When the pistol goes off

Peter Clarke

  • Arnold Toynbee: A Life by William McNeill
    Oxford, 346 pp, £16.95, July 1989, ISBN 0 19 505863 1

To the man in the street – especially an American street – he was in his day the most famous historian in the world. On 17 March 1947 the ultimate accolade was bestowed: his picture appeared on the cover of Time Magazine, currently selling 1,500,000 copies. For the editors, as they put it, ‘the story of Historian Toynbee and his work in progress was an unusual challenge and opportunity.’ The response was ‘overwhelming’, and not only from ‘professors of history, philosophy and anthropology, from deans of American colleges and universities, heads of public and private schools’, but also from the ‘governors of seven States’, reinforced by an unnumbered throng of ‘businessmen, Congressmen and just plain citizens’. Time’s genius had been to spot the arcane potential in an uncompleted work in six thick volumes which had been gathering dust since their pre-war publication by a university press.

Suddenly, astoundingly, Toynbee was news. The effect was shattering. One of the things that was to be shattered, in due course, was Toynbee’s academic reputation. In the Fifties he encountered keen criticism from academic historians, spearheaded by Pieter Geyl and Hugh Trevor-Roper, which marginalised his major project in the eyes of his own profession. As his new biographer, William McNeill, candidly declares, ‘a principal purpose of this book is to try to establish a better balance between the popular adulation on the one hand and the professional hostility on the other that closed in on Toynbee after the mid-Fifties, obscuring his real accomplishment and the long-range importance of his work for the scholarly study of the past.’ Whether or not the author has fulfilled this objective, he has undoubtedly succeeded in presenting a persuasive account of Toynbee’s remarkable career. A distinguished American exponent of world history, he is well-placed to assess Toynbee’s oeuvre, which ineluctably centres on A Study of History, finally completed in ten substantive volumes in 1954.

Historians commonly offer two sorts of explanation, which can be termed structural and contingent. Structural explanations need not be deterministic but they emphasise what was likely to happen – on the whole, in the long run, in one guise or another, at one juncture or another – according to an explicit or implicit scheme of causation based on observed regularities, analogies, patterns, cycles, trends or tendencies. Such an approach – and it was manifestly Toynbee’s – involves generalisation, which in turn necessarily depends on abstraction of what can be generalised from what seems unique, anomalous, trivial, or just messy, in its own particular context. Without such bold simplification, it will be said, there can be no scientific progress and Newton’s speculations would therefore end with the trajectory of a single apple. Yet is this really the core of history?

Contingent explanations, which seek to recapture the rich play of complex causation in specific instances, are surely necessary to answer a different sort of historical question: not what we can learn from the past in general but how we can understand what actually happened in particular. Such understanding will not arise from dismissing what is unique or excluding what is anomalous, or ignoring what is trivial, or discounting what is just messy. Instead of striving for the elegant simplicity of predictable replication as encoded by rigorous science, historians may wish to settle for the subtle complexity of real life as captured by a more plastic art. This may seem a heavy-handed way of saying that McNeill’s book is so satisfying because it implicitly addresses two different questions. First, it seeks to explain why something like A Study of History came to be written after the First World War. But McNeill also tells us why it was ‘Historian Toynbee’ in particular who wrote it and shows how the endeavour arose out of the (unique and messy) circumstances of his own life.

Toynbee discovered his vocation early. His family had high professional ambitions, nurtured by the example of two brilliant forebears whose lives were cut short prematurely. Grandfather Toynbee had been a successful London doctor until his self-inflicted experiments with chloroform went fatally wrong. An even more striking exemplar was the remarkable career at Balliol College, Oxford of Uncle Arnold, after whom not only his nephew but Toynbee Hall in the East End of London were posthumously named. Carrying the name Arnold Toynbee was a double-edged privilege, as the behaviour of the family testifies; when the young author published his first book under this style, he was reprimanded for appropriating his uncle’s name and told in future to ‘sign yourself A.J. or Arnold J’. Born with his uncle’s reputation to live up to, the young Toynbee, as a Balliol undergraduate, found that he also had his father’s example to live down. For in 1909 Harry Toynbee suffered a complete collapse which left him a lifelong mental patient and his family dependent upon a Testimonial Fund, with its attendant humiliations.

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