Other formats

    Adobe Portable Document Format file (facsimile images)   TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Spike Golden Jubilee Number May 1949

Wheels Within Wheels

Wheels Within Wheels

When the appearance of Somervell's Pocket Toynbee raised a crop of reviews, most critics (from Professor Geyl to the gentleman who complained that Toynbee's technical terms did not mean what he defined them to mean) agreed in pointing out Toynbee's ambiguous position towards the most important question raised by works like his: that of law versus free will, of regularity versus individuality in history. Now at last, in the 1948 Chichele Lectures delivered at Oxford on the subject of "Uniqueness and Recurrence in History," Toynbee has defined his attitude, and told us what he thinks of the prospects of our own civilization. As these lectures have not yet appeared in print, it will be best to give a summary of their argument before dealing with one or two points arising out of them.

The first lecture distinguishes two forms which the idea of uniformity has taken: the Judaeo-Christian idea of the "Law of God" and the Greek idea of" Laws of Nature. "The latter are mechanical and purposeless, the former was personal and led to a definite aim. But when it was applied too rigorously, it eliminated the possibility of human choice and that was one reason why it was abandoned. Ever since, thought has tended to assume a dichotomy between the non-human part of the universe, governed by the laws of Nature, and the human part, not subject to any laws. But during the last two hundred years, many fields of human affairs have been captured by science, and anthropology, psychology and economics have applied the methods of science to the greater part of the human world, and brought it under the laws of Nature. This is in keeping with the trend of human thought which can only move in terms of order. Again, the field of history has been extended from political history to include the lives of ordinary people and thus overlaps with many of the new "human sciences." Yet most historians, though in their work they necessarily impose a pattern, still in theory deny its existence. This is because the Law of God has been abandoned and the laws of nature cannot be applied successfully, as (a) no detail of historical knowledge is ever finally settled; (b) "civilizations" are the smallest units of historical study, and there have been very few specimens of them.

The second and third lecture discuss in greater detail the problem of uniformity in the human world. Such uniformities undoubtedly exist. Insurance (especially insurance against burglary, which is a conscious act of will) has proved that predictions can be made even about conscious human behaviour. Economic laws, like those of "trade cycles," are generally accepted; yet only fifteen to twenty instances of the "standard cycle" have been observed—about the same as the number of civilizations which the historian can study. When these are compared, certain laws do seem to emerge. (There follows a summary of the familiar Toynbeean laws of the development and decline of civilizations, and some illustrations of less general laws.) What are the causes of such uniformities? To some extent, no doubt, the admitted uniformities in the physical environment. But they are insufficient, and Toynbee finds a more likely cause in the sub-rational part of human nature. It is now recognized that the unconscious is subject to natural laws, and perhaps the regularities of history are due to it. This would explain why they are most easily observable in "decline and fall" periods, as in those periods the un-conscious gets out of control. And perhaps the cyclic rhythms of history mark the stages by which the conscious intellect gains control over the unconscious; thus the result of the long and disastrous experience of the Greek decline was that reason overcame the unconscious city-state loyalty which had caused that decline. Now this holds out some hope for our civilization. For it is obvious that recognition of such unconscious influences, and education to overcome them, can remove us from the sphere of operation of natural laws. And it appears from past examples that, at any rate before the establishment of the "universal state" (which we are only approaching), the life of a civilization can still be saved. Thus our best hope lies in preventing the establishment of that state through "knock-out" wars and reaching peaceful agreement, before the "universal state" marks the exhaustion of the spiritual forces of our civilization.

The last lecture deals with uniqueness in history. It is obvious that the rate of social change is not constant. Thus the ship evolved rapidly between page 53 1440 and 1490, then remained almost unchanged till 1840, and evolved more quickly than ever in the next fifty years. We know how much faster technological change has been in the last two generations. This cannot be put down to "chance," as "chance" is a negative term expressing our ignorance of causes. The true explanation is the interaction of human wills and a genuine possibility of choice. This, in personal as in social relations, leads to unpredictability, and (through "challenge and response," Toynbee's most famous generalization) to creative acts. Thus the development of the ship was the response to the challenge of the Ottoman Empire in the fifteenth and the impact of the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century. Each problem solved leads to a new problem, but there is a tendency to stop after each success, and the challenge may find no response.

Finally, how is this element of choice related to the element of law? Perhaps the personal Law of God and the mechanical laws of Nature must be combined to give us the whole truth. Thus the wheel, if looked at by itself, may seem to be turning in senseless repetition (as history seemed to, e.g., Marcus Aurelius); but the wheel may belong to a cart driven in a definite direction. Similarly, repetitive cycles of events may be the foundation of directed progress. Thus the cycle of day and night is the basis for non-recurrent human experience; the cycle of human life and death for the cumulative heritage of a civilization; and the rise and fall of civilizations perhaps for progress in religious life. If God's Law is direction and not compulsion, we have the power of choice and may freely progress in the accessibility of means of grace in life.

Toynbee's argument falls into distinct parts, and not all of them seem to be of equal soundness or value. He is maintaining, first, that there are historical "laws" which are the result of the sub-rational element in man (and, as a corollary, that our civilization can still be saved by realisation of these laws so that they may be overcome by conscious action); and secondly, that the life-and-death cycle of civilisations is the foundation of man's spiritual progress under divine guidance. The first point seems firmly established and important because of its very obviousness. With characteristic insight and clarity of exposition, Toynbee has sketched a solution to one of the most difficult problems of historiography. The two extreme schools may still be unsatisfied and maintain their strangely paradoxical positions: either (like the followers of Marx or Huntington) reducing history to the workings of man's acquisitive instinct or the influence of his environment and thus eliminating reason as an independent factor in human development while introducing it (as some form of scientific method) in the study of that development; or (like Collingwood) making human reason in its individual manifestations the chief object of historical study while denying the historian the right to use his own in classifying the actions he studies. The reason why the "human sciences" have shown themselves so successful up to a point and helpless beyond it is just that autonomy of the rational faculty which these sciences are beginning to recognise. It appears that at some stage of "evolution" (whatever precisely that may be) something is evolved which is superior to and independent of the process which evolved it, and this is perhaps the idea expressed in Sartrian existentialism by the responsible man's rejection of the gods (cf. Orestes in The Flies). Moreover, it is the evolution of this faculty which marks the rise of "civilisation." Thus anthropology (as the study of non-civilised man) gives a complete explanation of the societies it studies because the rational faculty is not significantly developed in them, i.e., not sufficiently developed to influence their corporate actions. But its "civilised" equivalent, sociology, cannot give a complete (indeed, in some cases appears to give hardly a significant) account of the societies it studies because the development of reason has withdrawn them from the laws of nature to the extent of that development. This solves the problem of historical prediction: such prediction can only be conditional, but within its limits is certainly valid. The historian can only say: "This will happen unless . . ."; but, if he is a good historian, it will happen unless . . . The next slump will come at its due time, unless we realise the workings of the unconscious human mechanism that produces slumps; if we do, it will not come. And so on.

The corollary that follows for our civilisation is perhaps a more hopeful one than Toynbee thinks. There is no need to despair of our future, even if the "universal state" is established by force, provided the state thus established does not enforce a mechanistic intepretation of human reason and history, which would leave us exposed to the natural law prescribing the decay of civilisations.

Toynbee's second conclusion is of such vast scope that we cannot discuss it in detail. But it does not seem so soundly based. For one thing, while his first conclusion is supported by the difference between the simplicity and uniformity of primitive behaviour as compared with the complexity and variety of civilised societies (a point recognised by all historians), as well as by the "human sciences' and statistics he quotes, which are all based on sub-rational influences on human behaviour, this second argument has hardly any support in fact. Of the fifteen or so civilisations Toynbee recognises, nearly all are extinct without spiritual issue. The only definite spiritual progress he can point to is that from Greek and "Syriac" civilization to Christianity. The barrenness of the others he could, no doubt legitimately, page 54 explain by insisting on the freedom of human choice: there is no need for lessons to be learnt. But, leaving aside the question of bias in the assessment of his only example of progress, and also the fact that the Jewish (i.e., according to him, Syriac) influence is so much more important than the Greek in this spiritual matter that his scheme of affiliation must be seriously confused, we must ask whether a theory of divine guidance can be built up at all on such slender evidence. Is it not the most economical hypothesis to assume at best some blundering spiritual evolution comparable to the blundering and wasteful process of natural evolution? And can it be truly said that God, in His omnipotence, is like the driver of a cart needing wheels to fulfil his purpose? Even if we accept Toynbee's interpretation and valuation, though there is of course no reason to prevent us from believing in such divine guidance (if we can escape the difficulty stressed, rather than solved, by Toynbee's simile), he has given us no proof of it, and it is doubtful if such proof is possible.

E. Badian

University College, Oxford