political revue


Year XXXV, 1993, Number 1 - Page 43




Arnold J. Toynbee (1889-1975), taught classical philology at Oxford University. As an expert on Middle-Eastern affairs, he was part of the British delegation at the Conference of Versailles. From 1919 to 1924 he was professor of Byzantine literature at London University, and for a long time he directed the Studies Centre of the Royal Institute of International Affairs. Much of the great amount of material he produced was dedicated to contemporary issues. His moral involvement with such issues emerges specifically in one of his books, Mankind and Mother Earth,[1] which he wrote towards the end of his long life. In it he outlined the universal history of man from his origins on Earth. This book conveys a message, a sort of spiritual testament which solemnly calls for peace between men and with their “Great Mother”, the Earth.
Here we publish the final chapter, but it is worth mentioning some other passages from the book which underline his closeness to federalist thought, both with respect to certain interpretations of the evolution of the historical process, and with regard to the conclusions that he drew from his general analysis.
The fundamental premise that led Toynbee to cover the entire history of mankind was the safeguarding of life on Earth. One of the principal ideas throughout the book on which the author, with keen disquiet, invites reflection, is the dialectic between the potential malignancy of man (“Human beings are unique in being able to be wicked, because they are unique in being conscious of what they are doing and in making deliberate choices”),[2] and man’s capacity, arising from his individual conscience, of hating and condemning all that is evil.
This unease derives not so much from man’s ability as a conscious being to choose between good and evil, but rather from the fact that mankind is conditioned by being a part of institutional or technical-productive structures that have not yet been completely mastered. For Toynbee there are two fundamental myths which man is still a prisoner of: namely, sovereign states, and the conviction that mankind is in perfect control of his exploitation of the biosphere.
He writes, “Sovereign states have been mankind’s paramount objects of worship during the last 5,000 years; and these are goddesses which have demanded and received hecatombs of human sacrifices. Sovereign states go to war with each other, and in war they each require the choicest of their young male subjects to murder the subjects of the “enemy” state at the risk of themselves being murdered by their intended victims. Till within living memory, all human beings except a few small minorities... have looked upon killing and being killed in war as being not only legitimate but meritorious and glorious.”[3]
Turning to the second myth, equally dangerous for the safeguarding of life on Earth, Toynbee writes: “The biosphere has been able to harbour life because the biosphere has been a self-regulating association of mutually complementary components, and, before the emergence of Man, no single component of the biosphere... ever acquired the power to upset the delicately adjusted balance of the play of forces by means of which the biosphere has become a hospitable home for life...
Man is the first of the biosphere’s denizens that is more potent than the biosphere itself... Man can succeed in surviving till he has wrecked the biosphere.”[4]
Therefore one of the challenges that must be faced today is that linked to the discovery and use of atomic energy, snatched out “of the hands of life’s father, the Sun... Today we do not know whether Man is going to be willing or able to avoid bringing Phaethon’s fate on himself and on his fellow living beings.”[5]
The constructive aspect of Toynbee’s philosophy is his identification of the context within which problems belong, and which cannot be overlooked if a solution is to be found. That is, the progressive development of global interdependence, which has its roots in the distant past, but which is now the fundamental logic by which we must direct our plans for the future. “Mention has already been made of the discrepancy between the political partition of the Oikoumene into local sovereign states and the global unification of the Oikoumene on the technological and economic planes. This misfit is the crux of mankind’s present plight. Some form of global government is now needed for keeping the peace between one local human community and another, and for re-establishing the balance between Man and the rest of the biosphere, now that this balance has been upset by Man’s enormous augmentation of human material power...”[6]
The choice between good and evil is therefore the choice between union and division that the federalists identify as an alternative between federalism and nationalism. Toynbee does not explicitly indicate the federal state as being the institutional structure most suitable for world government. However he hints at its characteristics and democratic potential when he suggests the creation of a “global body politic composed of cells on the scale of the Neolithic-Age village-community – a scale on which the participants could be personally acquainted with each other, while each of them would also be a citizen of the world-state.”[7]
The same alternative between union and division was the defining characteristic which was the basis of his interpretation of Greece in the VI and V centuries BC.[8] These were the centuries of the flowering and final decadence of a microcosm which bears remarkable parallels, even with obvious distinctions, with the history and perspectives of modern Europe.
Toynbee argues that Greece’s economic revolution, based on colonisation and commerce, together with the maintenance of the political sovereignty of the very small territorial units of the city states, created an imbalance that could not last. The city states, if they did not want to return to autocracy and economic backwardness, should have been obliged to give up part of their sovereignty and create a pan-Hellenic political organisation to manage common problems. The opportunity to face the political issue of unity, says Toynbee, was offered by an external enemy, the Persians. The only alternative for the Greeks in the face of the Persians’ ability to expand was to unite. However the opportunity was only partially seized. A common defence allowed the Greeks to repulse the invasion, but the end of the war coincided with the renewal of internal divisions and Greece’s irreversible decline.
The European situation is not different: the process of economic integration started after the second world war can only develop to its full potential if there is political management of the economy by a common government; while the creation of a federal Europe is the only alternative to an enemy which Europe has had to face for nearly two centuries nationalism. The decline which Europe will suffer if such divisive factors gain the upper hand, will be considerably more serious than that suffered by the Greek city states. This is because the effects will be felt not only by European countries, but by the entire world. If division prevails, then this historical experiment encapsulating the cultural and moral, as well as political, germs of the unity of mankind will end, that is the overcoming of the absolute sovereignty of states which, as Toynbee pointed out, is the greatest danger for the salvation of man and “Mother Earth”.
The future does not yet exist; the past has ceased to exist, and therefore, in so far as a record of the past survives, the recorded events are immutable. However, this immutable past does not present the same appearance always and everywhere. It looks different at different times and places, and either an increase or a decrease in our information may also change the picture. Our view of relations of past events to each other, of their relative importance, and of their significance, changes constantly in consequence of the constant change of the fugitive present. The same past viewed in the same country by the same person, first in 1897 and then in 1973, presents two very different pictures; and no doubt the self-same past will look still more different when viewed in China in 2073 and even more different again when viewed in Nigeria in 2173.
In the present chapter, the writer of this book has picked out, for mention, features in the record of the past that looked salient and significant to him in 1973 and that seemed to him likely (a hazardous guess) to present the same appearance when viewed at later dates in other places.
Since our ancestors became human, mankind has lived, during all but the last fraction – perhaps the last sixteenth part – of its time-span to date, in the Lower Paleolithic way. A band of Lower Paleolithic food-gatherers and hunters had to be small in numbers and to give a wide berth to other bands. At this stage of technology and economy, a concentration of population would have spelled starvation. In the Lower Paleolithic Age, technology was almost static, and each band was small enough for all its members to be acquainted with each other personally. This was the setting of human social life till recently.
Perhaps 40,000 years ago, or, at the utmost, not more than 70,000 years ago, there was a relatively sudden and rapid advance in technology. The event is well attested by archaeological evidence, though the cause of it is unknown. Lower Paleolithic tools were replaced by a series of Upper Paleolithic improvements. Since then technology has gone on advancing. Its advance has not been continuous. There have been successive bursts of technological invention, with intervening pauses. The principal bursts, to date, have been the Upper Paleolithic (improved tools, bows and arrows, domestication of the dog), the Neolithic (still better tools, together with the domestication of more species of animals and plants, and the invention of spinning and weaving and pottery-making), the fifth millennium B.C. (sails, wheels, metallurgy, writing), and the Industrial Revolution (a vast increase in mechanization) which started two hundred years ago and is still in progress. Thus the progression of technology has not been uninterrupted, but it has been cumulative. The loss of an acquired technique has been rare. In the Aegean area, the technique of writing was lost in the twelfth century B.C., but this was an exceptional event.
Technology is the only field of human activity in which there has been progression. The advance from Lower Paleolithic to mechanized technology has been immense. There has been no corresponding advance in human sociality, though advances in this field have been called for by the changes in social conditions that have been imposed upon mankind by its technological progress.
The most important of Man’s successive technological advances to date has been the domestication of other animals, besides the dog, and the invention of agriculture, in the Neolithic Age. Agriculture and animal husbandry have provided the base for all subsequent technological progress, including the current Industrial Revolution, and also the base for the way of life of all the civilizations that have risen and fallen to date.
The Neolithic-Age village-community was larger in numbers than the pre-agricultural food-gathering and hunting band, but it was not so large that the personal relations between its members had to be eked out by the introduction of impersonal institutions, and Neolithic technology was not so complex as to require any appreciable amount of specialization and division of labour beyond the physiological differentiation between the functions of the two sexes. Moreover, though the Neolithic village community was sedentary, it was insulated from other village-communities by intervening stretches of virgin wilderness. Thus, though the change in the technological and economic conditions of life between the Upper Paleolithic Age and the Neolithic Age was great, the measure of sociality to which mankind had been conditioned during the immensely long-drawn-out Lower Paleolithic Age could be stretched to meet the needs of the Neolithic-Age way of life. This is why, in the fourth century B.C., more than a thousand years after the replacement of this way of life by civilization in China, Taoist philosophers in the Age of the Chinese Warring States looked back to the conditions of the Neolithic Age nostalgically. Their experience of life in their own age made them feel that the subsequent progress of technology, and the social consequences of this, had been misfortunes.
In 1973 peasants living in village-communities of the Neolithic-Age style still constituted a majority of the living generation of mankind, but they were rapidly drifting out of the countryside into shanty-towns enveloping the cities, while, conversely, the mechanization that had been invented for processing inanimate matter in factories was being applied to agriculture and to animal husbandry. Moreover, for the past 5,000 years, the Oikouméne’s peasantry had been saddled with the burden of having to support a superstructure of civilization.
This had been possible because, in the fourth millennium B.C., the advance of technology had begun to produce a surplus of production over and above what was needed for bare subsistence, while Man’s Paleolithic heritage of sociality had proved to be morally inadequate for allocating the use of this surplus beneficently. Part of the surplus had been misspent on war; the rest had been appropriated inequitably by a minority of the members of society whose collective work had produced it.
The advance of technology in the fourth millennium B.C. had required specialists (miners, smiths, and the planners, inspirers, and organizers of large-scale public works, e.g. for drainage and irrigation). The specialists’ contribution to the production of the surplus was greater than that of the unskilled majority of the workers, and a differential distribution of the economic reward, though not amiable, was perhaps not unjust in principle, and anyway was probably inevitable, considering that Man, like every other species of living being, is innately greedy, and that the restraint imposed on his greed by his Lower-Paleolithic degree of sociality no longer sufficed in Man’s new technological and social situation. The “differentials” in the distribution of the surplus were inequitably great, and they also tended to become hereditary. Thus social injustice and war were the price of collective affluence. These two congenital social maladies of civilization still afflict mankind today.
Since the dawn of civilization there has been a disparity between Man’s technological progression and his social performance. The advance of technology, particularly the most recent advance during the two centuries 1773-1973, has vastly increased Man’s wealth and power, and the “morality gap” between Man’s physical power for doing evil and his spiritual capacity for coping with this power has yawned as wide open as the mythical jaws of Hell. During the last 5,000 years, the widening “morality gap” has caused mankind to inflict on itself grievous disasters.
Man’s spiritual inadequacy has set a limit to his social progress and therefore to his technological progress too; for, as technology has grown in scale and in complexity, it has increased its requirement of social cooperation among the producers of wealth. Since the beginning of the current Industrial Revolution, mechanization has introduced a second limitation on technological progress. Mechanization has been making industrial work more productive materially at the cost of making it less satisfying psychologically, and this has made the workers restive and has tended to lower the standard of workmanship.
Productivity was increased at the dawn of civilization through the draining and irrigation of the jungle-swamps in the lower basins of the Tigris and Euphrates and of the Nile. This required an increase in the scale of technological operations; this in turn required an increase in the numerical strength of communities that went far beyond the limits of a sociality based on personal relations between the members of society. When the requirements of technology constrained the founders of the earliest civilizations to assemble man-power in excess of the narrow limits of pre-civilizational communities, they invented a new social device: impersonal institutions. These can sustain larger communities because they can generate co-operation between human beings who have no personal acquaintance with each other. But institutionalized social relations are both frigid and fragile. Human beings have never felt at home in them as they do feel at home in personal relations. Institutions are always in danger of losing grip and breaking down, and consequently the persons in authority who are responsible for maintaining them are always under temptation to resort to coercion as a substitute for the voluntary co-operation that institutions often fail to evoke.
Since the dawn of civilization, Man’s master institutions has been states – in the plural, not in the singular; for, to date, there has never been one single state embracing the whole living generation of mankind all round the globe. There has always been a multitude of states coexisting side by side, and, unlike the Paleolithic bands and the Neolithic village communities, the states of the Age of the Civilizations have not been insulated from each other; they have collided with each other, and their collisions have precipitated the wars that have been one of the maladies of civilization.
The usual type of state has been a local sovereign state juxtaposed with a number of other states of its own kind. There are about 170 of these in the present-day global Oikouméne; its political configuration is the same as that of Sumer in the third millennium B.C.
Local sovereign states are an awkward institution. They fall between two stools. Even a city-state, not to speak of a nation-state or a federation of city-states or of nation-states, is far too large to be capable of being based socially on the personal relations in which human beings feel at home. On the other hand, the largest local state is still only one of a number of states of the same kind. It has the ability to make war, but not the ability to provide peace. Wherever and whenever there has been a set of local sovereign states juxtaposed to each other, they have always fallen into warfare with each other, and, in the past, this warfare has always ended in the imposition of peace by the forcible establishment of an empire embracing as much of the Oikouméne as has lain within the horizon of the liquidated set of warring local states. The Pharaonic Egyptian civilization was singular in having been united politically by force at the dawn of its history, without the protracted preliminary bout of warfare between local states. It is significant that this civilization was the most stable and the most durable of all the civilizations that have arisen so far.
The present-day global set of local sovereign states is not capable of keeping the peace, and it is also not capable of saving the biosphere from man-made pollution or of conserving the biosphere’s non-replaceable natural resources. This ecumenical anarchy on the political plane cannot continue for much longer in an Oikouméne that has already become a unity on the technological and economic planes. What has been needed for the last 5,000 years, and has been feasible technologically, though not yet politically, for the last hundred years, is a global body politic composed of cells on the scale of the Neolithic-Age village-community – a scale on which the participants could be personally acquainted with each other, while each of them would also be a citizen of the world-state. However, the Oikouméne cannot now be united politically by the barbarous and ruinous traditional method of military conquest. In 1945 an Oikouméne that was still un-unified politically was overtaken by the invention of the nuclear weapon, and the Oikouméne could never be united by the use of this deadly weapon; annihilation, not unification, would be the inevitable outcome of a nuclear world war.
The record of Sumerian, Hellenic, Chinese, and medieval Italian history demonstrates that a set of local sovereign states can be no more than a transitory political configuration. In the age in which mankind has acquired the command over nuclear power, political unification can be accomplished only voluntarily, and, since it is evidently going to be accepted only reluctantly, it seems probable that it will be delayed until mankind has brought up on itself further disasters of a magnitude that will induce it to acquiesce at last in global political union as being the lesser evil.
At this point in our history, we human beings might be tempted to envy the social insects. These have been conditioned by Nature to cooperate with each other on the grand scale. The individual bee or ant or termite subordinates and sacrifices itself in the service of its community, and its self-surrender is neither voluntary nor enforced by external compulsion; it is inherent in the constitution of the insect’s psyche. It is going to be harder for Man the amphibian to stretch his sociality from the modicum required of him, and acquired by him, in the Lower Paleolithic Age till an enhanced human sociality embraces the whole of the biosphere; for Man, unlike the termite, ant, and bee, is not just an inherently social psychosomatic organism; he is also a soul which possesses consciousness and which therefore can, and must, make choices, either for good or for evil.
Fortunately, Man’s sociality is not confined within the narrow compass of personal relations that was adequate for pre-civilizational human societies. A human being does have a sense of compassion for any other human being whom he finds in distress, even if, in tribal parlance, this fellow human being is an “alien”. A human being will take pity on any sick person and on any lost child, and will come to the sufferer’s aid. In empires, such as the Chinese Empire and the Roman Empire, whose rulers equated their dominions with the whole of the Oikouméne, the rulers’ subjects came, in the course of time, to look upon themselves as being, not victims of alien conquerors, but citizens of an ecumenical state. The missionary religions set out to evangelize the whole of mankind, and the Chinese philosopher Mo-tzu held that a human being ought to love and serve all his fellow human beings with an impartial devotion. Confucius’ most authoritative interpreter, Mencius, rejected Mo-tzu’s precept as being impracticable; he stood for the Confucian ideal of a graduated order of loyalties; but experience shows that love inspired by personal acquaintance and love for all fellow human beings simply in virtue of a common humanity need not be mutually exclusive expressions of sociality. In India, the range of love has been restricted by the barriers of caste, but it has also been extended to include Man’s fellow living beings of every species. In the Oikouméne in the Age of the Industrial Revolution, human love needs to be extended to include all components of the biosphere, inanimate as well as animate.
These were the reflections, in 1973, of one British observer who had been born in 1889. What, in 1973, were the reflections of the writer’s fellow human beings? How far were they aware of the past? And how vigorously were they acting on lessons that they had derived from a retrospective survey of history?
Evidently few people are ready to recognize that the institution of local sovereign states has failed repeatedly, during the last 5,000 years, to meet mankind’s political needs, and that, in a global society, this institution is bound to prove to be transitory once again and this time more surely than ever before. Since the end of the Second World War the number of local sovereign states in the Oikouméne has more than doubled, in spite of the fact that, at the same time, all the politically sundered fractions of mankind have become more and more closely interdependent, on the technological and economic planes.
The Chinese people, who once equated the Chinese Empire with “All that is under Heaven”, have now resigned themselves to seeing their country play its role as a member of a set of warring states in a global arena. Implicitly, the Chinese are ignoring the grim chapter of their own history when China herself was an arena for local warring states. On the other hand, the Chinese appear to be alive to the history of China since her political unification in 221 B.C.; for they are making energetic efforts to avoid a recurrence of the estrangement of the civil service from the peasantry that was “China’s sorrow” ever since the reign of the Emperor Han Wu-ti.
In the second century B.C. this Emperor had inaugurated the recruitment of the Chinese civil service by merit, and the assessment of the candidates’ merit by examination. The Chinese Imperial civil service had been the best of any in the Oikouméne; it had held together a larger number of human beings in peace and order for a greater number of years than any other civil service anywhere. Yet, time after time, the Chinese civil servants had betrayed their trust and had brought China to grief by abusing their power for their own personal advantage. China’s leaders have taken steps to prevent this from happening again. Whether they will be more successful than earlier Chinese reformers remains to be seen, but at least the vigour of their current action is a good augury.
If the Chinese take to heart the lesson of past Chinese errors, and if they succeed in saving themselves from repeating these errors, they may do a great service, not only to their own country, but to the whole of mankind at a critical stage in mankind’s enigmatic course.
Man is a psychosomatic inhabitant of the biosphere that coats the surface of the planet Earth, and in this respect he is one among the species of living creatures that are children of Mother Earth. But Man is also a spirit, and, as such, he is in communication with – and in the mystics’ experience, is identical with – a spiritual reality that is not of this World.
As a spirit, Man possesses consciousness, he distinguishes between good and evil, and in his acts he makes choices. In the ethical field, in which Man’s choices are either for evil or for good, his choices produce a moral credit-and-debit account. We do not know whether this account is closed at the death of each short-lived human being or whether (as Hindus and Buddhists believe) it runs on through a potentially endless series of reincarnations. For the network of relations between incarnate human beings that constitutes human society, the account is still open and will remain open so long as mankind allows the biosphere to remain inhabitable.
Will mankind murder Mother Earth or will he redeem her? He could murder her by misusing his increasing technological potency. Alternatively he could redeem her by overcoming the suicidal, aggressive greed that, in all living creatures, including Man himself, has been the price of the Great Mother’s gift of life. This is the enigmatic question which now confronts Man.
(Prefaced and edited by Antonio Mosconi)

[1] A.J. Toynbee, Mankind and Mother Earth, London, Oxford University Press, 1976.
[2] Ibid. p. 13.
[3] Ibid. pp. 12-13.
[4] Ibid. p. 27.
[5] Ibid. p. 17.
[6] Ibid. p. 587.
[7] Ibid. p. 593.
[8] A.J. Toynbee, Hellenism. The History of a Civilization, London, Oxford University Press, 1959.




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