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There has been recently a return on the part of some writers to the Greek theory that the course of history follows a cyclical pattern. An important motivation for this return is the conviction that neither the theory of progress nor the classical Christian understanding of history can explain the setback which has befallen Western culture. One of the most famous explanations of the current dilemma to employ this pattern was that offered by the German writer, Oswald Spengler (1880-1936), in the Decline of the West (1918-1922). Drawing his analogy from biology, Spengler argued that each civilization has a life cycle of its own, in the course of which it passes from youth to senility and final decay. He concluded that its life span approximated 1000 years, thus providing himself with a timetable by means of which he could predict the future of Western culture. Since he believed that Western Civilization has begun about the year 900, he felt certain that it had just about run its course. What he regarded as a great dearth of creative art and philosophy in recent times only confirmed his prediction. Appearing as it did as World War I was ending, a war which many had believed the progress of man had rendered highly unlikely, Spengler's book gained considerable notoriety. It influenced a young British historian, Arnold J. Toynbee, who was then thinking along some of the very same lines Spengler traced. [excerpt]

Additional Resources

An excerpt from Toynbee's abridgment of D.C. Somervell's book, A Study of History, has been removed due to copyright restrictions. A later edition of Toynbee's abridgment is available here.


This is a part of Section XXIV: Historical Meaning. The Contemporary Civilization page lists all additional sections of Ideas and Institutions of Western Man, as well as the Table of Contents for both volumes.

More About Contemporary Civilization:

From 1947 through 1969, all first-year Gettysburg College students took a two-semester course called Contemporary Civilization. The course was developed at President Henry W.A. Hanson’s request with the goal of “introducing the student to the backgrounds of contemporary social problems through the major concepts, ideals, hopes and motivations of western culture since the Middle Ages.”

Gettysburg College professors from the history, philosophy, and religion departments developed a textbook for the course. The first edition, published in 1955, was called An Introduction to Contemporary Civilization and Its Problems. A second edition, retitled Ideas and Institutions of Western Man, was published in 1958 and 1960. It is this second edition that we include here. The copy we digitized is from the Gary T. Hawbaker ’66 Collection and the marginalia are his.