Arnold Toynbee

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It would be well if, in studying the past, we could always bear in mind the problems of the present, and go to that past to seek large views of what is of lasting importance to the human race.

Arnold Toynbee (23 August 18529 March 1883) was an English economic historian noted for his social commitment and desire to improve the living conditions of the working classes; he was the uncle of Arnold J. Toynbee.


  • It is a paradoxical but profoundly true and important principle of life that the most likely way to reach a goal is to be aiming not at that goal itself but at some more ambitious goal beyond it.

Lectures on The Industrial Revolution in England (1884)

Full text online
  • Economists, firstly, regard only one part of man's nature, and treat him simply as a money-making animal; secondly, they disregard the influence of custom, and only take account of competition. Certain laws are laid down under these assumptions; as, for instance, that the rate of wages always tends to an equality, the permanent difference obtaining in various employments being only sufficient to balance the favourable or unfavourable circumstances attending each of them — a law which is only true after a certain stage of civilisation and in so far as the acquisition of wealth is the sole object of men.
    • p. 28-29
  • The right method in any particular case must be largely determined by the nature of the problem.
    • p. 29
  • The proper limits of Government interference are relative to the nature of each particular state and the stage of its civilisation. It is a matter of great importance at the present day for us to discover what these limits are in our own case, for administration bids fair to claim a large share of our attention in the future.
    • p. 31
  • It would be well if, in studying the past, we could always bear in mind the problems of the present, and go to that past to seek large views of what is of lasting importance to the human race.
    • p. 31
  • Party historians go to the past for party purposes; they seek to read into the past the controversies of the present.
    • p. 32
  • You must pursue facts for their own sake, but penetrated with a vivid sense of the problems of your own time. This is not a principle of perversion, but a principle of selection. You must have some principle of selection, and you could not have a better one than to pay special attention to the history of the social problems which are agitating the world now, for you may be sure that they are problems not of temporary but of lasting importance.
    • p. 32
  • It is a great law of social development that the movement from slavery to freedom is also a movement from security to insecurity of maintenance.
    • p. 95
  • We must expect for a long time yet to see capitalists still striving to obtain the highest possible profits. But observe, that the passion for wealth is certainly in some senses new. It grew up very rapidly at the beginning of the present century; it was not so strong in the last century, when men were much more content to lead a quiet easy life of leisure. The change has really influenced the relations between men; but in the future it is quite possible that the scramble for wealth may grow less intense, and a change in the opposite direction take place.
    • p. 134
  • The Comtists are right when they say that men's moral ideas are not fixed. The attitude of public opinion towards slavery was completely changed in twenty or thirty years. Still I am obliged to believe that such a moral revolution as the Comtists hope for is not possible within a reasonable space of time.
    • p. 150
  • There remains the ordinary Communist solution. This has taken various forms; the simplest being a voluntary association of individuals based on the principle of common property, and in which every person works for the community according to fixed rules. There are many successful instances of this, on a small scale, in the United States, but we cannot suppose such a solution to be possible for society as a whole. It has only been tried with picked materials, whereas our object is rather to improve the great mass of the population. The Communism of recent European theorists, of whom the best known is Lassalle, presents a somewhat different aspect. It aims at the appropriation of all instruments of production by the State, which is to take charge of the whole national industry and direct it. But the practical difficulty of such a scheme is obviously overwhelming. The objections to a Communistic solution do not apply to Socialism in a more modified shape. Historically speaking, Socialism has already shown itself in England in the extension of State interference. It has produced the Factory Laws, and it is now beginning to advance further and interfere directly in the division of produce between the workmen and their employers
    • p. 150
  • We must remember that the real problem is not how to produce some improvement in the condition of the working man— for that has to a certain extent been attained already— but how to secure his complete material independence.
    • p. 151
  • In the middle of the last century there was comparatively little movement of workmen from place to place; but Adam Smith's fierce attack on the law of settlement shows that migration was on the increase. The world was, in fact, on the eve of an industrial revolution; and it is interesting to remember that the two men who did most to bring it about, Adam Smith and James Watt, met, as I have mentioned, in Glasgow, when one was dreaming of the book, and the other of the invention, which were to introduce a new industrial age.
    • p. 189
  • The destruction of the old bonds between employers and workmen was not peculiar to manufactures; it came to pass in agriculture also. An agrarian as well as an industrial revolution had taken place. Scientific methods of cultivation had been substituted for unscientific; vast enclosures had been made; traces of the old three-field system of apportioning the land were fast disappearing; small farms were giving way to large. A new race of farmers, corresponding to the new race of manufacturers, had sprung into existence, who, enriched by the high prices which prevailed during the great war, changed their habits of life. The labourer ceased to be a member of the farmer's household, and, to use Cobbett's words, was thrust out of the farm-house into a hovel.
    • p. 191
  • On the eve of the industrial revolution there were on every side signs of political change. But the French Revolution frightened statesmen, and political reform in England was delayed for nearly half a century.
    • p. 195
  • The Radical creed, as I understand it, is this: We have not abandoned our old belief in liberty, justice, and Self-help, but we say that under certain conditions the people cannot help themselves, and that then they should be helped by the State representing directly the whole people. In giving this State help, we make three conditions: first, the matter must be one of primary social importance; next, it must be proved to be practicable; thirdly, the State interference must not diminish self-reliance. Even if the chance should arise of removing a great social evil, nothing must be done to weaken those habits of individual self-reliance and voluntary association which have built up the greatness of the English people. But — to take an example of the State doing for a section of the people what they could not do for themselves — I am not aware that the Merchant Shipping Act has diminished the self-reliance of the British sailor. We differ from Tory Socialism in so far as we are in favour, not of paternal, but of fraternal government, and we differ from Continental Socialism because we accept the principle of private property, and repudiate confiscation and violence. With Mazzini, we say the worst feature in Continental Socialism is its materialism. It is this indeed which utterly separates English Radical Socialists from Continental Socialists — our abhorrence and detestation of their materialistic ideal. To a reluctant admission of the necessity for State action, we join a burning belief in duty, and a deep spiritual ideal of life. And we have more than an abstract belief in duty, we do not hesitate to unite the advocacy of social reform with an appeal to the various classes who compose society to perform those duties without which all social reform must be merely delusive.
    To the capitalists we appeal to use their wealth, as many of their order already do, as a great national trust, and not for selfish purposes alone. We exhort them to aid in the completion of the work they have well begun, and, having admitted the workmen to political independence, not to shrink from accepting laws and carrying out plans of social reform directed to secure his material independence.
    To the workman we appeal by the memory and traditions of his own sufferings and wrongs to be vigilant to avoid the great guilt of inflicting upon his fellow-citizens the injustice from which he has himself escaped.
    • p. 219. "Are Radicals Socialists?"



  • The greatest punishment for those who are not interested in politics is that they are governed by people who are.
    • Alleged source is unknown. There are very few references to this quote in the internet, but early quotes can be found on twitter Tweet from 2010. Brazilian writer Rodrigo Constantino cited it in the book "Prisioneiros da liberdade‎", page 157, without giving any further references. It may very well be a misquote from Plato's Republic Book 1, 347-C: "Good men are unwilling to rule, either for money's sake or for honour.... So they must be forced to consent under threat of penalty.... The heaviest penalty for declining to rule is to be ruled by someone inferior to yourself."
  • When a society moves from allocating resources by custom and tradition to allocating resources by markets, they may be said to have undergone an industrial revolution.
    • Alleged source is unknown. Referenced on Facebook and other social media but cannot be found in any of Toynbee's writings.