Stone's Reviews > A Study of History

A Study of History by Arnold Joseph Toynbee
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bookshelves: world-history, history
Recommended for: All history students and aficionado

Toynbee's A Study of History is one of those voluminous treatises that I simply can't think of any specific points to include in my review, for the book itself already includes virtually everything worth consideration within the field of study. The topics in which this book concerned were on the cultural level of civilizations and on the spatiotemporal level of the globe in millennia. The main parts of discussion were divided into three sections: concerning peace, war, and confrontation between civilizations, while for each individual civilization four phases of its lifespan are primary targets of concern: genesis, growth, breakdown, and disintegration. In my review, instead of detailing and paraphrasing the words of Toynbee, I would simply focus on a few interesting ideas/assertions from the book and talk a little bit about my personal understandings regarding these ideas.

First is the idea of substituting capacities -- an idea that's no stranger to us, for we apply the same idea to individuals all the time: we tell people with physical disabilities not to lose hope in sports but to explore with their mental capacity, we encourage students who are bad at sitting inside classrooms to pursue careers in outdoor activities. We see this phenomenon in larger entities such as societies and states as well: countries with limited resources often developed alternative sources of profit, with prime examples such as Japan and Singapore. In Toynbee's book, however, he further extended this idea to civilizations with some modifications. As it turned out, civilizations are also capable of developing substituting capacities -- the conquered colonies of the Roman Empire were able to profoundly influence Rome through their prevailing arts and culture (Greek mythology and philosophy, Eastern architecture, and Christianity are all good examples), while the conquered peoples were often able to form more cohesive national identity under oppression (Jews are the best example). As a Chinese, the history of China seems to me another fitting example of substituting capacity: while China was frequently attacked and conquered by nomads, the nomadic culture of the north would always be assimilated into the mainstream Chinese culture. This idea does seem quite convincing, although I do have some doubts because we see many counterexamples in history, too. Not all those conquered nations were able to rise up on a different battlefield and subjugate their master culturally, and not all those conquered peoples were able to repel the suppression and rejuvenate after centuries of diasporas. There are certainly merits in Toynbee's theory, but the interesting thing about history is that there is never a definite rule of thumb that would always work.

Another very thought-provoking statement in the book was that technological advances were results, instead of causes of the development of civilizations. A converse of this statement goes, the lag in technological development is an indication of the decline of civilization. Toynbee used the "All roads lead to Rome" example -- which was not an exaggeration of Roman transportation at its pinnacle, but as the imperial power declined and centralized government faded away, warlords and local kings built passes and outposts all around their territories, essentially destroying the old Roman road system and leading to the Dark Ages. Again, as a Chinese, this inevitably reminded me of the decline of Chinese civilization in the later imperial periods -- the stagnation in technological breakthroughs wasn't a reason for China's decline, it was a precursor to it. The reason I find this way of thinking important is because that we often invert causes and effects, moreover we also mix causal relations with random occurrences; a right way of looking at history involves correctly analyzing the relations between various historical events.

Last but not least, I would like to quickly touch on futurism -- a topic Toynbee spent quite some chapters on. Futurism, in a historical sense, can refer to anything that seeks to cut the ties to the past and traditions and focus solely on tomorrow. This stream of thoughts often caused intense social conflicts and resulted in neither a continuation of the status quo nor a world without any traces of the past. Qin Shi Huang's political and cultural unification of China is a prime example of the effects of futurism; the radical policies of burning all the classics and massacring scholars possessing unwanted knowledge turned out to be ineffective and harmful, eventually contributing to Qin's quick downfall. Byzantine's Leo III initiated iconoclasm for purer religions, but only infuriated his Christian neighbors and further caused damages to his empire. Beyond the definition of futurism, I'd argue that any civilization under the guidance of idealism is destined to fall, for history is never a construction of human ideals and reasons.

As aforementioned, A Study of History is a voluminous treatise and certainly requires a much longer period of time for digesting the contents than simply reading through the pages. I will almost certainly come back in the future and seek new understandings.

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Reading Progress

September 3, 2017 – Shelved
September 3, 2017 – Shelved as: to-read
September 3, 2017 – Shelved as: world-history
September 3, 2017 – Shelved as: history
September 4, 2017 – Started Reading
September 10, 2017 – Finished Reading

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