Prodigious Powers

Hugh Lloyd-Jones

  • The Greeks and their Heritages by Arnold Toynbee
    Oxford, 334 pp, £12.50, October 1981, ISBN 0 19 215256 4

This posthumous work provides yet more evidence of the phenomenal energy and wide range of information of the late Arnold Toynbee. He returns to a question which had interested him from the start of his career, and in order to appreciate the application to it of his mature method, a summary of that career is needed. It can be given with the help of the obituary notice contributed to the Proceedings of the British Academy for 1977 by William McNeill, an American scholar who has a close affinity with his subject.

Toynbee was born in 1889 into a family with Evangelical associations; like the celebrated uncle he was named after, his father was a social worker. At Winchester he was trained to win a Balliol scholarship: the prime requisite in those days was the ability to render English verse or prose into elegant Greek or Latin. Toynbee was not as good at this as his father-in-law Gilbert Murray or his own contemporary Ronald Knox: but he was good enough to win a Balliol scholarship, which he followed up with First Classes in both Mods and Greats and a Balliol Fellowship in Ancient History. Saved by an opportune attack of dysentery from the holocaust of the First World War, he helped Lord Bryce investigate Turkish atrocities against Armenians. At this time he was a Gladstonian Liberal, eager to champion the claims of all oppressed nationalities; later, he joined the Political Department of the Foreign Office. He held only a minor post, so that the part he took in the Peace Conference was unimportant: but McNeill remarks that his attitude was in harmony with that of the British (and American) delegations, which means that he approved of the Balkanisation of Eastern Europe and reposed high hopes in the efficacy of the League of Nations. As Koraes Professor of Byzantine and Modern Greek History at King’s College, London, he covered the Greco-Turkish War of 1921-2 as correspondent of the Manchester Guardian. The discovery that in war both sides do unpleasant things came as a deep shock to the young Liberal. This could not be the fault of the Turks, who were defending ‘their own country’ against ‘foreign invaders’. ‘Obviously,’ says Professor McNeill, ‘a breakdown of older Ottoman patterns of life and manners under the impact of ideas and ideals coming from Western Europe was responsible for unleashing the human depravity he saw around him’: the real aggressors were not the Turks, but the Westerners, ‘at least since 1699’. Both peoples were ‘victims of a process beyond their control, a process in which, if anyone was to blame, it was the restless and aggressive Westerners who had intruded so forcefully upon the older Ottoman civilisation, disrupting it and depriving the heirs of Ottoman society of any authentic, binding moral code’. Toynbee now lost his enthusiasm for the nationalism of a small nation, and ‘the whole First World War’ now seemed to have been ‘no more than a vast hetacomb [sic] of misguided nationalisms’.

Not surprisingly, the Greeks who had established the Koraes Chair did not care for this, and Toynbee had to move: but he found an ideal setting in the Royal Institute of International Affairs, whose directorship he later combined with a chair in international studies at London University. He had energy enough left over from the production of its annual survey to work at his vast Study of History, first planned in 1921, begun in 1930, and published between 1934 and 1953. Spengler’s Decline of the West had greatly impressed him by its ‘vision of multiple civilisations moving along parallel tracks’, but Toynbee thought he could counter Spengler’s ‘dogmatic determinism’ by adopting ‘an empirical approach’, meaning that he preferred a Hegelianism watered down after the fashion of Jowett to the undiluted article. Civilisations, he found, were liable to break down and to disintegrate: what was permanent was religion, for which civilisations became ‘mere vehicles’. Personal experiences helped to confirm him in this attitude: however disagreeable, they could find their place in the Hegelian progress of everything existing towards the self-realisation of Geist. ‘Perhaps even the personal anguish of his son’s suicide and the failure of his life’s work for peace had a value and a meaning of its own, if only he were wise enough to react creatively’: readers of Charlotte M. Yonge’s novels will recognise here the Evangelical inheritance.

Mystical experiences, too, ‘helped to define Toynbee’s new frame of mind’: One of these he interpreted as ‘a communion with all that had been, and was to come’, which must have been a great help to a historian. At first Toynbee seemed to be moving towards the Church of Rome, to which his first wife was an enthusiastic convert, but after their separation in 1942 he decided that he could no more accept an exclusive religion than an exclusive nationality. He invented for himself a synthesis of all religions, for which H.R. Trevor-Roper coined the name ‘the religion of mish-mash’.

In 1946 Toynbee, according to Professor McNeill, ‘climaxed’ his official career by serving as a British delegate at yet another Peace Conference: unfortunately, ‘British weight in international relations had been diminished,’ so that the opportunity for a general reconciliation under the auspices of the religion of mish-mash was let go. However, a skilful condensation of the first six volumes of the Study of History, made by D.C. Somervell and brought out in 1946, proved a best-seller: it will be found in many houses which contain no other book of history, and made its author the Tolkien of historical studies. ‘At such a moment,’ writes McNeill, ‘Toynbee’s pre-war vision of human history struck a resonant chord among many influential Americans. Abandoning the cyclical theory of history with which he had begun, he had shifted to a linear theory, closely akin to the Judeo-Christian Providential view of human affairs’: Hegel, it will be remembered, claimed to have remained a pious Lutheran. Time Magazine became interested, and for a time Toynbee did pretty well in the United States; even in Latin America and Japan his reputation later ‘crested’, and any tears he may have shed over the criticism of Trevor-Roper and Pieter Geyl must have been quickly dried. The completion of his Study of History and his retirement from Chatham House made no difference to his literary activity, and until his death in 1975 books and articles poured from his pen.

The first of the legacies dealt with in this book is that received by the archaic and Classical, or as he calls them the Hellenic, Greeks from the Mycenaeans, from whom they were separated by the so-called Dark Age between the 12th and eighth centuries before Christ. Toynbee had studied all the latest literature about Bronze Age Greece, and knew all about it that could be known – and indeed rather more than all: he does not hesitate to accept the somewhat sanguine speculations about Mycenaean poetry of the late T.B.L. Webster, a scholar with whom he had several things in common. He takes the view that in this instance the Greeks were able to make their legacy from the past inspiring rather than constricting. ‘The influence of the past,’ he writes, ‘is most beneficent when the memory of the past is faint and when the veneration for it is temperate.’

So he passes to the achievement of the Hellenic Greeks, of which he expresses guarded appreciation, coupling them with the Chinese and the Jews as standing in the top rank of peoples who have made civilisations. But he finds that their religion ‘missed fire’ and complains that it never caught on with foreigners. That a religion whose gods are manifested in the working of the universe, and show a comparative lack of interest in men, thus making the problem of evil less awkward than other religions have found it – that such a religion may seem to some people actually to have advantages does not occur to him: he takes it for granted that monotheism is likelier to be true than polytheism.

For Toynbee, the decline of Greece is well on the way as soon as the fifth century is over: no one would guess, from his unexciting résumé of the Hellenistic period, that many modern scholars hold it to have been an age of notable achievement. Here again, Toynbee, for all his learning, remained firmly rooted in an attitude fashionable when he was young. He notes that the movement to reproduce the style and language of Classical Attic prose started during the first century BC. That was also the moment when the Academy went over from scepticism to dogmatism, and the whole trend of philosophy followed suit: it was then, rather than three centuries earlier, that the real decline began. Toynbee is again old-fashioned in his refusal to see that the archaising revival of Greek culture in the second century AD had some things to be said for it: the writers of the Second Sophistic are lively compared with the Byzantine imitators of the Classics.

Toynbee has some interesting things to say about the Byzantine period, remarking on what the Byzantines called their oikonomia, their ability to arrange things so as to reconcile apparent irreconcilables. He approves of their religion: ‘the Byzantines were strongest in the field of religion, where their Hellenic predecessors had been weakest.’ Yet he sees that Trinitarian doctrine maintained a vestige of the old polytheism in resisting Arian monism. Perhaps he regrets that the Byzantines would not allow the uneducated Isaurian emperors to deprive them of the use of images. He feels that the two great incubuses of the Eastern Empire were the Roman Imperial regime and the Hellenic culture: from the former they were ‘liberated’ by the Turkish conquest, and from the latter by the Westerners when they took it over. It does not occur to Toynbee that the religion had anything to do with the failure of the culture to have a fertilising effect, nor that it was responsible for the fatal schism separating East from West. He shows no awareness of the immense cultural superiority of the Byzantines to the Crusaders which Sir Steven Runciman has so clearly described, nor does he seem conscious that the last age of Byzantium, between the reconquest of Constantinople from the Franks in 1261 and its capture by the Turks in 1453, was in many respects an age of great cultural vitality. What condemns the Byzantines is the fact that they were defeated by the Turks: Toynbee displays the same servility towards success as E.H. Carr. He has an interesting appendix on Gemistos Plethon, but exaggerates his inclination to paganism and underestimates the influence of his philosophy. A few pages of Edgar Wind’s Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance supply a corrective in both matters.

After the Turkish conquest, the situation of the Greeks was, from Toynbee’s point of view, more satisfactory. External matters were efficiently handled by the Sultan, and internal ones by their own patriarch. As the Ottoman Empire declined, however, the Greeks rashly dreamed of independence: Toynbee casts a disapproving eye on the attempts of Rhegas Pheraios and Prince Alexander Ypsilantes. Skipping over the events which led to the establishment of a Greek kingdom, he moves from 1821 to 1921.

Toynbee once more castigates the Greeks for having clung to ‘the Great Idea’: the hope of the reestablishment of something like the Eastern Empire with its capital in Constantinople. In 1921 it did not seem so foolish: the Turks had paid the penalty for their alliance with the Germans, and the Versailles Conference seriously considered the possibility of handing back the Imperial city to the Greeks. Lloyd George was captivated by the charismatic leader of a race living near to sea and mountains with whom he had much in common, Eleftherios Venizelos, and only Edward Montagu’s exaggerated fears of a ‘Khilafats’ agitation in India seem to have led him to give up the plan. If the universal wariness of war had not led the Allies to disperse their armies, they might have imposed a settlement in the Middle East which would have saved much trouble later, just as they might have dealt with Lenin.

Toynbee goes on to discuss the language question in Greece, berating those Greeks who cling, at least for certain purposes, to the use of the katharevousa, the allegedly ‘pure’ form of Greek that is essentially an artificial revival of the Classical language. In its naivest form, the cult of the katharevousa is undoubtedly ridiculous, and the attempt of the Colonels to enforce its use in schools can hardly be defended. Yet it has in its time served certain purposes. After the Greeks had been deprived of education and cut off from the Western world for four centuries, it was necessary to create a language suitable for various kinds of technical and abstract writing. Of those kinds of literature which are in some degree affected by it, not every one is to be condemned, and the nostalgia which created and preserved it can easily be understood. Modern Greek writers write in a variety of styles and a variety of linguistic forms, and in spite of the confusion caused by the language question, they have been able to make use of the possibilities which their situation offered them to create a literature which compares well with those produced by many richer and more favoured countries during the same period. Neither the English in general, nor Toynbee in particular, with his clear but not very distinguished style, are in a position to patronise them.

The cult of the katharevousa is simply one of many ways of expressing that nostalgia for which Toynbee, like a hearty housemaster, reprehends the Greeks. While that nostalgia can be irritating, it is fully understandable. Just as an Irishman when he thinks historically places emphasis on certain events not stressed by English people, so does a Greek think much of happenings often forgotten by Western Europeans. He cannot forget that after the western half of the Roman Empire had collapsed, its eastern half carried on for a millennium; that after the western half had sufficiently civilised the barbarians who swamped it to achieve a partial recovery, it set out to defend the holy places of the common religion of the Empire against the infidel; that the Westerners took advantage of this situation to make a treacherous attack on the Easterners and rob them of their Imperial city; that after the Eastern Empire had most remarkably revived itself, the Westerners, even when appeased by a promise to adopt their own uncongenial form of Christianity, allowed it to be conquered and occupied by a barbarian enemy, preferring Muslims to Orthodox fellow Christians. In the war of liberation that began in 1921, the West did something to atone for this, but the Greeks can hardly be expected to forget that, in the years immediately following the Great War, the West encouraged hopes which it later disappointed. Toynbee says nothing about the conduct of his admired Turks in Cyprus since 1974.

Professor McNeill justly credits Toynbee with ‘prodigious powers of concentration, phenomenal memory and sheer physical endurance of a regime at which most men would have quailed’: this is fully borne out by the book before me. He also ascribes to him the possession of ‘a very powerful intellect’: this seems a good deal more open to dispute.