Spengler and Toynbee

Historian and political scientist, OWEN LATTIMORE is Director of the Page School of International Relations at the Johns Hopkins University. A native of one of Toynbee’s Civilizations. the Western, he is also naturalized in two others, that of China and that of the Steppe Nomads. He is one of the recognized authorities on the borderline between China and Russia, and his volumes of history and travel — Desert Road to Turkestan, Inner Asian Frontiers of China, and Mongol Journeys — afford him the perspective with which to appraise those two far-ranging historians of our time, Spengler and Toynbee.


IT is now somewhat more than a quarter of a century since there appeared in the weekly Literary Supplement of the Times of London a review of Spengler’s Decline of the West, which had then been recently published in Germany and had not yet been translated into English. It was unsigned. It conveyed authority by masterly deployment of knowledge and by the revelation of an insight at once delicate and sharp.
There were at least four notable things about that review. It was of such a quality that one reader at least remembers it vividly after more than a quarter of a century. It was, by indirection, an acute comment on the supposed “unity of Western culture,” for it demonstrated that when an important and difficult new work is published in one of the Western languages, it does not in fact become at once the property of any entire “Western community.” It is at first read, outside the language realm of its initial publication, only by that very tiny minority which habitually reads for new ideas in a foreign language.
A third notable thing about that review of Spengler is that it was a comment, from the point of view of the early years after the world crisis of 19141918, on an attempted philosophy of world history which was not written from the then “post-war” point of view, but from the point of view of a philosopher of history who was overtaken by the First World War.
The fourth notable thing about that early review of Spengler is that it was by Arnold J. Toynbee: just as Spengler, in his attempt to scale the heights of a philosophy of world history, was overtaken by the First World War, so Toynbee, in his attempt to scale the same peak from a different but comparable approach, was overtaken by the Second World War.
Toynbee’s work, still incomplete, has now attained the sixth volume. In one large volume D. C. Somervell has made a skillful condensation of these six volumes. Masterly in its preservation of the relative proportions of the original, it has now been a steady best-seller for about a year. The original edition had a major impact, on the Anglo-Saxon world; the one-volume condensation has greatly widened that impact; but it will be years before the work of Toynbee, through translation, attains its maximum dissemination throughout the “community of Western culture” which Toynbee represents.
The Somervell condensation shows the structure of Toynbee’s thought like a tree in winter. It strips away from the six volumes that amplitude of detail and endlessly fascinating richness of illustration which, like foliage, has its own beauty but hides the severer beauty of structure.
Spengler dealt in a comparative “morphology” of cultures, each with its growth-periods of youth, maturity, and decay. Toynbee, specifically rejecting much of Spengler, adopts the different but still comparable concept of “contemporaneousness.” For him, the proper unit of history is neither a land nor a people, but an identifiable culture or civilization. The development of a culture is a phenomenon of growth; therefore, when comparable stages of growth can be identified in two or more civilizations, however far apart in time, they are in a philosophical sense “contemporary” with each other.
To the mysteries of growth Toynbee devotes much of his most austere and subtle thought; but, like Spengler, he cannot contemplate growth without being haunted by the specters of decay and death. The minds of both men turn, in the end, away from the factual and the material and toward the mystic. Spengler’s terminal concept was that of the Roman sentry at Pompeii, standing at his post, waiting to be overwhelmed by the inexorable lava. Toynbee’s ultimate vision of what the record of the past implies for the divination of the future has not been fully unveiled (several volumes of the full edition of A Study of History are yet to come); but his pessimism is tempered by a strong cast of religious mysticism.
For most readers of history the greatest immediate value of Toynbee is in his classification and dissection of the examples of history. The full wealth of what he has to display must be sought in the big edition. Here an import ant distinction is to be made between the material with which Toynbee works and the structure that he builds out of it. In dealing with many historical periods, and many phenomena of society, geography, or economics, Toynbee’s architectural design is much better than his building material.
The unevenness of the building material must be referred to a problem which is of major concern to all modern scholarship. Toynbee’s erudition makes him a towering individual; but even the loftiest individual stature is no longer able to dominate the whole field of scholarship. The fund of knowledge is today so great that no one man can hope to attain equal authority in all fields and for all periods of history. Inevitably, we shall bring to greater perfection the new technique under which wide-ranging studies are carried out by teams of scholars who first divide up the assignment and then, bringing the results together, endeavor to combine them in the proportions and with the elegance that we demand from the individual scholar. We do not yet have examples of collective scholarship that are convincingly great in art as well as knowledge. Toynbee, on the other hand, is convincingly great, especially as a maker of literature; but coming in the last generation of one kind of greatness, he also inevitably exposes in his work the weaknesses of individual greatness.
The chief of these weaknesses is that his inability, as an individual, to master all the primary sources constrains him to rely on secondary sources; and dependence on secondary sources implies loss of an absolutely sure touch in distinguishing between the best secondary authority and an inferior authority, or in discriminating between the strong and weak points of a secondary authority who is on the whole good. One of the foredoomed limitations of scholarship, unfortunately, is that when a bold and adventurous thinker like Toynbee takes over not only the facts but the ideas of a secondary authority, and projects them further, the projection is apt to reveal the flaws and weaknesses of the adopted ideas more than it enhances their strength.
An example is Toynbee’s projection of some of the ideas of the late Ellsworth Huntington — already sufficiently exaggerated by Huntington himself — into even more exaggerated interpretations of the part played by climate and environment in the evolution of the steppe nomadic society and as a cause of migration and war. In the case of the steppe nomads Toynbee’s presentation of “the challenge of the hard environment” is itself wide open to challenge; and I suspect that this is true, to a lesser extent, of his interpretation of Eskimo history. Certainly, in the case of the nomads, the transition from marginal farming to the herding of livestock has not usually been the result of the “challenge” of climatic desiccation. Rather, it has been the result sometimes of the discovery and sometimes of the imitation of a new technique. The new technique was not usually regarded, by the people who adopted it, as the answer to a difficult challenge but rather as a wonderful emancipation, making free men out of drudges.
For the American reader, however, there is one special balm in Toynbee’s reliance on secondary authorities. He is far more generous in citing learned and half-learned Americans than is the usual European, who continues to be much better documented on American ignorance than on American scholarship. Thus the American reader, led by Toynbee into novel realms of thought and speculation, is reassured from time to time by crossing the trail of an American pathfinder — even though some of these Americans are, in simple truth, Jess than Eagle Scouts in their profession, and get precious little fire out of the dry sticks they rub together.
The Somervell abridgment heightens — perhaps too much — one curious impression that grows on the devoted reader of Toynbee. The pattern of straight-line, Darwinian evolutionary thinking to which our generation of the Western culture is heir is largely abandoned by Toynbee, who in his experiments with method ventures far out on the frontiers of the twentieth century, though never losing touch with his points of departure in the Middle Ages and in Roman, Greek, and Judean (or Syriac) antiquity. To a surprising extent many of Toynbee’s intellectual devices for measuring both growth and disintegration, such as the dominant minority, the internal and external proletariat, withdrawal-and-return, the impact of new forces on old institutions, “schism in the soul,” or alternative active and passive substitutes for old ways of behavior, and in general his concept of the relation between society and the individual, are markedly dialectical — quite as dialectical as Marxism, although his trend toward religious mysticism is utterly un-Marxist.
This leaning toward a para-Marxist methodology as a means of progression toward non-Marxist conclusions suggests one more comparison bet ween Spengler and Toynbee. Spongier could not stomach Hitler the man, though his personal pessimism was close to the mood of German pessimism in which Hitlerian Fascism was gestated. It may not be the whole truth, but it certainly overlaps the truth, to say that Spenglerism is a Fascism for non-Fascists. Does it to the same extent touch or overlap the truth to describe the philosophy of Toynbee as a dialectic for non-Marxists?