Rejection of Material Attachments (Alan Fox)

Both Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) and [the legendary and obscure ‘proto-daoist’] Yangzi seem to be as concerned with the quality of life as they are with its length. Thoreau further believes that the simple life is conducive not only to individual health, but also ultimately to social stability: “I am convinced, that if all men were to live as simply as I then did, thieving and robbery would be unknown. These take place only in communities where some have got more than is sufficient while others have not enough.”

That is, it is to a certain extent our emphasis on, and imbalanced distribution of, material goods that cultivates negative moral values. This concern is consistent with the Yangist and Daoist traditions. As A.C. Graham points out [in his Disputers of the Tao, Philosophical Argument in Ancient China, Chicago 1989]: “In the present-day version of the Lao-tzu there are many passages expressing this idea of prizing life and despising material things.” Besides the resemblance to, among others, chapter 3 of the Daodejing, where Laozi suggests that “not valuing what is hard to come by will prevent the people from considering thievery”, what is significant here is a utopic conception of primal simplicity. On the individual level, this kind of simplicity, for Thoreau as well as for Yangzi, constitutes a kind of efficiency, which conserves vital resources and ensures the maximum enjoyment or sense of fulfilment of life. On a social level, it leads to social stability and lack of friction and conflict in general social intercourse. In the broadest, most comprehensively ecological sense, we can also say that this kind of conservationism is also conducive to a healthy natural environment. Individuals, societies, and whole ecologies work better when they are allowed to operate in the most simple and efficient manner, according to this model.

In this regard, Thoreau and Yangist thought both seem inconsistent with adherence to formalities that involve affected manners and empty courtesies. On the other hand, such behaviour constitutes an unrecoverable waste of human and natural resources. But further, it also represents hypocritical distractions from the more subtle but truly important concerns of life. Thoreau says: “I delight to come to my bearings, not to walk in procession with pomp and parade, in a conspicuous place, but to walk even with the Builder of the universe, if I may, not in this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century, but stand or sit thoughtfully while it goes by. What are men celebrating? They are all on a committee of arrangements, and hourly expect a speech from somebody.”

This is generally reminiscent of the very common critiques of Confucian rites and manners (li) found in the writings of the Mohists and some of the Daoists. In some of these accounts, superficial virtues are accused of crowding out more substantial and authentic ones. For example, chapter 5 of the Daodejing emphasizes that the imposition of moral standards tends to impede the natural course of events, and specifically repudiates the cardinal Confucian virtue of ren (often translated as humaneness, benevolence or perfect social integration) as artificial and arbitrary. And Thoreau says of the truly good person that “his goodness must not be a partial and transitory act, but a constant superfluity, which costs him nothing and of which he is unconscious”. That is, it is better to be good than to act good. Thus, the artificial, ‘manufactured’ quality of ceremony is rejected by the ideal person as inhibiting one’s intrinsically determined evolution and development. (Adapted from Rejection of Material Attachments, in Guarding what is Essential: Critiques of Material Culture in Thoreau and Yang Zhu, by Alan Fox, in Philosophy East and West, Honolulu, July 2008)