Spengler & Toynbee

From another letter to a friend, excerpted by permission. This time, I'm off on Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee, and historical cycles...

As for historical cycles, I think it was Mark Twain who said, "History doesn't repeat itself, but sometimes it does rhyme"? There is some degree of similarity or analogy to be found among historical events, else we could not learn from history, or profit from its study.

But does a loose historical similarity amount to "historical cycles"? I think not, if by "cycles" you mean the kind of "cycles" that are studied in physics or geology or astronomy. These involve phenomena which can be quantified. Indeed, years ago in graduate math I studied one area known as "Fourier analysis"-- the burden of which is, any quantifiable phenomenon that varies with time can be viewed as cyclic, if only you get to choose the period of the cycle.

However, that's assuming you can quantify what you are studying, which is "a mighty big if." Most historical phenomena cannot be quantified, rather they are qualitative. So we are brought back to much the same divide as I discussed in one past letter: the divide between the physical sciences, which can be dealt with "objectively" and "quantitatively"; and other areas of scholarship, which cannot, though that hasn't stopped some scholars from trying, and generally wreaking a good deal of cultural havoc in the process.

Still, there are some things about history that seem "cyclical," in some very loose, nonquantifiable, "rhyming" sense. For example, a society which enters upon a phase of imperialism is often given to architectural gigantism; to a metastasizing bureaucracy and public sector; to an urban proletariat kept pacified with bread and circuses; and to religious syncretism and apocalypticism; and this phase usually arrives only after the culture has spent most of its musical, poetic, artistic, and mathematical creative impetus. A pretty general statement, though I leave it as an exercise to apply it in equal detail to the Roman Empire, and to the modern West! It could also be applied, loosely, to many another civilization down through history.

Now we are not speaking in quantifiable terms, but we do seem to have something "cyclical" by the tail. Or do we? If so, what is it?

Earlier in this century, there was a vogue in the cyclical philosophy of history laid forth in Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West. If you can bear the purple prose of Spengler in Charles Francis Atkinson's English translation, this is a work worth browsing. Spengler was self-taught, he was annoyingly oracular, and he was wrong about many things, including some of the historical facts he treated; but the sweep of his mind is fascinating to behold, and this two-volume opus was highly influential with a long list of mid-twentieth century writers including William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, James Blish, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and (I think?) Thomas Mann.

Spengler also touched off Arnold Toynbee, who decided to do this kind of project up right, the result being Toynbee's twelve volumes of A Study of History. Also worth perusing, though I have only the two-volume Sommervell abridgment on my bookshelf. It is a mind-bender to remember today that there was a time when Toynbee was the toast of historians and Time magazine readers alike. And why not? Toynbee was suave, modulated, the sort who fits in well at a posh dinner party: he was Isaiah to Spengler's crazy Ezekiel. Toynbee presented a vision of history which was linear and cyclical, religious and scholarly, all at the same time. Yet oddly enough, Toynbee was popular but never (to the best of my knowledge) influential on writers and thinkers as was Spengler. Perhaps not unrelated, in the late fifties Toynbee's reputation was pricked and burst like a soap bubble by Hugh Trevor-Roper's devastating essay on Toynbee's "Philosophy of Mish-Mash."

Today broad-gauge philosophies of history like Spengler's or Toynbee's are out of fashion. I dunno, certainly their reach did exceed their grasp. But it is instructive to note that in each case, their notion of historical cycles was nonquantifiable, and based on what they understood as deeper underlying forces.

For Spengler, cultures grew into civilizations, ran through a life cycle, and then eventually died, as "organisms." The "organic" metaphor-- drawn, I understand, from Goethe-- was fundamental for Spengler.

For Toynbee, civilizations grew up in response to challenges to survival imposed on them by their physical environment. The highest civilizations arose where the challenge presented by environment was neither too lax (as with the Polynesians) nor too severe (as with the Eskimos).

I don't know. Certainly, like you, I harbor a healthy skepticism of "90-year cycles," "20-year cycles," Kondratieff curves, and whatnot. For reasons laid forth above!

But on some basic level, there seems to be something roughly right to the idea that civilizations "rise" and "fall," "live" and "die," pass through "youth" and "the prime of life" and then "old age," in a manner that supports some kind of analogy with men and dogs and deer. Whether or not one really can fill it out in quite as close detail as Spengler did!

And Toynbee's notion of environmental challenge and response at least addresses one hot potato which, in this politically correct era, most academics won't even touch. Why did all the "high" civilizations down through history arise in that broad zone which stretches across Europe, northern Africa, and Asia, extending from Britain to Japan, and running no further north than the Arctic Circle, seldom much further south than the Tropic of Cancer? Name me one system of writing, one world religion, one first-rate philosophy, one body of written literature, one major mathematical or scientific discovery prior to AD 1500, which arose outside of this broad geographic belt. Well, okay, Mayan hieroglyphics-calendar-zero: now try to add another item to the list.

In part, I think Toynbee and Spengler overreached, or fell short, or both. But however fumblingly, they seem to have been on to bits and pieces of something. Something unquantifiable, something that only "rhymes," but something nonetheless. Perhaps also in part the problem is that we live in an age which is antipathetic to broad-gauge ideas as such. (Though sometimes not without justification, if you think of 90-year cycles and Kondratieff curves and the like!)