we may be justified in concluding that, while it may not be possible to understand other histories without reference to England, it is possible, more or less, to understand English history without reference to other parts of the world. The best way to approach these questions is to direct our thought backwards over the course of English history and recall the principle chapters. In inverse order we may take these chapters to be:

a) the establishment of the Industrial System of economy (since the last quarter of the eighteenth century);

b) the establishment of Responsible Parlimentary Government (since the last quarter of the seventeenth century);

c) the expansion overseas... ;

d) the Reformation (since the second quarter of the sixteenth century);

e) the Renaissance... ;

f) the Establishment of the Feudal System (since the eleventh century);

g) the conversion of the English from the religion of the so called Herioc Age to Western Christianity (since the last years of the 6th century).

This glance backwards from the present day over the general course of English history would appear to show that the farther back we look the less evidence do we find of self-sufficiency or isolation. The conversion [from the religion of the so called Heroic Age to Western Christianity], which was really the beginning of all things in English history, was the direct antithesis of that; it was an act which merged half a dozen isolated communities of barbarians in the common weal of a nascent Western Society."

"British national history never has been, and almost certainly never will be, an 'intelligible field of historical study' in isolation; and if that is true of Great Britian it surely must be true of any other national state a fortiori."

"The chapters which caught our eye in our glance backward over the course of English history were real chapters in some story or other, but that story was the history of some society of which Great Britain was only a part, and the experiences were experiences in which other nations besides Great Britain were participants. The 'intellectual field of study', in fact, appears to be a society containing a number of communities of the species represented by Great Britain... ."

"The forces in action are not national but proceed from wider causes, which operate upon each of the parts and are not intelligible in their partial operation unless a comprehensive view is taken of their operation throughout the society. [...] A society, we may say, is confronted in the course of its life by a succession of problems which each member [state] has to solve for itself as best it may. The presentation of each problem is a challenge to undergo an ordeal, and through this series of ordeals the members of the society progressively differentiate themselves from one another. Throughout, it is impossible to grasp the significance of any particular member's behaviour under a particular ordeal without taking some account of the similar or dissimilar behaviour of its fellows and without viewing the successive ordeals as a series of events in the life of the whole society."

"In order to understand the parts we must first focus our attention upon the whole, because this whole is the field of study that is intelligible in itself.

But what are these 'wholes', which form intelligible fields of study, and how shall we discover their spatial and temporal boundaries?"

"This... review of our chapters of English history has given us a means for taking spatial cross-sections, at several different dates, of that society which includes Great Britain and which is 'the intelligible field of historical study' as far as Great Britain is concerned. In taking these cross-sections we shall have to distinquish between certain differnt planes of social life- the economic, the political and the cultural- because it is already evident that the spatial extension of this society differs perceptibly according to the plane on which we focus our attention. At the present day and on the economic plane the society which includes Great Britain is undoubtedly co-extensive with the whole inhabitable and navigable surface of the Earth. On the political plane, again, the world-wide character of this society at the present day is almost equally apparent. When, however, we pass to the cultral plane the present geographical extension of the society to which Great Britain belongs appears to be very much smaller."

"As we take further cross-sections at earlier dates we find that, on all three planes, the geographical limits of the society which we are examining progressively contract. In a cross-section taken about the year 1675, while the contraction is not perhaps very great on the economic plane..., the boundaries on the political plane shrink until they coincide approximately with those on the cultural plane at the present day. In a cross-section taken abou 1475 the overseas portions of the area disappear on all three planes alike, and even on the economic plane the boundaries contract until they, too, coincide approximately with those on the cultural plane, now confined to Western and Central Europe... . In a primitive cross-section, taken about the year 775, the boundaries shrink still further on all three planes. At that date the area of our society is almost restricted to what were then the dominons of Charlemagne together with the English 'successor states' of the Roman Empire in Britain."

"Let us call this society, whose spatial limits we have been studying, Western Christianity... .

And now, having explored the extensions of our Western Society in space, we have to consider its extension in time; and we are at once confronted with the fact that we cannot know its future... .We must content ourselves with the exploration of our Western Society's beginnings."

"During the deep sleep of the interval (crica A.D. 375-675) which intervened between the break-up of the Roman Empire and the gradual emergence of our Western Society out of the chaos, a rib was taken from the side of the older society and was fashioned into the backbone of a new culture of the same species.

It is now plain that in tracing the life of our Western Society backwards behind 775 we begin to find it presented to us in terms of something other than itself- in terms of the Roman Empire and of the society to which that empire belonged."

"To the student of Graeco-Roman history,... both the Christians and the Barbarians would present themselves as creatures of an alien underworld- the internal and the external proliteriat, as he might call them, of the Graeco-Roman (or, to use a better term, Hellenic) Society in its last phase. He would point out that the great masters of Hellenic culture, down to and including Marcus Aurelius, almost ignore their existence. He would diagnose both the Christian Church and the Barbarian warbands as morbid affections which only appeared in the body of the Hellenic Society after its physique had been permanentely undermined by the Hannibalic War."

"In tracing its history back to its origins we strike upon the last phase of another society, the origins of which obviously lie much farther back in the past. The continuity of history, to use an accepted phrase, is not a continuity such as is exemplified in the life of a single individual. It is rather a continuity made up of the lives of successive generations [see Jacob Burckhardt], our Western Society being related to the Hellenic Society in a manner comprable (to use a convenient though imperfect simile) with the relationship of a child to its parent.

If the argument of this chapter is accepted it will be agreed that the intelligible unit of historical study is neither a nation state nor (at the other end of the scale) mankind as a whole but a certain grouping of humanity which we have called a society. We have discovered five such societies in existence to-day, together with sundry fossilized evidences of societies dead and gone; and, while exploring the circumstances of the birth of... our own [society], we have stumbled upon the death-bed of another very notable society to which our own stands in something like the relation of offspring- to which, in a single word, our own society is 'affiliated'."

II. The Comparative Study of Civilizations.

"...our own Western Society (or Civilization) is affiliated to a predecessor. [...] what are the tokens [sings] of apparentation-and-affiliation which we are to accept as valid evidence. What tokens of such relationship did we, in fact, find in the case of our own society's affiliation to the Hellenic Society?

The first of these phenomena was a universal state (the Roman Empire), incorporating the whole Hellenic Society in a single political community in the last phase of Hellenic history. [...] the Roman Empire's fall was followed by a kind of interregnum between the disappearances of the Hellenic and the emergence of the Western Society.

This interregnum is filled with the activities of two institutions: the Christian Church, established within and surviving the Roman Empire, and... the Barbarians from the no-man's-land beyond the Imperial frontiers. We have already described these two forces as the internal proletariat and external proletariat of the Hellenic Society. Though differing in all else they agreed in their alienation from the dominant minority of the Hellenic Society, the leading class of the old society who had lost their way and ceased to lead. In fact the Empire fell and the Church survived just because the Church gave leadership and enlisted loyalty whereas the Empire had long failed to do either the one or the other. Thus the Church, a survival from the dying society, became the womb from which in due course the new one was born."