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Our English Cousin

May 2024
1min read

Some historians not only look at the past but also try their hand at glimpsing what the future holds. Such a one is the famed British historian Arnold Toynbee. The following is an interview with him conducted by a scribe of the London Sunday Times who calls himself Atticus:

Professor Arnold Toynbee, who’s currently revising his mammoth, 12-volume Study of History , must be our most controversial historian. His reflections on the prophet Muhammed caused a riot in India in 1969 (four dead; 67 injured). “I was very surprised,” said Toynbee. “I’m pro-Muslim.” His Study of History brought some loud protests from fellow historians like Hugh Trevor-Roper. He called Toynbee’s learned study a “windy soufflé” and accused him of egotism, obscurity and intellectual hanky-panky.

Toynbee, always amiable and never rude, refuses to shout back. “It takes two dogs to make a dog fight,” he says. “Some critics aim to get your blood. Others aim at the truth.” Where does Trevor-Roper fit in? “I really couldn’t say,” says Toynbee. “I met him afterwards, though and he was very polite. I can’t remember what he said.” Toynbee’s famous for seeing patterns in history and he says you can learn about the present by looking at the past. The Americans could have learned a thing or two about Vietnam by looking at the confrontation between David and Goliath. “Goliath was equipped with fantastic armaments. He would have been wiser to have taken note of what David was equipped with.” …

Toynbee, who predicted the First and Second World Wars, is often accused of being pessimistic. He once said that the future of the world in the atomic age lay in remote places with people like the Tibetans and the Eskimos. “Unfortunately after I said that, the Chinese moved into Tibet and Western culture got to the Eskimos who started eating canned food.”

He thinks our only hope lies in world government and unity by agreement. “In the past it’s always been unity by a knock on the head which always seemed to work better.” In the atomic age it’s difficult. Everyone gets knocked on the head. Toynbee is still pretty pessimistic and he sees Black Power, hippy and drug cultures as possible symptoms of the disintegration of Western civilisation.

If he’s attacked and called a windy soufflé in Britain, he’s a revered figure in Japan. A national Japanese newspaper has asked its readers for questions to put to the wise Professor and Toynbee has just received a batch of 67 containing some like these: “What are we here for?” and “What is the nature of the universe?” Toynbee found them difficult but he struggled through. “I said something like: we are conscious of the universe but we don’t understand it. …”

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