Daily Archives: April 14, 2011

Arnold J. Toynbee


Arnold Toynbee turns up, in all places, as a character in an episode of Young Indiana Jones, to provide an ominous historical perspective on events in Europe

Today is Arnold Toynbee‘s birthday (1889-1975).

Frye on history, metahistory, myth, and best-sellers in “New Directions from Old”:

We notice that when a historian’s scheme gets to a certain point of comprehensiveness it becomes mythical in shape, and so approaches the poetic in its structure. There are romantic historical myths based on a quest or pilgrimage to a City of God or a classless society; there are comic historical myths of progress through evolution or revolution; there are tragic myths of decline and fall, like the works of Gibbon and Spengler; there are ironic myths of recurrence or casual catastrophe. It is not necessary, of course, for such a myth to be a universal theory of history, but merely for it to be exemplified in whatever history is using it. A Canadian historian, F.H. Underhill, writing on Toynbee, has employed the term “metahistory” for such works. We notice that metahistory, though it usually tends to very long and erudite books, is far more popular than regular history: in fact metahistory is really the form in which most history reaches the general public. It is only the metahistorian, whether Spengler or Toynbee or H.G. Wells or a religious writer using history as his source of exempla, who has much chance of becoming a bestseller. (CW 21, 309)