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Arnold J. Toynbee, The Nature of History, and National Nut Day

The leading historian and scholar of his time, Arnold J. Toynbee is best known for his 12-volume A Study of History published from 1931 to 1961, which incredibly enough was not a doctoral dissertation but a work of historical philosophy that took thirty years to write about 4,000 years of human civilization. But he was also writing or editing a score of other works at the same time, hard to imagine though that is today. And he did it all without a word processor.

But A Study of History, popular briefly before it sank into the obscurity where it is today, is remarkable not for its duration but for its somewhat consistent insight. Toynbee held that:

…civilizations are born out of more primitive societies, not as the result of racial or environmental factors, but as a response to challenges, such as hard country, new ground, blows and pressures from other civilizations, and penalization.

This is unremarkable to most of us, but to the current crop of historical scholars, it’s heresy. It’s mostly the same thesis that Jared Diamond came up with in his prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel, but that wasn’t popular with academics, either. For them, historical forces are sex, gender identity, national identity, race, and sexual preferences and none others are possible. They prefer to work with these narrow focuses because they are giving a voice to marginalized populations.

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Arnold J Toynbee

Which, as most of us know, is bilge.

Which brings us to the nature of what we call history. Toynbee died on 22 October 1975, a well-respected scholar. He published from 1915 to 1974, and several works were published posthumously. The Toynbee Prize for social sciences has been awarded to humanists as far apart as Jean-Paul Sartre and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

Yet Toynbee is best known for two things: his twelve-volume magnum opus, and a short meeting with Adolph Hitler in 1936, where he was persuaded that Hitler’s territorial ambitions were limited, and publicly said as much. After WWII this assertion was used against him again and again, even as he openly worried that nuclear weapons were too dangerous for anyone to use.

The historical record can be used for one of three things:

  1. To inform the future,
  2. To entertain,
  3. To criticise both the past and the present.

Informing the future is wrapped up in my favorite quote:

History is our only test for the consequences of ideas.

Looking at the past lets us know what a tyrant in the making sounds like, feels like, and what their supporters insist upon. Studying events of the past can tell us that “fascism” isn’t restricted to “right-wing” marchers-in-step. But contemporary observers–especially those in the mass media–lump American leaders in with the Nazis, and their audiences have no idea that the comparison is simply invidious…and these “experts” know they’re doing it only to boost ratings.

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Cover for Why the Samurai Lost Japan

Most consumers of historical products use them for entertainment. They like the stories, and those of us who write blogs like this should cater to that audience. My co-author and I and especially our dauntless editor of Why the Samurai Lost Japan try to bring a relatively complex and unfamiliar version of the familiar story of Japan before and during WWII to a general consumer audience, though in the nature of military history this isn’t consistently possible. Our readers will be challenged by new concepts, especially as relates to the inability of 19th and 20th century Japan to get the samurai to put their swords away. Yes, it was a social problem, and it was one for Japan itself to address. But they didn’t, and the result was a devastating war.

However, when some scholars look at Hiroshima and say “racist Americans did that,” saying that is neither helpful or supported by evidence. Nonetheless, it’s done all the time. This is the third purpose for the historical record: as a weapon to punish the past to change the appearance of the present. Most accounts of the Pacific War written before about 1980 are pretty straightforward, US triumphalist stories. Few of them discuss what was going on in Japan before Pearl Harbor. It is usually assumed that Japan launched itself against the Americans with the intention of securing their needed resources.

Post-1980, however, the stories are darker, and center either on race or commercial/capitalist competition over Asian markets. The American presence in the Philippines was regarded as a colonialist expansion; Guam was to be liberated by altruistic Japanese; the American submarine blockade was inhuman and arguably illegal; the firebombing and atomic bombings were racially-motivated war crimes because they were not done elsewhere. While all these conclusions are backed by selected parts of the record, they are not supported by the whole record nor by reason…and that’s the point.

Worse, some observers believe that the inventors of suicide bombing were rational actors when it came to the end of the war. Many commentators claim that Japan was about to surrender before August 1945…but have no evidence for this other than stories of starvation and resource exhaustion. This doesn’t deter some critics of American actions to end the war that included the atomic bombs…but didn’t stop there.

Why the Samurai Lost Japan will be available at your favorite booksellers by Christmas. Look for it.


For those of you who read this far (bless you all), this is National Color Day for reasons beyond understanding, and National Nut Day because Liberation Foods, probably the one in the UK and not California, said it was. Liberation Foods touts its “fair trade” nuts–primarily small-scale growers worldwide who also own Liberation.

Nuts are an energy and nutrient source for humans, and essential to animals in temperate climates. Many are used in cooking, eaten raw, sprouted, roasted, and pressed for oil. Nut fats are mostly unsaturated. Many nuts are sources of vitamins E and B2, protein, folate fiber and essential minerals such as magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, copper, and selenium.

Studies (those again) have shown that those who consume nuts on a regular basis are less likely to suffer from coronary heart disease (CHD), which means those with allergies to nuts may be in trouble.

https://nutritiouslife.com/recipes/nut-seed-bread/
A selection of nuts…and other seeds.

Now, everyone knows that nuts of all descriptions are seeds, right? Plant these things under the right conditions, and they propagate the plants that they came from. We consume these things–them what can–and end the propagation cycle. But, in fact, it took some time to domesticate most of these into seeds that we can digest. Acorns, on their own, are not fit for human consumption–they need processing. Coconuts are very large nuts. Most of the plants we consume were genetic mistakes that humans exploited and cultivated into food. The pecan, domesticated in the American south in the early 19th century, thrived on the depleted cotton ground that abounded there. Before the Civil War, it had become as important a cash crop as tobacco. Today, pralines are a southern tourist trap staple.

There’s also Chocolate Covered Nut Day (25 February), Grab Some Nuts Day (3 September), and  Macadamia Nut Day (4 September) if you really want to go nuts about nuts.

Keep your cards and letters coming in, folks.

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