Spinoza and Laozi: God and Dao

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Spinoza and Laozi: God and Dao

4.2. Second diagram

substance – Dao
God –

According to Spinoza, the possibility for things to exist comes from God and his attributes. He says:” Whatsoever is, is in God, and without God nothing can be, or be conceived” (Е1, P15). In fact, according to Spinoza God is a form of power through which all things can exist. “God’s power is identical with his essence” (Е1, P34), which implies that, “God is the cause of himself and of all things” (ibid, Proof). Consequently, things exist with the help of the essence of God. The essence of God includes existence and the existence of God is immanent in all things, i.e., “God is the indwelling and not the transient cause of all things” (Е1, P18). In summary, all things originate from the substance through the power of God and “God is the efficient cause not only of the existence of things, but also of their essence” (Е1, P25). If we accept. as it was noted previously, that the concept of substance is too abstract to understand, then we shall also have trouble to understand the connection between substance and things. However, with the introduction of the notion of God, this connection can become clearer. Because everything exists in God and God exists everywhere, i.e. because God is nature and substance at the same time, we can then understand God as the point of connection between substance and things. Consequently, if God is substance, then he is in fact the force of the substance and as a force, God is immanent in nature.

According to Laozi, Dao gives birth to all things, as we saw earlier (Ch. 42 and 25). If we concede that Dao is not the object of our experience, then we can come to the conclusion Dao is transcendent, outside of this world. Yet by giving birth to all things, Dao is also present in them and this presence is called De (德). Laozi says:

Dao indeed begets and breeds,
All its power(De) tends and feeds
(Ch. 51).

Thus, outside of Dao there can be nothing, that is to say that Dao is in the world and the world is in Dao. The omnipresence of Dao is called De and it represents the function of Dao. De is the same as Dao, i.e., De is the phenomenological aspect of Dao, or De is nature. Based on this understanding of Dao and De, we can state that the concept of God in Spinoza is similar to that of De, due to the fact that God is a kind of a phenomenological aspect of substance, just like De is the phenomenological aspect of Dao.

4.3. Third diagram

nature naturing – Dao
nature natured – De

As it was previously pointed out, Spinoza identifies God with nature. We can conclude that the difference between Dao and De is to a certain extent similar to the one between God and nature. So, De includes all things in itself. However, this identification of God with nature is somewhat unclear, so Spinoza tries to explain it with the introduction of two aspects of nature: nature naturing (natura naturans) and nature natured (natura naturata). Under nature naturing we should understand “that which is in itself, and is conceived through itself… in other words God”, while nature natured is “all that which follows from the necessity of the nature of God, or of any of the attributes of God, that is, all the modes of the attributes of God, in so far as they are considered as things which are in God, and which without God cannot exist or be conceived” (Е1, P29, Note).

Thus, nature naturing and nature natured are not two separate entities, but both of them are God himself or nature itself. They represent two aspect of God or nature, they are derived from our understanding of God which is determined depending on the position from which we view him. If we understand God as the substance of the world or that from which all things originate from, then God is nature naturing. If under God we understand all that which exists, then God is nature natured. Consequently, there is no true difference between God and nature. in other words, nature natured is the phenomenological aspect of nature naturing.

Along those lines, we can see that the difference between nature naturing and nature natured is akin to the difference between Dao and De. Still, there is one important difference here. According to Spinoza, nature naturing is the active aspect of God, i.e. the active power, while nature natured represents the passive aspect of God. However, Laozi does not make such a distinction between Dao and De, furthermore, Dao is “in constant circum-motion, pursuing no end leaves nothing not done” (Ch. 37). God, in his active aspect, can support all his modifications. Nature naturing is actively creating nature natured and supports it. Dao, on the other hand, acts through non-action while De is not a passive thing being the subject of the action of Dao, but it also follows Dao in its actions, that is to say, it also acts through non-action (Ch. 51).

We can also see from this diagram how Spinoza and Laozi solved the gap between the transcendent and the immanent. As we have already seen above, Spinoza thinks that everything exists in God (Е1, P15) and that God is the immanent, and not the transcendent cause of all things (Е1, P18). Thus, God is immanent in all things just like Dao, through its function De, is immanent in all things. There is no word in Laozi about creation from nothing or emanation. When Laozi says that Dao gives birth to the One, etc., this “gives birth” might be understood as ‘differentiation’ or ‘complexification’ 8. Spinoza uses the concept of the mode to explain matters: “By ‘mode’ I mean the modifications of substance, or that which exists in, and is conceived through, something other than itself” (Е1, D5). From this definition we can see that modes are to an extent a differentiation or complexification of substance, whereas nature natured is the differentiation or complexification of nature naturing.


It is exactly because of his view that God is identical with nature that Spinoza is often labeled a ‘pantheist’. If we accept the similarities between the teachings of Spinoza and Laozi, then we can conclude that Laozi is also a pantheist, or to be more precise, Laozi can be called a ‘pantaoist’ 9. Regardless, we can say about both of them that they are taking the position of holism, due to their views that God and nature, Dao and all things, comprise one Body.

For this view of God, Spinoza was strongly criticized by the philosophers and theologians of his time. The main criticism centered on the claim that Spinoza was drifting away from the mainstream of the Judeo-Christian tradition, thus leading some to call him an atheist. It is only centuries after his death that the value of Spinoza’s philosophy is slowly acknowledged 10. The modern philosopher Slavoj Žižek (1949-) claims that today in the West everyone loves Spinoza: scientific materialists, anarchists, religious critics, liberals, even certain feminists, everyone likes Spinoza 11. Then, what is the position of Laozi in the West? Judging from the fact that the Dao De Ching is the most translated Chinese work in western languages, whose sales rival even those of the Holy Bible, we can note that Laozi is highly accepted and popular in the western world.

In summation, I have tried in this work to make a comparison of the metaphysical views of Spinoza and Laozi. As we have seen, their main connection derives from their position that the source of the world and the world itself are in unity, or in other words, the world doesn’t exist outside of its ontological principle. Furthermore, we saw that the substance and God of Spinoza are similar to Laozi’s concepts of having no name and having a name. That is to say, we can compare them with Dao and De, whereas Dao and De can be correlated with the concepts of nature naturing and nature natured as proposed by Spinoza. Most certainly, all of this should not be understood in the strictest sense, because there are also certain differences between them, as I have pointed out in the text.

Translated into English: Milan Damjanoski

8 Види: Vincent Shen, „Lao Tzu’s Metaphysics and His Critique of Confucian Ethics” 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. 26.
9 Fu, “Spinoza and Lao Tzu”, p. 55.
10 За вреднувањето и толкувањето на Спиноза и неговата филозофија види: Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, Volume 4: Descartes to Leibniz (Westminster: The Newman Press, 1963), p. 265-268.
11 Slavoj Zizek, „Philosophy: Spinoza, Kant, Hegel and… Badiou!” (Lacan dot com, 2007), http://www.lacan.com/zizphilosophy1.htm (Последна посета, март 2015).

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