I Agree with a Pagan

Toynbee, Arnold

  • Arnold Toynbee, Professor of International History at the University of London, Director of Studies in the Royal Institute of International Affairs and Director of Research of the Foreign Office, describes his belief that human beings have no certain knowledge of right and wrong, yet must still attempt to live life unselfishly, and his belief that love provides life with purpose. Audio also contains ... read more
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And now, This I Believe, a series of living philosophies presented in the hope they may help to strengthen and enrich your life. Here is Edward R. Murrow.
This I Believe. Professor Arnold Toynbee is widely considered to be the world's greatest living historian. He is a Professor of International History at the University of London and Director of Studies in the Royal Institute of International Affairs. He was a delegate to the Paris Peace Conference after both world wars, and more recently Director of Research of the Foreign Office. Professor Toynbee's master work is, of course, the monumental A Study of History which he began in
1934, and which now runs to nine volumes. Here are the personal beliefs of Professor Arnold Toynbee.
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's 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's difficult enough to combine effectiveness with humility and charity in trying to do what is right, but it's 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.”
Those were the personal beliefs of Arnold Toynbee. They were chosen from the beliefs broadcast in the past two years for inclusion in the new This I Believe book, now at your bookstore.