Monday, April 23, 2012

Train Reading - introducing Toynbee's Civilization on Trial

My train reading this week is Arnold Toynbee's Civilization on Trial ( Oxford University Press, 1948). It was my father's book - there is a receipt inside dated 17 November 1948 from W Heffer & Sons Ltd of Cambridge for 13 shillings including postage.Prof gets his doctorate of economics, April 1970

Just in case you haven't worked it out  by now, the Belshaw's are a somewhat academic family. Just to give you some visual wall paper, this is a photo of Prof, we all called dad Prof, receiving a Doctor of Economics from the University of New England in April 1970. While I am clearly in the family tradition, I fear that I am something of an academic runt. Still, I do carry elements of the tradition on!   

As with most of my train reading I just grabbed it off the shelves, although my choice was influenced by the discussion on civilisation and related concepts that continued in Saturday Morning Musings - words, the nature of progress & the Enlightenment.

One of the issues there was Civilisation big C as compared to civilisations as in complex sophisticated societies like the Roman or Chinese empires. Toynbee was concerned with the second.  Indeed, he was arguably obsessed with the decline of civilisations, with the extent that this revealed historical laws.

Toynbee was very much a man of his time, part of the Empire and Commonwealth intellectual elite. Here I was fascinated to discover that he was initially married Rosalind Murray (1890–1967), daughter of Gilbert Murray. The Murrays were one of those Anglo-Australian Imperial families. I wrote of Toynbee's nephew by marriage, I think that I have the relationship right, in Patrick Desmond Fitzgerald Murray 1900-1967. At the time, I had no idea of the connection between my moral tutor, there's a phrase for you, and a historian that I had to study but was doing my best to ignore!

I found Toynbee's views old fashioned and even a-historical. I had no real conception of the depth of the man, nor just how modern his views actually were.

We live in a secular age. Toynbee's overt religiosity would be an impediment to many of us. Further, the exact language that he uses seems not just ponderous at some times, but more the terms sometimes create reactions because of current ways of thinking that Toynbee would have thought very odd indeed. You see, Toynbee was a man of his time and used the language of his time. He simply wouldn't have understood the reactions to his language because much of his actual messages have nothing to do with our reactions to his English. He would, I think, have looked puzzled and tried to understand just what was meant. Then he might well have concluded that that his interrogators were just proving his point!

The unjustified arrogance of many of those in the West was part of his message. He actually uses the phrase "the end of history" to describe the comfortable complacency of the middle classes in Western countries; they believe that technology will insulate them, that the inexorable forces that lead to the decline of civilisations have been broken. Not so, says Toynbee. The West is in for a rude shock.

It is Toynbee's prescriptions that have the especially old flavour. His analysis of causes and patterns does not. Stripped of language that impedes the message, that message is very current. In my next post, I will look at a few of his conclusions.             


Evan said...

Looking forward to the next post, I think Toynbee was great.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hew was a far more interesting man than I realised, Evan.

Winton Bates said...

I understand Toynbee made some bold predictions about the future of.Western Civilization. It would be interesting to know what they were and good the predictions look today.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Winton. I will properly pick this up later in the week.