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Toynbee on Greece, Rome and the West today
I don’t usually like long quotes but this is unusual, and may apply to our time and bring some clarity and challenge. Worth at least two readings to get it.
The spirit of the two most famous nations of Antiquity was remarkably exclusive. . . . The fact seems to be that the Greeks admired only themselves and that the Romans admired only themselves and the Greeks. ... The effect was narrowness and sameness of thought. Their minds, if we may so express ourselves, bred in and in, and were accordingly cursed with barrenness and degeneracy. . . . The vast despotism of the Caesars, gradually effacing all national peculiarities and assimilating the remotest provinces of the Empire to each other, augmented the evil. At the close of the third century after Christ the prospects of mankind becoming were fearfully dreary. . . . That great community was then in danger of experiencing a calamity far more terrible than any of the quick, inflammatory, destroying maladies to which nations are liable—a tottering, drivelling, paralytic longevity, the immortality of the Struldbrugs, a Chinese civilization. It would be easy to indicate many points of resemblance between the subjects of Diocletian and the people of that Celestial Empire where, during many centuries, nothing has been learned or unlearned; where government, where education, where the whole system of life, is a ceremony; where knowledge forgets to increase and multiply, and, like the talent buried in the earth or the pound wrapped up in the napkin, experiences neither waste nor augmentation. The torpor was broken by two great revolutions, the one moral, the other political, the one from within, the other from without.’
This merciful release for which, on Macaulay’s showing, the Hellenic Society in the Imperial Age was indebted to the Church and the barbarians, is a relatively happy ending which cannot be taken for granted. So long as life persists it is always possible that, instead of being cut off sharp by Clotho’s* beneficently ruthless shears, it may stiffen by imperceptible degrees into the paralysis of life-in-death; and the possibility that this may be the destiny of our Western Society has haunted the mind of at least one distinguished historian of the present generation.
‘I do not think the danger before us is anarchy, but despotism, the loss of spiritual freedom, the totalitarian state, perhaps a universal world totalitarian state. As a consequence of strife between nations or classes there might be local and temporary anarchy, a passing phase. Anarchy is essentially weak, and in an anarchic world any firmly organized group with rational organization and scientific knowledge could spread its dominion over the rest. And, as an alternative to anarchy, the World would welcome the despotic state. Then the World might enter upon a period of spiritual “petrifaction”, a terrible order which for the higher activities of the human spirit would be death. The petrifaction of the Roman Empire and the petrifaction of China would appear less rigid because [in our case] the ruling group would have much greater scientific means of power. (Do you know Macaulay’s essay on “History”? He argues that the barbarian invasions were a blessing in the long run because they broke up the petrifaction. “It cost Europe a thousand years of barbarism to escape the fate of China.” There would be no barbarian races to break up a future world totalitarian state.)
‘It seems to me possible that in such a totalitarian state, while philosophy and poetry would languish, scientific research might go on with continuous fresh discoveries. Greek science did not find the Ptolemaic realm an uncongenial environment, and I think, generally speaking, natural science may flourish under a despotism. It is to the interest of the ruling group to encourage what may increase their means of power. That, not anarchy, is for me the nightmare ahead, if we do not find a way of ending our present fratricidal strife. But there is
the Christian Church there, a factor to be reckoned with. It may have to undergo martyrdom in the future world-state, but, as it compelled the Roman world-state in the end to make at any rate formal submission to Christ, it might again, by the way “of martyrdom, conquer the scientific rationalist world-state of the future.’
*one of the three fates
A Study of History: Abridgement of Volumes I-VI (Royal Institute of International Affairs)
Toynbee, Arnold J.