A Study of History

By Arnold J. Toynbee; D. C. Somervell | Go to book overview
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THE intelligible units of historical study are not nations or periods but 'societies'. An examination of English history, chapter by chapter, shows that it is not intelligible as a thing-in-itself but only as a part of a larger whole. This whole contains parts (e.g. England, France, the Netherlands) that are subject to identical stimuli or challenges but react to them in different ways. An example from Hellenic history is introduced to illustrate this. The 'whole', or 'society', to which England belongs is identified as Western Christendom; its extension in space at different dates is measured, and its origins in time. It is found to be older, but only slightly older, than the articulation of its parts. Exploration of its beginnings reveals the existence of another society which is now dead, namely the Graeco-Roman or Hellenic Society, to which ours is 'affiliated'. It is also obvious that there are a number of other living societies—the Orthodox Christian, the Islamic, the Hindu and the Far Eastern societies—and also certain 'fossilized' relics of, at this stage, unidentified societies such as the Jews and the Parsees.


The purpose of this chapter is to identify, define and name all the societies—or, rather, civilizations, for there are also primitive or non-'civilized' societies—which have come into existence so far. The first method of search to employ is to take the existing civilizations already identified, examine their origins and see if we can find civilizations now extinct to which these are affiliated as Western Christendom has been found to be affiliated to the Hellenic Civilization. The marks of this relationship are (a) a universal state (e.g. the Roman Empire), itself the outcome of a time of troubles, followed by (b) an interregnum, in which appear (c) a Church and (d) a Völkerwanderung of barbarians in an heroic age. The Church and the Völkerwanderung are the products, respectively, of the internal and external 'proletariats' of a dying civilization. Employing these clues we find that:

The Orthodox Christian Society is, like our own Western Society, affiliated to the Hellenic Society.

Tracing the Islamic Society back to its origins we find that it is

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A Study of History


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