• J. W. Barlament

Universal Ideas in Stoicism, Taoism & Pantheism

Comparative philosophy seems to be undergoing a bit of a renaissance these days. Particularly in online circles, young people are finding solace in an increasingly cold world through the rediscovery of forgotten ideas. Some are even birthing new ideas from the ashes of the old. Consider this my contribution to these developments.

Often discussed are the connections between various schools of Western philosophy, and especially recently, the connections between various schools of Eastern philosophy. Only sparingly are the connections between East and West explored, however, and this is truly unfortunate, as the two may have more in common than many realize. This is not just an allusion to the Western esoteric tradition, either – even mainstream Western philosophies are far more tied to Eastern ideas than they may seem. In particular, we will look at two philosophies and their principal texts; Stoicism’s Meditations and Taoism’s The Tao Te Ching.

Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome and author of Meditations, constantly discusses in his writing what he calls the “universal nature”. This universal nature is never precisely defined in Meditations, but throughout it, Aurelius repeatedly states that there is some sort of orderly force in the universe – a way which guides how things are and should be, all-pervasive and ever-present – and that people should live their lives in sync with this order. Or, in his own words, “nothing is evil which is according to nature” (II.17).

Even though his universal nature is, indeed, vague at times, it can also give an amazingly clear insight into Aurelius’ deepest beliefs. The universal nature was much more than just a hazy feeling. It was a concrete idea. It was Aurelius’ way of putting into words the wordless interconnectedness of existence. “All things are implicated with one another,” as he himself says, “and the bond is holy . . . for there is one universe made up of all things, and one god who pervades all things, and one substance, and one law, one common reason in all intelligent animals, and one truth” (VII.9). The universal nature is a truly towering concept. It is his term for the glue that holds the whole universe together. And, as such, it bears a striking resemblance to one of the East’s most enduring concepts.

Marcus Aurelius

While Aurelius’ universal nature is only one of many ideas discussed in Meditations, Lao Tzu makes a similar concept the central focus of his Tao Te Ching. Those with an introduction to Taoism will know what’s being referred to here – it is, of course, the Tao, or loosely translated into English, the Way. Lao Tzu himself warns against trying to linguistically compartmentalize the Tao, however. The Tao Te Ching even opens with the following; “the Tao that can be trodden is not the enduring and unchanging Tao. The name that can be named is not the enduring and unchanging name” (I.1). The Tao is, thus, difficult to talk about, for to try to describe it or compare it to other ideas is to limit its full scope. As is put so succinctly in the Tao Te Ching, “the law of the Tao is its being what it is” (XXV.4). It isn’t this or that. It simply is. Still, that fact does not make our inquiry immediately fruitless.

The Tao, then, is clearly not a concrete thing. It is, rather, an all-pervasive and ever-present energy, much like Aurelius’ universal nature. It is the underlying cause of all of existence, and indeed, non-existence as well. It is simultaneously the building blocks of this great cosmic temple and the temple itself. It flows through the universe like water, just as Lao Tzu says a person may do if they align themselves with the Tao. We thus find ourselves back to the idea that there is an inexpressible and all-encompassing energy that creates and gives order to existence, and that for one to live a fulfilling life, one must live according to the way of this energy. If it were possible for Marcus Aurelius and Lao Tzu to talk to one another about the universal nature and the Tao, I suspect they would find a surprising amount of common ground.

Lao Tzu

The above is only one example. There are countless others of different philosophies and philosophical terms echoing each other and competing nonetheless. Philosophy is perhaps, then, just a millennia-long series of linguistic confusions. Somewhere, Wittgenstein is smiling. These confusions need not rule out philosophy as a practical area of study, however. Just because our philosophies are all entangled in linguistic confusion does not make them slaves to said confusion. We must only recognize linguistic confusion to get over it. We must only realize that we fail to understand existence because we try to understand it in words. Language limits our perceptions of existence. Language cuts existence up into innumerable little pieces, but all of these cuts are made in folly. Division is illusion. Unity is truth. And, fortunately for us, there is a way to finally see the unity inherent in the ideas discussed above.

It might seem counterproductive to introduce new terminology right after bickering about how terminology warps our perceptions. Nevertheless, there is a term that quite snugly fits into the topic of unity between ideas, and that is pantheism. Pantheism’s definition is debated, but it is fairly universally accepted to be the belief that God can be defined as the totality of reality; an all-encompassing substance to which everything is a part of; a universal substance that all arises out of and is intimately tied to. Sound familiar? What the Pantheists, admittedly controversially, call God, the Stoics call the universal nature, and the Taoists call the Tao.

In here we find the ultimate aim of our inquiry fulfilled. All three of these concepts – the universal nature of Marcus Aurelius, the Tao of Lao Tzu, and the God of the pantheists – are ultimately different representations of the same basic idea. They are like secondhand paintings of the same original masterpiece. None are perfect or all-encompassing, but all should still be understood as ultimately containing the same intent, and in this, we may find the perfect analogy.

The three ideas are branches of a tree; every one of them, and many more not discussed here. One does not look at only one branch in an attempt to understand the entire tree. Thus, we must not look at only Marcus Aurelius to understand the universal nature, or at only Lao Tzu to understand the Tao, or at only the pantheists to understand God. They are but branches, and only a viewpoint that incorporates all of the branches may be considered truly well-informed. One may give the idea at the base of the tree whatever name they wish, and they may adhere to the specific advice and rituals of any branch they wish. They just must always keep in mind that their branch is not the only branch. Be not a caterpillar on a leaf. Be a man standing tall before the entire tree.

artwork by Victoria Armstrong