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A Study of History, Vol. 1: Abridgement of Volumes I-VI
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111 of 115 people found the following review helpful
on March 14, 2004
I first became acquainted with the name of Arnold Toynbee through reading the science fiction of Arthur C. Clarke. Later, I saw references to him in Heinlein and Poul Anderson, and decided to see what it was all about. This book was worth reading. Toynbee's thesis is that all societies rise and fall through a process of "challenge and response."
As long as a society is growing, encountering new challenges, overcoming them, and moving on to other challenges, it is healthy. He also describes the "dominant minority," "external proletariat," and "internal proletariat" groups that make up societies. For instance, to take the example of Rome, the Romans themselves were the dominant minority, whose traditions sustained the Republic and then the Empire. The internal proletariat of Rome was the Christian religion, which came to inherit the prestige of the Romans. The external minorities were the Slavic and Germanic tribes on the northern borders, which were kept at bay until the dominant minority lost its will to expand.
Toynbee does not see empires (such as the Roman Empire) or "universal states" as triumphs of a society's strength, but rather as a sign of weakness. A healthy society expands, develops creative arts, and encourages social mobility; an empire has rigid rules of conduct, laws, and social hierarchy. Toynbee's thesis is an excellent primer for understanding history, and can easily be applied to today's societies, including ours. He offers many different examples of growing, static, and declining societies, and shows an incredible mastery of his subject.
Now the bad news: This is dry, tough reading. There are no maps, no visuals, and few "helps" for people unfamiliar with world history. Toynbee wrote for a scholarly audience, and assumed everyone reading would know what he was talking about. Toynbee also has a streak of racism that most clearly comes across in his discussion of Africa. He does not even deem African civilizations in his text, and decries the influence of "African rhythms" on Western culture (jazz, at the time of his writing). You've got to really like history to get into this stuff, but there are some profound things in Toynbee's work, which can make you look seriously at who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.
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34 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on March 27, 1999
Toynbee's comparative analysis of the birth life and decline of civilizations is an enlightening masterwork. The corrolations we can draw from history and apply to our own individual development are mind-blowing. A must have in hardback for any library. Takes awhile to work through, but high value added from the experience.
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59 of 69 people found the following review helpful
A Study of History is an excellent, lifetime study of how and why civilization progresses through time. Written in 1939, Toynbee predicts the rise of nationalism, the fall of the USSR, and victory of capitalism, and the enormous growth of Western culture. His central theme is simple yet true: civilizations advance by overcoming outside challenges and internal stagnation. Read this once per lifetime.
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on February 27, 2005
I came to this book through a personal study of the secrets of human development. Singapore's miracle of development from 1970 on was the immediate precursor to discovering this work. The architect, Lee Kuan Yew, repeated read Toynbee's work through his career and used the challenge and response theory effectively to lift his country. Study of History is an enduring masterpiece. Clearly, it is more detailed and rich addressing western civilizations than eastern, but some of this imbalance might be due to the abridgement. I also find it interesting to contrast the book with Jared Diamond's "history as science" theory and would have loved to have seen Toynbee's consideration of Diamond's scholarship. Though Toynbee's emphasis is on the social, cultural and spiritual levels and boxes in geo physical factors in accord with the science of his era, I believe the two works complement each other in the end.
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26 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on March 5, 2004
Toynbee has three major theories of the rise and fall of civilizations.
1. Challange and response. There must be a challange to the population in order for a civilization to rise. The challange must be just right. Too little and the civilization does not rise. Too great a challange and the civilization is destroyed before it gets a chance or rise or is destroyed soon thereafter.
2. Withdrawl and change. An element of the civilization withdraws in some manner from the central civilization and undergoes some sort of creative transformation which it then introduces to the greater body of the civilization. This is a mechanism for maintaining the civilization.
3. The Nemesis of Creativity: There is within a civilization a creative minority. If the creative minority lacks the opportunity to create, the civilization will die or stagnate. This can happen in two ways: The majority group, lacking the talent to create, gains enough power to create, but the creativity is second rate and the civilization dies or stagnates. On the other hand, an exogenous group may gain power over the avenues of creativity and the creativity produced is destructive to the civiliation.
Of the three basic ideas the Nemesis of Creativity notion seems the most insightful. The challange and response seems little more than the golden mean. Withdrawl and change seems more relevant. As far as the Nemesis of creativity is concerned, this can be visualized in a simple microcosm. Suppose, for example, government action were taken which prevented the highly talented minority from obtaining either an education or given a good education, this minority were prevented from getting prime jobs. If, say, the space program were afflicted with this sort of thing, second-rate engineers, managers, scientists and such would be in positions of responsibility. Their positions would promote failure. It would be better to give these people jobs with good pay and no decision-making powers.
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60 of 75 people found the following review helpful
I don't normally go after other reviewers, but the dolts submitting their thoughts about this author are uninformed in the extreme. If ever there were a "desert island" author and a book that I would want to have with me on said island it is this one (though not the abridged version). Toynbee is a true polymath and one of the progenitors of Jacob Burckhardt, Daniel J. Boorstin, Jacques Barzun, et al. He delivers in concise, exquisitely rendered prose, an overview of western culture that has never been matched in terms of scope and economy - two terms that are not always congruous. For insights into the development of western civilization, its driving forces, main events, greatest influences, etc. , one need look no further than Toynbee. To compare it to Wells' work is to compare persimmons to oranges. One leaves a slightly bitter, puckery taste, the other slakes one's thirst.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on February 16, 2014
Bought thinking I'd get one of the unabridged volumes in the set, but got an abridgment. The picture showed the unabridged set.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on May 23, 2014
A lot of back-list books that make it onto Kindle contain obvious typos, presumably because the OCR software gets confused when publishers scan them in. This edition is worse than most, and gets progressively worse as you go on. This is especially confusing because Toybee liked to sprinkle in foreign words and archaic spellings. It is ironic that, these days, the free public domain e-books tend to be well edited by volunteers, whereas with the ones you pay for, the publishers apparently can't afford to hire a copy editor. This is the reason I didn't give this edition 5 stars.

The work itself is brilliant. This book has stimulated me more than any I've read in months (and I read about a book a week). I know that Toynbee's theories are deprecated by modern historians, but they make sense to me. Anyway, I wonder how much of that prejudice is due to political and ideological leanings in most university social science departments, at least here in the US. Toynbee was unashamedly Christian and had some extremely disparaging things to say about Karl Marx. In my experience, that is enough to get you blackballed in some academic circles.

The real reason to read Toynbee, though, is not his impact (or lack thereof) on the historical discipline. His real contribution has been on six decades of fiction, particularly speculative fiction. It is hard to overstate how much he influenced Isac Asimov, Arther C. Clarke, Pohl Anderson, and hundreds of others up to the present day. Now that I have just read Toynbee and received the ideas from the source, it gives me a new depth of appreciation for these authors.
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9 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on March 31, 2008
The reason why I am giving it five stars is that I cant give it 10! I didnt read the abridgement. Im still reading the actual 10 volumes. I just finished the fourth. I first came across this book while I was reading a book for Ali Shariati. Ali Shariati is usually critical of most things but he mentioned this book extremely favourably so I thought that I had to check it out. Thank God for that. Toynbee says that the greatest book ever written by man was Ibn Khaldoun's Muqadimat. I say that this book is the greatest book ever written, hands down.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on April 14, 2012
I really enjoyed Toynbee's perception of the advance and decline of civilizations, particularly I like his philosophical outlook. Constantly seeking points of comparison and departure to determine the currents that move beneath the surface of historical events. It's accesible to lay people but also stimulating enough to get your brain cells churning. The book holds up to critical analysis and seems to be a real mirror held up to the world, imo.
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