Essay published in “Collection of Essays on Chinese Philosophy” by Aleksandar Stamatov (Az-buki, 2019)
Spinoza and Laozi (老子) are two men who have lived in completely different times and countries, with quite different cultural backgrounds, yet we can find certain similarities in their philosophical views. In this text we shall look into the similarities and differences in their metaphysical teachings, by conducting a comparative analysis between Spinoza’s view on substance, i.e. God and Laozi’s view of the Dao (道). As the modern scholar Fu Peirong (傅佩榮1950-) remarks, certain aspects of Spinoza’s philosophy have often been compared to those from Eastern philosophy, though it has been common practice to overlook his overall philosophy. Thus, a serious study of Spinoza and his work inevitably has to touch upon his theory of substance or God 1. The same case can also be made about Laozi; unless one starts with his concept of Dao, then it is impractical to study his other philosophical theories. What is most important, though, is the fact that there are marked similarities between Spinoza’s theories of God and Laozi’s theory of Dao, which this paper intends to highlight and showcase.
The text shall be based on Spinoza’s Ethics, Vol. 1, “Concerning God” and the teachings of Laozi as written in the Dao De Jing (道德經), The Book of the Way and Its Virtue. First, I shall provide a brief summary of these two works, after which I shall look into the general similarities and differences between the notion of God in Spinoza and Dao in Laozi. Last but not least, I shall endeavor with the help of three different diagrams to further illustrate the similarities and differences between God and Dao.
The main characteristics of the works of Spinoza and Laozi
Spinoza’s main and most important work bears the title of Ethics, which leads to the conclusion that he wanted to develop his own theory of ethics. Yet, when we flip to the first page of his book, we shall see that the first part is entitled “Concerning God” and that its topic is metaphysics. At first glance, it would seem that the title of the book is incongruous with its content. However, the aim of Spinoza was to begin with metaphysics and to conclude with ethics, or in other words, to utilize metaphysics as the foundation and support for his ethics.
Similar to Ethics, the first word that we shall encounter in the Dao De Jing represents a metaphysical concept, namely Dao. Yet Laozi does not expound just on metaphysical issues, but he too utilizes metaphysics as the basis for his practical philosophy, especially with regards to his political philosophy. In fact, Laozi’s objective was not just to develop his own metaphysics, but like
Spinoza, metaphysics was to be the foundation on which his practical philosophy is constructed.
The way in which both works were written is quite different. Spinoza applies a rather geometrical method, i.e. by using definitions, axioms and propositions when developing his arguments. He starts each portion of the book by stating definitions and axioms from which he derives his propositions, as well as adding supporting proof ad notes. Each definition, axiom and proposition is numerated. This makes Ethics one of the most systematic philosophical works ever. On the other hand, the method of composition of the Dao De Jing is quite the opposite. It can be stated that it is a rather unsystematic work. There is usually no connection between two consecutive chapters, while sometimes it seems that it is written in riddles. This makes the Dao De Jing one of the works most difficult to comprehend in the world. Spinoza very clearly explains the content of his work, dividing it into five parts and with each part concerned with a specific issue. The Dao De Jing, conversely, does not possess any rigorous systematic organization – quite often we can find metaphysical, ethical, political and other opinions strewn haphazardly throughout the book.
1 Fu Pei-jung, „Spinoza and Lao Tzu” in Morality, Metaphysics and Chinese Culture, edited by Vincent Shen and Tran Van Doan (Washington D.C.: The Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, 1992), p, 55