More on Spinozist and Zhuangzist Immortality

I wrote before about Hao Wang’s suggestion that Spinoza’s view on immortality — or what Spinoza calls “the eternity of the mind”:

has some affinity with the views of Taoism, especially those of Zhuang Zi, who would have endorsed the thought expressed by Spinoza in the next to the last paragraph of Ethics: “Whereas the wise man is scarcely at all disturbed in spirit, but, being conscious of himself, and of God [Nature], and of things, by a certain eternal necessity, never ceases to be, but always possesses true acquiescence of his spirit”.

A Logical Journey, 109

Since Wang quotes him elsewhere, it is likely that he gets this idea from Feng Youlan. Feng mentions Spinoza several times in the chapter on Zhuangzi in his Short History of Chinese Philosophy.

The view that “emotion can be counteracted with reason and understanding” is said by Feng to be “the view of Spinoza and also of the Taoists”. Feng quotes a story from Ch. 18 of the Zhuangzi (one of the ‘outer’ chapters), in which Huizi visits Zhuangzi after his wife’s death, to pay condolences, and is astonished to find him drumming and singing. Zhuangzi’s explanation for this apparently inappropriate behaviour is that he mourned at first until he came to realise something about death:

At the very beginning, she was not living, having no form, nor even substance. But somehow or other there was then her substance, then her form, and then her life. Now by a further change, she has died. The whole process is like the sequence of the four seasons, spring, summer, autumn, and winter. While she is thus lying in the great mansion of the universe, for me to go about weeping and wailing would be to proclaim myself ignorant of the natural laws. Therefore I stop.

Feng comments that “the Taoists maintained that the sage who has a complete understanding of the nature of things, thereby has no emotions”, but this means not that “he lacks sensibility” but only “that he is not disturbed by the emotions and enjoys what may be called ‘the peace of the soul.’” Following this, he quotes the same passage from Spinoza as Wang above, which in the latest translation reads:

apart from the fact that an ignorant person is agitated in many ways by external causes and never has true contentment of spirit, he also lives, we might say, ignorant of himself and of God and of things, and as soon as he ceases to be acted on, at the same time he also ceases to be. Conversely, a wise person, insofar as he is considered to be such, is scarcely moved in spirit, but being conscious of himself and of God and of things by some eternal necessity, he never ceases to be, but always has possession of true contentment of spirit.

Ethics 5p42s, Silverthorne/Kisner trans.

The wise person achieves a sort of eternity through understanding. It is mysterious what sort of eternity this is. Wang notes that it “is not an afterlife”. Spinoza’s passage seems on the face of it to imply that the wise person achieves some sort of awareness — being “conscious of himself and of God and of things by some eternal necessity” — which somehow causes his soul to be eternal, though why it should cause this is a mystery. But the comparison with Zhuangzi suggests a different and I think more accurate reading.

What Zhuangzi realises with the death of his wife is that she is changed but not gone — sleeping in the “great mansion of the universe”, which is Feng’s translation for “巨室”. Zhuangzi comes to recognise this through noting all the changes through which she passed during her life, “the sequence of the four seasons”. Since change was the only real constant in her life, how can she be gone by yet another change? The point is expressed more clearly in one of the inner chapters (the sixth):

Now the human form in its time undergoes ten thousand transformations, never stopping for an instant — so the joys it brings must be beyond calculation! Hence, the sage uses it to roam in that from which nothing ever escapes, where all things are maintained.

Brook Ziporyn trans., 6:28

Here “that from which nothing ever escapes, where all things are maintained” sounds like the 巨室 again. But this is not some Platonic realm of essences; it is the very principle of the transformation of things. Other passages seem to confirm this, for example:

Life and death are a great matter, but they are unable to alter him [Wang Tai]. Even if Heaven and earth were to topple over, he would not be lost with them. He discerns what alone is unborrowed, so he is not transferred away with the things around him. He looks on the alterations of all things as his own fate, and thus holds fast to their source.


This resonates somewhat with the passage from Spinoza quoted above: Wang Tai, by looking at things in a certain way, is able to avoid being “transferred away with the things around him”. What is his secret? Elsewhere we have the advice: “Let yourself be jostled and shaken by the boundlessness — for that is how to be lodged securely in the boundlessness” (2:46). The practice is sometimes expressed as “the destruction of the self”. But it is more an unbinding of the self. But what is it that binds the self, from which there is this escape into boundlessness?

An important clue is revealed in the passage I quoted from Chapter Six. After saying that the sage roams in “that from which nothing ever escapes”, the author goes on:

People may try to model themselves on him. But how much better off are those who bind themselves equally to each and all of the ten thousand things, making themselves dependent only on each transformation, on all transformation!


Here there is an alternative between binding yourself to a distinct model (in this case, the sage) or, what the sage himself does, modelling yourself “equally to each and all of the ten thousand things” — or to transformation itself. In the former case, when you are transformed too much, as in death, you depart from your model and are no longer yourself. You are “transferred away” with the things around you. In the latter case, no transformation can drive you away from yourself, since either you are modelled equally well on everything or your model is transformation itself. As A.C. Graham explains it:

The liberation from selfhood is seen above all as a triumph over death. Chuang-tzu’s position is not that personal consciousness will survive death, rather that in grasping the Way one’s viewpoint shifts from “I shall no longer exist” to something like “in losing selfhood, I shall remain what at bottom I have always been, identical with all the endlessly transforming phenomena of the universe.”

Disputers of the Tao, p.202

We do, after all, choose what we are. We decide which traits we would like to be rid of, in becoming our “true self”, and which we would like to enhance. We do this by having in mind a model to emulate, as Spinoza explains in the Preface to Ethics Part 4:

we desire to form an idea of a human being as an exemplar of human nature to which we may look […] therefore I will mean by good anything that we certainly know to be a means for us to approach ever closer to the exemplar or human nature that set for ourselves; and by bad that which we certainly know hinders us from relating to that same exemplar.

Silverthorne/Kisner trans., p.159

But the price of having a model in mind is that when you transform away from it, as you inevitably will, you lose your being as you have defined it. Of course you don’t lose your being in general — not as a portion of matter, or as the value of a bound variable. But if you see yourself as something in particular, you see yourself as confirming to some model — better or worse, since you can always be more or less your truest self.

Perhaps, however, we can escape defining ourselves in this way. Ziporyn’s The Penumbra Unbound follows how the neo-Daoist, Guo Xiang, built up the Zhuangzi into a technique of avoiding “traces” (跡). 跡 is, Ziporyn points out, literally “footprint”. To follow a trace is, we might say, to follow in the footsteps of a model. But to escape models altogether is to have a boundless and undefined being, to pursue only the myriad transformations that come without cease.

Ursula Renz has shown how flexible the notion of the self is in Spinoza:

the mind can become eternal through a change in its knowledge — knowledge, that is, of the human body, which means one’s own body. This is perfectly plausible, considering all those familiar cases where someone’s implicit understanding of his or her own body changes radically. Examples include those who “unlearn” their phantom limb pain and blind people incorporating their white canes into their proprioception. In both these cases, the implicit knowledge of one’s own body — in terms of its boundaries as well as its composition — has substantially changed.

The Explainability of Experience, p.165–6

What she calls a change in knowledge is really a change in identification. Thus she goes on:

The concept of one’s own body, then — the one we have at our disposal — also depends upon that with which we identify ourselves. Imagine an infant who cannot go for a single minute without his stuffed animal.


But then is there any limit to what we can identify ourselves with? We can think of another famous passage from Chapter Six of the Zhuangzi:

Perhaps he [the Creator of Things] will transform my left arm into a rooster; thereby I’ll be announcing the dawn. Perhaps he will transform my right arm into a crossbow pellet; thereby I’ll be seeking out an owl to roast. Perhaps he will transform my ass into wheels and my spirit into a horse; thereby I’ll be riding along — will I need any other vehicle?


What limits us is only the model of ourselves we have in mind. Let go of the model and your self dissolves into the boundless; then there is no death, only transformation.

But does Spinoza take this step? As we saw, he says of the ignorant man that “as he ceases to be acted on, at the same time he also ceases to be”. Throughout Part 5 of the Ethics, Spinoza speaks of a process of becoming liberated from external causes — of acting rather than being acted on. In one sense of course one cannot avoid being acted on by external causes. But in the Passions of the Soul Descartes refers to a special type of external cause that can act on a person: an example (Part 3, Article 172). Perhaps, then, Spinoza is thinking of escape from this sort of external cause. His project then looks very close to the anti-exemplary project of the Zhuangzi and Guo Xiang. One advantage of this reading is that it makes sense of why Spinoza thinks that “being conscious of himself and of God and of things by some eternal necessity” is a path to eternity for the “wise man”.

Resisting models, exemplars, or traces is not valuable simply as a path to eternity, however. It is also a pathway to peace, both inner and outer. When we follow models, it is much too easy to end up at war with those who aspire after different models and in a deadly rivalry with those who aspire after the same models. It is important, therefore, that Parts 3 and 4 of the Ethics are largely devoted to elaborating all the social pathologies that arise from emulation and ambition. It is true that Spinoza seems to recommend having a model in mind at the start of Part 4. But I think that here, like Descartes in his Discourse, he is only proposing a ‘provisional’ morality, based around choosing the right model to minimise these harmful effects. The ultimate peace and beatitude revealed in Part 5 comes only from following the path that we can see Spinoza pointing towards if we read him through the Zhuangzi.

There is much more to say about all this, of course, and I doubt that this blog post will convince anyone on its own. But I am thankful for the coincidence of seeing Spinoza’s name mentioned by Hao Wang, which led me to follow this up through Feng Youlan, the Zhuangzi, and Guo Xiang. It led me to glimpse something I had not noticed before in Spinoza, although through a cloud. Linda Zagzebski argues that the vast majority of moral theories, ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’, can fit into an exemplarist framework, according to which concepts of good, right, and virtue are defined in terms of moral exemplars, identified by admiration. Even thinkers who warn against emulation on principle, such as René Girard, promote an ultimately exemplarist solution — in his case the imitation of Christ (this comes out most profoundly in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning). Anti-exemplarist ethics seem exceedingly rare in history. Beyond Daoism and, if I am right about him, Spinoza I can’t think of any other… um, examples.

Lecturer in Philosophy, University of St. Andrews — personal website:

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