Change & Habit III: If Not by Force, Then How?

toynbeeIn his book Change and Habit: The Challenge of Our Times, one of the 20th century’s most respected historians, Arnold J. Toynbee, puts his in-depth knowledge of human history and his concerns for its future into focus. He suggests that to avoid self-destruction and move towards unification, humanity must make a radical break from deeply ingrained habits built up over many generations. In his quest to pinpoint these habits, Toynbee examines the would-be world states and would-be world religions that have appeared in human history, considers the impact they have had on our collective identity and then suggests the factors that, once realized, would bring us closer to the dream of a united world. In cross-referencing Toynbee’s findings with the Baha’i writings, we discover a striking harmony between lessons learnt from history and Baha’i guidelines on lasting peace.

3. Federalism as the way forward?

Given Toynbee’s assertion that world governance cannot be imposed by force if it is to succeed, do cases exist where voluntary union between member states has taken place and actually proven a success? Is there a positive model we can refer to and use as a point of reference? Well, peering back into the 1700s we find one such case, where a divided and oft-times hostile community was united under one system:

The stirring of a new national consciousness, and the birth of a new type of civilization, infinitely richer and nobler than any which its component parts could have severally hoped to achieve, may be said to have proclaimed the coming of age of the American people.

By agreeing to the federal system of governance, the member states of the United States of America ensured their own survival while simultaneously yielding to the promise of an “infinitely richer and nobler” civilization than they could alone achieve. Given their evident success against what seemed like impossible odds, there is quite clearly something related to the principle of federalism that holds promise for a global implementation of this model. Abdu’l-Baha, perceiving this potential, went so far as to encourage a high-ranking official in the U.S. government who had questioned Him as to the best manner in which he could promote the interests of his government and people:

You can best serve your country.. if you strive, in your capacity as a citizen of the world, to assist in the eventual application of the principle of federalism underlying the government of your own country to the relationships now existing between the peoples and nations of the world.

Beyond the need for world leaders to rise to unprecedented heights of political maturity and high-mindedness in order to set up global federal structures, Toynbee mentions two mental barriers at the level of each individual that often impede progress towards the sense of world-citizenship spoken of by Abdu’l-Baha.

The first is to do with feelings of psychological discomfort. According to this theory from evolutionary psychology, there is a limit to the number of stable social relationships that we can maintain. This number varies widely depending on a variety of factors, but the upper limit (known as Dunbar’s Number) is about 150 relationships. Granted this number is open to debate with the emergence of online social networking, yet the fact remains that since the neolithic age we have been hard-wired to maintain strong relationships with no more than our family and a handful of close friends. And even though the sizes of our societal units have long since grown beyond our capacity to “connect” with everyone, there remains, according to some psychologists, an inherent fear of feeling dwarfed by the system.

In the end this fear is unfounded, states Toynbee. The price of feeling an extra bit of psychological discomfort for belonging to a slightly larger system is negligible when compared to the guarantee of a more prosperous future for all.

The second barrier which Toynbee mentions, and which is addressed directly by the Baha’i teachings, are physiological factors: cultural differences, racial prejudices, feelings of class superiority (in fact, all forms of blind imitation). In other words, emotions that run counter to the principle of the oneness of the human race — a truth with all the sciences affirm but which, as individuals, we have struggled to embrace. Baha’u'llah, Whose mission was to propel mankind towards the promised age of universal brotherhood, transcendent of man-made limitations, has stated in The Hidden Words:


Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory.

By consciously acting this lesson out and encouraging others to do the same, we put God’s most recent counsel into practice in our daily lives. We learn to consider all as equals, brothers and sisters of a single human race, and in a very practical sense bring to life the concept of world citizenship. We find also that the pyschological and physiological barriers mentioned by Toynbee are far from insurmountable. And it follows that by our actions we are opening doors to more perfect systems of governance, such as world federalism, which will be greatly superior to the outdated models in our midst.

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