The Modern Wisdom Of Daoist History


Dingxin Zhao is a professor in the department of sociology at Zhejiang University and Max Palevsky professor emeritus at the University of Chicago.

During a reading project I undertook to better understand the “third wave of democracy” — the remarkable and rapid rise of democracies in Latin America, Asia, Europe and Africa in the 1970s and 80s — I came to realize that this ascendency of democratic polities was not the result of some force propelling history toward its natural, final state, as some scholars have argued. Instead, it was the result of American political influence spreading around the world after the U.S. had established itself as the sole global superpower.

However, the U.S. endeavor to impose its political system in foreign lands where its policymakers did not have much knowledge facilitated the rise of many low-quality democracies, ethnic conflicts and refugee crises and triggered a global resurgence of authoritarianism and conservatism. Adding to such complexity, the crippled democratization movement, promoted under the banner of liberalism, inadvertently eroded the prominence of liberal ideologies — the very bedrock of enlightenment — across the world.

Upon arriving at this conclusion, I grappled with a sense of unease. I began to question whether I leaned too conservatively or possessed a certain authoritarian personality. Eventually, I realized that my conclusions were influenced by a Daoist perspective on history that had been imprinted on me during my upbringing in China.

Such a Daoist understanding of history contrasts with the teleological tenets found within the Judeo-Christian tradition and the symmetric cyclic interpretations that are also common in Western thought. And it could provide several insights in comprehending our increasingly intricate and uncertain world.

Daoist Temporality

According to the Tao Te Ching, a succinctly composed text attributed to Laozi from the Warring States period (475-221 B.C.E.), history revolves around two pivotal elements. The first is that it unfolds in cycles that are characterized by perpetual transformations and negations. This cyclical perspective on historical development immediately sets the Daoist understanding of history apart from the linear and teleological understanding found in Judeo-Christian traditions, exemplified by narratives in the Bible and subsequently interpreted in diverse ways by theologians.

For instance, Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.C.E) put forth a seven-stage model of historical progression, tracing humanity’s journey from creation to redemption in “The City of God.” Similarly, Joachim of Fiore (1135-1202 A.C.E.), another theologian, devised a three-stage theory of history that delineated the Age of the Father, characterized by God’s direct governance over mankind, and then the Age of the Son, when humanity became the son of God, and lastly, the Age of the Holy Spirit, which heralded the eventual replacement of the Catholic Church by the Order of the Just.

The Daoist conception of history also diverges from Hegelian dialectics, which posits that history evolves in a spiral-like, progressive manner through the “negation of negation.” Hegel wasn’t alone here; during the 18th and 19th centuries, as Europeans grew progressively assured, European intellectuals, imprinted by Judeo-Christian theology, presented various secular adaptations of teleological theories of history. Among these, perhaps the most influential was Marx’s historical materialism, asserting that history progresses through five distinct stages ranging from primitive communism to communism.

It is important to emphasize that the cyclical perspective on history is a shared legacy across all civilizations. Even in the Western world, cyclical views of history held sway prior to the ascent of Christianity. Furthermore, realists or skeptics in the modern Western context continue to espouse cyclical theories of history, particularly during challenging times.

For instance, amid the European geopolitical tumult that culminated in the cataclysmic First World War, Oswald Spengler authored a book relating the rise and decline of civilizations to the changing seasons. This analogy of historical cycles corresponding to four seasons was recently adopted by the author Neil Howe. Firmly convinced of a profound crisis in the U.S. today, Howe argued that the history of Anglo-America has cyclically developed like the seasons: a promising spring followed by a countercultural summer, an era of institutional deterioration (fall) and a crisis-laden winter, thus paving the way for a new saeculum (a period roughly equal to a human life).

Mancur Olson, in a parallel vein, contends that the growing prominence of interest group politics is an inevitable consequence for any nation enjoying a period of stability, ultimately contributing to that nation’s decline. Similarly, Peter Turchin identifies the inexorable emergence of “elite overproduction” following a period of prosperity as a key driver behind a nation’s decline.

“The U.S. endeavor to impose its political system in foreign lands where its policymakers did not have much knowledge facilitated the rise of many low-quality democracies.”

The most sophisticated cyclical theory that I have encountered is Ibn Khaldun’s theory of asabiyyah. Ibn Khaldun, a 14th-century thinker of the Islamic world, posited that the rise and fall of nomadic empires is shaped by two cyclic forces. The first is the cycle of solidarity (asabiyyah), whereby heightened solidarity among the elite of a burgeoning empire is destined to wane after a few generations, precipitating the empire’s decline. The second force is the population cycle, wherein the population of a prosperous empire inexorably swells to an unsustainable level, resulting in political unrest and conflict. Ultimately, the declining empire succumbs to an emerging nomadic power characterized by higher asabiyyah. Thus, the cyclical pattern continues.

The cyclical theories of history that emerged outside of China share a common thread: They all perceive historical progression as symmetrically cyclical, akin to a pendulum’s back-and-forth motion driven by gravity. This is true even for Ibn Khaldun’s intricate theory, which operates through two symmetric forces instead of one.

The second pivotal element within the Daoist understanding of historical development departs from this symmetry. The forces guiding each historical transformation and negation need not be the same: an “asymmetric cyclic theory.”

In the Tao Te Ching, Laozi famously wrote, “The Dao that can be stated cannot be the universal (or eternal) Dao.” This proclamation essentially asserts that symmetric cyclic theories cannot lay claim to universal or eternal truths. This is because the significance and function of any causal forces invariably change with different contexts.

In premodern China, Laozi’s precocious and highly sophisticated grasp of history often veered into mystical directions. Today, armed with the insights of modern social sciences, I would characterize the Daoist asymmetric cyclic theory of history as the “principle of reverse movement.”

This principle posits that as any organization, political system, idea, culture or institution gains ascendancy, the opposing, undermining forces concurrently intensify. In China, this has been visually conveyed through various forms of taiji diagrams. Among these diagrams, the one I believe best encapsulates the core of history’s asymmetric cyclical nature is also the simplest: Two forces of opposing nature undergo simultaneous change over time. As one force grows stronger, the other weakens, and vice versa.

“A Daoist understanding of history could provide several insights in comprehending our increasingly intricate and uncertain world.”

To give some examples: In arenas of military and economic competition, entities that organize better and produce more efficiently tend to gain an edge. This nature of military and economic competition induces cumulative development — a form of societal change that bolsters humanity’s capacity to generate and accumulate wealth. In early modern Europe, heavily influenced by the linear historical outlook of Judeo-Christian traditions, thinkers often formulated theories that portrayed such cumulative developmental processes as progress toward a better future.

However, in the Daoist principle of reverse movement, as one actor in military or economic competition progressively secures the upper hand, opposing actors would also gather momentum. For instance, the dominant actor becomes increasingly susceptible to various errors — over-expansion, underestimating adversaries, disregarding internal vulnerabilities and potential crises. Meanwhile, weaker actors respond to their more formidable opponent by intensifying their desire to change, including learning from their opponent and striving for “self-strengthening.”

Or consider economics. At the micro level, the triumph of a company invariably triggers a series of adverse unintended consequences. For instance, it amplifies the bargaining leverage of employees, resulting in escalated business costs. It also solidifies established organizational and business models, making adaptation difficult when circumstances demand change. Additionally, it compels other companies to imitate, innovate and strive for better. Any combination of these forces, among others, could lead to a company’s downfall, even though the precise elements triggering each reversal may be situation-specific.

Zooming out to the macro level, a broad principle emerges: The lesser the extent of market regulation, the greater the prevalence of societal problems like income inequality, inadequate welfare provision and environmental degradation. These issues consequently fuel the ascendancy of anti-market social forces. However, the more potent these anti-market forces become, the lower economic efficiency sinks, thus elevating scarcities and the general poverty of the society as a whole. This, in turn, creates a pathway for the resurgence of pro-market forces.

Thus, the cycle perpetuates. For a Daoist thinker, numerous societal forces and contingencies can contribute to the formation of such cyclical patterns, with the specific forces and factors always contingent on the context.

Modern Relevancies

A Daoist understanding of history could contribute three key insights to the contemporary landscape of political theory and civilizational prosperity: 

First, it asserts that historical transformations are not propelled by uniform forces, a perspective that challenges the concept of history being directed by a predestined end or ultimate purpose.

Second, it imparts a sense of humility upon influential social actors as their power ascends, encouraging them to gain insight into potential pitfalls and shifts that might undermine their status and avoid the fallacy of justifying their power supremacy by some teleological and thus moral rationale.

Third, it cautions us against the hubris of making linear predictions about upward-trending social tides and urges us to embrace the intricacies of complexity and acknowledge the multifaceted interplay of diverse forces. By doing so, we are compelled to appreciate the heterogeneous nature of historical change.

Belief in a linear or teleological understanding of history imparts a stronger sense of purpose in life, allows believers to create a more committed moral community and compels individuals within that community to act in a more principled manner. However, “true believers” can be convinced that they alone possess the correct beliefs and are aligned with the right course of history, that they hold a moral high ground to convert, exclude or even resort to violence against those deemed to be on the “wrong side.” Numerous times in centuries past, this belief has led to genocide, imperialism, racist governance, political purges and cultural conflict.

Symmetric cyclic theories, which remain within the realm of Western sensibility that most people could accept, provide valuable remedies to linear historical narratives, particularly in times of adversity — as is currently witnessed in the U.S.

Nevertheless, symmetric cyclic theories are not without their limitations — among them, a mechanistic nature that often downplays other forces shaping history and an underestimation of the impact of influential social actors and groundbreaking technologies in redirecting historical trajectories. Also, cyclic historical theories gain prominence in the West during times of profound challenges, but they tend to wane more swiftly than anticipated during periods dominated by optimism.

The Daoist principle of asymmetric reverse movement not only rejects the imposition of a direction onto history but also negates the existence of any specific, law-like forces underpinning the apparent cyclic patterns of historical events. Laozi’s concept of wuwei has prompted some scholars, like Charles Hucker, to interpret it as an ancient anarchist ideology that has “little to offer in the way of a governmental program.” However, in truth, Laozi is advocating for a form of statecraft characterized by profound humility. This humility is a rare trait, especially among powerful social actors — particularly very resourceful state actors. It becomes even scarcer within cultures dominated by a teleological comprehension of history.

“A Daoist understanding of history imparts a sense of humility upon influential social actors as their power ascends.”

The teleological comprehension of history holds such prevalence in the West that it inadvertently infiltrates much empirical social scientific research. Ezra Vogel’s acclaimed work “Japan as a Number One,” for example, elegantly unveils the factors behind Japan’s economic triumph in the aftermath of World War Two, but several institutional attributes he identified as pivotal to Japan’s economic prosperity — high job security, high wages, generous retirement pensions and an effective bureaucracy — also contributed to the stagnation of the Japanese economy just a few years after the book’s publication.

Vogel’s oversight was to neglect one of the core aspects of the Daoist principle of reverse movement, and it is not exclusive to him: It resonates across the Western world in recurrent waves of theories with linear predictions. Scholars once thought secularization is an irreversible trend in the age of modernity, but what the world faces today is not just a revival of religions, but the revival of various forms of conservative fundamentalist religions. Similarly, while scholars are still celebrating the worldwide rise of post-industrial values and postmodern culture, opposite trends are already gaining momentum in many parts of the world.

Similarly, underpinned by a teleological understanding of political development, much scholarly research shows that growth in a nation’s per capita GDP, educational attainment, women’s status, democratic institutions and other socio-economic indicators are positively correlated to the rise of multiparty liberal democratic governments. And yet, as we can see today, in those same nations, fascist, ultranationalist and conservative political forces are on the rise and achieving power to act internationally.

None of this to say that a teleological understanding of history, intertwined with the Judeo-Christian tradition, has not nurtured the emergence and prosperity of novel ideas such as religious toleration, freedom of conscience and liberalism. It is difficult to envision the emergence of these ideals in premodern China, India and other parts of the world where polytheistic faiths held sway and de facto religious tolerance was the norm.

It is a great irony that these noble ideals have been fed into the Western-dominated international sphere with varying degrees of phoniness. Nevertheless, they constitute the foundational pillars of the modern world, a gift from the West to all.

Additionally, in the contemporary world, the teleological understanding of history is rooted not only within Western societies but also within the cultures of various non-Western nations, including China. Since the May Fourth Movement (1919), China has traveled very far from its own traditional understandings of history, so my emphasis on the Daoist perspective on history is not solely directed to people in the West.

In sum, I stress the significance of the Daoist perspective on history because we still encounter the ramifications of the linear understanding of history and zero-sum mindset in America’s foreign policy, in Western social science theories and even in seemingly benign ideologies like radical veganism, some proponents of which go so far as to compare meat-eating to the Holocaust.