Arnold J Toynbee has some bad news in Volume VI of his A Study of History: Western civilisation is showing all the signs of being in its final decline.
Civilisations decline when they fail to respond to challenges they face. History has “rhythms”, and the whole of Toynbee’s Study has been an attempt to give names to these rhythms: “challenge-and-response”, “withdrawal-and-return”, “rout-and-rally”, and so on. History is only made where its rhythms persist, where challenge is met with response, where withdrawal is followed by return. If Western civilisation cannot respond to its challenges, or withdraws into itself never to return, is routed never to rally, then it will be replaced by some other power, and the march of History will continue without it.
For example, Toynbee points to the Enlightenment as an inadequate response to a challenge. From the 18th Century onwards there has been an accelerating decline of religion, the glue that – Toynbee believes – holds society together. The West’s big response to this crisis was the Enlightenment, which attempted to unify the disillusion already prevalent in society into a new world view that championed reason and science and left faith to one side. As a result, the decline of religion – decline of belief in faith, hope, and charity – was allowed to continue, reinforced by the new movement. The challenge of the decline of religion was never properly met, and as a result Western society has been in decline ever since.
Toynbee’s view is strange to me, since I’ve always been taught of the centrality of faith, hope, and charity in Enlightenment thinking. Immanuel Kant and many of his followers emphasise the importance of faith alongside scientific enquiry, they and other thinkers stress the hope that science and critical thinking brings for humanity, and the Enlightenment brings with it new humanisms and liberalisms that put the needs of the poor at the centre of political thinking. I can’t think how any more “religion” at the heart of the Enlightenment project could have made the response a better one.
But perhaps that is exactly the point. I cannot think of a better response than the Enlightenment because it has already done its work, and I already live in a (disintegrating) society largely devoid of religion. I can’t imagine what new religion might have arisen to replace the failing Christianities that emerged both from Rome and the Reformation, because to imagine such a new religion would have been a huge creative act, far beyond the powers of one like me who – on most days at least – blithely accepts the non-existence of God. Religion simply isn’t a problem for me, because I have no need for it, living as I do in the ruins of Western civilisation.
And this is what makes Toynbee intriguing to me: his suggestion that History has shaped the imagination of the individual, determined which possibilities are within our grasp, and, conversely, what possible worlds lie outside our field of vision. Having finished reading Toynbee’s Study, I’m left with an eerie doubt that we might not live in the best of all possible worlds, and that the solutions to our problems might forever elude us, for as long as our civilisation lives.