I Agree With A Pagan

Arnold Toynbee - London, England
As heard on The Bob Edwards Show, June 18, 2010
Arnold Toynbee
Library of Congress photo/LOOK Magazine collection

Arnold Toynbee says everyone has certain skills and knowledge, yet what makes us truly human is how we relate to other people. The noted historian believes that suffering is not only inevitable but it is indispensable in gaining a lifelong education.

Age Group: 50 - 65
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I believe there may be some things that some people may know for certain, but I also believe that these knowable things aren’t what matters most to any human being. A good mathematician may know the truth about numbers, and a good engineer may know how to make physical forces serve his purposes. But the engineer and the mathematician are human beings first—so for them, as well as for me, what matters most is not one’s knowledge and skill, but one’s relations with other people. We don’t all have to be engineers or mathematicians, but we do all have to deal with other people. And these relations of ours with each other, which are the really important things in life, are also the really difficult things, because it is here that the question of right and wrong comes in.

I believe we have no certain knowledge of what is right and wrong and even if we had, I believe we should find it just as hard as ever to do something that we knew for certain to be right in the teeth of our personal interests and inclinations. Actually, we have to make the best judgment we can about what is right and then we have to bet on it by trying to make ourselves act on it, without being sure about it.

Since we can never be sure, we have to try to be charitable and open to persuasion that we may, after all, have been in the wrong, and at the same time we have to be resolute and energetic in what we do in order to be effective. It is difficult enough to combine effectiveness with humility and charity in trying to do what is right, but it is still more difficult to try to do right at all, because this means fighting oneself.

Trying to do right does mean fighting oneself, because, by nature, each of us feels and behaves as if he were the center and the purpose of the universe. But I do feel sure that I am not that, and that, in behaving as if I were, I am going wrong. So one has to fight oneself all the time, and this means that suffering is not only inevitable, but is an indispensable part of a lifelong education, if only one can learn how to profit by it. I believe that everything worth winning does have its price in suffering, and I know, of course, where this belief of mine comes from. It comes from the accident of my having been born in a country where the local religion has been Christianity.

Another belief that I owe to Christianity is a conviction that love is what gives life its meaning and purpose, and that suffering is profitable when it is met in the course of following love’s lead. But I can’t honestly call myself a believing Christian in the traditional sense. To imagine one’s own church, civilization, nation, or family is the chosen people is, I believe, as wrong as it would be for me to imagine that I myself am God. I agree with Symmachus, the pagan philosopher who put the case for toleration to a victorious Christian church, and I will end by quoting his words: “The universe is too great a mystery for there to be only one single approach to it.”

Arnold J. Toynbee was the author of the monumental “A Study of History,” a 12-volume analysis of world civilization. Toynbee was a delegate to the Paris Peace Conferences at the end of World Wars I and II. He also served as director of studies at the Royal Institute for International Affairs for several decades.