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 Civilization on which of Toynbee stages is? Are we in the Universal State stage? Have we entered the Breakdown/Disintegration phase?

  • 3
    I'm having trouble understanding what you're asking.
    – Luke_0
    Sep 8, 2012 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. Sep 8, 2012 at 7:09
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    Rather myopic of him, I think, to pronounce all civilizations save the West as dead or moribund. Jul 31, 2013 at 15:05
  • 1
    This may be of interest to you: thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2014/07/…
    – kubanczyk
    Mar 2, 2015 at 10:52

3 Answers 3


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) Viking raids, petty kingdoms
  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.

At the end of the Cold War, there did seem to be a worry the USA would become the dominant political state, and certainly from a military perspective the US has been a major player. But the EU, Russia, China, and really all the rest of the world are hardly showing signs of being "dominated".

The second condition, universal peace, I would actually argue is being realized. Toynbee would restrict his judgement to areas within the borders of so-called 'Western civilization'; if we restrict our view to the traditional 'Western civilization' boundaries we'd see there's been a few regional conflicts but nothing major for a long time. And even broadening the scope to the global picture, while there are some serious conflicts going on in places like the Middle East and Africa, placed in historical context even these seem not exceptionally abnormal.

The third and fourth conditions, economic expansion and new inventions, are where our situation is clearest. Both are on a tear by any measure. Innovations like personal computing, Wikipedia, drones, p2p file sharing, and robotics have fundamentally challenged and changed how we work as a civilization. And I think we're far from seeing the last of these sorts of changes.

The final condition has to do with wasteful monuments. I do think we as a civilization waste a huge amount of our economic resources and potential chasing achievements that merely seek self-reaffirmation. But we're far from the type of civilization-wide uber-monuments that Toynbee had in mind.

So, 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, community gardening, open source computing, robotics, co-operatives, desktop manufacturing 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. ;-)

We need to also take into consideration that Quigley's thinking and writing was occurring in the 1950's and may be reflecting some of the strong pro-West biases and nuclear obliteration fears of the time into his theories. Did he feel the same at the end of his life in 1977? Would he hold this theory today in 2014? And most importantly, what do we think of all this here today?

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    My, those divisions into "Conflict" and "Expansion" sure are arbitrary. The Napoleonic Wars are not a conflict? Nor the 30 years war that devastated Germany? And Gestation was when the Vikings were smashing the West. I agree that civs often show a life-cycle after the fact. But it isn't as simple as this.
    – Oldcat
    Oct 23, 2014 at 17:15
  • As I alluded to in the post, I've tried to wrap my brain around current events using Quigley's divisions and as you say, it just isn't so simple. Also, there is strong prejudice towards Western Civilization over other cultures and other times, which is almost certainly being overvalued.
    – Bryce
    Nov 26, 2014 at 7:46
  • Of perhaps no relevance, but at least interesting to note is that later in his life, Quigley's research focused more heavily on secret societies, to the degree that he's a heavily used source for various conspiracy theorists.
    – Bryce
    Nov 26, 2014 at 8:24
  • "It'll probably become clearer in a couple hundred years. ;-)" I think it will already be clearer in 50-80 years. After all, you could safely put the end of #8 to 1945, less than 70 years after that event.
    – o0'.
    Nov 26, 2014 at 10:53

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”.


I. There is no western civilization. It has split into the North American and European. This is manifest in that these two related civilizations have encountered different challenges in the past 200 years, and have responded in different ways to some shared challenges. An example are responses to the shared challenge of the social impact of industrialization. Europe responded with unionization and the welfare state. North America responded with tempered unionization coupled with emphasis on productivity.

II. The North American civilization is still able to find creative responses to challenges it faces. To name two, it is able to turn immigration into an advantage, and it is able to successfully deal with the global economic crisis. It is therefore not approaching disintegration.

III. The European civilization is manifestly unable to come up with creative responses to challenges presented. It is unable to turn immigration into an advantage; it is a burgeoning challenge where a response is conspicuously lacking. The economic crisis shows no sign of abating. The European response is to throw money at it. This response is repeated despite being shown to be ineffective. It remains to be seen what the future brings. If a response to the immigration problem is finally presented it will probably be a forceful one, with the potential to either return Europe to the rhythm of challenge-and-response or to seriously injure the body politic, harming future chances of creative responses.

IV. The EU is an attempt at creating a universal state. It appears to be failing. If the attempt indeed fails, it may be a blessing in disguise, or it may lead to a new Time of Troubles.

V. The European civilization has already been through a Time of Troubles (1338-1945), an exceptionally long and destructive one. Yet this was followed by the exceptionally creative response of the creation of natural science. This may even be said uniquely to have partially reversed a Breakdown.

VI. The European civilization is in grave peril. Symptoms of impending dissolution are present. Yet its resilience and adaptability has been shown to be very great. It is therefore too early to write it off. The advantage bought with natural science is rapidly disappearing. If it falters it will probably be completely destroyed, given the hostile forces present on its periphery.

  • The EU is an attempt at creating a universal state. It appears to be failing. No, it's not an attempt at a universal state. That's the UN, which is going pretty strong. The European civilization is in grave peril. From what? Things are going pretty well. Sure, there have been relatively small-scale economic issues (e.g. Greece), but Europe hasn't been hit as extremely hard by financial woes as you make it seem. =
    – HDE 226868
    Feb 28, 2015 at 0:25
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    Also, this doesn't answer the "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 Civilization on which of Toynbee stages is?" These are just your own views.
    – HDE 226868
    Feb 28, 2015 at 0:26

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