Religion and the Rebel, Part 6

Religion and the Rebel, Part 6

Arnold J. Toynbee (1889-1975)

During the years, 1934-1961, Arnold J. Toynbee published twelve volumes of A Study of History. He was still in the process of writing it when Colin Wilson’s Religion and the Rebel was released in 1957, although by this time he had finished ten volumes. The books include studies of the development and disintegration of nineteen different civilizations. Where to begin on such a prolific intellectual?

Since we are examining how these issues relate to the Outsider, we will begin there. Wilson states plainly, “Toynbee’s attitude, like Spengler’s, was existentialist” (Wilson 111). Most historians attempt to write using the scientific method, as though they were standing outside of history as an objective observer. Toynbee uses this up to a point, but admits it contains fallacious reasoning. The fallacy is “to pretend a living thing is dead; to apply the ‘scientific method’ to something that is alive,” and that “refuses to submit to scientific categories. Here again we have existentialism” (ibid.). Wilson then discusses a simile used by Toynbee “that describes civilisation – and also describes the Outsider: a sleeper who has awakened on a ledge of a cliff, and has started to climb the cliff face. Until he wakes up and begins to strive for higher things, he is safe. As soon as he begins to climb, he is in danger of falling” (ibid.). Nietzsche, in Thus Spake Zarathustra, offers a similar image when Zarathustra compares man to “a tightrope stretched between beast and superman” (ibid.). This is the Faustian man, who trades his soul for enlightenment, ignoring the danger that lies ahead. He builds his house on Vesuvius because, there, he will become an Ubermensch. Wilson quotes Toynbee as saying:

In the language of our simile, Faust is saying: ‘I have made up my mind to leave this ledge and climb this precipice in search of the ledge above. In attempting this, I am aware that I am courting danger and deliberately leaving safety behind me…Yet, for the sake of the possible achievement, I am ready to take the inevitable risk'” (ibid.).

Again, Will plays a very large role, as in Nietzsche. Wilson brings up another interesting point having to do with Toynbee’s theory of growth in both the macrocosm and the microcosm:

Growth, according to Toynbee, means simply progress toward self-determination. Self-determination means self-control and self-discipline, and mastery of one’s own problems. It is, in other words, precisely what the Outsider is striving for” (Wilson 115).

Both individuals and civilizations have periods of growth and periods of disintegration. The disintegrating force is “Mimesis, that very power of persuasion or authority by which the creative minority established their own will” (ibid.). Mimesis is a Greek word for imitation, representation, or mimicry. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it became a pejorative term used to mean something inauthentic, as in paste jewelry, or imitation furs. Toynbee explains further his use of Mimesis:

An essential difference between civilizations and primitive societies as we know them (the caveat will be found to be important) is the direction taken by mimesis or imitation. Mimesis is a general feature of all social life. Its operation can be observed both in primitive societies and in civilizations, in every social activity from the imitation of the style of film-stars by their humbler sisters upwards. It operates, however, in different directions in the two species of society. In primitive societies, as we know them, mimesis is directed towards the older generation and towards dead ancestors who stand, unseen but not unfelt, at the back of the living elders, reinforcing their prestige. In a society where mimesis is thus directed backward toward the past, custom rules and society remains static. On the other hand, in societies in process of civilization, mimesis is directed towards creative personalities who command a following because they are pioneers (Toynbee 49).

It is Toynbee’s opinion that Mimesis, even though it is a “primitive social drill” (Toynbee 216), must be used to “draw the inert majority along in the active minority’s train…” (ibid.). He calls it a shortcut, and “though it may be an inevitable path towards a necessary goal, [it] is also a dubious expedient which no less inevitably exposes a growing civilization to the peril of breakdown” (ibid.). Wilson follows up with the thought, “The moment the man of genius starts to put his visions into practice, he compromises his integrity, and a certain amount of ‘dirty work’ becomes inevitable. The moment the Outsider comes out of his cork-lined room and tries to realise his ideas, the compromise begins” (Wilson 116). When a civilization or an Outsider seeks “higher forms of life,” more awareness, etc., the inevitable price that must be paid is “the sin and brutality and folly of history. Toynbee has reached the same conclusions about civilisation that the Steppenwolf reached about Outsiders: all life, after all, is a compromise between spirit and nature, and consequently the compromise begins the moment life begins” (ibid.).

Toynbee’s theory of Challenge and Response states that civilizations arise due to responding to extremely difficult circumstances or challenges that test their mettle. The challenges can be physical or social. The hardships are met and resolved by a “creative minority,” a few gifted individuals who convince the masses of the society that a change needs to take place. Toynbee claims “these individuals who set going the process of growth in the societies to which they ‘belong’ are more than mere men. They can work what to men seem miracles because they themselves are superhuman in a literal and no mere metaphorical sense” (Toynbee 212). This is an astounding claim, but it certainly applies to men like Jesus or the Buddha, who literally transformed entire societies. Toynbee is referring to mystics (or Outsiders) as spiritual leaders. He quotes Bergson, who claims these leaders have “addressed themselves to humanity in general in an √©lan of love. The apparition of each of these souls has been like the creation of a new species composed on one unique individual” (qtd. in Toynbee 212). There can be a creative minority of only one, if need be. Wilson connects this creative minority with the Outsider via Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Harry Haller, who expresses the sentiment, “The Outsiders and men of genius are the spearheads of society; without them, society would fall to pieces” (Wilson 113). These geniuses, these “superior personalities…mystics, or supermen – call them what you will – are no more than a leaven in the lump of ordinary humanity” (Toynbee 215). Nevertheless, leaven brings an amazing transformation to the lump. A very apt metaphor, indeed! These superhumans offer creative ideas that totally transform their societies.

How do the visionaries, the Outsiders, gain this supreme knowledge, and how do they convince the masses their ideas will heal their cultures? And Wilson asks, “How does the man of genius persuade the uncreative majority to follow him” (ibid.)?Again, Toynbee defers to Bergson:

The problem of securing that the uncreative majority shall in fact follow the creative minority’s lead appears to have two solutions, the one practical and the other ideal. The first method inculcates a morality consisting of impersonal habits; the second induces imitation of another personality, and even a spiritual union, a more or less complete identification with it (qtd. in Toynbee 215-216).

Toynbee offers an idea called “withdrawal and return” (Toynbee 217). The course followed by the creative minority, the mystics and supermen, who lead civilizations into new glories, “pass first out of action into ecstasy and then out of ecstasy into action on a new and higher plane” (ibid.). Just as Moses ascended Sinai to commune with Yahweh in solitude for forty days and nights, to be illuminated, and then to return to his people with a new way of living, so the creative individuals withdraw into solitude to solve the hard problems facing their people. Toynbee writes,

The withdrawal makes it possible for the personality to realize powers within himself which might have remained dormant if he had not been released for the time being from his social toils and trammels” (ibid.).

The creative ones must escape to be alone for a time to receive insight and enlightenment. And “when they emerge, it is with the power to stimulate the rest of society to overcome the challenges” (Wilson 113). These creative individuals are Outsiders, the rebels of society who have a vision for the future.

Needless to say, our world needs this now! What we don’t need is a group of economic elites getting together and coming up with new ways of taking advantage of the masses. This is why our civilization is collapsing.

“Toynbee is guardedly optimistic” (Wilson 127), whereas Spengler does not believe our civilization has a chance to be reborn. “Re-creation by self-analysis is the most fundamental meaning of existentialism” (ibid.). The task that lies ahead for the Outsider is nothing less than formulating solutions that will transform our world.


Works Cited

Toynbee, Arnold J. A Study of History. Abridgement of Vols. I-VI, by D.C Somervell. Oxford University Press: New York, 1946.

Wilson, Colin. Religion and the Rebel. Houghton-Mifflin: Boston, 1957.

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