Every year or so I revisit an essay in Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History. A Study of History is Sapiens before Sapiens, a bold attempt to declare what history is and what it means, written over a 50+ year span between 1920-1972. That sort of book puts off a lot of people – “who is he to say all this?” Toynbee takes this head-on in the opening essay “The Relativity of Historical Thought” and it’s an essay that seems even more relevant now.

Toynbee begins by looking at industrialism, the combined force of the human division of labor and non-human application of the scientific method to control the physical world. Industrialism exists to increase output; raw goods transformed. Interestingly, the application of industrialism itself to the scientific method then creates a flywheel (perhaps today, using processors to develop more powerful processors). With any technology or technique, the danger is in its misuse. Toynbee bitterly looks at the conquest of his own studies, at the spewing of identical-covered periodicals and seminars turned into “laboratories”. This, he argues, destroys the very character of what historical studies are for. He points out sci-fi pioneer H.G. Wells tried his hand at his own seep of history in The Outline of History, and petty-minded historians “specialists” had their peccadilloes, and yet:They seemed not to realize that, in reliving the entire life of Mankind as a single imaginative experience, wells was achieving something which they themselves would hardly have dared to attempt – something, perhaps, of which they had never conceived the possibility.

I think often of the example Toynbee gives. After Alexander the Great destroyed the Achaeminan Empire, two dynasties emerged: the Ptolemies in Eqypt and the Seleucids in Syria. Toynbee says the historical consensus is clear on which of the two powers has more historical significance. The 200-year Seleucid Monarchy was the “bridal chamber in which the Hellenic and Syriac Civiliations were married”, innovating (1) a divine kingship to organize city-states – the prototype for the Roman Empire, (2) syncretic religions including Mithraism and Manicheaism, predecessors to Christianity and Islam. The Ptolemiac Empire, in Toynbee’s estimation, had little more to contribute than the introduction to the Roman Empire of the worship of Isis (which mapped on to the Virgin Mary).

Here’s the key part: “Owing, however, to a climatic accident, the amount of raw information regarding these two monarchies which happens to be accessible to us is in inverse ratio to their intrinsic importance in history.” Egypt’s dry desert preserved a wealth of papyri with detailed information on local agricultural techniques, public administration and more. Meanwhile, scholars of the Seleucids must make do with the scattering coins and fragments of literary works.

Toynbee poses a hypothetical, for the scholar embarking on his career. Which is the scholar more likely to ask herself (1) “Is Ptolemaic Egypt the most interesting and important phenomenon to study of its era?”or (2) What is the richest mine of raw historical materials I can work with?” Even if you buy into the idea that industrialism of history is good [but let us recognize other views, that this has not happened or is not consequential], a good industrialist doesn’t begin with supply but begins with demand.

I used to read this and nod my head solemnly, pitying those misguided professionals with their heads down, unable to see the big picture. Only now do I see that Toynbee was just as well talking to me. Should we be content with becoming specialists, perhaps slightly better ones that are able to supply what’s being demanded today? Or can we aspire to be something more, to do something our peers “would hardly have dared to attempt”?