The road to historic collapse
Great civilizations are not murdered. Instead, they take their own lives on the road to historic collapse..
So concluded the historian Arnold Toynbee in his 12-volume magnum opus A Study of History. It was an exploration of the rise and fall of 28 different civilizations.
He was right in some respects: civilizations are often responsible for their own decline. However, their self-destruction is usually assisted.
The Roman Empire, a prime example of an historic collapse, was the victim of many ills including over-expansion, climatic change, environmental degradation and poor leadership. But it was also brought to its knees when Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 410 and the Vandals in 455.
Collapse is often quick and greatness provides no immunity. The Roman Empire covered 4.4 million sq. km (1.9 million sq. miles) in 390. Five years later, it had plummeted to 2 million sq. km (770,000 sq. miles). By 476, the empire’s reach was zero.
Our deep past is marked by recurring failure. As part of my research at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge, I am attempting to find out why historic collapse occurs through a historical autopsy. What can the rise and fall of historic civilizations tell us about our own? What are the forces that precipitate or delay a collapse? And do we see similar patterns today?
The historian who identified the historic collapse of 26 civilizations
Arnold Toynbee, (born April 14, 1889, London—died Oct. 22, 1975, York, North Yorkshire, Eng.), English historian whose 12-volume A Study of History (1934–61) put forward a philosophy of history, based on an analysis of the cyclical development and decline of civilizations, that provoked much discussion.
Toynbee was a nephew of the 19th-century economist Arnold Toynbee. He was educated at Balliol College, Oxford (classics, 1911), and studied briefly at the British School at Athens, an experience that influenced the genesis of his philosophy about the decline of civilizations. In 1912 he became a tutor and fellow in ancient history at Balliol College, and in 1915 he began working for the intelligence department of the British Foreign Office. After serving as a delegate to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 he was appointed professor of Byzantine and modern Greek studies at the University of London.
From 1921 to 1922 he was the Manchester Guardian correspondent during the Greco-Turkish War, an experience that resulted in the publication of The Western Question in Greece and Turkey (1922). In 1925 he became research professor of international history at the London School of Economics and director of studies at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.
Toynbee began his Study of History in 1922, inspired by seeing Bulgarian peasants wearing fox-skin caps like those described by Herodotus as the headgear of Xerxes’ troops. This incident reveals the characteristics that give his work its special quality—his sense of the vast continuity of history and his eye for its pattern, his immense erudition, and his acute observation.
In the Study Toynbee examined the rise and fall of 26 civilizations in the course of human history, and he concluded that they rose by responding successfully to challenges under the leadership of creative minorities composed of elite leaders. Civilizations declined when their leaders stopped responding creatively, and the civilizations then sank owing to the sins of nationalism, militarism, and the tyranny of a despotic minority. Unlike Spengler in his The Decline of the West, Toynbee did not regard the death of a civilization as inevitable, for it may or may not continue to respond to successive challenges. Unlike Karl Marx, he saw history as shaped by spiritual, not economic forces.
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