YANG ZHU I

According to Mencius (Mengzi; 372-289 BCE), the philosophy of Yang Zhu (440-360 BCE) was a major threat to Confucianism and thus to a benevolent and righteous world-order:

“The words of Yang Zhu and Mozi fill the Empire. The teaching current in the Empire are those of either the school of Yang or the School of Mo. Yang advocates everyone for himself, which amounts to a denial of one’s prince; Mo advocates love without discrimination, which amounts to a denial of one’s father.” (Mengzi 3B9; D. C. Lau; 1970)

He has been more or less discredited ever since, being described as an egoist and hedonist. These labels are in no small part also a consequence of the supposed Yangist chapter of the Liezi. This may well be a work interpretive of Yang Zhu, but it is highly unlikely that it was in fact written by him. It advocates for making the most of life’s pleasures since one’s time is fleeting and death is likely extinction.

The Liezi itself may very well have been compiled as late as the 4th Century CE, though some of its contents date to as early as the 4th Century BCE. It has been canonized as a Daoist text and Yang is likewise considered a Daoist (or proto-Daoist), albeit a relatively “negative” one. To my thinking, we would do best to discount the so-called Yang Chapter as evidence of the actual teaching of Yang Zhu.

If justification is required for a consideration of his philosophy here, I would cite the (likely apocryphal) story of Zhuangzi (20) and his heedless pursuit of a strange bird from the south while poaching in a forest reserve.  Seeing it, he takes a crossbow out from under his robe and stalks it without consideration for his own physical safety—that is, for his body. He then sees a praying mantis not taking care of its safety grab a cicada that is similarly not taking proper care, and then the bird grabs the mantis without concern for its own safety as Zhuangzi is about to shoot it. But before he can release his bolt, a game warden shouts expletives at him and chases him out of the forest. Zhuangzi concludes: “I too forgot my own self”. Taking care for one’s own physical self was a central theme of Yang’s philosophy.

Interestingly, the next vignette is a story about Yang Zhu. A. C. Graham conjectures that Zhuangzi might have been a Yangist at one point in his philosophical evolution. In any case, he was certainly aware of that philosophy and it influenced his own. Indeed, every philosophy builds on others, whether by way of agreement or disagreement.

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