San José State University
Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley
& Tornado Alley

Arnold Toynbee on Civilizations and Religions

The British historian, Arnold Toynbee, formulated a complex theory of the growth and demise of civilizations. Toynbee argues that the history of a nations can only be understood in the context of the broader civilization of the nation is a part. Of the twenty three distinct civilizations Toynbee identifies, sixteen are dead and gone. Of the seven currently existing civilizations all but one, Western European Christendom, have broken down and are no longer growing. It is to be emphasized that a civilization is pattern of culture and a system of institutions rather than a racial or ethnic group.

A society, according to Toynbee, develops into a civilization when it is confronted with a challenge which it successfully meets in such a way as to lead it on to further challenges. The challenge may be a difficult climate, a new land, or a military confrontation (even being conquered). The challenge must not be so difficult as to be insurmountable or even so difficult that the society does not have sufficient human resources and energy to take on new challenges.

Toynbee believes that the ideas and methods for meeting the challenges for a society come from a creative minority. The ideas and methods developed by the creative minority are copied by the majority. Thus there are two essential and separate steps in meeting a challenge: the generation of ideas and the imitation/adoption of those ideas by the majority. If either of those two processes ceases to function then the civilization breaks down.

If the creative minority fails to command the respect of the majority through the brilliance and rightness of their solutions to the problems and challenges of the society then the minority becomes merely a dominant minority. In the breakdown of a civilization the society splits into three parts: the dominant minority, the internal proletariat (the working masses which are part of the civilization) and the external proletariat (the masses which are influenced by the civilization but are not controlled by it.

The disintegration of a civilization involves a time of troubles, such as a time of wars between the nations which are parts of the civilization. This time of troubles is followed by the establishment of a universal state, an empire. The existence of a universal state such as the Roman Empire is evidence that the civilization has broken down.

Ultimately the universal state collapses and there follows an interregnum in which the internal proletariat creates a universal religion and the external proletariat becomes involved in a Volkerwanderung, a migration of peoples.

The universal religion and its philosophy are usually borrowed from an alien civilization. The development of the new religion reflects an attempt by the people of the internal proletariat to escape the unbearable present by looking to the past, the future (utopias) and to other cultures for solutions. The religion eventually becomes the basis for the development of a new civilization. Religion amounts to a cultural glue which holds the civilization together. There is thus a close relationship between religions and civilizations.

HOME PAGE OF Thayer Watkins