Spinoza and Laozi: God and Dao

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Spinoza and Laozi: God and Dao

Primary similarities and differences between the notion of God in Spinoza and the Dao in Laozi

Spinoza uses the term substance in order to describe the principle of being in the world. He writes: „By ‘substance’ I mean that which is in itself, and is conceived through itself: in other words, that of which a conception can be formed independently of any other conception. “ (E1, D3) 2. According to Spinoza, if we want to understand something, first we need to know its cause. “The knowledge of an effect depends on and involves the knowledge of a cause. “ (Е1, А4). Consequently, a thing in itself and which conceives itself through oneself cannot depend on an external cause. „By that which is ‘self-caused’ I mean that of which the essence involves existence, or that of which the nature is only conceivable as existent” (Е1, D1). Thus, according to Spinoza, it can be stated that substance is self-caused because it cannot be explained through any other external cause, but it can only be explained through itself. Substance doesn’t depend on anything else but itself; its existence, as well as its attributes and modalities are not dependent on any other causes beyond the substance itself. Which is why Spinoza claims that the essence of the substance includes existence.

From all of the above, we can infer that “Substance is by nature prior to its modifications” (Е1, С1), that is to say, that any and all existing matter depend on substance, as well as that substance is the cause of all things, while substance is not caused by any other thing but rather it is self-caused, thus by necessity it is infinite. Considering that this represents the meaning of substance, which means there can be only one substance. For Spinoza God is substance (Е1, D6), so consequently, “besides God no substance can be granted or conceived.” (Е1, P14). Because substance necessarily exists, then God also necessarily exists. This can be deduced from the following proposition: “God, or substance, consisting of infinite attributes, of which each expresses eternal and infinite essentiality, necessarily exists.” (Е1, P11). Spinoza then goes on to explain that “if any substance besides God were granted, it would have to be explained by some attribute of God, and thus two substances with the same attribute would exist, which is absurd” (Е1, P14, Proof). So, according to this there is only one substance and that is God, which essence includes existence, and which necessarily exists with infinite attributes and is infinite itself.

This description of substance shares similarities with the way Laozi describes Dao:

Manifesting material in form unshaped,
Born before heaven and earth themselves,
Unseen, unheard, above, apart,
Standing alone ever true to itself,
Swinging in cycles that never fail,
Mother of heaven and earth, it seems,
But I know not how to give it names.
Pressed, I shall dub it the moving Way (Dao),
Or call it by name the All-Supreme (Ch. 25) 3.

Based on Laozi’s text, we can conclude that the Dao holds the attribute of a metaphysical substance; that it comes before all things and is the foundation of the world. When Laozi says that there is something “manifesting material in form unshaped”, this something indicates the presence of substance. Laozi, also, writes:

Ever void, Dao provides
But does not fill.
To a welling font akin,
The living myriad’s sacred source
Is like the darkness of the deep;
There its living presence bides.
Child of whom I cannot tell,
Liken it to the ancestor of ancestors
(Ch. 4).

If we use Laozi’s words, we can say that Spinoza’s substance has inexhaustible usefulness, because it is infinite. Dao has always existed, it can neither disappear nor be exhausted. Akin to Spinoza’s substance, Dao is the cause of the world. This is attested by the above claim that Dao is “born before heaven and earth themselves” and is “the ancestor of ancestors”. Further down in the book, Laozi writes:

The number one of the Way (Dao) was born.
A duad from this monad formed.
The duad next a triad made;
The triad bred the myriad
(Гл. 42).

Furthermore, as we have already pointed out, Spinoza’s substance does not depend on any other thing for its existence, quite the contrary, all things depend on it for their existence. In a similar vein to Spinoza, Laozi states:

The Way moves like the turning tide,
Leftward, rightward, lending its aid.
Ten thousand on the Way depend;
By it they live; the Way, never shirking (Ch. 34) 4.


2 Benedict de Spinoza, Ethics, translated by James Gutmann, (New York: Hafner Press, 1949). Преводот на цитатите е мој. Понатаму во текстот референците ќе бидат обележани во загради со тоа што Е1 = Етика, Дел 1, Д = Дефиниција, А = Аксиома и С = Став.
3 Сите цитати од Лао Це, освен ако не е поинаку назначено, се преземени од: Лао Це, Книга за Патот и неговата Крепост, превод Игор Радев (Скопје: Макавеј 2012).
4 Радев, модифицирано.

AuthorAleksandar Stamatov
Translated byMilan Damjanoski
2019-10-21T20:09:57+00:00 October 1st, 2019|Categories: Literature, Essays, Blesok no. 128|0 Comments