How Chinese Taoism influenced Western Liberalism: from wu-wei to laissez-faire
Although many people in the West are unaware of it, Chinese thought has impacted Western thought through the influence of its philosophers.
The cultural exchange between Europe and Asia has always been notable, especially with India and the Near East, sure, but the cultural impact that Chinese thought had on European thinkers in the 18th century is remarkable. A period that is sometimes called “sinomania”¹ due to the trending fascination that Chinese philosophy has aroused in Europeans.
We may say that the first formal exchange took place with the arrival of the Jesuits in China in the 16th century. The first Jesuit to try to establish a relationship with China was Saint Francis Xavier (1506–1552), although he died without succeeding in his mission.
But that did not stop the Jesuits from continuing their sacred mission. Some Jesuits were more successful later, their work on China influenced some thinkers like the philosopher Leibniz (1646–1716), who maintained a frequent exchange of correspondence with the Jesuits on mission in China. But the advance in the 17th century was still small, close to what would come in the next century.
The monarch of France, King Louis XIV, the Sun King (1638–1715), sent French Jesuits to China who would have a major impact on European thought, contributing, ironically, to thoughts that would help to dethrone their successors in the near future.
One of the greatest philosophers influenced by what the Jesuits wrote about China was Voltaire (1694–1778) who, also ironically, used the knowledge obtained to oppose the Catholic Church. Voltaire also expressed words of admiration for Confucius and even wrote a play for the French audience based on a Chinese play: L’Or-phelin de la Chine (The Orphan of China, 1753), based on the 13th century play The Orphan of Zhao.
Montesquieu in his works does not fail to quote China and use it as a reference for his theories. The Europeans of that time saw it as an advanced civilization that could be used as a counterpoint to elaborate universal truths about men and society, not just limited to what was happening in Europe.
The Enlightenment as a whole saw itself in dialogue with this new knowledge coming from China through the Jesuits, but one of the influences that would have the greatest impact in Europe would come from a name little known nowadays: the physiocrat François Quesnay (1694–1774).
“China had a much wider and deeper impact on eighteenth-century Europe through the philosophical and political thought of the philosophes of the Enlightenment. Jesuit reports of the Qing Dynasty, then at the zenith of its dynastic cycle, told of a vast, prosperous Chinese empire run by competitively selected scholar bureaucrats on a secular basis. Here, it seemed, was an advanced society uncluttered by privileges of birth and ecclesiastical institutions, being instead organized along rational lines. Equally important to the philosophes was the philosophical foundations of Chinese thought: the concept of a general, spontaneous order, found not only in Taoism but also in official Confucianism. Just as China provided a critically important alternative model of society to set against the ancien regime of royalty, clergy and nobility, so the Chinese concept of a spontaneous “natural order” provided a critical ideological weapon and an alternative source of legitimacy to set against the theological buttresses of that regime. In the political sphere, this emerges clearly in those archetypal Enlightenment documents: the French Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man and the American Declaration of Independence with their references to “Nature” and “Nature’s God.”
The central role of the concept of natural order in the birth of modem economics emerges in the very name of its first school: “Physiocracy” is derived from the Greek “physis” meaning “nature” and “kratis” meaning “power.” Some important Physiocratic writings were entitled: Physiocratie, oue constitution naturelle du government le plus avantageux au genre humain [Physiocracy, or the natural constitution of the government most advantageous to mankind] published by Du Pont de Nemours in 1767, Le droit naturel [Natural law] published by Quesnay in 1765 and L’ordre naturel et essentiel des Societes Politiques [The natural and essential order of political societies] published by Mercier de la Riviere in 1767. The Physiocrats believed that civil societies mirror the natural order and are characterized by natural laws which can be studied to provide the foundation for the proper administration of the country. Through the agency of the Physiocrats, Chinese concepts were to be at the root of the development of political economy.”
– Leslie Young, Pacific Economic Review, 1: 2, pp. 137–145, 1996
Although Physiocrats are not popular nowadays, they had a huge influence on their time. The French term laissez-faire, now widely known in political theory, originates from the Physiocratic School. The term was coined by the economist Vincent de Gournay (1712–1759) from the reading of the works of François Quesnay:
“The wise ruler knows that, at a certain level of operating, the best policy is in a sense to do nothing, a policy summed up in the central philosophical concept of wu-wei which is translated into French as laissez-faire. The historian Basil Guy comments that ‘Both lawmaker and law had to recognize the principles of…natural order, and in so doing conform to the Chinese ideal of wu-wei, which has ever inspired their theories of government’ (1963:350). It was this principle which also inspired Quesnay […]”
– J.J.Clarke, Oriental Enlightenment, 1997
The idea of natural order and laissez-faire that French physiocrats brought from Chinese philosophy would find shelter in Adam Smith, who cultivated the idea and developed it until the elaboration of his concept of the invisible hand.
“Vincent de Gournay was a precursor to the physiocrats and one of the main thinkers who inspired Adam Smith. […] His favorite phrase was ‘Laissez faire, laissez passer,’ and he is credited with being the originator of the term laissez-faire. Unlike the French physiocrats who argued for the importance of agriculture, de Gournay regarded the progress of industry and commerce as well as agriculture to all be sources of wealth for the nation. Adam Smith wanted to dedicate The Wealth of Nations to the famous French economist, François Quesnay […]”
– Ina Baghdiantz McCabe, Orientalism in Early Modern France, 2008
From Adam Smith, the influence of these ideas would extend to the whole Europe, from the influence on economists like David Ricardo and F.A. Hayek to political events like the Anti-Corn Law League, the British Free Trade Empire, and even the formation of the Swiss State as it was constituted. Thus Christian Gerlach describes the chain of influences that culminated in these events:
Therefore, it is not just a coincidence that libertarians feel a great identification when reading Taoist texts, be it Tao Te Ching, Chuang Tzu, or even the works of Sima Qian. The concepts of tao and wu-wei are present in libertarian philosophy, presenting themselves as natural order, spontaneous order, and principle of non-intervention, albeit in a derivative way after several intellectuals worked on the concepts.
1: J. J. Clarke, Oriental Enlightenment: The Encounter Between Asian and Western Thought (New York: Routledge, 1997)
Leslie Young, The Tao Of Markets: Sima Qian and the Invisible Hand, Pacific Economic Review, 1: 2, pp. 137–145, 1996
Christian Gerlach, Wu-Wei In Europe: A Study of Eurasian Economic Thought, 2004
Ina Baghdiantz McCabe, Orientalism in Early Modern France: Eurasian Trade, Exoticism, and the Ancien Régime (Berg: Oxford, 2008)