The Challenge

I’ve been reading Arnold J. Toynbee’s A Study of History, in an abridgement put together by one D.C. Somervell. I understand that his influence is not today what it was during the middle of the 20th Century. The scientific approach to history, the attempt to break down historical eras into quantifiable segments through which all histories must pass, seems antiquated today, and understandably so. One could almost equate him with Marx, who also tried to understand the course of history in scientifically deterministic terms.

Toynbee, however, doesn’t seem so much interested in determining what the future will be as he is in analyzing the past, and here he can be very instructive, especially when we think of the currents of politics and social movements of today.

Take this insight on civil(ization) disintegration, for instance: …the qualitative effect of disintegration is standardization… By which I understand standardization to mean an effort to hold civilization to a pattern already established by its past, to freeze a culture like a dragonfly in amber (to quote a popular book title), to Make America Great Again (to quote someone entirely different). This effort inevitably results in a horizontal schism within the culture itself, as the dominant minority attempts to hold by force the privileged position that it has ceased to merit. Then the proletariat repays injustice with resentment, fear with hate, violence with violence.

Toynbee quotes another historian, Thomas Babington Macaulay:

The spirit of the two most famous nations of antiquity was remarkably exclusive …The fact seems to be that the Greeks admired only themselves, and the Romans admired only themselves and the Greeks…The effect was narrowness and sameness of thought…[Which seems to his mind similar to] the people of that Celestial Empire (the Chinese) where, during many centuries, nothing has been learned or unlearned; where government, where education, where the whole system of life is a ceremony; where knowledge forgets to increase and multiply, and … experiences neither waste nor augmentation.”

Macaulay had more than a few questionable notions which, had he read his own thesis, he might have amended, but I digress.

Toynbee can be a bit tough to get through, as he examines civilizations we rarely hear of anymore and cites long-forgotten bits of history as examples to prove his thesis. And yet, all through the book (I am not yet finished with it; he is most digestible in small bites) I find bits and pieces of insight that I can use to describe some of the currents swirling around us today.

If Toynbee has one constant theme, it is that civilizations rise and fall in a series of incidents we can call challenge and response. So it is now that we face the challenge of a Trump presidency that seeks to preserve a moment in history that exists only in the imagination, admiring only the national self that existed at that fictional moment and seeking to deny entry to anyone or anything that might challenge the illusion. Climate change? Deny it and do nothing. Immigration? Deny entry and refuse the new infusion of energy. Health care? Education? Promote a citizenry healthy and educated enough to participate actively in the culture? Not if it involves change. Not if it strays in any way from our “original” imaginary template.

These are all indications of a failing civilization, according to Toynbee. Not the issues themselves, but the failure to respond. The failure of creativity. The insistence on going backward and the fear of going forward.

Climate change is upon us; immigration will either contribute to our energy and growth or it will desert us and give that contribution elsewhere; health care and education will either find ways to flourish for all of us, or we will become a nation of ignorant ninety-pound weaklings lying on the beaches of history with sand in our eyes.

I was immediately struck by a quote early in the first volume: When once the waters met, it was impossible that they should not mingle… The clash of civilization isn’t between East and West. It’s between ourselves. We don’t meet each other, and we certainly don’t mingle. If “my side” can insist that “their side” meet and mingle with immigrants, maybe we could at least agree to meet and mingle with each other, and yet judging from Facebook posts from friends making their dutiful summer visits to relatives on the "other side," that response seems to be as difficult as solving climate change.

These past years have brought us a variety of challenges. The future, if Toynbee is to be believed, lies in our responses. Nothing's for certain. Our era isn't in the history books yet.