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Two thinkers of History

The relevance of Gibbon and Toynbee

Two thinkers of History

The query about the relevance of historians like Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) and Arnold Toynbee (1884-1975), who produced monumental works of history, to the trends represented in the current historical scholarship nudged me into serious reflection. This hearkened back the years when, as a young historian, I was striving hard to make sense of these scholars and the ideas they professed and stood for.

That was the time when I was working on my first book The Idea of History through Ages and had set a task for myself to write critical accounts on both of them. Both are immensely important and relevant to the current scholarship on history as well as other branches of human sciences. Such categories like empire and civilization have bounced back in contemporary analysis. Thus not even a slightest of doubt can be cast on the relevance of the scholarship built around these categories. What, however, caught my immediate attention was the divergence in the focus of their respective areas of scholarship. Therefore, in this column, I will try to bring out the differences as well as similarities in the works of these two.

Gibbon wrote The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in 6 volumes. Toynbee’s work The Study of History comprised 12 volumes. While carrying out that study on various big historians and thinkers on history, I came across not only temporal but also ideational differences between these two. The difference between them seemed to me far too glaring to bracket them in a single category of historians. For Gibbon ‘Empire’ was the fundamental unit of historical study whereas Toynbee underscored ‘civilization’as a “species of society”; therefore he considered it as the proper unit of historical study.

Despite this, at both conceptual as well as practical levels nation state and parliamentary democracy had been firmly established by the concluding years of 18th century. But Gibbon was still under the spell of grandeur that Roman Empire had cast on the European intelligentsia. Quite conversely, when Toynbee was at Oxford (Balliol College), civilization was being projected as a relevant category of historical analysis, with Europe and even England as the fount head of world civilization. Thus, Toynbee vicariously lent support to the British agenda of Imperialism.

Both scholars perceived England as a far bigger entity than merely a nation state. Gibbon exhibited irreverence to Christianity and considered it as the result of the fall of the Roman Empire but quite conversely Toynbee attached considerable importance to his religion and hoped its rejuvenation in not so distant future. For Toynbee, Universal Church through its moral and spiritual power would be the creator of a new civilization. Because of his unorthodox views about Christianity, Gibbon in his lifetime and after was cursed at and personally ridiculed by those who feared that his skepticism would shake the existing establishment.

However, both had some commonalities too. Like Gibbon, Toynbee went to Oxford though in different colleges. Both had mastered several languages and brought those languages into a profitable use in their respective works of scholarship. The primary areas of academic interest of both luminaries were also identical. More importantly, both held on to the cyclical theory of history. Both had obsession of sorts with Greco-Roman civilization/empire. Pathos and lamentation over the decline are quite evident from the volumes of scholarship that both so assiduously produced. Undoubtedly, crucial was that time when Greco Roman civilization/empire had already passed its prime, which was a tragedy, but another layer of tragedy was added which compounded the collective pathos and sense of guilt. That tragedy was that of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion.

The significance of these events in fostering Western sensibility can hardly be under-emphasised. Many years ago, in Forman Christian (FC) College, Prof. Ashfaque Sarwar while in conversation with young lecturers sensitised them with the pivotal importance that ‘Tragedy’ holds in spawning any collective sensibility. He mentioned Jesus Christ’s crucifixion as a tragic event of singular importance that has shaped the European episteme and usually finds articulation in literature and arts. Behind every big thought or idea, there is ‘Tragedy’. Thus, some space must be devoted to explain its connotation as well as importance.

Richard L. Rubens considers tragedy as a mode of experience, a subjective shaping and way of organising the data of existence. What is tragic does not inhere in the external events, but rather in the internal meaning with which events are imbued and interpreted. The central characteristic of the tragic sense of life is its insistence on the balance between the striving for rationality on the one hand, and the recognition of the underlying irrationality of existence on the other. It is in tragedy that the most fundamental questions of existence are repeatedly raised.The tragic vision ceaselessly and heroically insists on answers to these questions. The tragic
figure stretches the limits of his knowledge and understanding often to a frightening — and sometimes to a dangerous — extent.

The question that is worth asking is about the relationship of tragedy with the historical event. Can we categorise the War of Independence in 1857 as a tragedy? Or when we say‘the tragedy of Karbala’, do we refer to the martyrdom of Hazrat Imam Hussain or the whole event is designated as a tragedy. If the whole event of Karbala is referred as a tragedy then its conceptual confines encroach upon the territory of history.

By the same analogy we can safely conclude that the decline of the Roman Empire was depicted as a tragedy. Until quite recently, many a European ruler tried to emulate Roman Emperors. Such has been the European nostalgia of the Roman past.

All I want to assert here is that the Decline and fall of the Roman Empire is yet another tragedy that underpins the Western epistemic sensibility. That is also a factor making Gibbon and Toynbee as exponents of Roman history and the decline of the Roman Empire relevant to current historical scholarship. For us they are relevant as the upholders of Western imperial interests.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The author is a historian and teacher based in Lahore.

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