Arnold Toynbee read Spengler’s The Decline of the West as a young historian at the University of London and had the same reaction as I did when I first read Hemingway. It blew his mind. He found it both exhilarating and dismaying. Exhilarating because of its historical insights, dismaying for it disposed of the questions he was formulating in his mind about the West and its culture. He nevertheless went on to write A Study of History, all 12 volumes of it, eclipsing Spengler as the numero uno assessor of Western civilisation’s place in history.
I looked up old Arnold and his cosmic despair while recovering from probably the worst hangover ever, but that’s another story altogether. (Schopenhauer and Toynbee go well together the day after the night before.) However depressed and self-absorbed, Toynbee got religion right, lecturing at Oxford that ‘if our secular Western civilisation perishes, Christianity may be expected not only to endure but to grow in wisdom…’ He uttered these words in 1940, during the Battle of Britain, and also suggested (privately) that surrender might be preferable to more hatred and violence.
Toynbee was no anti-Semite, but blamed Judaism for the West’s crass materialism, ‘a consummate virtuosity in commerce and finance’, and argued that the Jewish claim to be the chosen people had encouraged a Judaeo–Christian Western attitude of arrogance towards other cultures. Where he mostly got it right was with regard to the United States. He saw her as the new Rome — brutal and expansive — and put his trust in the UN. That was as dumb and wrongheaded as trusting Anwar al Awlaki to address young Muslims in Britain at venues funded by taxpayers. After the war Toynbee let rip. During the Korean War he described the West as ‘radioactive’, whose culture when in contact with non-Western societies ‘threatens to poison the life of the society whose body social is being penetrated’.