A Follow-up on Spinoza and the Zhuangzi (with help from friends)

Sufism and Taoism by Toshihiko Izutsu

I love academic Twitter! After sharing my last post on Spinoza and the Zhuangzi, I received responses from much more learned people, speculating on the possible historical connections.

So far I have only been using the Zhuangzi, and Daoism more generally, as a tool for understanding Spinoza’s philosophy. Edwin Curley once wrote that he read Spinoza through lenses ground by Moore, Russell, and Wittgenstein, just as Harold Joachim had read Spinoza through lenses ground by Hegel and Bradley. I guess I’m proposing to read Spinoza through lenses ground by Zhuangzi, although it’s hard to imagine Zhuangzi grinding lenses.

What I hadn’t given any thought to was the possibility of any actual historical influence running from the Zhuangzi through to Spinoza. But the aforementioned more learned people proposed possible lines of influence for me.

Justin Vlastis, for instance, proposed that what I think of as Spinoza’s anti-exemplarist ethics can also be found in the Pyrrhonians – at least in the Sextan variety. This is literature to which Spinoza had some access.

I then asked Justin about a wild suggestion I read in Christopher Beckwith’s Greek Buddha, that there is a fairly direct line of influence from Buddhism onto both Greek Pyrrhonism and Chinese Daoism (Beckwith even suggests that “dao” (道) is derived from “dharma”, and “Lao Dan” (老聃, another name for Laozi) from “Gautama”). Sadly the evidence doesn’t really seem to bear this out: Justin pointed me towards this helpful critical review of Beckwith.

However he also put me onto some useful literature on the similarities between Pyrrhonist literature and the Zhuangzi (e.g. the work of John Trowbridge). Perhaps, then, I should be looking at Pyrrhonist influences of Spinoza’s philosophy rather than Daoist resonances with it?

Looking at Trowbridge’s article, however, I notice this important passage:

whereas the ancient skeptics conceived of a telos for skepticism, Zhuangzi’s approach is nonteleological. As pointed out above, the notion of a telos is potentially problematic for non-dogmatic skepticism. I think the Zhuangzi goes beyond Pyrrhonism by eschewing talk of final ends or purposes, embracing instead a robust cosmological notion of process and change.

“Skepticism as a Way of Living: Sextus Empiricus and Zhuangzi”, p.261

This suggests to me (as does the rest of the article) that the Pyrrhonist philosophy is akin to the Zhuangzi‘s anti-exemplarism only in as far as the “Yangist” sections go (based on the thought of Yang Zhu). The common idea here is that you escape exemplars by rediscovering your primitive, natural telos. Trowbridge quotes Sextus:

Nature’s guidance is that by which we are naturally capable of sensation and thought; compulsion of the pathē is that by which hunger drives us to food and thirst makes us drink; the handing down of customs and laws is that by which we accept that piety in the conduct of life is good and impiety bad; and instruction in arts and crafts is that by which we are not inactive in whichever of these we acquire. And we say all these things without belief.

Outlines of Pyrrhonism, 1.11.23–1.11.24, Benson Mates trans.

This sort of primitivism is inherently teleological: one gives up consciously pursuing exemplars (this is part of what is meant by living “without belief”) in order to follow a course plotted by “nature’s guidance”.

But Yangist primitivism of this sort is only one level of the Zhuangzi. It is, I think, superseded by a more extravagant type of anti-exemplarism, in which one escapes the guidance of exemplars, not into some natural guidance or telos but rather, as Trowbridge puts it, “eschewing talk of final ends or purposes, embracing instead a robust cosmological notion of process and change.”

Rather than replacing the guidance of external things, exemplars, and beliefs with some inner natural guidance, this more radical sort of anti-exemplarism proposes a manner of not being guided at all – thus the title of the first inner chapter of the Zhuangzi: 逍遙遊 (“Wandering Far and Unfettered” in the Ziporyn translation). What one discovers inside oneself is not a natural teleology but a reflection of the irresolvably plural nature of reality itself. Trowbridge writes:

The Zhuangzi recommends cultivating an illumined awareness (ming) of the plurality of perspectives on a given phenomenon among the changing circumstances and phenomena we experience, so as to enable us to keep in mind that the perspective from which we are viewing it is just one of many points of view, conceived spatially, temporally, and otherwise, and as such is unlikely to reflect a fixed, complete, final, or universal perspective, for the perspective one takes is itself subject to change and transformation.

“Skepticism as a Way of Living”, 261

This is how I want to read Spinoza as well: true acquiescence of mind comes from understanding God, yourself, and other things, which means recognising the irresolvable plurality of reality: the fragmented being of God who exists only expressed through a plurality of distinct and irreconcilable modes.

Since this idea seems, according to Trowbridge, to be present in the Zhuangzi but not in Sextan Pyrrhonism, there is still value, I think, in exploring the Spinoza-Zhuangzi connection rather than the more concrete Sextus-Spinoza influence.

What about the possibility of an actual concrete Zhuangzi-Spinoza influence? Lisa Shapiro, Kevin O’Higgins, and Eric Schliesser steered me towards looking at the access Spinoza might have had to Chinese philosophy via the Jesuit missions. This is something I had looked at but thought to be mostly a dead-end. While Spinoza had access to Confucian philosophy via Da Costa and Intorcetta, and to Kirchner’s bogus and hostile China Illustrata (he died too early for the great Confucius Sinarum Philosophus), none of these sources give Daoism anything like a fair representation, for the obvious reason that the Jesuit missionaries were provided with their materials by two officially ‘Confucian’ dynasties.

Eric Schliesser pointed me towards Elizabeth Harper’s article “The Early Modern European (Non) Reception of the Zhuangzi Text”, which seems to confirm my suspicion. But he made a fascinating suggestion that I hadn’t considered, which is that there could be an indirect link between Daoism and Spinoza via Sufism. Arabic philosophers like Al-Ghazali and Ibn Tufayl presented a sort of “refined Sufism”, according to Eric, which Spinoza must have known at least through the Jewish tradition. Eric has written some very interesting blog posts on these connections (e.g.).

I’ve been inspired to look at Sufism and Taoism, by Toshihiku Izutsu. I don’t yet know how helpful this will be. One of Izutsu’s main contentions seems to be that Sufism and Daoism stand on opposite sides of an important division: Sufism takes the “standpoint of being”, whereas Daoism takes the “standpoint of nonbeing”. Guo Xiang’s nonbeing-centric version of Daoism is important to the connection I wanted to make with Spinoza in my last post. So we’ll see how useful this suggestion about Sufism turns out to be. Clearly I’ll need to collaborate, so get in touch if you’re keen on pursuing this!

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