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Opinion

June 4, 2018

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Toynbee on civilisation

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 cultural heritage.

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 separately.

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 time.

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 scholar.

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