Friday, January 12, 2018

Arnold Toynbee, Time Traveler

The once immensely popular historian Arnold Toynbee aspired to write a universal history, and in his 12-volume work A Study of History he traced the rise, flowering and decline of human civilization. Few generalists have equaled his breadth of scholarship and his ability to synthesize, although academic specialists have poked many holes in his work.
    It's intriguing that Toynbee reported that in the course of his researches he became a time traveler, finding himself deeply engaged in dramas of different eras. He describes being "carried down in a 'Time pocket'" and experiencing "the local annihilation of Time" in Volume X of A Study of History. His revelations come in Section XIII. “The Inspirations of Historians” part E. “The Quest for a Meaning Behind the Facts of History”. 

A tenuous long-distance commerce exclusively on the intellectual plane is an historian's normal relation to the objects of his study; yet there are moments in his mental life -- moments as memorable as they are rare -- in which temporal and spatial barriers fall and psychic distance is annihilated; and in such moments of inspiration the historian finds himself transformed in a flash from a remote spectator into an immediate participant, as the dry bones take flesh and quicken into life.

He describes how, mulling over some dry research – a prĂ©cis of one of the lost books of Livy’s History – he was hurled into intimate engagement with a war between Rome and confederate Italian states. He was “transported, in a flash, across the gulf of Time and Space from Oxford in A.D. 1911 to Teanum in 80 B.C., to find himself in a back yard on a dark night witnessing a personal tragedy that was more bitter than the defeat of any public cause” – to witness the fate of Mutilus, a proscribed confederate leader denied sanctuary at his home by how own wife, who takes his own life by the sword.
    His experiences of mental transport across time quicken as he travels to ancient sites – and enters the perspective of Philip of Macedon, checking his battle lines, or is present to a roaring crowd at Ephesus, or falls again into “the deep trough of Time” after climbing to a ruined citadel in Laconia.
    Then in London, soon after the Great War, walking by Victoria Station, he is seized with the universal movement of Time streaming through him and around him:

"In London in the southern section of the Buckingham Palace Road, walking southward along the pavement skirting the west wall of Victoria Station, the writer, once, one afternoon not long after the end of the First World War -- he had failed to record the exact date -- had found himself in communion, not just with this or that episode in History, but with all that had been, and was, and was to come.
     "In that instant he was directly aware of the passage of History gently flowing through him in a mighty current, and of his own life welling like a wave in the flow of this vast tide. The experience lasted long enough for him to take visual note of the Edwardian red brick surface and white stone facings of the station wall gliding past him on his left, and to wonder -- half amazed and half amused -- why this incongruously prosaic scene should have been the physical setting of a mental illumination. An instant later, the communion had ceased, and the dreamer was back again in the every-day cockney world which was his native social milieu and of which the Edwardian station wall was a characteristic period piece."

His ability to be present to the rise and fall of civilizations led Toynbee to make some observations that have uncomfortable contemporary relevance:

"Civilizations die from suicide, not by murder."

My favorite Toynbee quote, deeply prescient (he died in 1975) and unsettling in the midst of the current chaotic period in American politics, is this:

"Of the twenty-two civilizations that have appeared in history, nineteen of them collapsed when they reached the moral state the United States is in now."

Due diligence: though this statement is widely circulated, I have been unable to nail down a source in Toynbee's published works. Perhaps we can practice "mental transport" across time or dimensions to see whether he will claim the statement, and whether he wants to add to it in the context of what has unfolded since his death.

1 comment:

Peggy Bartlett said...

I like the idea of place memory. For example, imagine all of the events that have transpired on, say, one square foot of earth. Without the separation that time provides, it is easy to see how those events could occur simultaneously. If past, present and future exist in the eternal NOW...why should we not be able to perceive events that happened on that square foot of earth?