Spinoza and Laozi: God and Dao

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Spinoza and Laozi: God and Dao

It is obvious from all that was said above that there are certain similarities between the concepts of the substance or God and the concept of Dao. We can summaries the attributes of the substance in the following way: what is included in itself does not depend on any other thing, it is self-caused and precedes its modifications, its essence includes existence, it is infinite, it necessarily exists and it is the only one of its kind. We can also use these attributes to describe Laozi’s Dao. Conversely, the attributes of Dao can be used to describe substance. Thus, we can say that substance is something indescribable, yet whole, standalone and immutable, ancestor to all ancestors, ever existing, giving birth to all other things, etc.

As a comparison, we can also list the 5 items that Fu Peijong derives from Chapter 25 of the Dao De Jing, for the purpose of illustrating the similarities between Laozi and Spinoza:

  1. Dao has existed before all other creations (because heaven and earth indicate the beginning of all things);
  2. Dao is “the One” that is indescribable, yet whole;
  3. Dao is “self-caused” (not dependent on anything) and eternal (immutable);
  4. Dao is infinite and all-encompassing (it acts everywhere and is never exhausted) and
  5. Dao is considered to be the “mother” of the world 5.

Furthermore, Fu moves on to Chapter 4 where he provides his commentary in paranthesis:

The Way [Dao] is a void, but its usefulness is inexhaustible (because of it being infinite). It is an abyss, but also the ancestor of all things (because it is self-caused)… It is the deep, which exists as it is [eternally] (because its essence includes existence). Child of whom I cannot tell , but it seems it is present even before God (because it is born of no mother and is self-caused) 6.

To conclude, both God and Tao represent principles of being that give birth to all things. They don’t depend on any other thing for their existence, yet the existence of all other things depends on them.


Hereinafter in the text I shall incorporate three diagrams to help me make the comparison between the notions of God in Spinoza and the Dao in Laozi. However, allow me to remark that these three diagrams are just one of the possible ways of elucidating the theme, so the reader, if he or she so wants, can find or develop various other diagrams. These specific diagrams are used as a useful tool to showcase the similarities between the views of Spinoza and Laozi.

4.1. First diagram

substance – not having a name
God – having a name

In the philosophy of Laozi there is a distinction being made between that which does not have a name and that which has a name. Thus:

The Dao as “dao” bespeaks no common lasting Dao,
The name as “name” no common lasting name.
Absent is the name for sky and land’s first life,
Present for the mother of all ten thousand things.
(Ch. 1) 7.

We can see from this quote that Dao is not like any common thing, it is not something which can be perceived with our senses, neither is it a matter of our experience like all other things. When we try to use language to describe the objects of our experience, than this would entail naming them. These names signify specific things, yet the name Dao does not signify any specific thing. So, because Dao is not a thing, how can we use any name when referring to it? Dao is eternal and nameless (Ch. 32), Dao is hidden and nameless (Ch. 41). It is not appropriate to endow any name on Dao, moreover it is not even possible. Naming Dao would mean that we are attempting to make it a subject of our experience. Therefore, we give the name of Dao to Dao only because people have to use language in order to describe things. That is the reason why Laozi states that he doesn’t know its name, so he calls it Dao. To summaries, Laozi considers the principle of being to be indeterminate, unfathomable (through our sensory experience), while the name Dao, in a way, represents an attempt to reach a certain specific understanding of Dao.

Based on all of the above, we can state that in Spinoza’s philosophy substance represents an ontological principle, though the term itself cannot truly explain or define this ontological principle, so he gives substance the name of God. At the same time, we have to note that these two propositions are not completely the same, but remarkably similar. Spinoza might have also considered the concept of substance too abstract, thus leading him to call it God. As we can see from Definition 6 and Propositions 11 and 14, God is substance and is the only substance that can exist. However, Spinoza goes even further and explains that nothing can exist outside of God (Е1, P15), which would mean that existence itself is God, while things are the modifications of God. This shall be further explained in the following diagram. For the time being, it is sufficient to say that substance can be called nameless, and being nameless it represents too much of an abstract concept to be taken as the principle of all being. This is the reason why Spinoza endows it the name of God as its more concrete signification.

However, there are also certain differences. Namely, we cannot say that Dao has the meaning of God. Laozi even states that Dao comes even before God (Ch. 4), which would mean if God or gods exist, they would have to be also derived from Dao, because everything originates from Dao. For Spinoza, however, there is nothing that is before or above God and everything originates from God

5 Fu, „Spinoza and Lao Tzu”, p. 57.
6 Ibid
7 Мој превод

AuthorAleksandar Stamatov
Translated byMilan Damjanoski
2022-03-28T11:30:53+00:00 October 1st, 2019|Categories: Essays, Literature, Blesok no. 128|0 Comments