A Study of History

By Arnold J. Toynbee; D. C. Somervell | Go to book overview
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WE have now arrived at the close of our inquiry into the process of the disintegrations of civilizations, but before we leave the subject there is one more question to be considered. We must ask whether, as we look back over the ground we have traversed, we can discern any master-tendency at work, and we do in fact unmistakably descry a tendency towards standardization and uniformity: a tendency which is the correlative and opposite of the tendency towards differentiation and diversity which we have found to be the mark of the growth stage of civilizations. We have recently noted, on a superficial plane, the tendency towards a uniformity of three-and-a-half beats in the rhythm of disintegration. A much more significant symptom of uniformity is the uniform schism of a disintegrating society into three sharply divided classes and the uniform works of creation performed by each of them. We have seen dominant minorities uniformly working out philosophies and producing universal states; internal proletariats uniformly discovering 'higher religions' which aim at embodying themselves in universal churches; and external proletariats uniformly mustering war-bands which find vent in 'heroic ages'. The uniformity with which these several institutions are generated is indeed so far-reaching that we are able to present this aspect of the disintegration-process in the tabular form in which it is displayed at the conclusion of this chapter. Even more remarkable is the uniformity of ways of behaviour, feeling and life that is revealed by the study of schism in the Soul.

This contrast between the diversity of growth and the uniformity of disintegration is what we might have expected from the consideration of simple analogies, such as the parable of Penelope's web. When the faithful wife of the absent Odysseus had promised her importunate suitors that she would give herself in marriage to one of them so soon as she had finished weaving a winding-sheet for old Laertes, she used to weave away at her loom in the day-time day by day and then spend the night watches night by night in unpicking her last day's work. When the webster set up her warp and began to weave her weft each morning she had at her command an unlimited choice of patterns, and might, if she chose, weave a different pattern every day. But her night-work was monotonously uniform, for, when it came to unravelling the web, the pattern made no difference. However complicated the set of movements

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A Study of History


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