Arnold J. Toynbee  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Arnold Joseph Toynbee (14 April 1889 – 22 October 1975) was a British historian, philosopher of history, research professor of international history at the London School of Economics and the University of London and author of numerous books. Toynbee in the 1918–1950 period was a leading specialist on international affairs.

He is best known for his 12-volume A Study of History (1934–1961). With his prodigious output of papers, articles, speeches and presentations, and numerous books translated into many languages, Toynbee was a widely read and discussed scholar in the 1940s and 1950s.

Challenge and response

With the civilizations as units identified, he presented the history of each in terms of challenge-and-response, sometimes referred to as theory about the law of challenge and response. Civilizations arose in response to some set of challenges of extreme difficulty, when "creative minorities" devised solutions that reoriented their entire society. Challenges and responses were physical, as when the Sumerians exploited the intractable swamps of southern Iraq by organizing the Neolithic inhabitants into a society capable of carrying out large-scale irrigation projects; or social, as when the Catholic Church resolved the chaos of post-Roman Europe by enrolling the new Germanic kingdoms in a single religious community. When a civilization responded to challenges, it grew. Civilizations disintegrate when their leaders stopped responding creatively, and the civilizations then sank owing to nationalism, militarism, and the tyranny of a despotic minority. According to an Editor's Note in an edition of Toynbee's A Study of History, Toynbee believed that societies always die from suicide or murder rather than from natural causes, and nearly always from suicide. He sees the growth and decline of civilizations as a spiritual process, writing that "Man achieves civilization, not as a result of superior biological endowment or geographical environment, but as a response to a challenge in a situation of special difficulty which rouses him to make a hitherto unprecedented effort."




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