Toynbee, Arnold

views updated May 14 2018

Toynbee, Arnold



The first intellectual influence of importance in the life of the English economist Arnold Toynbee (1852-1883) was his father, Joseph, a surgeon and fellow of the Royal Society. Guided by his father, Toynbee developed a taste for the finer models of English prose, especially the Bible, Milton, Gibbon, and Burke. Among the poets, Toynbee esteemed the Elizabethans, Shelley, and Keats. Scott and Thackeray were his favorite novelists. He was early handicapped by fragile health and, in the words of his close Oxford friend Alfred Milner, had “a strange, solitary, introspective youth, for he was never long at school, nor had he …the love of games, the careless mind, or the easy sociability which make school life happy” (1901, pp. 11-12).

At 19 he enrolled in Pembroke College, Oxford, largely because it was one of the cheaper colleges. But he speedily aroused the interest of Benjamin Jowett, master of Balliol College, who had him transferred to Balliol. Although Toynbee’s health was too precarious to permit him to read for honors and he earned in consequence only an ordinary pass degree, his essays were so extraordinary and his personal qualities so outstanding that in 1878 he was made lecturer and tutorial fellow at Balliol.

Toynbee’s impact was partly the effect of what Jowett termed “his transparent sincerity,” the absence of “any trace of vanity or ambition.” Milner, who shared few of Toynbee’s opinions, recalled nevertheless that he “fell at once under his spell and …always remained under it” (1901, p. 15).

Toynbee combined intense religious conviction, saintly character, and dedication to the improvement of the working classes. In 1875 he came to political economy out of the same desire to do good that motivated his immediate Balliol successor, Alfred Marshall. As Milner said, “for the sake of religion he had become a social reformer; for the sake of social reform he became an economist.” In his brief life Toynbee campaigned relentlessly for worker housing, parks, free libraries, and “all the now familiar objects of municipal socialism.” He became a guardian under the poor law, a supporter of cooperatives, and a church reformer. One of his major activities was lecturing to working-class audiences on social reform, first in industrial cities like Newcastle and Sheffield and then in London. This aspect of his work was memorialized after his death by the founding of Toynbee Hall in White-chapel, the first university settlement house. At Oxford, “the apostle Arnold,” as he was affectionately called, did much to combat laissez-faire doctrine among both undergraduates and dons.

The Industrial Revolution (1884), published posthumously, was Toynbee’s single book. As his nephew, the historian Arnold J. Toynbee, has said of its detailed findings, “Toynbee’s work has been superseded long ago.” Nevertheless, Toynbee invented the term itself and supplied the argument for considering the industrial revolution as a “single great historical event.” The younger Toynbee’s judgment, in his preface to the 1956 edition of the book, is just: “As a masterly first reconnaissance of a very important field of historical study, this pioneer work by a young man is still as much alive as ever it was” ([1884] 1956, p. ix).

The volume has a second significance. In it Toynbee challenged the dominant economics of his time, allied himself with Walter Bagehot and T. E. Cliffe Leslie in the formulation of an alternative technique, and assisted in the development of an English version of the German arguments over the relative claims of history and analysis (the Methodenstreit). Never an extremist in this controversy, always willing to concede that deductive economics had its place, he nevertheless criticized a “wrong use of deduction … a neglect on the part of those employing it to examine closely their assumptions and to bring their conclusions to the test of fact.” No wonder the deductive theorists produced such “absolutely untrue” doctrines as the wages fund. Historical method, on the other hand, was capable not only of tracing the “actual causes of economic development” but of identifying the “stages of economic development,” comparing them with “those which have obtained in other countries and times,” and ultimately evolving “laws of universal application.” As an example of good historical method, Toynbee cited approvingly Maine’s researches on the evolution of contract.

Toynbee believed economic policies should be related to historical circumstances. Hence, the relative merits of laissez-faire and state action cannot be judged a priori. Although Toynbee’s socialism was not of the collectivist variety, he favored extensive social legislation, relied heavily on the type of municipal socialism with which the Fabians were to be identified, and held high hopes for such voluntary workers’ associations as trade unions, cooperatives, and friendly societies.

Toynbee neither won nor lost the methodological argument. As the contemporary historian of economic thought T. W. Hutchison has said, “the inquiries of Bagehot, Toynbee, and Leslie …were scarcely followed up in subsequent decades” (1953, p. 429). Alfred Marshall, England’s leading economist between 1890 and 1920, incorporated just enough historical material in his work to blunt the edge of controversy between marginalists and historians. But the methodological issues were discussed only casually and were scarcely settled convincingly by either Marshall or his followers.

Toynbee died suddenly of a “brain fever” in his thirty-first year. His widow, Charlotte, survived him by nearly a half century.

Robert Lekachman

[For the historical context of Toynbee’s work, seeeconomic thought, article onthe historical SCHOOL; and the biographies ofbagehot; leslie; maine. For discussion of the subsequent development of Toynbee’s ideas, seeindustrialization.]


(1884) 1956 The Industrial Revolution. With a preface by Arnold J. Toynbee. Boston: Beacon. -” First published as Lectures on the Industrial Revolution of the Eighteenth Century in England.

1910 Toynbee, Joseph; and Toynbee, ArnoldReminiscences and Letters of Joseph and Arnold Toynbee. Edited by Gertrude Toynbee. London: Glaisher.


Hutchison, T. W. (1953) 1962 A Review of Economic Doctrines: 1870-1929. Oxford: Clarendon. -” See especially Chapter 1.

Milner, Alfred 1901 Arnold Toynbee.London: Arnold.

Arnold Joseph Toynbee

views updated May 14 2018

Arnold Joseph Toynbee

The English historian and philosopher of history Arnold Joseph Toynbee (1889-1972) described himself as a "metahistorian" whose "intelligible field of study" was civilization.

Arnold Toynbee was born into an upper-middle-class family. He attended Balliol College, Oxford, and from 1912 to 1915 he was a fellow and tutor in classics. During World War I he served in the Political Intelligence Department of the War Office, where, among other duties, he edited accounts of atrocities. In 1919 he was a member of the Middle Eastern section of the British delegation to the Paris Peace Conference.

He was Koraes professor of Byzantine and modern Greek language, literature, and history at London University from 1919 to 1924. From 1925 until he retired in 1955 he was director of studies in the Royal Institute of International Affairs and professor of international history at London University. He directed the Research Department at the Foreign Office from 1943 until 1946, when he attended the Paris Peace Conference as a British delegate.

The horror of World War I turned Toynbee's conception of his lifework away from the narrow national scholarship in which he had been trained. Struck with parallels between Greco-Roman civilization and his own time, he projected in 1921 a comparative and comprehensive study of the world's civilizations. But between 1921 and 1934, when the first three volumes of the massive Study of History appeared, Toynbee wrote more than 140 articles and books, mostly in the orthodox tradition which he had decided to transcend. These included The Western Question in Greece and Turkey (1922), Greek Historical Thought (1924), Greek Civilisation and Character (1924), the carefully documented Survey of International Affairs (1923-1927), and A Journey to China (1931); furthermore, he edited British Commonwealth Relations (1934).

The second three volumes of Toynbee's Study were published in 1939; four more in 1954; an atlas in 1959; and in 1961 a final volume, Reconsiderations, which attempted to answer his critics. The first 10 volumes traced a pattern modeled upon Toynbee's Hellenic studies. Isolating 23 complete civilizations, and arguing that his conclusions were deduced from empirical evidence, he described parallel life cycles of growth, dissolution, a "time of troubles, " a universal state, and a final collapse leading to a new genesis. Although he found the uniformity of the patterns, particularly of disintegration, sufficiently regular to reduce to graphs, and even though he formulated definite laws of development such as "challenge and response, " Toynbee insisted that the cyclical pattern could, and should, be broken.

Beginning in 1954 his cyclical emphasis yielded to a progressive view of history supported first by Christian millennialism and then by a combination of "higher" religions moving toward a synthesis of nations beyond the failures of past civilizations. In Reconsiderations he altered his count of civilizations to 28, including 13 "independent" and 15 "satellite, " and he abandoned his Hellenic model and Western civilization as destructively neopagan and egocentric.

In the 1950s, Toynbee concerned himself increasingly with religion as the means to world unity. In An Historian's Approach to Religion (1956) he urged that we "wrench ourselves" out of the "mathematico-physical line of approach which we are still following" to "make a fresh start from the spiritual side." In Change and Habit: The Challenge of Our Time (1966) he predicted that if the United States and the Soviet Union do not agree to maintain world order, China, whose religious and historical traditions attracted Toynbee, may emerge as the "world-unifier." Even when treating world affairs, he turned eventually from the disquieting realities of history to the greater security of a metaphysics beyond history.

Two of Toynbee's later works included Cities on the Move (1970), and Constantine Porphyrogenitus and His World (1973). Toynbee died in York, England, on Oct. 22, 1975.

Further Reading

Edward T. Gargan edited a series of major criticisms in The Intent of Toynbee's History: A Cooperative Appraisal (1961), with a preface by Toynbee. Pieter Geyl republished his critiques in Debates with Historians (1958). Various aspects of Toynbee's thought are summarized in Pitirim A. Sorokin, Social Prophecies of an Age of Crisis (1950); Jacobus G. De Beus, The Future of the West (1953); and Warren W. Wagar, The City of Man: Prophecies of a World Civilization in Twentieth-century Thought (1963). □

About this article

Arnold Toynbee

All Sources -
Updated Aug 24 2016 About content Print Topic