In his monumental Study of History, a vast, twelve volume work that he laboured at for nearly thirty years, the twentieth century historian Arnold Toynbee argued that civilizations succeed or fail according to a certain pattern. He called this pattern, “challenge and response.” Certain crises arise that the civilization must face and overcome. Failing to do so leads to their collapse. On the face of it, this observation seems obvious, but there is more to it than this. Crises and challenges come in different shapes and sizes and what is important in Toynbee’s vision of history is the kind of crisis a civilization faces, because it is this that will determine its response.
By ‘kind’ here, Toynbee is concerned not so much with the concrete details of the crisis, whether it is economic, environmental, natural, or man-made, as when one nation invades another, which we have seen in recent times. What is important for Toynbee is the level or degree of crisis, how great or small it may be. Why is this important? Because Toynbee recognised that this made all the difference.
If a crisis is too great, then the civilization fails to muster the necessary response, and collapses fairly quickly. But if the crisis is too small, not great enough, the civilization overcomes it too easily, becomes complacent, and begins to rest on its oars. Decay sets in and the civilization slowly goes under. We can say that one is a rapid collapse, the other a gentle but steady disintegration.
Between these two forms of what we may call “civilizational failure,” there may not be much to choose, but Toynbee also believed that if the challenge is “just right,” both can be avoided. This is where Goldilocks comes in, although Toynbee himself didn’t refer to that enigmatic fairy tale character. For if the challenge is great enough to force the civilization to make enormous efforts, but not so great that it is overwhelmed by it, then the civilization can overcome it, and move on to a higher level. The challenge has been “just right,” just as in the fairy tale, the warm bowl of porridge (not too hot nor too cold) and optimum bed (not too soft or too hard) were for Goldilocks at the three bears’ house.
We can say that the appropriate challenge forces the civilization to grow, just as the challenges in our individual lives do for each of us. In his remarkable work A Vision – which presents a view of history not dissimilar to Toynbee’s – the poet W. B. Yeats had something similar in mind when he spoke of “the fates,” the forces behind our individual destiny. In individuals, the fates’ task is “to bring their chosen man to the greatest obstacle he can face without despair.” So we can say that, if Toynbee and Yeats are correct, then what is needed for both our collective and individual growth are challenges that are “just right.”
Today we are certainly not bereft of challenges. New ones seem to appear each day. They span the spectrum of crises. Climate change, economic disaster, social upheaval, epidemics, war, civil conflicts, political corruption, mass migration, famine are just some of the difficulties facing much of the world as we head toward the end of the first quarter of the twenty-first century. We seem to have entered what Toynbee called a “time of troubles,” when the challenges a civilization cannot avoid rear their heads.
What would Toynbee have thought of this? We can assume he wouldn’t think the challenges facing us weren’t great enough. But would he have thought they were too great?
Toynbee died in 1975, almost half a century ago. Many of the crises facing us now were just starting then, or at least our awareness of them was. Toward the end of his life, when asked his opinion on what was ahead, Toynbee admitted that he was glad to be leaving the scene and not entering it. His advice to those who would remain after his departure was to “cling and wait.” Not terribly hopeful words, but Toynbee knew that it is better to face a “time of troubles” honestly than with false optimism.
If we are faced with what we might call an embarrassment of crises, what of our response? This, too, can assume different forms. There are, of course, the various rational, practical, utilitarian plans and projects designed to deal with our crises in a reasonable, ‘scientific’ way. Various technological solutions are proffered, as well as large scale social changes, involving alterations in people’s ‘life styles’ and eating habits. Reduction of their use of oil and other supposedly damaging substances upon which our civilization has become dependent, are suggested, if not demanded outright.
How effective these different responses may be we cannot tell, and people’s reaction to them differ widely, from complacent acquiescence in our unavoidable extinction, to fanatical insistence on immediately adopting the most stringent measures in order to stave this off. Many people, if not most, fall somewhere between these extremes; I know that is the position I occupy.
I can’t say that I have any answers to these questions. I do wonder, though, if the response needed to meet our challenges – assuming we are capable of meeting them – will come from somewhere other than in this direction, or from any direction we are even aware of, in our usual way.
What do I mean by this? The psychologist C. G. Jung had a similar idea to Toynbee’s “challenge and response” in regard to the human psyche. Jung recognised that although we may have a conscious desire to change, to rid ourselves of some debilitating neurosis or personal failing, more often than not, this isn’t sufficient to free us of the paralysis that keeps the bad habit in place. But a crisis that confronts us with the absolute necessity to do so, can shake up the unconscious, and free the psychic energy needed to break the habit. Reason, good intentions, and other conscious inducements fall flat, but when life is seriously threatened, the psyche will respond. It knows the conscious ego for the vacillating coward it is. But it recognises a real need when it sees one.
I can’t imagine our unconscious – our personal one but also our collective, social one – isn’t aware of our situation. We can’t insist it respond in the way we would like, but we can pay attention and see what that response may be, if indeed there is one. I believe there will be a response, and that it will emerge in individuals. Not in mass movements or political leaders or in some form of technology, but in the consciousness of different people, around the globe. They won’t necessarily know each other or be aware of what is happening to them, and the change taking place in them may at first be more of a burden than a blessing. But they will feel different and their view of things will be different from those around them. And very likely this may make life even more difficult for them.
Colin Wilson, a writer who has influenced me a great deal, calls such people “outsiders.” They are individuals, men and women, who have an appetite for meaning and purpose, that our increasingly mechanised and more and more ‘robotic’ way of life cannot provide. They are not satisfied with bigger television screens, more sophisticated mobile phones, more highly advanced computers, or the latest developments in AI. They know life is about something other than this, as helpful as these things may be. What that ‘something else’ might be is not always clear, and their need to satisfy their deep hunger for meaning may lead them into strange, sometimes dangerous pursuits. But the moments in which they feel truly alive, truly real, however they are obtained, are more important to them than anything else.
A similar sensibility informs individuals that the psychologist Abraham Maslow, a great influence on Wilson, calls “self-actualisers.” Maslow, one of the founders of humanist and existential psychology, is probably best known for devising what he called a “hierarchy of needs.” Maslow recognised that we are motivated by fulfilling certain basic needs, shared by all people, whatever their background. First there is the need for food. Then, when this is satisfied, we feel a need for shelter, a home of some kind, even if it is only a single room. After this comes the need for a relationship, for love and sex, a ‘significant other’. Finally, there is the need for what Maslow called “self-esteem,” the good opinion of others, to be recognised and appreciated by them.
These are all what Maslow called “deficiency needs;” they are for something we lack. But at the top of his hierarchy, Maslow put a different kind of need. Not a need for something we don’t have, but the need to use what we do possess. This is a “creative need,” the need to use our energies toward some purpose, some end in itself – not a utilitarian purpose, but a creative one.
Maslow believed we all are capable of reaching this level, which he called “self-actualization.” But in his later years he was saddened to realise that not everyone does. This was not because adverse conditions prevented it. Maslow knew that many self-actualisers emerge from difficult backgrounds – he did himself – while many people coming from well-off, comfortable and even supportive backgrounds, do not self-actualise, or at least, show no interest in doing so. Many, if not most of us are happy to stay at the self-esteem level, and I would say that recent developments like social media provide evidence of this. Many of us spend a great deal of time posting things online and competing with others for ‘likes’, trying to stand out momentarily amidst the ‘stream’ of continual ‘content’. We are special and we want others to notice it, while we note how special they are too.
This may seem a gloomy prospect, but I think it actually suggests something positive. Because if a great many people in our global civilization occupy the self-esteem rung on Maslow’s hierarchy, that suggests that a fair size number must inhabit the self-actualization level. We may not hear of them, but that makes perfect sense. Because, while those fulfilling their self-esteem need draw as much attention to themselves as possible, self-actualisers work alone. They are too busy actualising their creative possibilities to tweet about it. Like Wilson’s ‘outsiders’, self-actualisers are often solitary and more interested in what is going on in their heads than in what the latest bread and circuses on NetFlix and elsewhere have to offer.
I believe that if Toynbee, Yeats, and Jung are right, and if the ‘fates’, whoever they are, have brought us to “the greatest obstacle we can face without despair,” then it is in these characters, the ‘outsiders’ and self-actualisers, that the response needed to overcome this obstacle will arise. And the response will be the lives of these individuals themselves, how they live, their values, what is important to them. They will embody the kind of seriousness and creativity necessary to face what lies ahead.
I also like to think that, although these ‘outsiders’ and self-actualisers may not know each other, they are nevertheless working toward the same goal. Just as elementary particles that were once in touch with each other, but no longer are, still ‘know’ what each other are doing – through the phenomenon of ‘quantum entanglement’ – and just as neurons in the brain involved in the same operations fire simultaneously, although they are not contiguous, might it not be the case that the actions of these individual people, scattered around the world, will add up to something more than themselves?
What that something more is, I cannot say, other than the possible emergence of a growth in consciousness. I can certainly think of no other response adequate to the challenges facing us. Let us hope that when it comes, it will be “just right.”