A Study of History

By Arnold J. Toynbee; D. C. Somervell | Go to book overview
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VI. THE VIRTUES OF ADVERSITY i

A Stricter Test

WE have been led to reject the popular assumption that civilizations emerge when environments offer unusually easy conditions of life and to advance an argument in favour of exactly the opposite view. The popular view arises from the fact that a modern observer of such a civilization as the Egyptiac—and in this context the Ancient Greeks were 'moderns' like ourselves- takes for granted the land as man has made it, and assumes that it was like that when the pioneers first took it in hand. We have tried to show what the Lower Nile Valley was really like when the pioneers first took it in hand by giving a picture of certain parts of the Upper Nile Valley as they are to-day. But this difference in the geographical site may have prevented our illustration from being entirely convincing, and in the present chapter we propose to drive our point home by citing cases in which a civilization has first succeeded and subsequently failed on the same site, and the country, unlike Egypt, has reverted to its pristine condition.


Central America

One remarkable instance is the present state of the birthplace of the Mayan Civilization. Here we find the ruins of immense and magnificently decorated public buildings which now stand, far away from any present human habitations, in the depth of the tropical forest. The forest, like some sylvan boa-constrictor, has literally swallowed them up and is now devouring them at its leisure, prising the fine-hewn close-laid stones apart with its writhing roots and tendrils. The contrast between the present aspect of the country and the aspect which it must have worn when the Mayan Civilization was in being is so great that it is almost beyond imagination. There must have been a time when these immense public buildings stood in the heart of large and populous cities, and when those cities lay in the midst of wide expanses of cultivated land. The transitoriness of human achievement and the vanity of human wishes are poignantly exposed by the return of the forest, engulfing first the fields and then the houses and finally the palaces and temples themselves. Yet that is not the most significant lesson to be learnt from the present state of Copan or Tikal or Palenque. The ruins speak still more

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i
Mr. Toynbee entitles this chapter Xαλ∊πὰ τὰ Kαλά, which means 'The beautiful is difficult' or 'High quality involves hard work'.—EDITOR.

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