Guarding what is essential: Critiques of material culture in Thoreau and Yang Zhu

Philosophy East and West 58 (3):pp. 358-371 (2008)
Abstract
In his book "Walden", Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) describes an experiment intended to determine what is essential in life. 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." 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
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