A Study of History

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A Study of History is the 12-volume history book by British historian Arnold J. Toynbee, finished in 1961, in which the author traces the development and decay of nineteen world civilizations in the historical record. Toynbee applies his model to each of these civilizations, detailing the stages through which they all pass: genesis, growth, time of troubles, universal state, and disintegration.

The nineteen major civilizations, as Toynbee sees them, are: Egyptian, Andean, Sinic, Minoan, Sumerian, Mayan, Indic, Hittite, Hellenic, Western, Orthodox Christian (Russia), Far Eastern, Orthodox Christian (main body), Persian, Arabic, Hindu, Mexican, Yucatec, and Babylonic. There are four 'abortive civilizations' (Abortive Far Western Christian, Abortive Far Eastern Christian, Abortive Scandinavian, Abortive Syriac) and five 'arrested civilizations' (Polynesian, Eskimo, Nomadic, Ottoman, Spartan).

Titles of the volumes[edit]

The 12-volume work contains more than 3 million words over about 7,000 pages; there are 412 pages of indices.[1]

  • Publication of A Study of History[2]
    • Vol I: Introduction; The Geneses of Civilizations, part one (Oxford University Press 1934)
    • Vol II: The Geneses of Civilizations, part two (Oxford University Press 1934)
    • Vol III: The Growths of Civilizations (Oxford University Press 1934)
    • Vol IV: The Breakdowns of Civilizations (Oxford University Press 1939)
    • Vol V: The Disintegrations of Civilizations, part one (Oxford University Press 1939)
    • Vol VI: The Disintegrations of Civilizations, part two (Oxford University Press 1939)
    • Vol VII: Universal States; Universal Churches (Oxford University Press 1954) [as two volumes in paperback]
    • Vol VIII: Heroic Ages; Contacts between Civilizations in Space (Encounters between Contemporaries) (Oxford University Press 1954)
    • Vol IX: Contacts between Civilizations in Time (Renaissances); Law and Freedom in History; The Prospects of the Western Civilization (Oxford University Press 1954)
    • Vol X: The Inspirations of Historians; A Note on Chronology (Oxford University Press 1954)
    • Vol XI: Historical Atlas and Gazetteer (Oxford University Press 1959)
    • Vol XII: Reconsiderations (Oxford University Press 1961)
  • Abridgements by D. C. Somervell:
    • A Study of History: Abridgement of Vols I-VI, with a preface by Toynbee (Oxford University Press 1946)[3]
    • A Study of History: Abridgement of Vols VII-X (Oxford University Press 1947)
    • A Study of History: Abridgement of Vols I-X in one volume, with new preface by Toynbee & new tables (Oxford Univ. Press 1960)


Toynbee argues that civilizations are born out of more primitive societies, not as the result of racial or environmental factors, but as a response to challenges, such as hard country, new ground, blows and pressures from other civilizations, and penalization. He argues that for civilizations to be born, the challenge must be a golden mean; that excessive challenge will crush the civilization, and too little challenge will cause it to stagnate. He argues that civilizations continue to grow only when they meet one challenge only to be met by another. He argues that civilizations develop in different ways due to their different environments and different approaches to the challenges they face. He argues that growth is driven by "Creative Minorities": those who find solutions to the challenges, which others then follow.

In 1939 Toynbee wrote, "The challenge of being called upon to create a political world-order, the framework for an economic world-order... now confronts our Modern Western society."


He argues that the breakdown of civilizations is not caused by loss of control over the physical environment, over the human environment, or by attacks from outside. Rather, it comes from the deterioration of the "Creative Minority," which eventually ceases to be creative and degenerates into merely a "Dominant Minority" (who forces the majority to obey without meriting obedience). He argues that creative minorities deteriorate due to a worship of their "former self," by which they become prideful, and fail adequately to address the next challenge they face.

Universal state[edit]

He argues that the ultimate sign a civilization has broken down is when the dominant minority forms a "universal state", which stifles political creativity within the existing social order. Toynbee writes:

"First the Dominant Minority attempts to hold by force—against all right and reason—a position of inherited privilege which it has ceased to merit; and then the Proletariat repays injustice with resentment, fear with hate, and violence with violence when it executes its acts of secession. Yet the whole movement ends in positive acts of creation—and this on the part of all the actors in the tragedy of disintegration. The Dominant Minority creates a universal state, the Internal Proletariat a universal church, and the External Proletariat a bevy of barbarian war-bands."

Toynbee developed his concept of an "internal proletariat" and an "external proletariat" to describe quite different opposition groups within and outside the frontiers of a civilization. These groups, however, find themselves bound to the fate of the civilization.[4] During its decline and disintegration, they are increasingly disenfranchised or alienated, and thus lose their immediate sense of loyalty or of obligation. Nonetheless an "internal proletariat" may form a "universal church" which survives the civilization's demise.[5][clarification needed]

Before the process of decay, the dominant minority had held the internal proletariat in subjugation within the confines of the civilization, causing these oppressed to grow bitter. The external proletariat, living outside the civilization in poverty and chaos, grows envious. Then, in the social stress resulting from the failure of the civilization, the bitterness and envy increase markedly.

Toynbee argues that as civilizations decay, there is a "schism" within the society. In this environment of discord, people resort to archaism (idealization of the past), futurism (idealization of the future), detachment (removal of oneself from the realities of a decaying world), and transcendence (meeting the challenges of the decaying civilization with new insight, e.g., by following a new religion). From among members of an "internal proletariat" who transcend the social decay a "church" may arise. Such an association would contain new and stronger spiritual insights, around which a subsequent civilization may begin to form. Toynbee here uses of the word "church" in a general sense, e.g., to refer to a collective spiritual bond found in common worship, or the unity found in an agreed social order.


It remains to be seen what will come of the four remaining civilizations of the 21st century: Western civilization, Islamic society, Hindu society, and the Far East. Toynbee argues two possibilities: they might all merge with Western Civilization, or Western civilization might develop a 'Universal State' after its 'Time of Troubles', decay, and die.

List of civilizations[edit]

The following table lists the 23 civilizations identified by Toynbee in the book. This table does not include what Toynbee terms primitive societies, arrested civilizations, or abortive civilizations. Civilizations are shown in boldface. Toynbee's "Universal Churches" are written in italic and are chronologically located between second- and third- generation civilizations, as is described in volume VII.

1st Generation 2nd Generation Universal Church 3rd Generation
Minoan Hellenic (Greek and Roman) Christian Western; Orthodox-Russian; Orthodox-Byzantine
Shang Sinic (see also Han Dynasty) Mahayana (Buddhism) Chinese; Japanese-Korean ("Far Eastern")
Indus Indic Hinduism Hindu
Syriac Society Iranian; Arabic Islam Islamic
Egyptiac - -
Sumeric Hittite; Babylonian - -
Andean; Mayan; Yucatec; Mexic - -


Many concepts Toynbee discussed became part of the political vocabulary only decades later; here is a sampling of a few:

  • Great Society (1939)
  • Régime change (1949)
  • Détente (1952)
  • Malaise (1956).


The social scientist Ashley Montagu assembled 29 other historians' articles to form a symposium on Toynbee's A Study of History, published as Toynbee and History: Critical Essays and Reviews (1956 Cloth ed.). Boston: Extending Horizons Books, Porter Sargent Publishers. ISBN 0-87558-026-2.  The book includes three of Toynbee's own essays: What I am Trying to Do (originally published in International Affairs vol. 31, 1955; What the Book is For: How the Book Took Shape (a pamphlet written upon completion of the final volumes of A Study of History) and a comment written in response to the articles by Edward Fiess and Pieter Geyl (originally published in Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 16, 1955.)

Jews as a "fossil society"[edit]

Volume 1 of the book, written in the 1930s, contains a discussion of Jewish culture which begins with the sentence "There remains the case where victims of religious discrimination represent an extinct society which only survives as a fossil. .... by far the most notable is one of the fossil remnants of the Syriac Society, the Jews."[6] That text has been the subject of controversy, and some reviewers have interpreted the text as antisemitic.[7][8][9][10][11] In later printings, a footnote was appended which read "Mr. Toynbee wrote this part of the book before the Nazi persecution of the Jews opened a new and terrible chapter of the story...".


  1. ^ Brander, Bruce G. (1998). Staring into Chaos. Dallas, Texas: Spence Publishing Company. p. 168. ISBN 978-0965320856. 
  2. ^ The Table of Contents for all the volumes is presented at this website A Study of History some volumes being given in greater detail than others. Selected portions of the text are also provided, as keyed to the Table of Contents.
  3. ^ This first abridgement by Somervell has been translated into Arabic, Danish, Dutch, Finish, French, German, Gujarati, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Portuguese, Serbo-Croat, Spanish, Swedish, and Urdu. William H. McNeill, Arnold J. Toynbee. A life (Oxford University 1989), text at 285, note 5 [337].
  4. ^ Arnold J. Toynbee, A Study of History (Oxford University 1934-1961), 12 volumes, in volume V The Disintegration of Civilizations (Part One) (Oxford University 1939), at 58-194 (internal proletariats), and at 194-337 (external proletariats).
  5. ^ Toynbee, A Study of History (1934-1961), e.g., in volume VII Universal States, Universal Churches (Oxford University 1954), at 70-76, and in volume VIII Contacts between Civilizations in Space (Oxford University 1954) at 82-84 (referring to Islam, Christianity, Mahayana Buddhism, and Hinduism).
  6. ^ A Study of History, Volume 1, Section VII, at 135-139.
  7. ^ Franz Borkenau, "Toynbee's Judgment of the Jews: Where the Historian Misread History", Commentary (May 1955).
  8. ^ Eliezer Berkovits, Judaism: fossil or ferment? (Philosophical Library 1956).
  9. ^ Nathan Rotenstreich, "The Revival of the Fossil Remnant: Or Toynbee and Jewish Nationalism", Jewish Social Studies, Vol. 24, No. 3 (July 1962), pp. 131-143.
  10. ^ Abba Solomon Eban, "The Toynbee heresy: address delivered at the Israel", in Toynbee and History: critical essays and reviews, ed. by Ashley Montagu (Porter Sargent 1956).
  11. ^ Oskar K. Rabinowicz, Arnold Toynbee on Judaism and Zionism: a critique (W.H.Allen 1974).

External links[edit]