THE LAST CHOICE OF WESTERN SOCIETY
whose monumental Study of History charts the rise and fall of twenty-one civilizations, finds only one now left alive — and this one, he says, must unite or perish
DR. ARNOLD TOYNBEE,
Now THAT, for the first time in history, the whole human race has been united on the military plane, the choice confronting us may be one between going all the way to unity or going under. What seems improbable is that a society can ever again be "united by force. This seems improbable, because the force used in future warfare would be atomic force, and this would annihilate the society, leaving nothing in existence to unite.
Such considerations as these have made me wary of offering predictions — above all about the future of the West. 1 do believe, as Oswald Spengler believed, that there is a fixed pattern to which the history of every civilization is bound to conform. As 1 see it the fact that the Western civilization’s history is still unfinished not only makes it impossible to predict its future course but also makes it difficult even to discuss the pattern of its past history as far as this has gone up to date.
We may guess, though, that if either Germany or Japan had emerged from war victorious, with the atomic weapon in her hands and with a monopoly of it. she would have taken advantage of this unique military opportunity and would have established, by the traditional military method, a universal state that would have been literally world-wide. The people and administration of the United States did not do this and were not tempted to do it. They would have been horrified if the project had been suggested to them. The possibility passed away when the Soviet Union, in its turn, acquired the atomic weapon in 1949. Since then this weapon has ceased to be a practicable means of imposing political unity on mankind; it has become, instead, a threat to the survival of civilization, of the human race, and of life itself.
Thus the year 1949 opened a new era in human history. Before that date, the survival of the human race had been assured ever since the time, partway through the Palæolithic Age, when mankind won unchallengeable ascendancy over all other forms of life on this planet as well as over inanimate nature. Between that time and the year 1949 man's crimes and follies could and did wreck civilizations and bring unnecessary and undeserved sufferings upon countless numbers of men, women and children. But the worst that
man could do with his pre-atomic technology was not enough to enable him to destroy his own race. Genocide, at least, was beyond his power until the atomic weapon had been invented and had been acquired by more states than one.
The unprecedented situation arising from the acquisition of the atomic weapon by the Soviet Union as well as by the United States does not seem to have made an impression on the minds and imaginations of governments as well as peoples. Since 1949 a number of international crises that, in the past, would have been likely to lead to war were surmounted without a breach of the peace; and the local wars that did flare up in Korea and Vietnam were brought to an end by negotiated settlements on terms that were distasteful to both parties. This indicates that, under the threat of atomic warfare, both the governments and the peoples have become more prudent in their conduct of their relations with their adversaries, and have schooled themselves to exercise an unaccustomed selfrestraint. This, in turn, makes the continuance of “coexistence” seem more probable; and mere coexistence, accepted sullenly on both sides as being the less bad of two bad alternatives, is a boon that is not to be despised. It promises to give mankind at least a temporary reprieve.
And the mere passage of time may bring relief by altering the balance of power, and by shifting people's attention and emotions into new channels. A continuing increase in China’s power, for instance, may one day make the Soviet Union and the United States huddle together for mutual protection. (In the recent past they have been drawn together by the menace, to both of them, of the lesser power of Japan.) A continuing rise in West Germany’s power may make Czechoslovakia and Poland come to feel that Russia’s hegemony is not too high a premium to pay for insurance against the risk of a German revanche. West Germany's recovery may also make Russia's existence seem a welcome political and military asset to West European countries that, within living memory, have been victims of German aggression in two world wars. In fact, it seems probable that, under a continuing regime of coexistence, old feuds will gradually ha,ve their edge taken off
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The Cold War might even peter out in a few years
them by new anxieties, new quarrels and new enthusiasms.
There are encouraging precedents in the history of the coexistence of Protestantism with Catholicism, and of Islam with Christianity, since the dates at which the Catholic-Protestant and the ChristianMoslem wars of religion petered out. These wars came to an end because it became evident, to both belligerent parties simultaneously, that it was beyond the power of either of them to wipe its adversary off the map. After this recognition, the old quarrel between them gradually became less acrimonious and less absorbing.
These considerations indicate that even a sullen acquiescence, in a state of coexistence between the two power blocs, is all to the good; but this is not a state of human affairs about which mankind can afford to feel complacent. It cannot be anything more than a temporary reprieve, and a precarious one at that. Prompt positive action, by international agreement, is therefore imperative.
The first step required is the renunciation of all further tests of new atomic weapons by all states without exception; and a necessary corollary of this is the establishment of an effective system of international control, including inspection. The next step would be an agreement that atomic weapons should not be possessed by any states except the United States and the Soviet Union. Next, that the Soviet Union and the United States themselves should join the no-atomicweapons club. Some such series of international arrangements might perhaps exorcise the danger of atomic warfare.
But there would still remain the problem of regulating the beneficent use of atomic power for human welfare. The products of the fission of atoms are not only potent for good or evil; they are also poisonous, for whatever purpose they might be used. Elaborate and costly precautionary measures are needed to preserve the habitat of life on this planet from being contaminated by the poison that the tapping of atomic energy releases. And this potential menace calls for the establishment of a single international authority, with a world-wide jurisdiction, to regulate the peaceful uses of atomic power.
It is clear that, if some such arrangements were brought into operation, the operating authority would in effect be a world government. Does mankind possess the resources for creating the revolutionary new institution that has suddenly become necessary if mankind is to save itself?
The resources required are of two kinds — intellectual and moral — and the necessary intellectual resources are manifestly at mankind's disposal. Moral resources are the limiting factor.
On the spiritual plane the Western civilization has not been embraced, so far. by more than a minority of the human race. And, since the Communist revolution in Russia in 1917, the West has been rapidly losing the technological, military, political and economic ascendancy over most of the rest of the world it had enjoyed before that, since the failure of the Osmanli Turks’ second siege of Vienna
in 1683. But during its brief period of ascendancy the West has unified the world on the technological plane, and the process of unification could not remain confined to this plane, since technology includes military technology, and military technology has now produced the atomic weapon.
Technology seems to be difficult to invent but relatively easy to acquire from its inventors by imitation. An ascendancy based on superiority in technology is therefore a wasting asset. The reason why the West’s ascendancy is ebbing away is that the non-Western peoples, beginning with the Russians but not ending with them, have been learning to rival the West in the mastery and use of
weapons and other tools of Western origin.
But Western technology is not the only element in Western civilization that the non-Western peoples have been appropriating. Most of them have realized that they could not master Western technology without also mastering Western science. Some of them have also become converts to Western ideologies. The Communist ideology adopted by the Russians and the Chinese, as well as the parliamentary ideology adopted by the Indians, was made in Britain. (The workshop in which Karl Marx manufactured communism was the British Museum.)
Parliamentarism and communism are political systems, but they are also something more than that. Just as Western technology involves Western science, so Western political systems imply Western moral ideals — conflicting ideals reflected in conflicting systems. The spiritual history of the West has therefore to be taken into consideration in any twentiethcentury estimate of the prospects of the world as a whole.
Western society has passed through a number of revolutions on a number of different planes. Among ail these the spiritual revolution, during the closing decades of the seventeenth century, was perhaps the most decisive and the most significant. At any rate, this is certainly the revolution that in the twentieth century is exerting the greatest continuing influence, not only on the West itself but on the rest of the world as well. The seventeenth-century revolution gave West-
ern civilization a new form and. above all, a new spirit, which for the first time in history made the heirs of non-Western civilizations willing to embrace the Western civilization in exchange for their ancestral heritages.
It began as a negative movement, a moral reaction against the wickedness, destructiveness and senselessness of the Catholic-Protestant wars of religion. The fathers of the seventeenth-century revolution were not anti-religious, as some of their eighteenth-century successors were. So far from that, one of their objectives was to save religion from being wholly discredited and abandoned. They sought to save it by putting an end to the abuse of it for non-religious purposes. Thus they stood for religious toleration.
Toleration spelled freedom of conscience. and the new respect for this spelled a respect for the rights and dignity of human beings. This brought with it a new standard of racial responsibility, social justice, and humane feeling. Noble monuments of this new ideal of human fraternity were the abolition of the slave trade and of slavery itself, and the legislation for the protection of the poor and weak that has eventually been consolidated in “the welfare state.”
This success has had an intellectual as well as a moral cause. The modern Western cultivation of science, which started negatively as a diversion from the cult of theology, bred a heightened sense of curiosity and a new spirit of critical inquiry. Neither the Renaissance nor the Reformation liberated Western minds from their medieval subservience to external authority. Perhaps the most fundamental and radical feature of the seventeenth-century Western revolution was that now. for the first time. Western minds dared consciously and deliberately to think for themselves.
But in the quarter of a millennium that has now passed since the seventeenthcentury Western revolution, the modern Western civilization has displayed not only a bright side but a dark one, and in our time this dark side has been darker than the darkest stain on the pages of Western history in the Middle Ages or even in the age of the wars of religion. The advance in humane feeling has been offset by the degeneration of war into an indiscriminate assault on civilians, after it had been reduced in the eighteenth century to a conflict confined to professional combatants and conducted according to agreed rules. The advance in the recognition of the rights and dignity of human beings has been offset by the imposition of the worst tyrannies that Western society has ever produced.
If these ideologies that are so abhorrent to modern Western liberals are not products of the modern Western civilization, as our liberalism is, where have they come from? They have not come from Russia, or India, or China, or the Islamic world, or a no longer darkest Africa. Hitler was a Sudetenlander; Mussolini was a Romagnoi: Marx and Engels were Rhinelanders who settled in England and did their life work there. The Russians and Chinese would never have invented communism for themselves.
Moreover, the modern ideologies bear the unmistakable stamp of the modern West in some of their most characteristic and most repulsive features: for instance, their coldbloodedness and their highpowered organization. They do, however, combine coldbloodedness with fanaticism, in Robespierre's vein. And the second element in this incongruous combination can perhaps properly be described as a return to the spirit of the age of Western history that preceded the seventeenth - century Western revolution.
It follows that the modern phase of Western civilization must suffer from some inadequacy or deficiency or weakness that has eventually provoked a reaction toward even the vices of a previous phase, which the modern phase had temporarily repressed and superseded. And this would mean that a revival of the seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century “enlightenment” will not be enough. There is, indeed, one vital point in which the modern phase of Western civilization has remained negative ever since its beginning at the close of the seventeenth century, and that is its attitude toward religion.
It is true that even in the religious field the achievement of the modern phase of Western civilization has been respectable. Westerners have never before come so near to acting up to Christian standards of moral conduct as they have in this modern age, in which the official tenets of Christianity have been progressively losing their hold on the intellectual allegiance of an ever-growing minority of educated men and women in the Western world.
All the same, a quarter of a millennium
of religious toleration has not availed to rehabilitate the West's ancestral religion from the moral discredit brought upon it by the wars of religion: and the corrosive effect of this moral discredit has been reinforced by the intellectual skepticism that the triumph of the scientificoutlook has brought with it. The tenets of Christianity, and those of other living higher religions too. arc incompatible in their traditional form with the scientific vision of the nature of the universe. It seems improbable that, in this traditional form, they can ever recapture their former hold on hearts and minds; and, if this were possible, surely it would not be desirable.
The rising gale of scientific discovery has blown away the chaff of traditional religion, and in doing this it has donemankind a service. But it has blown so hard that it has blown away the grain with the husk, and this has been a disservice, since neither science nor the ideologies have grain of their own to offer as a substitute. Their horizons, unlike those of the higher religions, fall far short of the bounds (if there are bounds) of the universe, and what lies hidden beyond these restricted horizons is the heart of this mysterious and formidable universe — the very part of it that is of the greatest moment to human beings.
Man’s spiritual endowment condemns him to a lifelong struggle to reconcile himself with the universe into which he has been born. His inborn instinct is to try to make the universe revolve around himself. His spiritual task in life is to overcome his self-centredness in order to put himself in harmony with the absolute spiritual reality that is the true centre of everything in the phenomenal world. This “flight of the alone to the alone" is the goal of man’s endeavors. His yearning to reach this goal is the only motive strong
enough to break through the barrier of. self-centred ness that stands in the way.
Science and the ideologies have nothing to say about this spiritual crux. On the other hand, all the higher religions and philosophies are concerned with it. Their visions may be partly delusions: their counsels may be partly misguided; their very concern with the soul's ultimate problem and task may be almost smothered under a heap of irrelevant accretions: ritual observances, social regulations, astronomical theories, and what not. Yet in spite of all their manifest weaknesses the higher religions are the only ways of life known to man so far that do recognize what is the soul’s true problem and true quest, and do offer man some guidance for reaching his spiritual goal.
This means that, however grievously the trustees of the historic higher religions may have abused these religions’ mandate. the mandate itself has not been forfeited. It cannot be forfeited until mankind is presented with some new way of life that offers to human souls more effective spiritual help than the historic higher religions can give them. Western civilization may or may not be in decline in our time: contemporary Westerners are not in a position to diagnose their own civilization’s prospects. But whatever this particular civilization’s prospects may be. a recovery of the essence of religion is needed at all times and in all social situations. It is needed because human beings cannot live without it. In order to recover the essence we have to distinguish it and to disengage it from non-essential accretions.
This is a task that we undertake at our peril. It is also a task that we dare not shirk on that account. To shirk it is the one course that is undoubtedly more dangerous than to attempt to carry it out. because one social change that has continued steadily since the beginning of human history is the increase in mankind's collective power. This brings with it a cumulative increase in the magnitude of the consequences of doing either wrong or right. The more portentous the consequences of man's acts, the greater the demand upon him to act righteously. In an age in which mankind’s collective power has suddenly been increased, for good or evil, a thousandfold through the tapping of atomic energy, the standard of conduct demanded from ordinary human beings can be no lower than the standard attained in times past by rare saints.
In the Atomic Age, cold considerations of mere expediency call for an arduous rise in standards of behavior. As we have noticed, the peoples and governments have become aware of this, and their awareness is reflected in the prudence and self-restraint with which international relations have been conducted since 1949. It has been recognized that the price of self-preservation is a mutual acquiescence in coexistence, and the concern for selfpreservation has proved strong enough to move mutually hostile peoples, armed with the atomic weapon, to pay this price grudgingly.
Yet the calculations of expediency can do no more than postpone the evil day. The negative deterrent provided by mutual fear will have to be replaced by the positive bond of mutual love if the human race is to regain the certitude of survival that, before the fateful years 1945-49, it had been enjoying since some date in the Palæolithic Age. ★
This is an excerpt from Reconsiderations, to he published in May by Oxford University Press as Volume XII in Dr. Toynbee’s series A Study of History.