Friday, March 29, 2013

A Kind of Climate Change

Reading Toynbee’s A Study of History again, closely, after a number of decades shows, even in my highly abridged version (which takes twelve volumes down to two), how detailed Toynbee’s work was and therefore how fine-grained the historical patterns from which he built up his theories of change. Toynbee’s work appeared beginning 1934. Oswald Spengler’s first work became visible in 1918, Pitirim Sorokin’s sociology dates its start to 1937. These works of cyclic history therefore appeared in a period of Western culture Toynbee would have characterized as a Time of Troubles. Toynbee’s language, like that of the others, is scholarly, very dense. The ideas expressed are ultimately quite incapable of being made use of in any meaningful, collective, practical, purposive way even if the people could internalize the meanings presented. The great patterns in history are more akin to climate change than anything else. It’s possible to build up a clear-enough picture of what is happening and what has happened in the past, but moving vast masses of humanity to respond intelligently to the challenge is too daunting a task even for the occasional stellar figure that appears in the realms of action.


  1. I was so fascinated by Toynbee that I bought copies of the 2 volume set for a number of people for Christmas, 1966.

    Among the blessed recipients was my wife to be...

    I have never heard the end of that "gifting" experiment.

  2. And I was introduced to Toynbee by you, Dad, and recall very clearly carrying your highly treasured two-volume edition of his A Study of History around Europe in a backpack. The high heels I ditched, the hair dryer too, but those books were carried faithfully, if read with less diligence. Somehow, there wasn't as much time for sitting in front of important historical sites and reading about them as I'd envisioned.

    I like the analogy you present her, of historic patterns being like climate change.


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