Friday, March 12, 2010

Book Review: A Study of History

I first became acquainted with the name of Arnold Toynbee through reading the science fiction of Arthur C. Clarke. Later, I saw references to him in Heinlein and Poul Anderson, and decided to see what it was all about. This book was worth reading. Toynbee's thesis is that all societies rise and fall through a process of "challenge and response."

As long as a society is growing, encountering new challenges, overcoming them, and moving on to other challenges, it is healthy. He also describes the "dominant minority," "external proletariat," and "internal proletariat" groups that make up societies. For instance, to take the example of Rome, the Romans themselves were the dominant minority, whose traditions sustained the Republic and then the Empire. The internal proletariat of Rome was the Christian religion, which came to inherit the prestige of the Romans. The external minorities were the Slavic and Germanic tribes on the northern borders, which were kept at bay until the dominant minority lost its will to expand.

Toynbee does not see empires (such as the Roman Empire) or "universal states" as triumphs of a society's strength, but rather as a sign of weakness. A healthy society expands, develops creative arts, and encourages social mobility; an empire has rigid rules of conduct, laws, and social hierarchy. Toynbee's thesis is an excellent primer for understanding history, and can easily be applied to today's societies, including ours. He offers many different examples of growing, static, and declining societies, and shows an incredible mastery of his subject.

Now the bad news: This is dry, tough reading. There are no maps, no visuals, and few "helps" for people unfamiliar with world history. Toynbee wrote for a scholarly audience, and assumed everyone reading would know what he was talking about. Toynbee also has a streak of racism that most clearly comes across in his discussion of Africa. He does not even deem African civilizations in his text, and decries the influence of "African rhythms" on Western culture (jazz, at the time of his writing). You've got to really like history to get into this stuff, but there are some profound things in Toynbee's work, which can make you look seriously at who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.

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