The Inspiration of Amateur Historians

Though Toynbee included 12 volumes in him monumental “A Study of History” panorama, in many ways it was volume 10 that should serve as a fitting conclusion.  It only has about 150 pages of straight text with a few appendices and a long and needed index to the previous nine volumes, but these few pages reveal a lot about Toynbee personally, as well as his philosophy of history.

If I said that this volume serves as a “defense” of his ideas that might give the impression that the book has a didactic tone.  Part of the charm of this volume for me, however, is that here Toynbee “let’s himself go” and speaks with passion from “the heart.”  But rest assured the book contains Toynbee’s patented magic, as even in the first few pages we see him seamlessly weave in his grand view of history with personal recollections and observations about changes in women’s headgear in Victorian England and its similarities to fashion in Turkey during the 1920’s.

I can understand people disagreeing with aspects of Toynbee’s system.  But forget his system — doesn’t this sound like fun?

His main arguments. . .

  • A historian’s proper vocation (as is the case in other vocations) is to receive and act on a call from God, to “feel after Him and find Him” (Acts 17:27).  There are as many “angles of vision” as exist proper vocations.  Historians have no monopoly on this vocation, nor any greater vision per se.  But, he has a task nonetheless.
  • Given that each historian should have a spiritual calling, a good historian is accountable in his studies to God and His mission.  Since God aims to unite all of humanity under Him, the historian should attempt to unite various fields of inquiry and present them to the public.
  • This leads to Toynbee explaining his dislike of the historian as professional specialist.  The “professional specialist” spends his time in one small corner of inquiry.  He pursues not true knowledge but an impossible omniscience, and whatever knowledge he gains will not have life and can never become wisdom.  The professional disdains “popular” action in the world, and this pose wears a humble mask.  In fact, Toynbee asserts, this mask hides “the three deadly sins of Satanic pride, negligence, and sloth.”  No historian will attain perfection or omniscience, but our “best guesses” still have value whatever errors persist in them.  As a pastor once told me, “A moving car is easier to steer than one standing still.”
  • The specialist’s field of inquiry has value, but it is the historian’s calling to put his gains into the broader stream of human knowledge.  He must give life to dead facts by interpreting them in a larger context, for knowledge is never knowledge for its own sake.  The “muse” that calls us to investigation in the first place also calls us to use our knowledge to put humanity in a better position to know God.

DownloadedFileHis admiration for Heinrich Schliemann sticks out noticeably here.  Of all the historians Toynbee admires here (Polybius, Herodotus, and St. Augustine, among them) none of them could be called “professionals.”  But he devotes the most ink to Schliemann, the ultimate amateur.  The reasons for this seeming curiosity point to Toynbee’s larger theory about the nature of history.

Toynbee uses the word “muse” here, but not quite in in a colloquial way, but in fact, in a near literal sense.  For him, the historian’s primary impulse is ultimately spiritual.  He follows the Muse, the Spirit, as He/It leads.  The muses, of course, did not deal with scribes recording tax records, but for those who wrote poetry.  True historical awareness will therefore take poetic form.  Just as love poetry gives expression beyond words, so historians should give expression to reality beyond the mere recording of facts.

Surely in Schliemann then, we find a man “inspired.”  He can truly claim to have founded the modern discipline of archeology.  He discovered Troy (with a great deal of uncredited help from Frank Calvert) and Mycenae, and the professionals who followed him almost to a man disdained his work.  Toynbee neglects to deal with Schliemann’s checkered personal life or his professional errors, but this makes sense.  For Toynbee, what really counts with Schliemann is his inspiration to make the past come alive.

Finally, towards the end of the book Toynbee sheds light on his religious views.  He does the same thing in a more straightforward and polemical way in Experiences, which he wrote about a decade after this, and his views did not change from this volume until then.  I do not agree with his final conclusion in either book, but here his views make more sense to me in the context offered.  That is, I can see how much his “heart” was in his views.

There is much the Christian can affirm along with Toynbee, who argued that

  • Human nature has uniformity throughout history, and this fact must be accepted if history has any meaning.
  • Ultimate reality is spiritual reality, and that spiritual reality is Love.
  • Love expresses itself not in formulas or syllogisms, but in action, hence the historian’s call to action.

So far so good, but alas, he takes these truths and misapplies them.  He rejects all religious dogma, for dogma has nothing of “action” in it (according to him).  Creedal statements for Toynbee smack of the professional, ivory tower scribbler.  But the common man, the man of action knows that God exists, knows that he is loving, and knows that this is all anyone needs.  Any claim to truth beyond this is a claim of omniscience, an attempt to divide rather than unite mankind.

Toynbee’s argument here is hardly new, but he states it with clarity and passion.  He was no cynic,  He did not seek to attack religion, but to promote something “higher.”  It grieves me to disagree so profoundly with someone I greatly admire, but Toynbee here should have brought his brain to accompany his heart.  As Chesterton once said, “You cannot make a success of anything, even loving, without thinking.”  He wrote in Orthodoxy,

The things said most confidently by advanced persons to crowded audiences are generally those quite opposite to the fact; it is actually our truisms that are untrue. Here is a case. There is a phrase of facile liberality uttered again and again at ethical societies and parliaments of religion: “the religions of the earth differ in rites and forms, but they are the same in what they teach.” It is false; it is the opposite of the fact. The religions of the earth do not greatly differ in rites and forms; they do greatly differ in what they teach. It is as if a man were to say, “Do not be misled by the fact that the Church Times and the Freethinker look utterly different, that one is painted on vellum and the other carved on marble, that one is triangular and the other hectagonal; read them and you will see that they say the same thing.” The truth is, of course, that they are alike in everything except in the fact that they don’t say the same thing. An atheist stockbroker in Surbiton looks exactly like a Swedenborgian stockbroker in Wimbledon. You may walk round and round them and subject them to the most personal and offensive study without seeing anything Swedenborgian in the hat or anything particularly godless in the umbrella. It is exactly in their souls that they are divided. So the truth is that the difficulty of all the creeds of the earth is not as alleged in this cheap maxim: that they agree in meaning, but differ in machinery. It is exactly the opposite. They agree in machinery; almost every great religion on earth works with the same external methods, with priests, scriptures, altars, sworn brotherhoods, special feasts. They agree in the mode of teaching; what they differ about is the thing to be taught. Pagan optimists and Eastern pessimists would both have temples, just as Liberals and Tories would both have newspapers. Creeds that exist to destroy each other both have scriptures, just as armies that exist to destroy each other both have guns.

Chesterton is mostly, though not absolutely correct in this.  I would add what C.S. Lewis said, that he would not have believed in Christianity unless it professed some similarities with other religions.  As he came to see it, given the world that God made, how could one not find something true?  But Chesterton’s point has validity when it comes to Toynbee.  I would have loved to ask him a few questions (actually, if I ever had the chance I would probably have been scared silly to ask Toynbee questions, but I will nonetheless live out my fantasy here).
  • You rightly state, Honorable Professor, that love is not love unless directed towards a certain end, unless it has action.  What then, is the action of the love of God that you speak of?  It must have a context, something definite in mind to which it is directed.
  • If love needs action, the action must take a definite form.  It cannot remain platonically amorphous in the ether.
  • Would this not then result in the need for “dogma?”  Dogma then would serve love, or at least make love possible, instead of detracting from it.  This path would, of course, end of giving a a more pointed particularity to the truth you seek.

Despite the disagreement, I’m still charmed by this work, for it serves as a mighty sword thrust for making historians accountable to something larger than themselves and their narrow disciplines.