In his monumental “A Study of History” Dr. Arnold J. Toynbee identifies 23 civilizations that have existed since the beginning of recorded history. The expression “recorded history” itself implies civilization. Societies and cultures that existed prior to recorded history are deemed uncivilized, pre-civilized. The 23 civilizations identified by Dr. Toynbee are :
First Generation: Minoan, Shang, Sumeric, Egyptiac, Indus, Mayan, Andean (Inca), Yucatec, and Mexic
Second Generation: Hellenic, Syriac, Sinic, Indic, Hittite, Babylonic
Third Generation: Western, Russian Orthodox, Byzantine Orthodox, Chinese, Far Eastern (Japanese-Korean), Hindu
In addition, Toynbee identifies four cultures that he names “abortive civilizations”: Far Western Christian, Far Eastern Christian, Scandinavian, Syriac
(I apologize to the reader. I am in France far from my copy of “A Study of History”, so I am relying on Wikipedia for my information. It is obvious that the Wikipedia author of the entry “A Study of History” is not a careful writer. He begins his article by listing 19 civilizations identified by Toynbee. Later in the article (Section 6) he lays out a chart with a heading stating that Toynbee had identified 23 civilizations. Interestingly, the author shows the Syriac Civilization as one of the 19; he does not show it as one of the 23; he does list it as one of the abortive civilizations. Furthermore, on the chart of the 23 civilizations there are only 21, unless one counts the Persian and the Arabic as civilizations blending later into the Islamic Civilization. In my opinion, this is a stretch and to the degree that I remember Toynbee he never suggested that there existed a Persian and an Arabic Civilization, precursors to the Islamic Civilization. In any case, these details are not germane to this blog.)
Toynbee also identifies five “arrested civilizations”: Polynesian, Eskimo, Nomads, Ottoman, Spartan
With regard to these “arrested civilizations” Toynbee, in my opinion, is way off the mark. Except possibly for the Ottoman and the Spartan, the other three come nowhere close to meeting the conditions laid out by Toynbee to become civilizations. I mention one crucial point: Agriculture is the sine qua non to becoming a civilization. And not just family agriculture that meets the need of one family group, but agriculture that produces more than one family group needs. This opens the doors to many of the essential features of a civilization. I will get into this more thoroughly later. There was never any possibility that the Polynesians, Eskimos, and Nomads achieve that level of agriculture. So, they remained primitive societies, trapped by their environments, with no possibility of evolving.
The last volume of Toynbee’s study was published in 1961, five and a half decades ago. I live in perpetual surprise that no one has thoroughly examined his work, no one has proposed modifications to his concept, no one has corrected any errors he may have made. The only critique I know was on the minor point of Toynbee having designated Jewry as a fossil society. I believe that there was one book published criticizing this point of view. Yet since Toynbee finished his study there have been a number of scholars celebrated for their views and concepts on civilizations: Huntington, Clough, Melko, et al., yet compared to Toynbee their efforts are piecemeal and inconclusive. If one goes to the home page of the ISCSC and looks into the item “Civilization Defined” one will discover a fairly lengthy “discussion” entitled “Civilizations and Recommendations.” Reading through this, one discovers that it is not really a “discussion”, but a series of viewpoints and ruminations on civilization. There is a section entitled “Recommended Readings on Civilization.” Toynbee’s “A Study of History” is not included. The various viewpoints emphasize the cultural aspects of a civilization and yet, a civilization’s culture is usually one of the last features of a civilization to be developed. For example, the essential characteristics of Western Civilization are Nationalism and Christianity. Western culture, such as we define it today, was developed slowly well after the creation of Western Civilization. The United States as the last developed part of Western Civilization, as Rome was to Athens in the Hellenic Civilization, has contributed one additional essential characteristic, i. e., Constitutional Democracy.
Later, the participants in the so-called discussion are asked to recommend readings on civilization. Only two recommend Toynbee.
I do not understand how one can perform a comparative study of civilizations if one does not define the features of a civilization. I ask any reader of this blog to please explain that to me.
Even though Toynbee stands head and shoulders above any other scholar having published a text or texts on civilization, he was not perfect. His understanding was sometimes clouded, as is any scholar’s, and sometimes deficient, since what he knew when he wrote has been expanded since he finished. For example: As an “abortive civilization” a prime candidate would be the Ancient Pueblan culture as manifested at Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, Hovenweep, etc.
Instead of piece mealing the study of civilization, one should be recommending young scholars to look hard at Toynbee. Are the civilizations that he identified correct? Should there be more or less? Is it legitimate to talk about “abortive” and “arrested” civilizations? What are the time spans for each of the no longer existing civilizations? How does one determine when a civilization begins and when it ends? The Andean (Inca) and Mexic (Aztec) civilizations should be relatively easy to fit into their temporal space, since they were both abruptly ended by Spanish conquest. But how long did it take for the cultural aspects of these civilizations to be replaced by a Spanish culture?
The members of the “discussion” group have significant problems in determining what a civilization is. First, with respect to a definition, all one needs to do is go to any worthwhile dictionary and look up the definition. For example, using Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, ©1999, one finds the definition of a civilization. There are 6 different definitions proposed. I believe that definitions 2 and 4 are the most appropriate to this discussion: “2. the condition of being civilized; social organization of a high order, marked by the development and use of a written language and by advances in the arts and sciences, government, etc. 4. The countries and peoples considered to have reached a high stage of social and cultural development”. My own definition is: The most advanced and most complex social, political, economic, cultural, and military environment thus far achieved by humankind.
What is important is that coming up with a universally accepted definition of civilization does not in the least aid the comparative study of civilizations. A definition categorizes. That’s all. What is necessary to do comparative studies is to agree on the features or characteristics of the entities being compared. The ISCSC has not done this. Consequently it is not capable of living up to its name. Yet, the path to a universal understanding of the features of a civilization was laid down more than 70 years ago. I refer to V. Gordon Childe’s list of the essential characteristics of a civilization. Not surprisingly, his name is not mentioned by anyone at any time in the “discussion”.
Let me list what Childe considered to be the essential features of a civilization.
1. Large and thickly populated settlements
2. A variety of specialized occupations
3. The ability to store surplus food and other goods
4. Large public buildings
5. A variety and ranking of social positions
6. Writing and a system of notation
7. The beginning of science
8. The development of an important art style
9. Trade over long distances
10. The beginning of social control based on a central government rather than kinship
There is something for a civilizational scholar, who has no preconceived ideas, to sink his teeth into. Why has Childe been neglected in the field of civilizational studies? His is the essential work. Today’s scholars need to go over these 10 features and determine whether they are essential to distinguishing a civilization from the next lower level of social and political organization. How do Toynbee’s 23 or 21 or 19 civilizations stack up with regard to these characteristics? Do all of his proposed civilizations meet the standard? One that comes immediately to mind is the Andean (Inca) Civilization. It is a good example of the fact that civilizations do not spring full-bodied from the head of Zeus. When it met its untimely end by Spanish conquest it had not yet developed a system of writing. However, modern research seems to indicate that it was on the path to develop such a system.
I close, by recalling to the reader’s attention that without agricultural development beyond the family group many of the above characteristics could not, and would not, have developed.