A Study of History de Arnold Toynbee
This is not a Book !... This is a Cathedral... Its well cut corner stones are great ideas developed by the last masters of history of our times. And the master of them all is as cautious as an engineer, as talented as any genius and - especially - as creative as some great lawyers and most great architects are about their lifetime's work. Montaigne once wrote something like " My work of art is my life". After reading Toynbee, one feels almost compelled to say just the opposite: Well, it may be only a book - even one originally published in twelve volumes - but this is his work of art. For many other lives have been lived, and never lost, in the shadows of this construction and into the blessed light of its interior. Sources for the whole master plan in Toynbee's masterpiece include perhaps less Thyucydides, Vico and Cantemir and more of such names as Abd al-Rahman Ibn Mohammad Ibn Khaldun, Gibbon, de Gobineau, Smuts, and lord Acton.
Countless, sometime arcane shelves of dusty bibliographical materials are treaded here into a delicate work of Gothic stone. Looking like fine laces, and sometimes like solid monoliths, the strong and yet delicate architecture of the book is both visible in any detail and compelling in toto, to say the least. Criteria for such modestly named " a " study appeared to the author almost all by themselves. It further took only some simple empirical development to turn the " knowledgeable field of studies " into a land of plenty. But what helped most, throughout the process of creation was the mind of the great master, Toynbee, bringing everything into one piece.
And then again, it's really the vision which commended a sense of wholeness and oneness in this blessed accomplishment of human genius. Toynbee had it while travelling by train somewhere in South-Eastern Europe and dutifully translated it into an incredibly simple grand projet that - subsequently - took thirty years to complete. It's perhaps a small tribute to the author - but not an avoidable choice - to read the whole set of volumes and not the many abridgements and the few but strange full editions of this masterpiece. If you do so, the results are incredibly deep and certainly worth the effort. You'll laugh for instance finding famous French historians busy at work - seeing their mind-entrenched " hexagone " wherever it never existed, by virtue of some retrospectoscope-minded methodology.
You'll almost hear a lawyer pleading in court in a feast of intellectual cases, like that of Mahmud of Gazana. You'll grasp the desperately - and terminally - futile emptiness of " the West and the Rest " frame of mind. And you'll see how ideas pass from one mind to another as if by miracle, in the gentle light of spiritual and caring understanding. Like Sfântul Duh, this isn't straightforward, and could be invoked but not produced. As Jean Cocteau wrote, in an ironical epitome of ambient nationalistic fury, about France, " C'est le coq sur le fumier. Enlevez le fumier et le coq se meurt ". Arnold Joseph Toynbee's twelve-volume masterpiece is by far the greatest book of the 20-th century produced by a single mind. The other one, which is unrestricted, is Father Dumitru Stăniloae's translation of the Church Fathers, collected in Filocalia românească. If the professor Toynbee were not the greatest historian since Thucydides, he would no doubt be a prophet. Written with profound wit - sometimes deeper than we may grasp at our first reading, but always tasty - such a text could be easily produced in any court of law. It would win the day ! No juror and few judges would afford to take it superficially... Especially nowadays... For here you will read nothing less than a crystalline mind in the process of thinking clearly and expressing itself simply and completely on the matter of civilization. It's a cardinal paradigm. It's a dream came true.
Toynbee extracted historical knowledge from the countless nationalistic shelves and transported it into the realm of metaknowledge, using empirical as well as historiographical science. Much unlike relativists and other nonsense-"historiographers" ( the name of Boia comes to mind as one of the worst counter-examples), he did not destroy national histories in the process. He only did what he knew best, telling the truth : He paid hommage to "the last infirmity of noble minds". Do not take this book with a grain of salt, with easy-going coffe-table albums or even with your usual intellectual arrogance. Take it into the island where you would retire! It's more than a book you are contemplating here ! It's the epitaph of the Western Civilization, carved in lasting, if delicately and well cut stone.