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The Twentieth Century

In the twentieth century, Oswald Spengler (1880–1936) and Arnold Toynbee (1889–1975) presented important theories of historical cycles. In The Decline of the West (1918–1922), Spengler proposed that individual societies have a life cycle similar to living organisms: they experience periods of growth, maturity, and decline. According to him, these cycles repeat themselves as new societies develop. Toynbee was influenced by his reading of Spengler's work. In A Study of History (1934–1961), he argued that civilizations emerge when faced with physical or social challenges. He believed that the history of a civilization was largely the record of its response to a unique challenge. On a larger scale, he saw that history moved through periods governed by universal states followed by shorter periods of religious rule. In Toynbee's view, societies decline when they fail to surmount a challenge and thereafter lose social cohesiveness. However, he acknowledged the possibility that a civilization could repeatedly meet its challenges.

Another prominent twentieth-century historian who proposed a theory of historical cycles was Fernand Braudel (1902–1985). Associated with the Annales school of historians, Braudel developed a system that encompassed short-term (individual), medium-term (social), and long-term (geographical) time periods. While acknowledging the significance of short-term events, he emphasized their integration with larger historical cycles. He incorporated an interdisciplinary approach that examined the complex interactions between history, economics, geography, politics, and culture. His major works include The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1949) and Civilization and Capitalism: 15th–18th Century (1967–1979).


Braudel, Fernand. Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Century. Translated by Siân Reynolds. 3 vols. New York: Harper, 1982–1984.

Polybius. The Histories of Polybius. Translated from the text of Friedrich Hultsch by Evelyn S. Shuckburgh. 2 vols. London and New York: Macmillan, 1889.

Spengler, Oswald. The Decline of the West. Authorized translation with notes by Charles Francis Atkinson. London: Allen and Unwin, 1980.

Toynbee, Arnold. A Study of History. 12 vols. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1934–1961.

Vico, Giambattista. The New Science of Giambattista Vico. Translated by Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984.

Frederick Liers

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Cyanohydrins to Departments of philosophy:Cycles - The Ancient World, The Early Modern Period, The Twentieth Century, Bibliography