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Salient. The Newspaper of Victoria University College. Vol. 20, No. 5. June 14, 1956

Parlour games with the Toynbee cosmology

Parlour games with the Toynbee cosmology

Professor Arnold Toynbee emerged from his lecture at Victoria University College as a triumphant social success. Indeed, he might be called a new parlour game: his ideas a chessboard for continued argument. Charming, witty, dignified, fluent, he was a splendid representative of the best kind of Western Man, and his easy tolerance took in all nations, in all times, including even our own. But his cosmology, expounded over an hour or more, included only one human being: Ghandi. And his discussion of an emerging Asia, and its relationships with the Commonwealth, dismissed Red China in a phrase.

Professor Toynbee dealt with five millennia of civilization, fanning out from the world's centre: the Middle East, where the two Asian Peninsulas, Europe and Africa, jut out from the Mainland. Amusingly, he sketched the peripheral islands, to the outermost Americas; and, briefly, he credited the sailing ships of the Portuguese with the temporary dominance of the West.

Returning to his Scheme of Things, he described the return to the Natural Order. Air-routes from East to West, we were told, cross Baghdad and Beirut; and there's more oil in one tiny Arab state than in the United States. He had nothing to say about nuclear fission, except that we must live together or die.

The cosmic jigsaw

Professor Toynbee is a very eminent historian, He has a cosmic view. There is no era or area that he cannot fit in a careful jigsaw, whose centre he has determined. His centre has shifted, indeed, it has swung. But there need be no criticism of inconsistency as such. He held, and no doubt still holds, a moral and Christian view. The purpose of it all is, at any rate for us, a moral and a Christian life ... he expounded, here, a system of flux and change: one related rather to self-determination than to Christianity.

I like both views. The best for me as I see it, the best for others as they see it: what could be more charitable. Christian, fair, liberal and progressive?

But even assuming a reconciliation of Christian ethics with utilitarian politics, how can one reconcile either with a mechanistic cosmology? Isn't the Centre of the World Theory a gigantic myth, deterministic, fatalistic, negative and unmoral? If true, doesn't it do violence to whatever else he says? Doesn't it ignore the dynamism of mankind? And doesn't it do it just at that point in the world's history when, potentially, mankind can harness the tides instead of being tossed about by them? Fifty years of nuclear power can put banana plantations on the South Pole. Hasn't the Professor thought of that? By then oil may have had its day, as coal has already; but what of it? Professor Toynbee's sweeping generalizations can fit that in too, when the time comes.

His basic error is not geographic, after all; it is architectural. He gives us five millennia of structures, determined by the configuration of the world [unclear: a] until our own times, gives us scarcely any indication of how they work or what they are for. His History is Geography, with time added. His Geography is a revolving chessboard, moving in cycles to a point of equilibrium; but devoid of Queen, Bishop and Knight, with the flexibility of movement which gives them the control of the game.

In God's name Professor Toynbee, does the sailing ship rank with Jesus? Does oil rank with the Koran? Does the Suez Canal rank with antiseptics? Does civilization depend on size? Is existence to be valued in terms of cosmic myths? Can History explain anything of any importance if it describes "trends" and "movements", and ignores how men live, and think, and feel, and create?

To do Professor Toynbee justice, he has dwelt on such problems before; and no doubt he would expect the kind of audience he had for his lecture to have read what he has written. But nevertheless, a long lecture that all but ignored questions of this kind could only be exasperating. Here was a mind determined to rise so high above particulars that nothing concrete emerged. Surprisingly, the God's-eye view left man with no soul. Instead, there was a vast, chequered panorama: thinner than cellophane, and equally transparent, but showing nothing underneath except the pawns. A single case study by a competent analyst could tell me more about the human race!

The theory upset

When Gandhi moved from South Africa to India he moved from one peripheral peninsula to another, without touching Professor Toynbee's centre of equilibrium; but when he moved ho unset the status quo ante, and upset the Toynbee theory in anticipation by creating a new dynamic centre. When Mao Tse Tung marched North, and survived against all the laws of political gravity, he did the same kind of thing. If a new Mohammed comes, with a myth more powerful than Toynbee's, he may persuade Islam that oil is as unclear as pig's fat, or that it is holy water, and not for use. The next Hitler may be a Brazilian, with atomic missiles; and he may be successful. Such contingencies cannot be ignored, and such people are unpredictable. Yet it is they who influence history and make prognosis impossible.

When Professor Toynbee looks back his myth makes him selective. When he looks forward he looks into a teacup, and the tea-leaves he imagines he sees are the spots in his own eyes. But what charming eves they are; and how nice it would be to spend an afternoon with him playing intellectual parlour games, preferably with a stronger brew.

Anton Vogt.