Young S. Lee “On Human Freedom: A Comparative Study Between Spinoza and Zhuang-zi”

Young S. Lee studied philosophy at Temple University and taught at Eastern Illinois University. We invited her to discuss comparative philosophy of religion as part of our “Philosophers of Religion on Philosophy of Religion” series.

For both Spinoza and Zhuang-zi, the goal of life is attaining freedom, namely, human freedom. What do they mean by “human freedom”? What are the necessary conditions for humans to attain freedom?

Seeking for answers to these questions, I’ve noted that Spinoza and Zhuang-zi suggest remarkably similar answers to these questions. I will discuss them and show how in this paper.

1.1. Spinoza is a determinist. As determinist, Spinoza believes that “All things are determined from the necessity of the divine nature to exist and act in a certain manner (E1P29).”1 God also follows the necessity of his own nature.2

Accordingly, when we discuss Spinoza’s conception of freedom, the first thing we have to keep in mind is that his conception of freedom is within the bound of determinism.

Spinoza defines freedom as follows: “That thing is said to be free which exists solely from the necessity of its own nature, and is determined to action by itself alone. A thing is said to be necessary or rather, constrained, if it is determined by another thing to exist and to act in a definite and determinate way (E1D7).” In other words, one is, according to Spinoza, free if and only if his existence is self-caused and his actions are self-determined. But it is God alone who satisfies both conditions: namely, God alone exists from the necessity alone of his own nature, and acts from the necessity alone of his own nature (E1P17Cor2). No finite being in nature is free in this sense. Humans are not free in this sense: humans are not self-caused but caused to exist by other humans. That is to say, humans do not meet the first condition of Spinoza’s definition of freedom.

Spinoza certainly believes, however, that humans can attain freedom as is clear from his Ethics. It is the freedom which satisfies the second condition, i.e., self-determination, only.

As stated above, Spinoza believes that nothing happens in nature that does not follow from the necessity of the divine nature. We humans’ actions and strivings must also follow from the necessity of the divine nature. And, according to Spinoza, there are two ways in which our actions or strivings follow from the necessity of the divine nature: “All our striving, or desire, follow from the necessity of our nature in such a way that they can be understood either through it alone, as through their proximate cause, or insofar as we are a part of nature, which cannot be conceived adequately through itself without other individuals” (E2App1). The former is the case of self-determination. In other words, one is free when he is the adequate cause of his action. One is not free when he is an inadequate or only partial cause of his action.3

In brief, we humans are free, according to Spinoza, when our actions are completely self-determined.

1.2. In the first chapter of Zhuang-zi, Zhuang-zi suggests through a story of a huge bird P’eng that there is a life which goes far beyond the ordinary people’s imagination. It is a life soaring far above the restricted viewpoint of the worldly. Zhuang-zi starts with the life of Sung Jung as an example. Sung Jung was free from all ordinary ambitions. He escaped the fixed routes to worldly success and fame, and was free from praise and blame, honor and disgrace. According to Zhuang-zi, however, Sung Jung was still too concerned about the world to be free because he could not forget the hope of bringing blessings to the world. What about the life of Lieh-zi, then? We are told that Lieh-zi could journey with the winds for his chariot and did not come back for fifteen days. According to Zhuang-zi, however, Lieh-zi’s life is not a life of absolute freedom either. Even if he did save himself the trouble of going on foot, Lieh-zi still depended on the winds to carry his weight. Zhuang-zi suggests here that the life of absolute freedom must not depend on any things. That is to say, human freedom is defined, according to Zhuang-zi, as the state in which one is completely free from depending on any things.

As for the man who rides a true course between heaven and earth, with the changes of the Six Energies for his chariot, to travel into the infinite, is there anything that he depends on?4

How is it possible that humans are completely free from depending on things? In the above quote, Zhuang-zi suggests that one does not need to depend on any things if he rides a true course between heaven and earth. By “a true course between heaven and earth,” Zhuang-zi certainly alludes to the Dao. Zhuang-zi makes a distinction between the Dao and things. The life of human freedom is the life of following the Dao alone without depending on any things. Zhuang-zi explained the Dao‘s relationship to things as “that which makes things become things (物物者)”.5 In other words, the Dao, as the source of all things, is not bound by any things but goes beyond all things. Therefore, if and only if he is united with the Dao and rides the Dao, one can become free from depending on things and achieve human freedom.

1.3. In short, both Spinoza and Zhuang-zi understand human freedom as a form of complete independence from externals. In Spinoza’s case, it is self-determination, and in Zhuang-zi’s case, it is independence from things and union with the Dao.

2. What are the necessary conditions for humans to attain freedom, then? Namely, what are the necessary conditions for Spinoza’s self-determination and Zhuang-zi’s union with the Dao? I will consider them now.

2.1. According to Spinoza, one’s desires and actions can be understood through his nature alone (namely, self-determination) when they are related to the mind insofar as it is conceived to consist of adequate ideas:

The Desires which follow from our nature in such a way that they can be understood through it alone are those that are related to the Mind insofar as it is conceived to consist of adequate ideas. The remaining Desires are not related to the Mind except insofar as it conceives things inadequately, and their force and growth must be defined not by human power, but by the power of things that are outside us. The former is rightly called actions, while the latter are rightly called Passions (E4App2).

That is to say, Spinoza understands self-determination and, accordingly, human freedom in terms of the state of the mind: whether the mind consists of adequate ideas or not.

But, why? Why can humans not be free unless our mind consists of adequate ideas? In order to understand this, we must examine Spinoza’s theory of adequate ideas in more detail.

When is it the case that our mind consists of adequate ideas, according to Spinoza? Or, alternatively, when do we cognize things adequately? Spinoza explains adequate cognition genetically in terms of its causes: namely, we can cognize things adequately if and only if we cognize them through their adequate cause. God is, according to Spinoza, ultimately the adequate cause of all things, because God is the only substance and all things are just modes of God. To cognize things adequately is, therefore, to cognize them through God.

Since God’s cognition is always true (E2P32), it follows that in so far as our mind cognizes things through God, that cognition must also be necessarily true. In other words, it is when our mind is united with God’s intellect that our mind consists of adequate ideas.

Now, according to Spinoza, our mind is constituted by two dimensions:
temporal and eternal (E5P29Sch). Our mind participates in the eternal dimension only when the mind sees things through God, because eternity is the very essence of God.6 That is to say, to have adequate ideas of things is to cognize them through their adequate cause, i.e., God; and to cognize things through God is to conceive things under a form of eternity. We can say therefore that we humans are free when our mind takes part in the eternal dimension and conceive things under a form of eternity.

2.2. I will consider how one can be united with the Dao now. Let me start with the question why one fails to do so. One fails to be united with the Dao because he is so muddled in the heart/mind which is, according to the ancient Chinese, the organ of thought and cognition. Zhuang-zi uses the word, the “completed heart/mind (ch’eng hsin),” in order to describe it. Namely, the completed heart/mind is the heart/mind which is too crammed with preconceptions and prejudices to have any room left for the Dao. With this state of the heart/mind, one distinguishes alternatives, divides likes and dislikes, debates on right and wrong. Naturally the continuous disputes never cease.

Zhuang-zi emphasizes therefore that if one seriously wants to seek for freedom, he should not take the completed heart/mind as his authority.7 The completed heart/mind clouds the illuminating light of the Dao and makes him entangled with things, far from freedom: “The lighting up of ‘That’s it, that’s not’ is the reason why the Dao is flawed.”8 Freedom is attainable only when one can see the reality as it is with the illuminating light of the Dao and from the viewpoint of the Dao.

Zhuang-zi suggests on this ground the fasting of the heart/mind as an essential training if one seeks to be united with the origin of things, the Dao.9 Only when one has completely emptied it through fasting, the heart/mind reflects the reality as it is, like a mirror – this is the heart/mind of the sage or free person.

2.3. To sum up, human freedom is attainable for both Spinoza and Zhuang-zi when one sees things truly or adequately: namely, when one sees things under a form of eternity, in Spinoza’s words, and when one gets united with the Dao and sees things from the viewpoint of the Dao, in Zhuang-zi’s words.


1. Reference to Spinoza is from Baruch Spinoza, The Ethics and Selected Letters, Samuel Shirley (trans.) (Hackett Publishing Company, 1982) and is given directly in the text, using the following abbreviations: App for Appendix; Cor for Corollary; D for Definition; P for Proposition; Pf for Proof; Sch for Scholium. For example, (E1D7) refers to Ethics, Chapter 1, Definition 7

2. By God Spinoza means an absolutely infinite being: “By God I mean an absolutely infinite being; that is, substance consisting of infinite attributes, each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence” (E1D6).

3. By adequate cause and inadequate or partial cause, Spinoza means the following: “I call that an adequate cause whose effect can be clearly and distinctly perceived through the said cause. I call that an inadequate or partial cause whose effect cannot be understood through the said cause alone” (E3D1).

4. A.C. Graham (trans.), Chuang Tzu: The Inner Chapters (Hackett Publishing Company, 2001), p. 44.

5. See chapters 20 and 22 of Graham, Chuang Tzu.

6. “Eternity is the very essence of God in so far as this essence involves necessary existence. Therefore, to conceive things under a form of eternity is to conceive things in so far as they are conceived through God’s essence as real entities; that is, in so far as they involve existence through God’s essence.” (E5P30Pf).

7. Graham, Chuang Tzu, p. 51.

8. Graham, Chuang Tzu, p. 54.

9. See chapter 4 of Graham, Chuang Tzu.

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