Friday, April 06, 2007


Where are we According to Toynbee's Theory on Declining Civilisations?

Arnold Toynbee(pictured and grandfather of Polly) has always intrigued me with his theory of how civilizations emerge, mature and then fade. He based his theory on intensive study of no less than 23 civilizations. I'm far from sure the author of the twelve volume A Study of History would agree that the author of Charlemagne in the current Economist has accurately summed up his masterful thesis in one (admittedly long) sentence. But I think it's worth a brief discussion anyway:

Civilizations proceed... from bondage to spiritual faith; from spiritual faith to to courage; from courage to liberty; from liberty to abundance; from abundance to selfishness; from selfishness to apathy; from apathy to to dependency; and from dependency back to bondage.'

Where abouts then, are we -as part of western civilization- on this on this trajectory? Well, you decide, but it seems to me we must be somewhere in the 'abundance-selfishness-apathy' stage. We have abundance for sure- witness the total abandonment of repair as a practice in favour of 'buy new'; we have selfishness big time- look at those City bonuses or the self indulgent obscenities being revealed by the trial of Conrad Black; and we do have apathy as evidenced by turnout in the last two elections and by any conversation about politics with most people younger than twenty. Should we be worried? I'm sorry to add another layer to the ones we have concerning global warming, terrorism and the rest, but I fear the answer must be at least, 'probably'.

However, a ray of light is offered. Unlike Oswald Spengler who believed civilizations rose and fell according an immutable cycle, Toynbee believed civilizations always had a chance to overcome their challenges: 'Civilizations die from suicide not by murder.' So it's up to us to overcome all those challenges. For those who might be interested but intimidated by the thought of twelve volumes(I have the two volume abridged version), a fuller and more accurate analysis of Toynbee's theory can be found here. My own view is that these wonderful theories take insufficient account of external factors like climate, which did for the Mayans for example. Jared Diamond's book, Collapse(2005) provides a fascinating analysis of such endings of civilizations.

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