The Lessons of Arnold Toynbee

When William McNeill’s biography of Arnold J. Toynbee dropped to 2 bucks on the kindle store, I knew that I had to read it. Like most scholarly flashes, it had more to do with the way decades of reading and browsing were being shuffled around in the back part of my brain. My intuition was right — McNeill’s book is valuable to people interested in Toynbee but also, more importantly, to scholars everywhere trying to balance work and life. As someone who gave himself up wholly to work, Toynbee exemplifies what an intellectual can accomplish once they give up everything but their work. As a result, this well-written and intimate biography of Toynbee serves as a cautionary tale (or how-to guide) for many of us.

Toynbee was a British historian and writer who grew up in Edwardian England’s most prestigious institutions (Winchester, Balliol), lived through both world wars and became a global intellectual celebrity in the post-war period when he produced a massive multi-volume history of the planet — in effect, the first global history. He lived to see the tumultuous period of the sixties before passing away in the mid-70s. McNeill is one of the great ‘macro’ historians of our period, writing the kind global histories that Jared Diamond could only dream of. Or, as is often the case, rip off — the ‘germs’ of Guns, Germs, and Steel were first made famous by McNeill’s Plagues and Peoples. Their shared focus explained why McNeill would write about Toynbee. But could a historian who covers continents and spans centuries work in the small-scale genre of biography?

The answer is yes. As it turns out, McNeill once worked for Toynbee, as married the daughter of Toynbee’s best friend. He had access to the personal papers of Toynbee and his family, and quotes them great detail. The result a remarkably intimate biography that delves deep into the psychology of Toynbee and his consociates but never lapses into, well, you know: crappy psychoanalytic speculation.

In fact, there shouldn’t be much to say about Toynbee’s life because he spent so much of it at his desk. Toynbee was a withdrawn, bookish boy who won scholarship to the best schools by burying himself in work. When he was a teenager, he dreamed of producing a complete overview of all human history. The crazy thing is that he did it. It took decades, but his A Study of History took decades to publish and ran to 12 volumes.

And this was just the start. Between the wars Toynbee was employed by a think tank to publish annual summaries of world affairs. Five hundred page long summaries. Annually. Every year he produced a five hundred page book in eight or nine months, and then spent his vacation working on A Study of History. After the war, he became so prolific that Oxford, his publisher, developed a policy of not publishing more than four book a year by Toynbee. This meant that they would often have to stockpile manuscripts in the years when he wrote more.

You might be thinking: can one write a biography of someone who didn’t actually have a life? The answer is: ‘yes’. Toynbee served as a policy wonk in the peace negotiations of both world wars, and his personal life was tumultuous: his wife divorced him. One of his sons killed himself. Another describes what Christmas is like when your father won’t leave his study. Toynbee ended up marrying his secretary, who was wasn’t in love with him but was so devoted to her work that she felt that marriage was the best way to keep the manuscripts coming. Toynbee’s work was well-received at first, especially by Americans who saw him as an anti-Marx who emphasized the role of values and spirituality, not material production, in shaping world history. His focus on Asian cultures also led to him becoming Big In Japan. Toynbee’s obsessive scholarship combines with the tempestuous times his lived in to produce a story that is actually pretty interesting to read.

Toynbee provides an example of all of the habits that good academics should develop: He has a personal intellectual vision which he followed. He developed a network of people (editors, typists, friends to read manuscripts) to help shape his drafts. He enjoyed working and did it regularly without developing a complex about whether he was or wasn’t creative. He developed a clear body of expertise and recycled it regularly across multiple publications. He wrote well and cheerfully submitted to interviews and invitations to guest lectures (he was obsessed with money and took as many of these as possible in order to make more of it). He worked a lot, enjoyed working, and wrote things that people could read. There you go.

At the same time, Toynbee’s is a poster child for the dysfunctional intellectual: his distaste for, well, spending time with people. His disastrous family life. You don’t have to be a genius to imagine what happens to all the different things in your life when you decide to focus on just one of them. But there were other problems as well: Toynbee knew so much, but his sense for geopolitics was not actually that sharp. His single-minded focus on an intellectual project shaped in his childhood made him intellectually inflexible and kept him locked into a problematic that ultimately never matured (even if it did change in some way). By the time he finished A Study of History, he was forced to admit that most of arguments in the previous eleven volumes were fatally flawed. Despite his classical education, he lacked sophrosyne.

Toynbee chose to be Toynbee. Today, the academic marketplace forces our graduate students to be Toynbees: jobs go to people with sexy topics, who can flatter and otherwise enact a certain professional persona, and who, too often, sacrifice quality to quantity in publications. And while cultural capital and other considerations play into the job market, at the end of the day the people who get jobs often do so simply because they care more than everyone else. When I said above that Toynbee’s life was a ‘how-to’ guide, I wasn’t kidding.

It’s a sign of success that McNeill’s biography fills the reader with both horror and admiration for Toynbee. I think it is worth reading for anyone who is thinking about the shape of their own intellectual life. Whether a cautionary tale or how-to guide, Toynbee’s story is something that all academics should have shuffling around in the back of their brain.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

4 thoughts on “The Lessons of Arnold Toynbee

  1. Why should Toynbee be the model? Why not, for example, John McPhee, who has written a library of fascinating non-fiction books while, it appears, still having plenty of time for things like hiking and white-water rafting?

  2. I know a guy who has a full set of Toynbee’s Study. I leafed through some of the volumes, and they aren’t terribly accurate or anything like a good primer on the history of humans, although they were certainly a valiant effort. The idea of writing something like that is quixotic – a single volume history of the world is an excellent idea, but a mammoth thing like that, while potentially informative, takes away a lot of the power of a world history. It’s also myopic in its focus on documented settled civilizations, as opposed to groups known through ethnographic, ethnohistoric, archaeological, and linguistic sources, which seem to me to be necessary to make sense of human history. This goes hand-in-hand with the lumping of civilizations – ‘Western civilization’, etc. – treating them as wholes rather than merely abstractions.

    On the other hand, the challenge-response idea in the development of things like agriculture, urbanism, literacy, and so on, does seem like a reasonable formulation. There is a challenge; people try to overcome it; in doing so, they innovate. Fairly sensible attempt to explain such things.

  3. I love Resurrect Dead, especially the way it lays out every single thing that needs to be explained and then systematically explains them. It’s a great story of fieldwork.

    I think its interesting to compare Bateson and Toynbee — both ranged far out of their initial training and parlayed UK donnishness into a role as oracle of the early counterculture.

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