The Return of Arnold Toynbee | Just doing my part + a sad book story

What, you may rightly ask, does a map of Memphis, Tennessee have to do with 20th century historian and historiographer Arnold Toynbee?

Glad you asked.

The pinned location is the Memphis Network USPS Distribution Center. Somewhere there sits a media box containing a complete 10 volume set of Toynbee’s A Study of History. Somewhere.

The set is next to impossible to find. The two volume abridgment is everywhere. Bookfinder is littered with individual volumes, and sometimes groups of two or three. But I wanted the set of 10. Not 12–not interested in the maps or the “Reconsiderations” of an old man–the set of 10 is what I wanted. I searched for years and would occasionally come across a set priced well beyond my country mouse means. And then one day I found one priced just under $1000. Add to cart.

I tracked it as it made its way from Washington state across the country all the way to Memphis. Sigh. When I told them how much these books were worth, my local post office guy did everything he could do short of driving to Memphis. The bookseller himself did the same. As time wore on, we all came to realize that the box was not going to ever be out for delivery.

I finally settled on the 5th impression of the 2nd edition, 1955. Settled is the right word. If I ever come across the 10 volume set… Well. One can hope.

I should note that I have a 7th impression of Vol. II, and more importantly, a 2nd impression of Vol. X which was first published in 1954. So I suppose I could track down the three volumes I’m missing. Or maybe just leave a note for Per at Rosenlund Rare Books!

Another fair question is why my brain went to Toynbee today. Glad you asked. I ran into him at Roger Kimball’s Weekend Long Read, “Highways to Utopia: Humanity is at the crossroads of an awesome moral divide.”  Quoting political philosopher James Burnham, “Suicide is probably more frequent than murder as the end phase of a civilization,” Kimball says, “The historian Arnold Toynbee spoke in this context of the ‘barbarization of the dominant minority.'”

When a society is robust and self-confident, Toynbee suggested, cultural influence travels largely from the elites to the proletariats. The elites furnish social models to be emulated. The proletariats are “softened,” Toynbee said, by their imitation of the manners and morals of a dominant elite. But when a society begins to falter, the imitation proceeds largely in the opposite direction: the dominant elite is coarsened by its imitation of proletarian manners. Toynbee spoke in this context of a growing “sense of drift,” “truancy,” “promiscuity,” and general “vulgarization” of manners, morals, and the arts. The elites, instead of holding fast to their own standards, suddenly begin to “go native” and adopt the dress, attitudes, and behavior of the lower classes. Flip on your television, scroll through social media, look at the teens and pre-teens in your middle-class neighborhood. You will see what Toynbee meant by “barbarization of the dominant [or, rather ‘once-dominant’] minority.” One part of the impulse is summed up in the French phrase nostalgie de la boueBut it is not “mud” that is sought so much as repudiation.

The social scientist Charles Murray, writing about Toynbee in the Wall Street Journal 

Roger Kimball at American Greatness, November 25, 2022


The article, “The Return of Civilization—and of Arnold Toynbee?” at Comparative Studies in Society and History (Cambridge University Press online, 2014) says this of Toynbee:

He was superior in style and erudition to Oswald Spengler, his closest rival. Toynbee’s biographer, the great world historian William McNeill, compares him to Herodotus, Dante, and Milton, remarking, “Toynbee should rank as a twentieth century epigon to his poetic predecessors, for he, like them, possessed a powerful and creative mind that sought, restlessly and unremittingly, to make the world make sense”

To give a sense of his attempt to “make the world make sense,” Here are “The Plan of the Book,” and TOCs for first and sixth volumes.

Things did not go exactly according to plan (though the subject matter seems to all be there): Completely misread The Plan. The Volume is the right hand column. What’s below is still useful, though b/c of the dates.

Again, from The Return of Civilization–And of Arnold Toynbee?

A Study of History is, by any measure, a stupendous achievement. There is really nothing comparable to it in any other language or society. Even its severest critics, such as Pieter Geyl, remark on its “miraculous learning,” the “wealth of its examples,” “its splendid, full and supple style.” They commend it for the range of disciplines it draws upon—anthropology, sociology, psychology, philosophy, theology, biology, and literature. For all his criticisms, says Geyl, “I shall ever remain grateful to the author for profound remarks, striking parallels, wide prospects, and other concomitant beauties” (1955: 91, 97). William McNeill, Toynbee’s more sympathetic biographer, writes, “After more than half a century reading Toynbee’s pages still remains an adventure. The dazzling range of his information, the boldness of his comparisons, the perspicacity of his reflections … all combine to make his volumes worth anyone’s attention” (1989: 165).

The Return of Civilization–And of Arnold Toynbee?

The entire work is available to read online, although I caution that whoever put this up followed the original Plan; that is, sections that are grouped together in a single volume have been separated, I especially enjoy wandering around Volume X, The Inspirations of Historians (Volume XIII at the link).

I end with this, from the penultimate chapter of Volume X, ‘The Feeling for the Poetry in the Facts of History’.”

When we are investigating the relations between the facts of History, we are trying to see God through History with our intellects. The sorting out of facts is essentially an intellectual activity. The Intellect, however, is only one faculty of the Soul. When we think about some­thing, we are apt also to have feelings about it, and our impulse to express our feelings is still stronger than our impulse to express our thoughts. Feelings about History, as well as thoughts about it, have inspired historical works, and similar feelings, evoked by similar facts, have also been expressed in imaginative works in the divers genres of literature. There is, for example, a lyrical genre, an epic genre, a nar­rative genre, and a dramatic genre; and the feeling for the poetry in the facts of History has availed itself of all of these.

The lyrical genre–to begin with that–is one that has many facets. It may present itself in rejoicings at a dawn, in exultations over a libera­tion, in celebrations of an achievement, in praises of heroism, or in elegies over the sorrows of Human Life.

The joy of dawn is the emotional charge in some of the most famous scenes in Western history–the Latin Christian warriors’ shout of ‘Deus le volt’ in response to Pope Urban II’s preaching of the First Crusade, the ministry of Saint Francis of Assisi seen through Giotto’s and through Saint Thomas of Celano’s eyes, the landfalls of the Pinta and the May­flower, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the taking of the Tennis Court Oath–and the poetry in some, at least, of these historic events has been uttered in lines that speak more eloquently than volumes. The poetry of the American Revolutionary War has been distilled by Emerson into one quatrain:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,

Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,

Here once the embattled farmers stood

And fired the shot heard round the World.