(Roughly) Daily

“Every solution tends to become the next problem”*…

Dingxin Zhao is sociologist who marshals history, historiography, and his own discipline to explain how ancient Chinese wisdom can shed light on the troubled times through which we’re living…

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.

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…

[Zhao explores the contrast, with both the teleological and the cyclical, using illuminating examples from St. Augustine, Hegel, Marx, Oswald Spengler, Neil Howe, Mancur Olson, Ibn Khaldun, and others]

… 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.

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.”…

[Zhao unpacks more examples]

… 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.

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…

Understanding the principle of reverse movement in history: “Daoist History” in Noema— eminently worth reading in full. And usefully accompanied by “A Daoist Take On The World Gone Sideways,” by Noema editor Nathan Gardels.

* your correspondent


As we honor humility, we might recall that it was on this date in 1890 that journalist Nellie Bly began her 72-day trip around the world.

In 1888, Bly suggested to her editor at the New York World that she take a trip around the world, attempting to turn the fictional Around the World in Eighty Days into fact for the first time.  A year later, at 9:40 a.m. on November 14, 1889, with two days’ notice, she boarded the steamer Augusta Victoria, and began her 24,899-mile journey.

She brought with her the dress she was wearing, a sturdy overcoat, several changes of underwear, and a small travel bag carrying her toiletry essentials. She carried most of her money (£200 in English bank notes and gold in total as well as some American currency) in a bag tied around her neck.

Bly traveled through England, France (where she met Jules Verne in Amiens), Brindisi, the Suez Canal, Colombo (Ceylon), the Straits Settlements of Penang and Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan.  Just over seventy-two days after her departure from Hoboken, having used steamships and existing railway lines, Bly was back in New York; she beat Phileas Fogg‘s time by almost 8 days.

Nellie Bly, in a publicity photo for her around-the-world voyage. Caption on the original photo reads: “Nellie Bly, The New York WORLD’S correspondent who placed a girdle round the earth in 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes.” (source)
%d bloggers like this: