Three and a Half and Out

Arnold Toynbee’s Study of History was originally published in six volumes. I’ve only read the two-volume Somervell abridgement, so my understanding is likely to be fuzzy, and might be incorrect. Fair warning.

Three and a Half?

Toynbee seems to think he’s discovered a regular fluctuation in the lifecycles of societies. After defining “society” by means of exhaustive list (he counts nineteen), he points out a universal cycle of challenge and response. A society is presented with a big challenge: deadly competition, climate change, or the like. It comes up with a solution, often a creative one that both advances the state of the art and expresses the character of the community. The solution works well enough, and the society walks tall for a while. Then another challenge comes up.

Toynbee, if I understand him correctly, claims that there’s a kind of Kondratiev regularity in this dialectic: societies succeed three times, and fail the fourth. Three and a half cycles, that’s the way it goes.

Lessons in History?

If memories of college German are correct, the word geschichte means both story and history. In English, the word story often means fiction, and sometimes lie. If history is to be truer and more useful than fiction, it must offer us lessons from actual rather than potential experience. Admittedly, it tends to offer lessons on what not to do; but that’s still helpful.

Although I search for lessons in the past, my experience with overarching theories concerning the behavior of humans en masse has been disappointing. How can a theory of history fail to prove that Heisenberg rules human as well as subatomic behavior? If a theory of history were advanced that fit the whole of the past, it would change the future. People, one hopes, learn. The market is self-correcting, and so on.

Is This Us?

The United States does not fit Toynbee’s definition of a “unit of historical study”; we’re a small part of what he called “Western Society”. So his argument doesn’t apply to our situation directly. Still, given my skepticism about such theories, it’s interesting that his three-and-a-half and out seems to fit the American experience.

Suppose we divide the history of the United States into periods, typified by their wars:

Establishing a Sovereign Entity
Taking the land of the original colonies from the Native Americans, French, and Spanish, and revolting against the English (early wars on natives, American Revolution, War of 1812)
Acquiring a Continent
Filling out the available territory through purchase, conquest, and deceit (continuing wars on natives, Civil War, Spanish-American War)
Becoming a Great Power
Joining and then surpassing European powers in industrial and military might (World Wars I and II)
Attempting a Universal State
Projecting financial, military, and cultural force around the world, and provoking resistance (Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Haiti, Iraq…)

What’s This to Teach Us?

Perhaps my understanding of Toynbee’s thesis is simply so abridged as to be inaccurate; but the first thing that occurred to me when I encountered this theory was a question: what constitutes a challenge, as opposed to a problem of normal size, such as plague or famine? It seems that the attitude of the line-drawer might affect where that line came down. If you believe in a three-and-a-half cycle, you’re more likely to find one.

Still, the resemblance is a bit uncanny, isn’t it? The US learned, or at least gained, during the first three periods. But it clearly failed to learn the lessons of the fourth period. We wouldn’t be repeating our experience in Vietnam so directly had we learned anything from that war. Maybe people don’t learn. Or maybe it’s just Americans.

Or maybe the American system persists in enriching the corporations, regardless of the consequences.

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