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  • Guarding What Is Essential:Critiques of Material Culture in Thoreau and Yang Zhu
  • Alan Fox

But I would say to my fellows, once and for all, As long as possible live free and uncommitted.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden


In his book Walden,1 Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) purports to describe an experiment designed to determine what is essential in life, and thus to distinguish between what people want and what they need. His analysis includes a critique of the excesses of material culture, concluding that the most important concerns for human beings revolve around the retention of what he calls "heat." By "heat" he seems to refer to vitality or life force. I suggest that there are a number of interesting parallels between this analysis and a cluster of ideas generally describable as "protodaoist," and often attributed to the legendary and obscure figure known as Yang Zhu or Yangzi . In particular, both of these models can be seen to relate one's efficient preservation of life force to the accomplishment of what I am calling one's "natural destiny," and both include a concomitant critique of material culture. In this essay I will define the concept of natural destiny and articulate and compare the two models' common concern with achieving it through properly economizing one's resources in the face of the diversion provoked by material attachments. Finally, we will consider the continued and contemporary relevance of these models in the modern world.

Although Thoreau left a body of writing behind, the analysis presented here will limit itself to the text of Walden.2 In this famous work, Thoreau recounts his purposes for and experiences while living in a cabin he built himself on Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts, from 1845 to 1847. Much of it contains general and sometimes very specific observations of natural and social phenomena. But he also engages in a sustained discourse on material culture and its negative effects on the healthful development of the human being and its host ecology.

For the ideas attributed to Yang Zhu, a figure known only through the works of others, we will rely mainly on the brief description found in the Huainanzi, a text probably compiled by Liu An, the king of Huainan, who lived circa 180–122 B.C.E., during the early Han dynasty. This book serves as a compendium of philosophical and scientific knowledge of the time. Arguably, references to Yangzi can also be found in other works, including the Lüshi chunqiu. For instance, Feng Youlan, perhaps a little too enthusiastically, states: [End Page 358]

Chinese scholars have clearly shown that the Yang Sheng of the Lüshih Ch'un-ch'iu's quotation is the same person as the Yang Chu of Mencius, while Mencius's account of Yang Chu's doctrine as being "every man for himself" (wei wo), is obviously analogous to the Lü-shih Ch'un-ch'iu's statement that Yang Sheng "valued self." So, too, is the Huainan-tzu when it speaks of "completeness of living, preservation of what is genuine, and not allowing outside things to entangle one's person." This gives us Yang's fundamental doctrine, and once we accept it, we may see that when the Han-fei-tzu speaks of a "scholar who has slight regard for mere things and holds life as something important," it, too, is evidently referring to some follower of Yang.3

In articulating the Yangist perspective, and in making comparisons with Thoreau, I will also make reference to the Daodejing of Laozi This is because the similarities between Yangist thought and that text are notable and well documented. As A. C. Graham points out:

Fidelity to one's nature, genuineness, not being tied by possessions, are all themes which pass into Taoism; even the thought that the man who puts his life before the Empire is the best man to rule it reappears as a typical Taoist paradox in Lao-tzu.4

Feng Youlan agrees when he ways: "Lao Tzu's philosophy, then, is that of Yang Chu advanced one step forward; while that of Chuang Tzu is Yang Chu's philosophy pushed yet another step forward."5...