Toynbee and the Enlightenment

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.

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14 Responses to Toynbee and the Enlightenment

  1. rickkoster says:

    … and after Freud we don’t even have a centralised ego that we can grasp hold of … just a superego bossing around an unknowable id with a pathetic ego trying to mediate between the two …


  2. ” Religion simply isn’t a problem for me, because I have no need for it,”

    Have you replaced religion by something else like an ideology or secular cause etc.? What is your worldview?


  3. What is your worldview?


  4. O.K.
    Do you think that reality is objective or subjective?


    • leewatkins says:

      By definition “reality” means “objective.” But the way we perceive reality — the way reality is consitituted for us — is subjective. So it’s both: objective and subjective.

      Are we still on the subject of “worldview”? If so I suppose you can put me down as a Kantian on this question.

      What do you think?

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Thank you for your answers. I am extremely impressed by Kant’s Transcendental Idealism.
    What are your thoughts about what Kant calls thing in itself?


    • leewatkins says:

      Oh I don’t know, what did you have in mind? I think there are at least 2 senses of “thing in itself” in Kant, aren’t there? It’s been a little while since I read the 1st Critique


  6. When I asked you, “Do you think that reality is objective or subjective?”
    This is not a very good question. Please excuse me for asking it. I understand that it should not have been asked in this form.


  7. I am glad I found your blog. Your writing is fascinating. I haven’t heard of Toynbee though this perspective and philosophy is not new to me. I’ll have to add this to my list of reads!

    I look at the world and I see much I don’t want to deal with. I go inside myself. I realized I cannot change anyone, I cannot teach anyone, etc. Ram Dass clanged a Bell in my head with his words, “you think you can help someone? That’s your ego. Help yourself” to this end: I can speak intelligently and inspiringly about that which I am passionate and educated on. This may motivate others, it may not. It is far more worthwhile to figure my own stuff out, and stop projecting on others and really detach as much as I can from the polarity of everything. It is all a process, to me. If I’m chasing pleasure, I’m equally inviting pain. How do I know one without the other? I look at the chaos now, and I figure, it’s process. It’s many people being too attached to a broken system that’s really an illusion of control. Naturally, that will sting! It caught up with me a few years ago, and I finally saw I was driving myself quite literally insane. Now, I just work on me and find the beauty in everything. Whatever that even means. As you said previously, words are such blunt tools. It’s quite like catching water in a sieve putting non tangibles into tangibles.

    Liked by 1 person

    • leewatkins says:

      Thanks for your comment! I’ve been reading your blog too and I like it a lot.

      I’ve been reading your post about silence and thinking. I think you’re right: it’s about getting away from the noise. I’m really interested in the possibilities of non-verbal forms of thinking and communication that seem to be opened up by Alfred Korzysbki and William Burroughs. I think Burroughs achieved this in places in his writing, using words to make pictures instead of sentences.

      Best of luck with your enquiries! I’m glad I found your blog too, and I’ll keep checking back.

      Liked by 1 person

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