Taoist Philosophy in Fight Club

























Asian-American Satellite Class

Professor Lee










The purpose of this paper is to study the Taoist thought present in the recent movie and book Fight Club. In the paper we will detail the basic premise and concept of the book and compare and contrast its teachings with those of Taoism. It should be noted that the book Fight Club came first and then the movie was based upon it. The movie does not follow the book closely, and parts of the book including the ending have been rewritten. The changes presumably make the movie more pleasing and understandable to its target audience, however the book holds the authorís true meaning and thus it will be followed instead of the movie when they differ.

Fight Club can be viewed with many interpretations, all of them true. It is a great love story. It is an anti-consumerism rant. It is a spiritual piece against materialism. It is anarchist literature. It is a commentary on our Ďlostí generation. At first viewing of the movie, very little of this can be seen and it appears violent and chaotic. However much thought was put into providing the movie with depth and development that only become apparent after multiple screenings. Those who can see this deeper meaning and are interested in learning more should read the book. It is recommended that the reader first view the movie before reading this paper due to the surprise ending.

It is most simply the story of a man who mentally splits himself in two. His newly sprung half is called Tyler Durden, and is everything the hero wishes he were. The irony is that he is physically the same man and therefore is what he wants to be, but cannot realize this and uses his alter ego to accomplish his goals. In the end Tyler gets out of control and his tamer half cannot get rid of him even though he no longer wants him. In the process of Tylerís development of his anarchist plans he gathers others to himself who are seeking someone to believe in. His teachings to them contain much Taoist thought and start a cult-like terrorist group. This paper will detail each aspect of these Taoist ideas present in Tylerís teachings.

The Yin Yang is one of the primary principles of Taoist teachings. The concept of two forces present everywhere, completely opposite to each other yet balancing and enhancing each other. They cannot be separated because they exist together in comparison, and splitting one apart will only create the other anew. Although one force can take prevalence over the other for a short time, anything that is in a state of imbalance for long will cease to exist. The universe is composed of and held together by the tension of these two forces, and this concept is in Taoist writings on Abstraction. (A2)

The obvious instance of the concept of Yin Yang is the split between the two parts of the main character. Our hero (who is unnamed) and his created other half Tyler Durden are complete opposites, and Tyler is created on purpose to be everything our hero is not. The Yin is supposed to be "describable with words like feminine, flexible, yielding, flowing, poised, compromising, soft, weak, and patience."(1) This describes our hero perfectly. He is the fabled Ďsensitive maní and hates himself because of it. Tyler is the Yang, "described as masculine, decisive, rigid, piercing, reversing, hard, strong, and overcoming."(2)

The story of Fight Club begins with our heroís dissatisfaction with himself and his pathetic life. The Yin and Yang sides of him are both present, but he has been raised to repress his Yang side. This was caused by his family life, expressed several times in the book as "Tyler never knew his father." (3) This is also the problem for other men who join fight club; "what you see at Fight Club is a generation of men raised by women" (4) and his observance "Iím a thirty year old boy, and Iím wondering if another woman is really the answer I need." (5)

He is lost and does not know what he needs at this point in his life. It is at this point that he creates Tyler Durden, the Yang side of himself. Created is not the correct term, because Tyler is not "something from nothing" as most people think of Creation. Tyler is the emergence of the expression of everything our hero has learned to suppress; "Tyler had been around a long time before we met."(6) The entire movie can be generalized as the main characterís unbalanced Yin Yang forces. His Yin has been dominant in his life for too long and as a result, his Yang breaks free.

Tyler takes control whenever our hero goes to sleep, and as he becomes more unbalanced he realizes "Tyler Durden is a separate personality Iíve created, and now heís threatening to take over my real life." (7) Unfortunately Taoism predicts what will happen in the end; "No one object can embody a single force for a remarkable period of time-- the farther it strays from being balanced, the sooner it will have to Ďchange its wayí (or else destruct)." (8)

Another central Taoist concept is Wu-Wei, which can be translated as "the action that comes from not doing". Though there are multiple interpretations of the Chinese character symbolizing this concept, the general idea seems to be another paradox; to accomplish something by doing nothing. The foundational writings on this concept can be seen in the Taoist text on Abstraction (A2) and Inaction. (A48)

The idea in this text seems to be to let go of life and stop trying to accomplish things. In a similar vein, the teachings of Fight Club encourage people to let go of their lives and possessions and stop seeking completion in order to realize their hopes. He observes of all his material possessions and his lack of happiness, that "the things you used to own, now they own you." (9) "Deliver me, Tyler, from being perfect and complete"(10) he begs as he splits himself into what he wishes to be. "Iím breaking my attachment to physical power and possessions, because only through destroying myself can I discover the greater power of my spirit"(11) he says as he destroys his belongings.

Wu-Chi is the Taoist concept of Ďultimate nothingnessí and refers to where we begin and where we die. The Taoist teachings on Decay and Renewal (A16) imply an acceptance of death as an unavoidable, ever-present event that approaches constantly. Tyler also demands this realization; "Someday you will die, and until you know that, youíre useless to me." (12) His teachings imply no fear in impending death; "You are the same organic matter as everyone else, and we are all part of the same compost pile." (13) Fight Club does not view death as something terrible, it is viewed as a relief from the world. It is even darkly described as "the amazing miracle of death, when one second youíre walking and talking, and the next second, youíre an object." (14)

Although Fight Club and Taoism may share similar views of death and the resulting nothingness, or Wu-Chi, the reasons behind these views are different. Taoism is merely a philosophy, and does not concern God. Therefore there is no controlling deity, and we only go to nothingness and come from nothingness. In Fight Club, a rejection of Christian beliefs has occurred. This is modern America, a nation founded on Christian beliefs which are rapidly deteriorating in our generation.

Fight Club provides its own explanation for this loss of religious beliefs. "If youíre male and youíre Christian and living in America, your father is your model for God. And if you never knew your father, if your father bails out or dies or is never at home, what do you believe about God?" (15) Therefore the author observes that "what you end up doing is you spend your life searching for a father and God." (16) But because God has not sought them, they question Him; "what you have to consider is the possibility that God doesnít like you. Could be, God hates us. This is not the worst thing that could happen." (17) Our generation feels lost and feels that "we are Godís middle children, according to Tyler Durden, with no special place in history and no special attention." (18)

In the book, the Fight Club has an incredible appeal to the lost generation thus described. The main character with the aid of Tyler Durden, founded Fight Club as a way of venting aggression physically through fighting other men. It begins with our hero fighting Tyler (actually heís fighting himself) but soon other men want to join and have fights of their own. The men of our generation have been raised to avoid fighting, but suddenly they realize along with the main character, "I just donít want to die without a few scars." (19)

To recruit new men, one of their assignments is to get into a fight and lose it. Tyler says "what we have to do, people, is remind these guys what kind of power they still have." (20) They are not gaining followers through force, but through the Taoist idea of Subtlety. (A65) They are allowing men to revert to their Dark Virtue, as the Taoist writing suggests, not forcing them.

The main reason for Fight Club is the disgruntlement of the generation. Tyler states it clearly saying "we are the middle children of history, raised by television to believe that someday weíll be millionaires and movie stars and rock stars, but we wonít. And weíre just learning that fact." (21) The men who join Fight Club feel that their lives have no meaning or value. "We donít have a Great War in our generation, or a great depression, but we do, we have a Great War of the spirit. We have a great revolution against the culture. The great depression is our lives. We have a spiritual depression." (22) What they propose to do is stated plainly; "This was the goal of Project MayhemÖ the complete and right-away destruction of civilization." (23)

Two parts of Taoist teaching deal with the same principles that cause Fight Club. Taoist writings on Revolution (A72) and Rebellion (A75) sum up the reason these problems occur. Due to disillusionment with their current way of life, people decide that they have nothing to lose in attempting to cause change.

The end goal of Fight club is to destroy modern society in order to recreate it. They believe that the men of their society are going to waste; "I see the strongest and the smartest men who have ever lived, and these men are pumping gas and waiting tables." (24) They envision a new world where technology is greatly reduced; "imagine hunting elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center." (25)

Taoist texts on Utopia (A80) and Simplify (A19) convey these same values. People are to function in small groups caring for themselves without aid of others. They should keep small tools (limited technology), but not be dependent upon them. The hope is that they will no longer need knowledge and learning, but revert to their natural form and live a simpler life. Thus the main goals and ideas prevailing in Fight Club are Taoist in philosophy, though you must view the movie or read the book in order to find out if their goals are realized and the world created anew.




Appendix A: Excerpts from the Taoteching

2. Abstraction

All the world knows beauty

But if that becomes beautiful

This becomes ugly

All the world knows good

But if that becomes good

This becomes bad

The coexistence of have and have not

The co-production of hard and easy

The correlation of long and short

The codependence of high and low

The correspondence of note and noise

The coordination of first and last

Is endless

Thus the sage performs effortless deeds

And teaches wordless lessons

He doesnít start all the things he begins

He doesnít presume on what he does

He doesnít claim what he achieves

And because he makes no claim

He suffers no loss

48. Inaction

Those who seek learning gain ever day

Those who seek the Way lose every day

They lose and they lose

Until they find nothing to do

Nothing to do means nothing not done

Who rules the world isnít busy

If someone is busy

He canít rule the world

16. Decay and Renewal

Let limits be empty

The center be still

Ten thousand things rise

We watch them return

Creatures without number

All return to their roots

Return to their roots to be still

To be still to revive

To revive to endure

Knowing how to endure is wisdom

Not knowing is to suffer in vain

Knowing how to endure is to be All embracing

All embracing means impartial

Impartial means the king

The king means Heaven

Heaven means the Way

And the Way means long life

Life without trouble

65. Subtlety

The ancient masters of the Way

Tried not to enlighten

But to keep men in the dark

What makes the people hard to rule

Is knowledge

Who rules the realm with knowledge

Spreads evil in the realm

Who rules without knowledge

Spreads virtue in the realm

Who understands these two

Understands the universal key

Understanding the universal key

This is called the Dark Virtue

Dark Virtue goes deep

Goes far

Goes the other way

Until it reaches perfect harmony

72. Revolution

When people no longer fear authority

A greater authority will appear

Donít restrict where people dwell

Donít repress how people live

If they arenít repressed

They wonít protest

Thus the sage knows himself

But doesnít reveal himself

He loves himself

But doesnít exalt himself

Thus he picks this over that

75. Rebellion

The reason the people are hungry

Is because those above levy so many taxes

Thus the people are hungry

The reason the people are hard to rule

Is because those above are so forceful

Thus the people are hard to rule

The reason the people think little of death

Is because those above think so much of life

Thus the people think little of death

Meanwhile those who do nothing to live

Are more esteemed than those who love life

80. Utopia

Imagine a small state with a small population

Let there be labor-saving tools

That arenít used

Let people consider death

And not move far

Let there be boats and carts

But no reason to ride them

Let there be armor and weapons

But no reason to employ them

Let people return to the use of knots

And be satisfied with their food

And pleased with their clothing

And content with their homes

And happy with their customs

Let there be a state so near

People hear its dogs and chickens

And live out their lives

Without making a visit

19. Simplify

Get rid of wisdom and reason

And people will live a hundred times better

Get rid of kindness and justice

And people once ore will love and obey

Get rid of cleverness and profit

And thieves will cease to exist

But these three sayings are not enough

Hence let this be added

Wear the un-dyed and hold the un-carved

Reduce self-interest and limit desires

Get rid of learning and problems will vanish








  1. Taoist FAQ "What about Yin and Yang?"
  2. Taoist FAQ "What about Yin and Yang?"
  3. Fight Club p.49
  4. Fight Club p.50
  5. Fight Club p.51
  6. Fight Club p.32
  7. Fight Club p.173
  8. Taoist FAQ "What about Yin and Yang?"
  9. Fight Club p.44
  10. Fight Club p.46
  11. Fight Club p.110
  12. Fight Club p.76
  13. Fight Club p.134
  14. Fight Club p.146
  15. Fight Club p.141
  16. Fight Club p.141
  17. Fight Club p.141
  18. Fight Club p.141
  19. Fight Club p.48
  20. Fight Club p.120
  21. Fight Club p.166
  22. Fight Club p.149
  23. Fight Club p.125
  24. Fight Club p.149
  25. Fight Club p.150

Bibliography of Sources

Lao-tzu. Taoteching. Circa 600BC. Translated by: Red Pine. San Francisco, California: Mercury House


Palahniuk, Chuck. 1996. Fight Club. 115 West 18th Street, New York, New York 10011: Henry Holt and Company, LLC


Editor: Steven Ericsson Zenith. "Tao Frequently Asked Questions", http://www.thetemple.com/alt.philosophy.taoism/taofaq.htm. The Temple of the Immortal Spirit. Accessed on: Jan, 06, 2001.


© 2002 Robert H. Harrison