A Study of History

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A Study of History is a 12-volume universal history book by British historian Arnold J. Toynbee, published in 1934-1961, in which he attempts to trace the development and decay of 19 world civilizations in the historical record, applying 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 19 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), for a total of 28.

Titles of the volumes[edit]

The 12-volume work contains more than 3 million words and about 7,000 pages, plus 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 1957)
    • 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."


Toynbee does not see the breakdown of civilizations as caused by loss of control over the physical environment, by loss of control 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" - which 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, co-opting the useful structures of the earlier time while creating a new philosophical or religious pattern for the next stage of history.[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 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
Syriac Society (Ancient Israel, Phoenicia etc.) Islam Islamic (at early stages divided into Iranian and Arabic, civilizations, which later were unified)
Shang Sinic (see also Han Dynasty) Mahayana (Buddhism) Chinese; Japanese-Korean ("Far Eastern")
Indus Indic Hinduism Hindu
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.)

Arnold Toynbee suggests that the civilisation as a whole is the proper unit for the study of history, not the nation state, which he suggests is just a part of a larger whole. He suggests a list of 21 civilisations, and an additional 5 "arrested civilisations", but when one examines this list it seems to be very arbitrary at times where one civilisation ends and a new one starts. For example, do we identify a "Sumerian" civilisation in ancient Iraq, followed by a later "Akkadian, or Babylonian" civilisation, or are these just different phases of a single, long-lived Mesopotamian civilisation? Toynbee lists them as separate, but later includes both the Greek and the Roman civilisations within a single category, called "Hellenic," though it is clear from Toynbee's list that Greek gave rise to Roman just as Sumer gave rise to Babylonia. Why is Sparta listed as a separate civilisation from the rest of the Hellenic world? What is the relation between Minoan and Mycenaean (which Toynbee considers early Hellenic)? Jacquetta Hawkes considers these two aspects of the same civilisation (which she calls Mino-Mycenaean, a finding that would be supported by Leonard Robert Palmer from his studies of Linear B). If these are just early phases of a much larger civilisation, separated from Hellenic civilisation by a "Dark Age", what is one to do with what Toynbee calls "Sinic civilisation", separated from "Far Eastern Civilisation", or for that matter "Indic civilisation" separated from "Hindu civilisation"? And in his list there is no mention of such civilisations as the Etruscans, the Ethiopians, the East Africans, or the Sudanese. (While the latter could perhaps be considered part of the Islamic civilisation, the former could not.) And what of Tibet and South East Asia (old Indo-China), are they part of the Indian Hindu Civilisation even though they are Buddhist, or part of Far Eastern Civilisation, or both. And if Hittite is a separate civilisation, where do Hurrians, Elamites and Urartu fit?

David Wilkinson suggests that there is an even larger unit than civilisation. Using the ideas drawn from "World Systems Theory" he suggests that since at least 1500 BC that there was a connection established between a number of formerly separate civilisations to form a single interacting "Central Civilisation", which expanded to include formerly separate civilisations such as India, the Far East, and eventually Western Europe and the Americas into a single "World System".[6] In some ways, it resembles what William H. McNeill calls "the closure of the oecumene", in his book The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community.

And then concerning the fall of civilisations, Toynbee suggests a single schema, drawn in part from his experience as a classical scholar, based upon the creativity of classical Athens, and the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. This pattern he finds has parallels with Sima Qian's views of the "Mandate of Heaven" or the Dynastic cycle (Asabiyyah) suggested by Ibn Khaldun, for Far Eastern and Islamic civilisations respectively. But the pattern is not universally observed, and a number of civilisations become incorporated into others. These, he suggests are the so-called Aborted civilisations.

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."[7] That text has been the subject of controversy, and some reviewers have interpreted the text as antisemitic (notably after 1945).[8][9][10][11][12] 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...".[citation needed]


  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. ^ Wilkinson, David (Fall 1987). "Central Civilization". Comparative Civilizations Review 17. pp. 31–59. 
  7. ^ A Study of History, Volume 1, Section VII, at 135-139.
  8. ^ Franz Borkenau, "Toynbee's Judgment of the Jews: Where the Historian Misread History", Commentary (May 1955).
  9. ^ Eliezer Berkovits, Judaism: fossil or ferment? (Philosophical Library 1956).
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ 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).
  12. ^ Oskar K. Rabinowicz, Arnold Toynbee on Judaism and Zionism: a critique (W.H.Allen 1974).

External links[edit]