Asia Life

Surviving the Future: Looking Back at the Toynbee-Wakaizumi Dialogue of 1970

A British historian and a Japanese professor discussed life, technology, and the future of mankind.

Surviving the Future: Looking Back at the Toynbee-Wakaizumi Dialogue of 1970
Credit: Dutch National Archives

Forty-eight years ago, British historian Arnold J. Toynbee and Japanese professor Kei Wakaizumi held a dialogue of sorts, addressing some concerns of the student generation in Japan and throughout the world. Toynbee and Wakaizumi talked for seven days, three hours each day. The dialogue was initially published in Japanese in daily installments in the Mainichi Shimbun between August 24 and December 9, 1970, and the next year it appeared in book form in English under the title Surviving the Future.

The dialogue’s format was a series of deeply philosophical questions posed by Wakaizumi to the famed British historian, and Toynbee’s lengthy responses and reflections on the topics suggested by Wakaizumi. It makes interesting reading in light of what has transpired during the last half-century.

At the time of the dialogue, Toynbee was 82 years old and near the end of a distinguished career as a British and world historian. His most famous work was the 12-volume A Study of History, which magisterially analyzed the rise and fall of civilizations. Whittaker Chambers in Time magazine called it “the most provocative work of historical theory written in England since Karl Marx’s Capital,” describing it as a “vast design and complex achievement.”

Toynbee had visited Japan in 1967 (his third visit), where he lectured at Kyoto Industrial University on topics such as “The Coming World City” and “Mankind’s Future.” On December 6, 1967, he spoke at the Imperial Palace in the presence of Japan’s Emperor and prime minister.

A Study of History was translated into Japanese beginning in 1968, while D.C. Somervell’s popular two-volume abridgment appeared in Japan in 1966. In April 1968, industrialist Konosuke Matsushita founded the Toynbee Society, which Toynbee biographer William McNeill described as “an elitist organization” of Japan’s establishment that held meetings and seminars and published periodicals devoted to Toynbee’s ideas.

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Professor Wakaizumi, meanwhile, taught international relations at the Kyoto Sangyo University and had a close relationship with Japan’s government. He had conducted secret negotiations on behalf of Japan with both the Johnson and Nixon administrations over the status of Okinawa and the presence of U.S. nuclear weapons on Japanese territory. He later published a book about those negotiations, entitled The Best Course Available.

Toynbee introduced Surviving the Future by praising Wakaizumi for initiating the dialogue and providing “searching questions [that] give voice to the queries and doubts and hopes and fears of this generation of people, not only in Japan, but all over the World.”

The historical backdrop of this dialogue included the increasingly controversial Vietnam War, the nuclear arms race, the declining influence of traditional religion (especially on young people), the growing fear of pollution and over-population, and the popular notion that the power establishments of the world’s nations had something to learn from the idealistic student generation.

The topics proposed by Wakaizumi and discussed at length by Toynbee included the fundamental purposes of life; the impact of technology and the rapid pace of technological change; religion; education; learning from history; and the potential for world government.

Toynbee stated that the most important purposes of life were love, understanding, and creation. True love as opposed to desire, he said, “is an emotion which discharges itself in an activity that overcomes self-centredness by expending the self on people and on purposes beyond the self.” It is a spiritual phenomenon that ultimately moves a person toward “the ultimate spiritual reality behind the universe.” Love, he further explained, involves understanding others and having reverence for all mankind.

Religion, he asserted, was the key to achieving the purposes of life. Toynbee argued that man’s greatest need is for “a spiritual improvement in ourselves and in our relations with our fellow human beings.” The great religions (what Toynbee calls the “higher religions” — Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity) teach that self-centeredness and egocentricity “can be conquered by love.”

Toynbee inferred the existence of an “ultimate spiritual reality” from his study of history, which showed the “spiritual side of human nature.” Indeed, for Toynbee, “the study of history would be meaningless if it did not have an ultimately religious significance and religious goal.”

Unfortunately, Toynbee noted, the higher religions have in some cases given way to the “lower” religions, especially what he called the worship of “collective power” that makes the human community into a “god.” The god of collective power often tries to “persuade or compel its subjects to become accomplices in immoral behavior — for instance in fighting aggressive wars and in committing atrocities.” The state becomes deified and calls upon its subjects to sacrifice for “the sake of this idol.”

Nationalism, Toynbee explained, is the “real religion today of a majority of people,” and “has been the ruin of one civilization after another.” The only effective counter to nationalism, he argued, is the political unification of the world, but that must be preceded by a “world-wide spiritual revolution.”

Education, according to Toynbee, can be a means of constructive change. He argued that a “humane” education should include literature’s greatest works, music, art, philosophy, religion, and history. Education should be general, avoid over-specialization, and should help knit the “whole human race together into a single family.” He proposed the founding of an “international university” with the goal of unifying mankind.

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The conclusion of the dialogue was Toynbee’s vision of a unified world state. War among the great powers cannot be rational given the destructive nature of modern weapons. War should be abolished, he said, and the only way to effectively accomplish that and ensure the survival of the human race is to form a world government. That world government, he noted, “will have to be equipped with effective power to stop the local states from going to war with each other.”

Remarkably, Toynbee favored a dictatorial world government rather than a world of independent anarchic states. He reached back into history and predicted that the most probable world government will emulate the Akkadian, Roman, Chinese, and Persian Empires of antiquity. A harsh Leninist dictatorship, he opined, is a lesser evil than self-extermination or continuing anarchy. He foresaw what he called a “fusion” of communism and capitalism, and looked forward “to a time when every human being will belong to” a world society, a world state, and a world city. He recognized that a dictatorial world state would be evil, so he challenged the student generation to find some middle ground between self-destructive anarchy and a dictatorial world state.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that Toynbee was far too pessimistic about the potential for nuclear war and mankind’s self-destructive tendencies, yet also far too optimistic about human nature’s ability to change. Communism and capitalism did not fuse (except arguably in China), but instead, as President Ronald Reagan predicted, capitalism and freedom transcended communism and left much of it on the “ash heap of history.”

Neither religion nor education has eroded nationalism, which, contrary to Toynbee, is less an ideology than an integral part of human nature. Toynbee’s study of history and civilizations should have inoculated him against fanciful notions of world government and a common humanity, but it appears that fear of mankind’s self-destruction clouded his sense of history.

We still have a world of anarchic states that struggle for wealth and power; that combine competition with cooperation; that some times submit disputes to international arbitration but ultimately seek their own selfish interests.

Technological change has, if anything, advanced faster and further than Toynbee and Wakaizumi anticipated. With the information and cyber revolutions, the world is becoming technologically one but that has not led to the political unification they sought. Indeed, in the 21st century, nationalism is arguably stronger than ever.

Though Toynbee mentions in the dialogue the great material benefits derived from economic and political freedom, he places less value on material benefits than he does on spiritual renewal and survival. There is a disconnect here, because the world government advocated by the dialogue would necessarily be so powerful that it would suffocate economic, political, and religious freedom, too.

William McNeill accurately described the dialogue as Wakaizumi playing the role of “deferential disciple” while Toynbee acted as the “accredited sage,” whose “advanced age and vast learning” made him a new bodhisattva. Toynbee relished that role.

McNeill noted that Wakaizumi explained the attraction that Toynbee had for the Japanese people: “For us Japanese he was a great man who came to understand Japanese culture and religion … It was his non-Europe-centered stance, with heavy emphasis on the future potential of East Asia, that made such a great appeal to Japanese scholars as well as the thinking public.”

Underlying the dialogue was Toynbee’s wish for a convergence of East and West, a melding of civilizations, a unified globe of human beings, an absence of war, and eternal peace. We are no closer to the realization of his vision than we were 50 years ago.

Francis P. Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War. His writings appear in The Diplomat, Joint Force Quarterly, the University Bookman and other publications. He is an attorney, an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University, and a contributing editor to American Diplomacy.