The Unprofessional Historian

I can’t quite help myself when it comes to Arnold Toynbee.  But I acknowledge  . . . In his 12 volume A Study of History (I have read about 8 of them) he repeats himself many times, and uses some of same examples more than a few times.  He veers sometimes wildly between philosophical speculation and the facts of the case (which I love but I understand might bother others).  A central point of his examination of Greece and Rome involves conflating them to such a degree that he seems to claim that Rome began to decline when the Pelopponesian War began.(!) He drifts too easily into gnostic, or perhaps Neo-Platonic, tendencies that raise many of my eyebrows.

Still, he takes huge swings, takes big risks with his thoughts, and offers a coherent picture of civilizations that mixes various disciplines such as archaeology, philosophy, myth, and the like.  He is in my mind the ideal of what a historian should be, not so much in his conclusions, but in his methods.

‘Volume 10’ is almost last volume of his A Study of History and has only about 150 pages of straight text, with a few appendices and a long and needed index to the other 9 volumes. This conclusion might even serve as a good introduction to the whole of his work, for here he fully describes and defends his view of what an historian is, and what History should be all about.

I say he ‘defends’ but this might be misleading, for it sounds like a didactic argument. It’s not. Part of the charm of this book for me is that he let’s himself go and speaks with passion from the heart. But the Toynbee magic is still here, 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 Turkey in the 1920’s.

I can understand people disagreeing with certain particulars of his “system,” but doesn’t this sound like fun?

His main points are

  • 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 there are proper vocations. The historian’s vision is not greater or lesser than these, but he has a task nonetheless.
  • The inspiration of a historian is ultimately a spiritual one. The ‘muse’ of curiosity leads into broader fields of vision. Since God aims to unite all of humanity, one’s field of vision under the inspiration of the ‘muse’ (I think Toynbee means to use this term in at least a mostly literal sense) will inevitably broaden.
  • He does not spend much time on this, but this question leads to a small digression on Toynbee’s dislike of the ‘professional’ specialist. The ‘professional’ pursues not true knowledge but an impossible omniscience. This pursuit is of course impossible, and whatever knowledge he gains will be sterile — it will in fact not be real knowledge at all, and certainly not wisdom. His lack of ‘action’ in the world has a humble mask, but only serves to camouflage ‘the three deadly sins of Satanic pride, negligence, and sloth.’ (p. 26). God calls us to add to the stream of human knowledge of the world and Himself by adding one’s own thimbleful to the stream. Knowledge is never for one’s own sake or for the sake of knowledge itself, but to put humanity in a better position to know God. The same Spirit that inspires us to investigate human affairs calls us to action in service, however small, to humanity as a whole.

Perhaps this gives us some insight into his admiration for Heinrich Schliemann. Of all the historians he admires here (Polybius, Herodotus, St. Augustine, etc.) it is Schliemann, the messy amateur par excellence, whom he spends the most time with. Surely in Schliemann we find a man “inspired,” one who led with his heart rather than his head. It may be said that he created the modern field of archaeological study by going on a goose chase of absurd proportions.  And yet, he discovered Troy and Mycenae. He created the discipline of archaeology. But as soon as archaeology developed into a profession the “professionals” he creaetd dismissed him as a carnival barker. Toynbee does not dwell on Schliemann’s personal life or professional errors, but surely he would say for every step back he took two or three forward.

Finally, towards the end of the work, Toynbee sheds light on his religious views. He does this in a more straightforward and polemical way in ‘Experiences,’ which he wrote about a decade after this, and his views did not change much from this volume to then. I do not agree with his final conclusion in either volume. But here his conclusions make more sense to me in the context offered — that is — I can see how much his ‘heart’ was in his views. This is a point made by his friend Columba Cary-Elwes, a monk, in their correspondence (“An Historian’s Conscience”) which I accepted but did not understand until now. Cary-Elwes also disagreed with Toynbee ultimately, but felt that there was more agreement than Toynbee may have been aware of. Of course, as a “friend’”of Toynbee myself, I would like to think the same thing. This may be purely wishful or even ego-centric thinking on my part, but I hope not.

Basically, Toynbee believes that ultimate reality is spiritual reality, and that this spiritual reality is Love. Love is best expressed in action, not in words or syllogisms. Hence, Historian’s are called to action, and hence, Toynbee’s rejection of the various dogmas of religion as essentially unimportant distractions. He saw unity in human affairs throughout time, and a uniformity of human nature. All this led him to affirm the essential unity of religions. Claims to exclusivity are at best misdirected and at worst rooted in pride.

This is a good argument, and Toynbee was far from a cynic. He did not seek to attack religion so much as promote what he saw as something ‘higher.’ I think the Church would say that Toynbee was right about many things. But, as Chesterton said, “You cannot make a success of anything, even loving, without thinking.” He said 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, but not absolutely correct with this. I would add what C.S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity, that he would not have believed in Christianity unless it professed some similarity with other religions. As he came to see, it would be impossible for other faiths to contain no truths. But Christianity could be the fulfillment of the hints and whispers in other places. Toynbee came to close to asserting this himself in his “Christianity and Civilization” essay included in “Civilization on Trial.”* It is not arrogance to believe that one has found the truth, or more correctly, that the Truth has found you.**

Please pardon the long digression (for those still reading :), but I have learned a great deal from Toynbee. I feel the clue to much of his genius is in his religious views. For him, History was very much a religious endeavor, with an emphatically religious goal. I couldn’t agree more. But here too is his greatest error.

This volume is eminently suited for anyone interested in these kind of questions. The prose is lively, and the heart and mind are both engaged.


*It is probable that Toynbee came closest to a profession of traditional Christian belief when he wrote this essay in the late 40’s.  Indeed, it is Volumes 4-6 of his study, written just before this time (I think), that are his best work with his best religious insights into the meaning of history.

**After publishing this volume, Toynbee’s views if anything only drifted further from Orthodox Christianity. But there is this brief excerpt from Toynbee’s good friend Columba Cary-Elwes, a monk and frequent correspondent with Toynbee.

During our last meeting, during which he was incapable of clear speech or writing, suddenly he said very distinctly, ‘In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,’ and then fell back into silence. As I wrote before, I do not use that to prove anything to the general public. It may have been an act of courtesy to me on his part, as Veronica suggested. For me it was an answer to prayer!

9th Grade: Conversions in the City of Man


We began the week looking at St. Augustine’s crucial work, The City of God.  Augustine began writing shortly after the sack of Rome in A.D. 410, and did not finish until many years later.  What he began as a response to Roman attacks on Christianity became, by the end of the work, a full-fledged outline of how History happens.  His work influenced a great deal of medieval thought, though eventually not all agreed with the categories he used to formulate his vision.

Augustine saw history divided into two camps, the City of Man and the City of God.  In Scripture we see Cain & Abel, Ishmael & Isaac, Esau and Jacob, and so on, each representing their respective cities.  The “City of Man” has its place on earth.  The state does not bear the sword for nothing.  But the guiding principles of the city of man are

  • Power
  • Pride of place
  • Competition
  • Justice

Note that justice is part of the City of Man.  This is the legitimate function of the state.  The point Augustine wanted to make, however, is that however legitimate the City of Man may be, it cannot redeem us.  It cannot exercise the fruit of the Spirit.  When pronouncing a sentence, for example, a judge cannot say, “The law says you must serve at least 15 years for your crime, but I forgive you.  You’re a free man!”  And we would not want him to.  Soldiers have the right to kill under certain circumstances, but ending life is not the best way to redeem life.

The Church represents the “City of God” which runs along different principles of love, mercy, etc.  The main goal of the Church is not social order but the redemption of individual souls.  We want the Church to be the place of healing, reconciliation, etc.

Where the rubber meets the road on this is how Church and State should interact.  Should the two meet in some way, ignore each other, or oppose each other?  We will revisit this topic at a later date.

This week we also looked at the reign of Charlemagne, probably the most important figure after Constantine in the history of the West.

In previous weeks we saw how the Church played a crucial role in setting the foundation for the rebuilding of civilization. This week we looked at a few different aspects of Charlemagne’s contribution to this project.

1. Can conversions by force be genuine?

Charlemagne conquered a great deal of territory, and as he conquered he ‘enforced’ the conversion of those he defeated.  To modern minds this seems absurd and counterproductive.  It may have been, but I wanted the students to think about, how in a different time, it may (I stress the word may) have been more effective than we might think.

  • Charlemagne ruled in a time when spiritual beliefs were worn more on one’s sleeve.  Many had the sense that when a tribe fought, so too did it’s god.  Charlemagne may have held a similar view.  In some ways this is admirable, in other ways dangerous (cf. 1 Sam. 4-5).  So, if Charlemagne beat you, you might very well think that your god had lost, and it was literally time for a new one.
  • Modern western democracies do not identify leadership with the nation itself.  We do this in some ways with diplomats,  but in Charlemagne’s time we see a sense that the king ‘was’ the tribe.  If the king converted, the nation would ‘convert’ as well.  A member of a tribe  might do so with the same conviction with which they followed him to battle.   It’s not ideal, but might God work with it?
  • Part of Charlemagne’s motives I think were rooted in part with his sacramental theology.  I don’t think that they believed that baptism would guarantee you Heaven.  But they did believe that baptism conferred God’s grace on the recipient.  With this view, perhaps they thought that if one had a few embers in their hearts inclined toward God, baptism could help fan that into a flame.

How might we tell if these conversions were genuine?  First off, clearly not all them were.  One can see evidence of this in some gravestones with Christian and pagan symbols.  Perhaps they hedged their bets.  But — for the most part Christianity lasted in these conquered lands.  Charlemagne’s conquests on the whole did seem to aid, rather than detract, from the growth of Christianity on the continent.

2. Is force necessary for Civilization?  If you are like me, you wish that it was not so.  And yet, civilization requires security and confidence to flourish.  In the chaotic period of semi-nomadic barbarians that Charlemagne inhabited, war may have been required for order to be established.

Certainly not all forms of civilization are worth the price of every war.  But we must keep in mind that before Charlemagne’s conquests, Europe was hardly a peaceful place.  In every measurable way, the quality of life declined significantly after Rome’s fall.  In the aftermath of Charlemagne’s conquests, civilization does make a comeback with the “Carolingian Renaissance.”  The Carolingian Renaissance cannot hold much of a candle to Periclean Athens or Florence in the 15th century. But then again, they started from a much different place. Writing and scholarship returned to the continent.  They started building with stone, showing a desire for permanence.  With permanence came a stable foundation upon which they could build again.

Last week we discussed the dilemma of whether or not King Arthur existed.  I think we can assume that the Arthur tales, if they had truth in them, may have grown with the telling.  But the stories do not arise from nowhere.  The historian Nennius, for example, writes ca. 800 A.D. that

Then Arthur fought against [the Saxons] in those days with the kings of Briton, but he himself was the leader of battles. . . . The eighth battle was in Fort Gunnion in which Arthur carried the image of St.  Mary, ever virgin, on his shoulders and the pagans were turned to flight through the virtue of Our Lord Jesus Christ and Mary the Virgin, his mother. . . The twelfth battle was on Mt.  Badon, in which 960 men fell in one day from one charge by Arthur, and none overthrew them but Arthur alone.  And in [all 12 battles] he stood forth as victor.

Nennius writes some 300 years after Arthur existed (if he existed), whereas Bede, a more respected historian who wrote earlier than Nennius, says nothing about Arthur at all.  How do we decide what source to trust, and what sources to ignore? When do we grant oral tradition weight as an historical source, and when do we discount it?  I hope the students enjoyed thinking through these questions.