Take the 2-minute tour ×
History Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for historians and history buffs. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Toynbee studied history centering his work on the life and death of civilizations.

As Wikipedia says:

Toynbee argued that "Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder." For Toynbee, civilizations were not intangible or unalterable machines but a network of social relationships within the border and therefore subject to both wise and unwise decisions they made.

Toynbee said:

Of the twenty or so civilizations known to modern Western historians, all except our own appear to be dead or moribund, and, when we diagnose each case, in extremis or post mortem, we invariably find that the cause of death has been either War or Class or some combination of the two. To date, these two plagues have been deadly enough, in partnership, to kill off nineteen out of twenty representatives of this recently evolved species of human society; but, up to now, the deadliness of these scourges has had a saving limit.

A lot of changed since he passed away, and when he was alive was at the time of Cold War, and he didn't see the fall of Soviet Empire and we don't know how would have interpreted the times that followed.

So is there a student of Toynbee that discuses his legacy and what would be his conclusions about the current state and fate of Western Civilisation on which of Toynbee stages is? Are we in the Universal State stage? Have we entered the Breakdown/Disintegration phase?

share|improve this question
2  
I'm having trouble understanding what you're asking. –  American Luke Sep 8 '12 at 0:55
    
@Luke I understand why I made a few mistakes and omissions, I am not a native English writer/speaker, I edit it, if you don't understand please tell me what and I will try to rephrase it. –  Eduard Florinescu Sep 8 '12 at 7:09
    
Thanks. I understand better now. –  American Luke Sep 8 '12 at 12:59
1  
Rather myopic of him, I think, to pronounce all civilizations save the West as dead or moribund. –  Felix Goldberg Jul 31 '13 at 15:05

2 Answers 2

up vote 9 down vote accepted
+100

While not a student of Toynbee AFAIK, Carroll Quigley worked from Toynbee's theories in The Evolution of Civilizations with a lengthy discussion of the state of Western Civilization. This was written in 1961 with a second edition in 1979, so also predated the end of the Cold War. However he made some predictions for what stage Western Civilization is in that might be of interest.

He observed that while most other civilizations followed the path of growth to empire and then to inevitable decay, Western Civilization has differed in that it has "gone to the brink" of empire multiple times only to shift itself back into expansion. He draws the following periods for Western Civilization:

  1. Mixture (370-750 AD) Grecoroman + Christianity + "Barbarian"
  2. Gestation (750-970)
  3. Expansion (970-1270) Feudal system, guild economics
  4. Conflict (1270-1440) Hundred Years' War and economic institutionalism
  5. Expansion II (1440-1650) Renaissance, commercial capitalism
  6. Conflict II - (1650-1730) Imperialist wars, class conflict
  7. Expansion III - (1730-1890) Industrial revolution, financial capitalism
  8. Conflict III - (1890-??)

He ends his book leaving #8/9 an open question:

At the present time it is too early to judge if the present crisis of Western civilization will resolve itself into a new, fourth Age of Expansion, or will continue through an Age of Conflict to a universal empire and ultimately to decay and invasion.

I think Quigley's treatment of the 20th century is a bit weak; he was in the midst of it when he wrote his book, and of course could not see the outcomes of the things he worried about. However, to carry his thinking forward we might complete the table with:

8 Conflict III - (1890-1945) World Wars
9 Expansion IV - (1945-?) Information revolution, globalist capitalism

Quigley's definition of a Stage of Expansion are (a) increased production of goods; (b) increase in population; (c) increase in geographical extent through exploration and colonization; (d) increase in knowledge. I think we can safely say the 2nd half of the 20th century has fulfilled all of these (with space exploration sort of satisfying (c)).

His alternative was that Conflict III would be followed by an Age of Universal Empire. The requirements for such a period are (a) Political domination by a single state (the USA in this case), (b) universal peace and (apparent) prosperity, (c) little economic expansion, (d) no new inventions, (e) vested interests have triumphed and waste capital building blatant monuments.

I think at the end of WWII there was a window of opportunity where the USA could potentially have taken direct control over much of Europe and East Asia, and if so we might have seen something like that. But instead it rebuilt those countries into independent democracies and allowed them to pursue their own economic growth and new inventions, and invested its peace dividend into education, the space race, various wars, creating the Internet, etc.

Where are we right now? Are we still in a growth phase? One could argue that 9/11/2001 marked a turning point into an Age of Conflict, what with the wars in the Middle East. Economically we certainly seem to be on shaky ground, with class conflict and irrationality in politics - all characteristic of Conflict. Further, you could argue the growing dominance of multinational corporations across all aspects of society, including food, materials, journalism, and even the military represents an institutionalization of our instrument of expansion; a pre-condition for Quigley's Conflict period. The recent bubble collapse has left many in the situation of leaving less to their children than they themselves started with; another Quigley pre-condition for Conflict. We're investing less in education, leaving future generations with fewer tools to ensure continued growth. Global warming is disrupting food production in the near term, and drinking water supply in the long term. Wealth is more concentrated in a smaller percentage of people, and that wealth is increasingly locked up in unproductive savings rather than being re-invested.

But it's possible these things just seem dire due to their proximity to us. Recent wars haven't been for territorial expansion, as would be the case with traditional imperialist warfare, and haven't been the civilization-wide struggles that the world wars were. It seems like we get about 100 years of expansion between Conflicts, so what we're seeing today may be just precursors of what's to come in a few more decades. More optimistically we could consider the significant discoveries and developments with solar power, natural gas fracking, robotics, and genetics as promising new avenues of growth for our future; if we can accelerate those developments maybe it'll push us back more deeply into growth.

It'll probably become clearer in a couple hundred years.

share|improve this answer

I don't know about their individual academic careers in relation to Toynbee's, but the following excerpt from a recent article in The Economist points to some relevant authors (Jared Diamond would also seem to fit):

Oswald Spengler started the trend in 1918. “The Decline of the West” was the first notable book to theorise about the rise and fall of empires. Mr Spengler was followed by Arnold Toynbee, Paul Kennedy and, most recently, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson with their 2012 work, “Why Nations Fail”.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.