“The Meaning of History for the Soul,” by Arnold Toynbee
June 23, 1947

The questions discussed in this paper have been debated acutely, for centuries past, by theologians and philosophers. In taking them up, the present writer is therefore likely to fall into errors that will seem elementary to his readers. He will certainly be treading on ground that is familiar and well-worn to them. He ventures, nevertheless, on this inquiry in the hope that it may be of some interest to theologians to see how these old theological questions are approached by a historian. In any case, theologians may perhaps find some amusement in watching an unwary historian floundering in well-known and minutely-charted theological morasses.

Let us start our inquiry by examining successively two points of view which lie at opposite extremes of the historico-theological gamut, but which, if respectively tenable, would each solve the problem of the meaning of history for the soul in fairly simple terms. In the writer’s opinion (he may as well declare in advance) both points of view are in truth untenable, though each does contain an element of truth which it invalidates through the exaggeration of pushing it to extremes.

A Purely This-Worldly View

The first of these two extreme views is that, for the soul, the whole meaning of its existence is contained in history.

On this view, the individual human being is nothing but a part of the society of which he is a member. The individual exists for society, not society for the individual. Therefore the significant and important thing in human life is not the spiritual development of souls but the social development of communities. In the writer’s opinion, this thesis is not true, and, when it has been taken as true and has been put into action, it has produced moral enormities.

The proposition that the individual is a mere part of a social whole may be the truth about social insects—bees, ants and termites—but it is not the truth about any human beings of whom we have any knowledge. An early twentieth-century school of anthropologists, of which Durkheim was the leading representative, drew a picture of primitive man which portrayed him as being almost of a different mental and spiritual breed from our allegedly rational selves. Drawing its evidence from descriptions of surviving primitive societies, this school represented primitive man as being governed, not by the rational operation of the individual intellect, but by the collective emotion of the human herd. This sharp distinction between an “uncivilized” and a “civilized” breed of man has, however, to be radically revised and toned down in the light of the illuminating psychological discoveries that have been made since Durkheim’s day. Psychological research has shown us that the so-called savage has no monopoly of the emotionally governed life of the collective unconscious. Though it happens to have been first laid bare in the soul of primitive man by anthropological observation, psychological research has made it clear that, in our comparatively sophisticated souls too, the collective unconscious underlies a consciousness that rides on it like a cockleshell floating precariously on a bottomless and shoreless ocean. Whatever the constitution of the human psyche may prove to be, we can already be more or less certain that it is substantially the same in human beings like ourselves, who are in the act of attempting to climb from the level of primitive human life to the ledge of civilization, and in ex-primitives, like the Papuans of New Guinea and the Negritos of Central Africa, who have been played upon, within the last few thousand years, by the radiation of societies that have been in process of civilization within that period. The psychic make-up of all extant human beings, in all extant types of society, appears to be substantially identical, and we have no ground for believing it to have been different in the earliest representatives of the species sapiens of the genus homo that are known to us, not from the anthropologist’s personal intercourse with living people, but from the archaeologist’s and the physiologist’s deciphering of the revealing evidence of artifacts and skeletons. In the most primitive as well as in the least primitive state in which homo sapiens is in any way known to us, we may conclude that the individual human being possesses some measure of self-conscious personality that raises his soul above the level of the waters of the collective unconscious, and this means that the individual soul does have a genuine life of its own which is distinct from the life of society. We may also conclude that individuality is a pearl of great moral price, when we observe the moral enormities that occur when this pearl is trampled in the mire.

These enormities are most conspicuous in extreme examples: the Spartan way of life in the society of Classical Greece, the Ottoman Sultan’s slave household in the early modern Islamic World, the totalitarian regimes that have been established by force in a number of Western or partially Westernized countries in our own day. But when once we have grasped, from such extreme cases, what the nature of these moral enormities is, it is more instructive to detect the Spartan tincture in the patriotism of the ordinary Classical Greek city-state, and the totalitarian tincture in our ordinary modern Western nationalism. In religious terms, this treatment of the individual as a mere part of the community is a denial of the personal relation between the soul and God and is a substitution, for the worship of God, of a worship of the human community—Leviathan, the abomination of desolation, standing in the place where it ought not. The German National-Socialist youth leader, Baldur von Schirach, once declared that his task was “to build a great altar to Germany in every German heart.” It must be wrong to worship a man- made institution which is ephemeral, imperfect, and often utterly evil in its operation, and it is worth recalling that a particularly noble—perhaps the noblest conceivable—form of this Leviathan-worship was intransigently rejected by early Christianity. If any human community were ever worthy of worship, it would be a universal state, like the Roman Empire, that has brought the blessings of unity and peace to a world long racked by war and revolution. Yet the early Christians challenged the apparently irresistible might of the Roman Imperial Government rather than compromise with a Leviathan-worship that was persuasively commended to them as being nothing more sinister than an amiable formality.

Leviathan-worship is a moral enormity, even at its noblest and mildest; yet there is an element of truth underlying this mistaken belief that society is the end of man and that the individual is merely a means to that end. This underlying truth is that man is a social creature. He cannot achieve the potentialities of his nature except by going outside himself and entering into relations with other spiritual beings. The Christian would say that the most important of the soul’s relations is its communion with God, but that it also needs to have relations with its fellow creatures, who are God’s other children.

A Solely Otherworldly View

Let us now take a flying leap to the opposite pole and examine the antithetical view that, for the soul, the whole meaning of its existence lies outside history.

On this view, this world is wholly meaningless and evil. The task of the soul in this world is to endure it, to detach itself from it, to get out of it. This is the view of the Buddhist, Stoic and Epicurean schools of philosophy (whatever the Buddha’s own personal outlook may have been). There is a strong vein of it in Platonism. And it has been one of the historic interpretations (in the writer’s belief, a mistaken one) of Christianity.

According to the extreme Buddhist view, the soul itself is part and parcel of the phenomenal world, so that, in order to get rid of the phenomenal world, the soul has to extinguish itself. At any rate, it has to extinguish elements in itself which, to the Chris- tian mind, are essential for the soul’s existence: for example, above all, the feelings of love and pity. This is unmistakably evident in the Hinayana interpretation of Buddhism, but it is also implicit in the Mahayana, however reluctant the followers of the Mahayana school may be to dwell on the ultimate implications of their own tenets. The Mahayanian Bodhisattva may be moved, by his love and pity for his fellow sentient beings, to postpone his own entry into Nirvana for aeons upon aeons for the sake of helping his fellows to follow the path that he has found for himself. Yet this path is, after all, the orthodox one that leads to salvation through self- extinction, and the Bodhisattva’s sacrifice, though immense, is not irrevocable or everlasting. At long last, he is; going to take that final step into the Nirvana on whose threshold he already stands, and, in the act, he will extinguish, with himself, the love and pity that have won for him the answering love and gratitude of mankind.

The Stoic might be described (perhaps too unkindly) as a would-be Buddhist who has not had quite the full courage of his convictions. As for the Epicurean, he regards this world as an accidental, meaningless and evil product of the mechanical interplay of atoms, and—since the probable duration of the particular ephemeral world in which he happens to find himself may be drearily long by comparison with a human being’s expectation of life—he must look forward to, or expedite, his own dissolution as the only way out for himself.

The Christian of the extreme otherworldly school does, of course, believe that God exists and that this world has been created by Him for a purpose, but this purpose, as he sees it, is the negative one of training the soul, by suffering, for life in another world with which this world has nothing positive in common.

This view that the whole meaning of the soul’s existence lies outside history seems to the writer to present difficulties, even in its attenuated Christian version, that are insurmountable from the Christian standpoint.

In the first place, any such view is surely incompatible with the distinctive belief of Christianity about the nature of God: the belief that God loves His creatures and so loved the world that He became incarnate in order to bring redemption to human souls during their life on Earth. It is hard to conceive of a loving God as creating this, or any, world of sentient creatures not for its own sake but merely as a means to some end in another world for whose blissful denizens this world is a waste land beyond the pale. It is even harder to conceive of Him as deliberately charging this forlorn waste land of his alleged creation with sin and suffering, in the cold-blooded spirit of a military commander who creates an exercise ground for his troops by taking, or making, a wilderness and sowing it with live mines, strewing it with unexploded shells and hand grenades, and drenching it with poison gas in order to train his soldiers to cope with these infernal machines at grievous cost to them in life and limb. Moreover, whatever may or may not be possible for God, we can declare with assurance that it is not possible for the soul to treat its relations in this world with other souls as being of no importance in themselves, but as being merely a means to its own salvation. So far from being a good training in this world for Christian perfection in another world, such odious inhumanity in man’s attitude towards his fellow men would be an education in hardening his heart against the promptings of Christian love. In other words, it would be the worst conceivable miseducation from the Christian point of view.

Finally, if we believe that all souls are objects of absolute value to God, we cannot but believe that they must also be of absolute value to one another whenever and wherever they meet: of absolute value in this world in anticipation of the next.

The view that, for the soul, the whole meaning of its existence lies outside history thus proves to be no less repellent than the antithetical view which we examined first; yet, in this case, as in that, there is an element of truth underlying the mistaken belief. While it is not true that man’s social life and human relations in this world are merely a means towards a personal spiritual end, the underlying truths are that in this world we do learn by suffering; that life in this world is not an end in itself and by itself; that it is only a fragment (even if an authentic one) of some larger whole; and that, in this larger whole, the central and dominant (though not the only) feature in the soul’s spiritual landscape is its relation to God.

A Third View: The World a Province of the Kingdom of God

We have now rejected two views, both of which offer an answer to our question: What is the meaning of history for the soul? We have refused to admit that, for the soul, the meaning of its existence lies either wholly in history or wholly outside history. And this pair of negative conclusions confronts us with a dilemma.

In rejecting the view that the meaning of the soul’s existence lies wholly in history, we have vindicated the primacy—as a fact, as a right, and as a duty—of each individual soul’s relation to God. But if every soul, at any time or place, and in any social or historical situation in this world, is in a position to know and love God—or, in traditional theological terms, in a position to find salvation—this truth might seem to empty history of significance. If the most primitive people, in the most rudimentary conditions of social and spiritual life in this world, can achieve the true end of man in man’s relation to God, then why should we strive to make this world a better place? Indeed, what intelligible meaning could be attached to those words? On the other hand, in rejecting the view that the meaning of the soul’s existence lies wholly outside history, we have vindicated the primacy of God’s love in His relation to His creatures. But if this world has the positive value that it must have if God loves it and has become incarnate in it, then His attempts, and our attempts under His inspiration and on His behalf, to make this world a better place must be right and significant in some sense.

Can we resolve this apparent contradiction? We might perhaps resolve it for practical purposes if we could find an answer to the question: In what sense can there be progress in this world?

The progress with which we are here concerned is a progressive improvement, continuous and cumulative from generation to generation, in our social heritage. By progress, we must mean this; for there is no warrant for supposing that, within “historical times,” there has been any progress in the evolution of human nature itself, either physical or spiritual.

Even if we push our historical horizon back to the date of the first emergence of homo sapiens, the period is infinitesimally short on the time scale of the evolution of life on this planet. Western man, at the present high level of his intellectual powers and technological aptitudes, has not sloughed off Adam’s heirloom of original sin, and, to the best of our knowledge, homo aurignacius, a hundred thousand years ago, must have been endowed, for good or evil, with the self-same spiritual, as well as physical, characteristics that we find in ourselves. Progress then, if discernible within “historical times,” must have been progress in the improvement of our social heritage and not progress in the improvement of our breed, and the evidence for social progress is, of course, impressive in the field of scientific knowledge and its application to technology: in everything, that is to say, which has to do with man’s command over non-human nature. This, however, is a side issue; for the impressiveness of the evidence for progress in this particular field is matched by the obviousness of the fact that man is relatively good at dealing with non-human nature. What he is bad at is his dealing with human nature in himself and in his fellow human beings. A fortiori, he has proved to be very bad indeed at getting into the right relation with God. Man has been a dazzling success in the field of intellect and “know-how” and a dismal failure in the things of the spirit, and it has been the great tragedy of human life on Earth that this sensational inequality of man’s respective achievements in the non-human and in the spiritual sphere should, so far at any rate, have been this way round; for the spiritual side of man’s life is of vastly greater importance for man’s well-being (even for his material well being, in the last resort) than is his command over non-human nature.

What is the position, then, in terms of this spiritual side of life which matters so much to man and in which he has so far been so backward? Can there be cumulative progress in the improvement of our social heritage in terms of the spiritual life of man-kind—which means the spiritual life of individual souls, since man’s relation to God is personal and not collective? A conceivable kind of progress in these spiritual terms—a kind that would give significance to history and would, so to speak, justify God’s love for this world and His incarnation in it—would be a cumulative increase in the means of Grace at the disposal of each soul in this world. There are, of course, elements, and very important elements, in man’s spiritual situation in this world which would not be affected by such an increase in the means of Grace available. It would not affect either man’s innate tendency to original sin or his capacity for obtaining salvation in this world. Every child would be born in the bondage of original sin under the new and the old spiritual dispensation alike, though the child born under the new dispensation might be far better armed and aided than his predecessors were for obtaining his liberation. Again, under the old and the new dispensation alike, the opportunity for obtaining salvation in this world would be open to every soul, since every soul always and everywhere has within its reach the possibility of knowing and loving God. The actual—and momentous—effect of a cumulative increase in the means of Grace at man’s disposal in this world would be to make it possible for human souls, while still in this world, to come to know God better and come to love Him more nearly in His own way.

On such a view, this world would not be a spiritual exercise ground beyond the pale of the Kingdom of God; it would be a province of the Kingdom—one province only, and not the most important one, yet one which had the same absolute value as the rest, and therefore one in which spiritual action could, and would, be fully significant and worth while ; the one thing of manifest and abiding value in a world in which all other things are vanity.

Arnold Joseph Toynbee (1889 – 1975) was an English historian, a philosopher of history, and a research professor of international history at the London School of Economics and King’s College London. Toynbee was considered a leading specialist on international affairs in the 1940s and 1950s, and from 1924 to 1954 he was the director of Studies at Chatham House. During this time he produced 34 volumes of the Survey of International Affairs, a “bible” for international specialists in Britain. He is best known for his 12-volume A Study of History (1934 – 1961). By the 1960s, he fell out of favor with mainstream historians because they believed he favored myths, allegories, and religion over factual data.