History Is Just One Damn Thing after Another

Arnold J. Toynbee? Max Plowman? H. A. L. Fisher? Apocryphal?

history09Dear Quote Investigator: The famous historian Arnold J. Toynbee wrote a monumental 12-volume work titled “A Study of History” in which he delineated the trajectories of several major human civilizations. Surprisingly, a comically depreciatory definition of history is attributed to him. Here are two versions:

History is just one damn fact after another.
History is just one damned thing after another.

This thought seems out of character for Toynbee. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: QI believes that this statement about the contingency of history was built upon an earlier expression which emerged circa 1909:

Life is just one damned thing after another.

The Quote Investigator website article tracing the above saying is available here. This entry will concentrate on tracing the evolution of the variant remark about history.

In 1932 a journal called “The Adelphi” published “Keyserling’s Challenge” by Max Plowman who was very unhappy with treatises that emphasized the naïve collection and reiteration of miscellaneous facts. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

So, like savages before their gods, they worship facts. And in return, the facts hit them like hailstones. Life is just one damned fact after another. They turn to collecting facts—laying them down—making “Outlines” of every real and fancied fact in the universe, until “truth” becomes an endless succession of stepping-stones that have a way of disappearing into the bog as soon as they are passed over. . .

Plowman was critical of the saying in boldface. He asserted the primacy of elements that were non-material and not easily reducible to simple facts such as community, emotion, and beauty. This instance of the saying did not employ the word “history”; hence, it did not completely match the expression under examination.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1952 Arnold J. Toynbee wrote an article for “Woman’s Home Companion” titled “You Can Pack Up Your Troubles”, and he employed the saying that was in circulation by 1909. But Toynbee was referring the exasperation of daily living and the dangers of historical upheavals. He was not asserting that history was random or patternless: 2

Life is just one damned thing after another, whether it is private or public life. And looking back upon history (which in reality, of course, has never stopped happening, even during our brief halcyon days), one can see that in almost every age in almost every part of the world, human beings have had to live their normal lives and do their normal business under conditions of uncertainty, danger and distress. . .

In 1954 volume 9 of “A Study of History” by Toynbee was released. One of the central themes of Toynbee’s opus was the existence of patterns in history. His analysis employed a notion of separate world civilizations which each faced challenges and followed arcs of development from growth to decay.

Yet, Toynbee recognized that some other historians did not perceive such grand patterns. Toynbee quoted from H. A. L. Fisher’s 1935 book “A History of Europe” in which Fisher wrote skeptically:

Men wiser and more learned than I have discerned in History a plot, a rhythm, a predetermined pattern. These harmonies are concealed from me.

Toynbee claimed that Fisher’s use of the title “A History of Europe” implicitly recognized that history could beneficially be decomposed into separate nameable units. Thus, some patterns existed: 3

An historian who had thus publicly declared his allegiance to the dogma that ‘Life is just one damned thing after another’ might have been expected to give his work some such conformably non-committal title as ‘A History of Some Emergencies in Some Human Affairs’; but, in calling it, as he did, ‘A History of Europe’, he was recanting in his title his own denial in his preface that he had ‘discerned in History a plot, a rhythm, a pre-determined pattern’; for the portmanteau word ‘Europe’ is a whole Corpus Juris Naturae in itself.

In the passage above Toynbee used an instance of the 1909 saying, but he was using it to describe the position of Fisher, and he was criticizing Fisher.

In October 1954 “Time” magazine discussed Toynbee’s “A Study of History” and mentioned the 1909 saying: 4

In an age of “antinomian” historians (who are devoted “to the dogma that ‘life is just one damned thing after another’“), Toynbee organized history in a pattern. He treated not of nations or races or even “forces,” but of civilizations which he saw living and dying in regular cycles.

In 1957 a 2-volume abridgement of Toynbee’s 12-volume work was published and two instances of the pertinent phrase were included. The passage below alluded to a 1926 a novel called “ODTAA” by John Masefield: 5

Here was a chaos unamenable to her laws; a meaningless succession of events that a twentieth-century English novelist who was also poet laureate called Odtaa, standing for ‘one damned thing after another’. Science could not make sense of it, so it was left to a less ambitious fraternity, the historians.

The following excerpt was very similar to Toynbee’s passage from 1954, but now the slightly altered phrasing matched that given in the question that initiated this exploration. Once again Toynbee was not describing his own stance; he was describing his perception of H. A. L. Fisher’s viewpoint: 6

And yet an historian who thus publicly declared his allegiance to the dogma that History is just ‘one damned thing after another’ had, in calling his book A History of Europe, committed himself, almost in the same breath, to a predetermined pattern in which the history of one indistinguishable ‘continent’ was equated with the whole history of Mankind. . .

In June 1957 “Time” magazine discussed Toynbee’s work again and included the saying. Thus, the linkage to Toynbee was further disseminated: 7

For centuries history was either a form of national propaganda or an antinomian catalogue, the kind described by Toynbee as “just one damned thing after another.” The brilliant school that evolved from Vico to Hegel to Spengler to Toynbee was an immensely fruitful corrective.

In 1963 the journal “The School Review” printed an article by Earl S. Johnson that criticized a teaching style that split knowledge into separate disconnected disciplines. Johnson used an unattributed instance of the saying: 8

. . . as fanciful as the view that history, conceived as “one damned fact after another,” would give them a sense of the ethos or Zeitgeist of an historical epoch.

In 1965 the “Music Educators Journal” published an article by Charles R. Keller that ascribed an instance of the saying to Toynbee. Keller correctly recognized that Toynbee was using the phrase critically: 9

Here and there in history and the social sciences learning has become inquiry and discovery rather than what Arnold Toynbee called “one damned fact after another.”

In August 1968 “Time” magazine yet again printed an instance of the phrase: 10

Some historians, remarked Arnold Toynbee, hold the view that history “is just one damned thing after another.” Himself a believer in orderly historical patterns, Toynbee disapproved of such an outlook.

In December 1968 Charles R. Keller published an article in “The High School Journal”, and he ascribed the saying to Toynbee. Unfortunately, the context did not indicate that Toynbee was being critical: 11

Let me begin with a statement of the things that I thought needed changing. What was wrong with the social studies?

1. The fact-by-fact approach prevailed. Arnold Toynbee once said, “History is just one damn fact after another.” There was very little getting to ideas.

In 1975 Toynbee died, and his obituary in “The New York Times” attempted to provide context for the saying by presenting a deistic counterpoint interpretation: 12

He suggested that spiritual rather than material forces controlled the course of history and that individuals played a creative (or destructive) role in the unfolding of events. Rejecting “the dogma that ‘life is just one damned thing after another.'” Mr. Toynbee argued that the end of history is the Kingdom of God and that history is “God revealing Himself.”

In conclusion, this expression evolved from the 1909 saying that mentioned “life” and not “history”. The 1957 abridgement of Arnold J. Toynbee’s opus did contain a statement that used the word “history” and matched the phrase being explored. But it is important to note that Toynbee was describing a viewpoint concerning history with which he disagreed.

Image Notes: Cover image for “A Study of History” released into the public domain by its author, Oxford University Press, Fair Dealing Policy. Portrait of Arnold J. Toynbee circa 1967. Source: Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO). Toynbee picture file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Netherlands license.

(Great thanks to Massimo Fuggetta whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to John McChesney-Young for obtaining scans of the important 1932 citation. Thanks also to the University of North Carolina, School of the Arts, Semans Library for 1952 citation.)


  1. 1932 December, The Adelphi (New Series), Section: The Adelphi Forum, Keyserling’s Challenge by Max Plowman, Start Page 212, Quote Page 213, The Adelphi, Bloomsbury Street, London. (Verified with scans; thanks to the University of California, Berkeley library system)
  2. 1952 April, Woman’s Home Companion, Volume 79, You Can Pack Up Your Troubles by Arnold J. Toynbee, Start Page 4, Quote Page 6, Published by Crowell-Collier, Springfield, Ohio. (Verified visually; thanks to University of North Carolina, School of the Arts, Semans Library)
  3. 1954 (Reprint 1961), A Study of History by Arnold Toynbee, Volume 9, Quote Page 195, Oxford University Press, London. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1954 October 18, Time, Books: Prophet of Hope & Fear (Book Review of “A Study of History, Vols. VII-X” by Arnold J. Toynbee), Time, Inc., New York. (Online Time magazine archive; accessed May 8, 2015)
  5. 1957, A Study of History by Arnold J. Toynbee, Abridgement of Volumes VII-X by D. C. Somervell, Quote Page 265, Oxford University Press, New York. (Verified on paper)
  6. 1957, A Study of History by Arnold J. Toynbee, Abridgement of Volumes VII-X by D. C. Somervell, Quote Page 267, Oxford University Press, New York. (Verified on paper)
  7. 1957 June 10, Time, Books: Man or History? (Book Review of “The Coming Caesars” by Amaury de Riencourt), Time, Inc., New York. (Online Time magazine archive; accessed May 8, 2015)
  8. 1963 Winter, The School Review, Volume 71, Number 4, The Social Studies versus the Social Sciences by Earl S. Johnson, Start Page 389, Quote Page 392, Published by The University of Chicago Press. (JSTOR) link
  9. 1965 April-May, Music Educators Journal, Volume 51, Number 5, The Educational Revolution and Music by Charles R. Keller, Start Page 35, Quote Page 36, Column 3, Published by Sage Publications on behalf of MENC: The National Association for Music Education. (JSTOR) link
  10. 1968 August 30, Time, Essay: What a Year!, Time, Inc., New York. (Online Time magazine archive; accessed May 8, 2015)
  11. 1968 December, The High School Journal, Volume 52, Number 3, Latin America, The Social Studies in Transition by Charles R. Keller (Formerly Director, The John Hay Fellows Program), Start Page 154, Quote Page 154, Published by University of North Carolina Press. (JSTOR) link
  12. 1975 October 23, New York Times, Arnold Toynbee, Who Charted Civilizations ‘Rise and Fall’, Dies: Arnold Toynbee, Historian, Dies at 86 by Alden Whitman, Start Page 1, Quote Page 42, New York. (ProQuest)