A Study of History

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A Study of History is the 12-volume work of British historian Arnold J. Toynbee, written between 1927 and 1953. It is said to be the longest written work ever composed by a single author in the English language. In it he traces the birth, growth and breakdown, and disintegration of some 21 to 23 major civilizations.


He argues that "self-determining" civilizations are born (out of more primitive societies), not due to racial or environmental factors, but as a response to challenges, such as hard country, new ground, blows and pressures from other civilizations, and penalizations. He argues that for civilizations to be born, the challenge must be a golden mean; that excessive challenge will crush the civilization, and too little challenge will cause it to stagnate.

He argues that civilizations continue to grow when they meet one challenge only to be followed by another. In 1939 Toynbee wrote 'the challenge of being called upon to create a political world-order, the framework for an economic world-order...now confronts our Modern Western society' [1]. He argues that civilizations develop in different ways due to their different environment and different approaches to the challenges they face. He argues that growth is driven by "Creative Minorities," who find solutions to the challenges, which others then follow by example, called mimesis, i.e. miming.


He argues that the breakdown of civilizations is not caused by loss of control over the environment, over the human environment, or attacks from outside. Rather, it comes from the deterioration of the "Creative Minority," (entrepreneurs) which eventually ceases to be creative and degenerates into merely a "Dominant Minority" (elitism or oligarchs).

Creative minorities are society's problem solvers, those who address society's challenges, and find solutions. The great mass of society, incapable of finding these solutions themselves, follow by mimesis, or imitation. In doing do so the civilization progresses through its growth stages. Once the civilization's creative minority rests on its laurels, it becomes merely a dominant minority, and the civilization enters its breakdown phase.

He argues that creative minorities deteriorate due to a worship of their "former self," by which they become prideful, and fail to adequately address the next challenge they face.

Universal State

He argues that the ultimate sign a civilization has broken down is when the dominant minority forms a "Universal State," which stifles political creativity. He states:

First the Dominant Minority attempts to hold by force—against all right and reason—a position of inherited privilege which it has ceased to merit; and then the Proletariat repays injustice with resentment, fear with hate, and violence with violence when it executes its acts of secession. Yet the whole movement ends in positive acts of creation—and this on the part of all the actors in the tragedy of disintegration. The Dominant Minority creates a universal state, the Internal Proletariat a universal church, and the External Proletariat a bevy of barbarian war-bands".

("Barbarian war-bands" are arguably what we today might call "terrorist groups".)

He argues that, as civilizations decay, they form an "Internal Proletariat" and an "External Proletariat." The Internal protelariat is held in subjugation by the dominant minority inside the civilization, and grows bitter; the external protelariat exists outside the civilization in poverty and chaos, and grows envious. He argues that as civilizations decay, there is a "schism in the body social," whereby:

  • abandon and self-control together replace creativity, and
  • truancy and martyrdom together replace discipleship by the creative minority.

He argues that in this environment, people resort to archaism (idealization of the past), futurism (idealization of the future), detachment (removal of oneself from the realities of a decaying world), and transcendence (meeting the challenges of the decaying civilization with new insight, as a Prophet). He argues that those who Transcend during a period of social decay give birth to a new Church with new and stronger spiritual insights, around which a subsequent civilization may begin to form after the old has died.

Toynbee's use of the word 'church' refers to the collective spiritual bond of a common worship, or the same unity found in some kind of social order.


Many concepts Toynbee discussed become part of the political vocabulary only decades later; here is a sampling of a few:

  • Great Society (1939)
  • régime change (1949)
  • Détente (1952)
  • malaise (1956)

Other writings

  • Civilization on Trial [2]
  • The World and the West


  • McNeill, William H. Arnold J. Toynbee a Life (1989)
  • Ashley Montagu, M. F. Toynbee and History: Critical Essays and Reviews (1956) online edition

Primary sources

See also

External links