Civilizations Die by Suicide Not by Murder
Very few people today know that between 1934 and 1961 the British historian Arnold Toynbee wrote A Study of History describing the rise and fall of the 23 civilizations he had identified in human history. In contrast to Oswald Spengler, who thought that the rise and fall of civilizations was inevitable, Toynbee maintained that the fate of civilizations is determined by their response to the challenges facing them. In fact the unifying theme throughout the book is challenge and response.
One of the ground-breaking discoveries by Toynbee is the fact that there have been so many highly developed civilizations. Understandably in the West our history lessons focus on our own civilization with its roots in Greek and Roman cultures, but in addition there have been Chinese, Indian, Mayan, Islamic, Sumerian and Orthodox civilizations, to name but a few.
According to Toynbee, civilizations start to decay when they lose their moral fiber and the cultural elite turns parasitic, exploiting the masses and creating an internal and external proletariat. He has been criticized for exaggerating the role of religious and cultural value systems while underestimating the importance of economic factors in shaping civilizations. It appears that with advancing age, Toynbee became even more convinced of the importance of the spiritual dimension.
Throughout his 12 volume epic Toynbee outlines how civilizations develop in response to environmental challenges of special difficulty. The challenges should be neither too severe to stifle progress, nor too favorable to inhibit creativity. Such challenges find response among the creative minority who provide leadership to a passive majority.
Toynbee found through his study that the creative minority tended to be generally mystically inspired. Furthermore he outlined that civilizations breakdown as a result of the inevitable commission of the sins of arrogance, hubris, over-weaning pride and self-confidence, which are manifested in such things as nationalism, militarism, and the tyranny of a dominant minority. This moral breakdown brings with it its own retributive justice (nemesis). The creative people having become reactionaries, no longer constitute an “elite creative minority” but simply an “elite dominant minority.”
“We are not doomed to make history repeat itself; it is open to us, through our own efforts, to give history, in our case, some new and unprecedented turn. As human beings, we are endowed with this freedom of choice, and we cannot shuffle off our responsibility upon the shoulders of God or nature. We must shoulder it ourselves. It is up to us, it is up to us to respond creatively to the challenges of our time.”
In essence Toynbee propounds that when a civilization successfully responds to challenges, it grows. When it fails to respond to a challenge, it enters its period of decline. Toynbee argued that «Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.» For Toynbee, civilizations were not intangible or unalterable machines but a network of social relationships within its border and therefore subject to both wise and unwise decisions made.
I believe that the wisdom expounded within the pages of A Study of History should be rediscovered by our western leaders because it would appear to me that the West is no longer responding creatively to external challenges and that its “creative minority” has become “parasitic”. Thus according to Toynbee the West will terminally decline unless a new spiritually motivated minority emerges offering new creative leadership, bringing the society to a new level of consciousness and development.