'The Unification of the World and the Change in Historical Perspective' by Arnold Toynbee (1947)

A selection from Arnold Toynbee's Creighton lecture titled The Unification of the World and the Change in Historical Perspective, 1947.
The "Erdapfel" of Martin Beheim is the oldest surviving terrestrial globe (the Americas are not yet included) (1491–1493)

World Map by Juan de la Cosa, the first map showing the Americas.
Fragment of the first World Map of Piri Reis (1513) showing parts of the Americas.

Diogo Ribeiro's world map (1527)

Familiarity is the opiate of the imagination; and, just because every Western schoolboy knows that the oceanic voyages of discovery made by West European mariners some four and a half centuries ago were an epoch-making historical event, adult Western minds are apt to take the consequences for granted. In addressing myself to a Western public I shall therefore make no apology for pointing out how dramatic and how revolutionary the effect of our ocean-faring ancestors' exploit has been. It has produced nothing less than a complete transformation of the map of the world.

External changes of this magnitude usually evoke corresponding re-adjustments in people's attitudes; and, sure enough, when we look around us, we can see that, among the great majority of mankind, the effects of those Western voyages of discovery-- recent though they are on even the shortest-sighted historical time-scale-- have in fact already brought about a drastic change in historical outlook. [...] The majority of mankind... is, of course, the non-Western part, and the paradox is that today we Westerners are the only people in the world whose outlook on history still remains pre-da Gaman [da Gama was a Portuguese explorer and navigator who, in between 1497 and 1498, the first person to sail directly from Europe to India]. Personally, I do not believe that this antediluvian Western traditional outlook is going to last much longer. I have no doubt that a reorientation is in store for us in our turn... . But why should we wait for History... to take us by the scruff of the neck and twist our heads straight for us? Though our neighbours have recently been re-educated in this unpleasant and humiliating way, we ought surely to do better, for we cannot plead that we have been taken by surprise, as they were. The facts stare us in the face, and... we can... anticipate the compulsory education that is already on its way to us. The Greek Stoic philosopher Cleanthes [editors note:
who lived during the first Macedonian war and was a contemporary of Aristarchus of Samos', and suggested that Aristarchus be charged for impiety for 're-centering' the picture of the universe away from the domicile of the earth and upon the celestial fire, the sun (a 'revolution' which would later be repeated).] prays Zeus and Fate for grace to follow their lead of his own will without flinching; 'for if,' he adds, 'I quail and rebel, I shall have to follow just the same.' [editors note: recall the quote by Seneca at the end of Spengler's Decline: "Fate leads the willing and drags the unwilling".]

One knows that mankind... is always and everywhere in danger of exaggerating the historical importance of contemporary events because of their personal importance to the particular generation that happens to be overtaken by them. All the same, I will hazard the guess that, when the age in which we ourselves are living has been left sufficiently far behind to be seen by future historians in a revealingly remote perspective, the particular contemporary event with which we are now concerned will stand out like a mountain peak on the horizon of the past. By 'the age in which we are living' I mean the last five or six thousand years... . I call the recent change in the map 'contemporary' because the four or five centuries during which it has been taking place are a twinkling of an eye on the time-scale that our geologists and astronomers have now revealed to us. And, when I am trying to picture to myself the perspective in which the events of these last few thousand years will appear to future historians, I am thinking of historians living 20,000 or 100,000 years later than the present date... .

If the claim that I am making for the historical importance of our subject seems a large one, let us recall how extraordinary an event this change in the map has been. [...] From the dawn of history to about that date [A.D. 1500], the earthly home of man had been divided into many isolated mansions; since about A.D. 1500, the human race has been brought under one roof.

In an effort to jump clear of my native Western standing-ground and to look at this question from a less eccentric point of view, I have asked myself who was the most centrally placed and most intelligent observer that I could think of among notable non-Westerners who were alive at the moment when a few ships' companies of Western mariners embarked on the enterprise of unifying the world, and I have found my man in the Emperor Babur [of Mongol, Turkic, Persian origins who founded the Mughal Empire in India]. Babur... made the last attempt to unify the world by land operations from a continental centre. Within Babur's lifetime-- 1483-1530-- Columbus reached America by sea from Spain and da Gama India from Portugal. [...] Babur invaded India overland twenty-one years after da Gama had arrived there by sea. last but not least, Babur was a man-of-letters whose brilliant autobiography in his Turkish mother-tongue reveals a spirit of outstanding intelligence and perceptiveness.
What was Babur's horizon? To the east of Farghana it included both India and China, and to the west it extended to Babur's own distant kinsmen, the Ottoman Turks. [...] Of course Babur was aware of the existence of the Franks, for he was a cultivated man and he knew his Islamic history. If he had had occasion to allude to them, he would probably have described them as ferocious but frustrated infidels living in a remote corner of the world at the extreme western tip of one of the many peninsulas of the Continent of Asia. ...these barbarians had made a demonic attempt to break out of their cramped and uninviting corner into the broader and richer domains of Rum and Dar-al-Islam. It had been a critical moment for the destinies of civilization, but the uncouth aggressors had been foiled by the genius of Saladin... .
The arrival of Frankish ships in India in A.D. 1498, twenty-one years before Babur's own first descent upon Indian in A.D. 1519, seems to have escaped Babur's attention-- unless his silence is to be explained not by ignorance of the event, but by a feeling that the wanderings of these water-gypsies were unworthy of a historian's notice. So this allegedly intelligent... man of letters... was blind to the portent of the Portuguese circumnavigation of Africa? He failed to perceive that these ocean-faring Franks had turned the flank of Islam and taken her in the rear? Yes, I believe Babur would have been utterly astonished if he had been told that the empire which he was founding in India was soon to pass from his descendants to Frankish successors. He had no inkling of the change that was to come over the face of the world between his own generation and ours. But this, I submit, is not a reflection on Babur's intelligence; it is one more indication of the queerness of the major event in the history of the world in our time.


Steppe-traversing horses, not ocean-traversing sailing ships, were the sovereign means of locomotion by which the separate civilizations of the world as it was before A.D. 1500 were linked together-- to the slight extent to which they did maintain contact with each other.
In that world, as you see, Babur's Farghana [city in Eastern Uzbekistan, gateway of the North silk road, and, in the Zorastorian literature, the Zorastorian homeland] was the central point, and the Turks were, in Babur's day, the central family of nations. A Turco-centric history of the world has been published in our lifetime by the latest in the series of the great Ottoman Turkish Westernizers, President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

...the Turkish-speaking peoples really were the keystone of the Asiatic arch from which the pre-da Gaman belt of civilizations hung suspended. During those twelve hundred years, the overland link between the separate civilizations was commanded by Turkish steppe-power... .
But now we come to the great revolution: a technological revolution by which the West made its fortune, got the better of all the other living civilizations, and forcibly united them into a single society of literally world-wide range. [...] This use of the Ocean, first by sailing ships and then by steamships, enabled the West to unify the whole inhabited and habitable world, including the Americas. Babur's Farghana had been the central point of a world united by horse-traffic over the Steppe; but in Babur's lifetime the centre of the world made a sudden big jump. From the heart of the Continent it jumped to its extreme western verge, and, after hovering round Seville and Lisbon, it settled for a time in Elizabeth's England. In our own lifetime we have seen this volatile world-centre flit again from London to New York... . [...] The steppe-ports were put out of action when the ocean-going sailing-ship superseded the camel and the horse; and now that, under our eyes, the ocean-going steamship is being superseded by the aeroplane we may ask ourselves whether the centre of the world is not likely to jump again... . I will recur to this possibility before I conclude.

For the Chinese, their compartment of the surface of the Earth was 'All that is under Heaven,' and the territory under the Imperial Government's immediate rule was 'the Middle Kingdom.' This point of view is expressed with a serene assurance in the celebrated reply of the great Emperor Ch'ien Lung (imperabat A.D. 1735-95) to a letter from King George the Third of Great Britain proposing that the two potentates should enter into diplomatic and commercial relations with each other.
As to your entreaty to send one of your nationals to be accredited to my Celestial Court and to be in control of your country's trade with China, this request is contrary to all usage of my dynasty and cannot possibly be entertained... . Our ceremonies and code of laws differ so completely from your own that, even if your envoy were able to acquire the rudiments of our civilization, you could not possibly transplant our manners and customs to your alien soil... . Swaying the wide world, I have but one aim in view, namely to maintain a perfect governance and to fulfil the duties of the State... . I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country's manufactures.

The empire over which he ruled was the oldest, most successful, and most beneficent of all living political institutions. [...] During the twenty intervening centuries, this carefully ordered world peace had occasionally lapsed, but such lapses had always been temporary, and, at the close of Ch'ien Lung's reign, the latest restoration of 'the Middle Kingdom' was in its heyday.

On the strength of this historical background, was Ch'ien Lung right in answering George III as he did? Doubtless some of my Western readers smiled as they read his answer. They smiled, of course, because they knew the sequel, but what does the sequel prove? It proves, no doubt, that the Emperor Ch'ien Lung and his advisers were unaware of the overwhelming physical power which 'the South Sea Barbarians' had acquired... . At the date of Lord Macartney's mission there were Chinese men of letters, already in the flower of their age and holding responsible positions in the imperial service, who were to live to see Great Britain make war on China and dictate terms of peace to her at the cannon's mouth.

The siren voice of History, which lured 'the Son of Heaven' at peking into fancying himself to be the unique representative of Civilization with a capital 'C,' was playing the same trick, in A.D. 1500, on his counterpart the Caesar of Moscow. [...] The universal peace radiated by Augustus from a First Rome on the banks of the Tiber had been re-established by Constantine round a Second Rome on the shores of the Bosphorus; and, when the Constantinopolitan Empire, after dying and rising again three times over-- in the seventh, the eleventh, and the thirteenth centuries of the Christian era-- had fallen to the infidel Turks in A.D. 1453, the sceptre had passed to a Third Rome at Moscow whose kingdom was to have no end (so all pious Muscovites must believe).

The success of the non-Western majority of mankind in re-educating themselves, while Western minds have been sticking in archaic mud, is not, of course, in itself a proof of innately superior acumen or virtue. The beginning of wisdom is a salutary shock, and the non-Western societies have had a tremendous shake-up administrated to them by the Western civilization's boisterous impact. The West alone has so far escaped this unceremonious treatment. Unshattered, up till now, by an upheaval of its own making, our local civilization is still hugging the smug and slovenly illusion in which its 'opposite numbers' indulged till they took their educative toss from the levelled horns of an unintentionally altruistic Western bull. Sooner or later, the repercussions of this collision will assuredly recoil upon the West herself; but for the present this Janus-like figure slumbers on-- abroad a charging bull, at home a now solitary Sleeping Beauty.
The shocks which the other civilizations have received have indeed been severe enough to wake even the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. Imagine the psychological effect of the British diktat of A.D. 1852 on some Chinese scholar-statesmen who was old enough to remember the Emperor Ch'ien Lung's handling of Lord Macartney's embassy forty-nine years earlier!

An elite in all the non-Western societies has in fact by now successfully re-educated itself out of its traditional self-centred parochial point of view. Some of them, alas, have caught, instead, the Western ideological disease of Nationalism, but even Nationalism... draws them out their ancestral shell. In short, by one road or another, the emotionally upsetting but intellectually stimulating experience of being taken by storm by the West has educated these non-Western students of human affairs into realizing... that the past history of the West is not just the West's own parochial concern but is their past history too. It is theirs because the West... has thrust its way into its defenceless neighbours' lives; and these neighbours must therefore familiarize themselves with Western history if they are to learn how to take their bearings in a new world-wide society of which we Westerners have made them members by main force.
The paradox of our generation is that all the world has now profited by an education which the West has provided, except... the West herself. The West today is still looking at history from that old parochial self-centred standpoint which the other living societies have by now been compelled to transcend. Yet, sooner or later, the West, in her turn, is bound to receive the re-education which the other civilizations have obtained already from the unification of the world by Western action .
What is the probable course of this coming Western mental and moral revolution? [...] What, for instance, was the sequel to the impact of the Graeco-Roman civilization on its neighbours? [...] If we follow the thread through sixteen or seventeen centuries... we shall see an apparently irresistible Greek offensive on the military, political, economic, intellectual, and artistic planes being progressively contained, halted, and thrown into reverse by the counter-measures of its non-Greek victims. On all the planes on which they had been attacked, the Orientals' counter-offensive was successful on the whole... .

This fully told yet all but contemporary tale has an evident bearing on our own prospects; for a spiritual vacuum like the hollow place at the heart of that Hellenic culture which the Greeks temporarily imposed on the world has latterly made its appearance in the culture of our Western Christiandom in the form in which this culture has been 'processed' for export.

It will be harder for us to accept the not less plain fact that the past histories of our vociferous, and sometimes virtuperative, living contemporaries-- the Chinese and the Japanese, the Hindus and the Muslims, and our elder brothers the Orthodox Christians-- are going to become a part of our Western past history in a future world which will be neither Western nor non-Western but will inherit all the cultures which we Westerners have now brewed together in a single crucible. [...] Our own descendants are not going to be just Western, like ourselves. They are going to be heirs of Confucious and Lao-Tse as well as Socrates, Plato, Plotinus; Heirs of Gautama Buddha as well as Deutero-Isaiah and Jesus Christ; heirs of Zarathustra and Muhammad... .

Recapturing, if we can, an old-fashioned mode of thought and feeling, let us confess, with great humility, that, through the providence of God, the historical achievement of Western man has been to do something not simply for himself but for mankind as a whole--something so big that our own parochial history is going to be swallowed up by the results of it. By making history we have transcended our own history.

On this view then-- a humble view and yet a proud view too-- the main strand of our modern Western history is not the parish-pump politics of our Western society as inscribed on triumphal arches in a half-dozen parochial capitals or recorded in the national and municipal archives of ephemeral 'Great Powers.' The main strand is not even the expansion of the West over the world-- so long as we persist in thinking of that expansion as a private enterprise of the Western society's own. The main strand is the progressive erection, by Western hands, of a scaffolding within which all the once separate societies have built themselves into one. [...] The Western handiwork that has made this union possible has not been carried out with open eyes... ; it has been performed in heedless ignorance of its purpose. [...] In the fullness of time, when the oecumenical house of many mansions stands firmly on its own foundations and the temporary Western technological scaffolding falls away-- as I have no doubt that it will-- I believe it will become manifest that the foundations are firm at last because they have been carried down to the bedrock of religion.

In the chapter of history on which we are now entering, the seat of material power is moving at this moment still farther away from its pre-da Gaman locus. From the small island of Britain, lying a stone's throw from the Atlantic coast of the continent of Asia, it is moving to the larger island of North America, a bow-shot farther distant. But this transfer of Poseidon's trident from London to New York may prove to have marked the culmination of the dislocating effects of our current Oceanic age of intercommunication; for we are now passing into a new age in which the material medium of human intercourse is going to be neither the Steppe nor the Ocean, but the Air, and in an air age mankind may succeed in shaking its wings free from their fledgeling bondage to the freakish configuration of the surface--solid or liquid-- of the globe. 
In an air age the locus of the centre of gravity of human affairs may be determined... not by the lay-out of oceans and seas, steppes and deserts, rivers and mountain-ranges, passes and straits, but by the distribution of human numbers... . ...the weight of numbers may eventually come to count for more than its influence in the past. The separate civilizations of the pre da-Gaman age were created... by a tiny sophisticated ruling minority perched on the back of a neolithic peasantry... . This neolithic peasantry is the last and mightiest sleeper, before herself, whom the West has waked.
The rousing of this passively industrious mass of humanity has been a slow business. [...] It was left for modern England to urbanize the peasantry with sufficient energy on a large enough scale to set the movement travelling round the circumference of the Earth. The peasant has not taken this awakening kindly. [...] ...the French Revolution carried it on to the Continent; the Russian Revolution has propagated it from coast to coast; and, though today there are still some fifteen hundred  million not yet awakened peasants-- about three-quarters of the living generation of mankind-- in India, China, Indo-China, Indonesia, Dar-al-Islam, and Eastern Europe, their awakening is now only a matter of time... .
Their gravitational pull may then draw the centre-point of human affairs away from an Ultima Thule [editors note:
the term ultima Thule in medieval geographies denotes any distant place located beyond the "borders of the known world"] among the Isles of the Sea to some locus approximately equidistant from the western pole of the world's population in Europe and North America and its eastern pole in China and India, and this would indicate a site in the neighbourhood of Babylon, on the ancient portage across the isthmus between the Continent and its peninsulas of Arabia and Africa. The centre might even travel farther into the interior of the Continent to some locus between China and Russia (the two historic tamers of the Eurasian Nomads), and that would indicate a site in the neighbourhood of Babur's Farghana, in the familiar Transoxanian meeting-place and debating ground of the religion and philosophies of India, China, Iran, Syria, and Greece.
Of one thing we can be fairly confident: religion is likely to be the plane on which this coming centripetal counter-movement will first declare itself... . If our first precept should be to study our own history, not on its own account but for the part which the West has played in the unification of mankind, our second precept, in studying History as a whole, should be to relegate economic and political history to a subordinate place and give religious history the primacy. For religion, after all, is the serious business of the human race.