History, Cyclical Theory of

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

History, Cyclical Theory of


a sociophilosophical concept according to which the periodicity of history is based on the repetition or recurrence of social processes. Such ideas, which date back to very ancient times, were first expressed in mythological and religious terms; they represented an attempt to introduce some order and sense into history by means of analogy with the cyclical processes occurring in nature, such as the changing of the seasons and the development of biological organisms. These ideas had certain practical applications—for example, the invention of the calendar; as a rule, however, they assumed such forms as the notion of cosmic or divine time periods lasting hundreds or even thousands of years or the mystical doctrine of the transmigration of souls and the recurrent creation and destruction of the world.

Cyclical theories were also significant from the cognitive point of view; they resulted, for example, in a systematic chronology (listing the 30 dynasties of the Old, Middle, and New kingdoms of Egypt), the identification of various trends in the changing forms of political administration (in Aristotle’s historical study of 158 Greek city-states), and such comparative historical studies as those of Polybius and Ssu-ma Ch’ien, yielding some interesting parallels between different peoples and epochs. Cyclical theories thus contributed to the development of the comparative historical method in the social sciences. These concepts gained considerable currency in ancient China and Egypt and in Babylon, as well as among the classical philosophers and historians—a fact associated with society’s extremely slow pace of development.

The idea of historical cyclicity was further elaborated by Ibn Khaldun, a 14th- to 15th-century Arab philosopher who divided world history into four periods; associating these periods with the activities of different peoples, he attempted to identify within each period the general laws governing cultural development and decline and determining the succession of various dynasties.

Cyclical theories were especially popular in 17th- and 18th- century Western European social thought; the economic and cultural upsurge that marked this period was viewed by many as a renascence of classical antiquity after its medieval decline. These theories represented a progressive development, inasmuch as they emphasized the natural order and laws of history in contrast to various theological and providential concepts and in opposition to the view that history is ruled by chance and by the arbitrary actions of outstanding individuals. The leading proponent of the theory of cyclicity at this time was G. Vico, who advanced the idea of the cyclical development of all nations—each cycle consisting of a divine, a heroic, and a human epoch.

The views of Ibn Khaldun and Vico influenced the subsequent development of the philosophy of history. The notion of society’s cyclical development was shared by many of the Utopian socialists, and particularly by C. Fourier, who worked out the concept of four phases of human history: a primitive “heavenly” phase, followed by savagery, barbarism, and civilization.

Cyclical theories became increasingly reactionary after the emergence of the materialist interpretation of history. The idea of a recurrent pattern in history was contrasted and opposed to the idea of social progress. Some of the supporters of cyclical theories—E. Meyer, for example—deny the progressive nature of universal history; others, such as N. Danilevskii, O. Spengler, and A. J. Toynbee, portray history as consisting of separate cycles of development and decline of local civilizations, unconnected in time and space.

Cyclical theories gained many adherents in the West, especially after World War I. Some bourgeois philosophers and sociologists, such as P. Sorokin, being unable to resolve the contradiction between cyclical and linear development, resort to concepts that eclectically combine the two. The historically preordained doom of capitalism is represented by bourgeois historians as the destruction of “the Christian civilization of the West” and of all its cultural and technological achievements.

Marxism-Leninism counterposes the dialectical-materialist theory of the progressive development of society—namely, dialectical materialism—to all cyclical and other unscientific conceptions of social development.


Engels, F. Dialektikaprirody. In K. Marx, and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 20.
Lenin, V. I. “Kvoprosuodialektike.” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 29.
Lenin, V. I. Filosofskie tedradi. Ibid.
Arab-Ogly, E. A. “Kontseptsiia istoricheskogo krugovorota.” In Istoricheskii materializm i sotsial’naia filosofiia sovremennoi burzhuazii. Moscow, 1960.
Markarian, E. S. O kontseptsii lokal’nykh tsivilizatsii. Yerevan, 1962.
Konrad, N. I. Zapad i Vostok, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1972.
Chesnokov, G. D. Sovremennaia burzhuaznaia filosofiia istorii. Gorky, 1972.
See also references under HISTORY, PHILOSOPHY OF, and CIVILIZATION.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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