The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 100)

Toegye argues that Kobong’s conclusion that “the manifestation of i is none other than the manifestation of ki when ki follows i” tends to acknowledge ki as i. As he said in his sec on letter to Kobong, Kobong,s Four-Seven thesis based on such a theory can be a “dangerous” deviation from the whole metaphysical and ethical basis of Cheng-Chu Neo-Confucianism, according to which “human nature is.” The question is, Why did Toegye consistently reject that part of Kobong’s interpretation and is there any significantly reason behind Toegye’s intention for doing so? This is an important question that should be readdressed here. Toegye wanted to convince Kobong that there must be a certain contrast between the Four Beginnings and the Seven Emotions. The Four-Seven contrast has important implications for the way of moral self-cultivation in the light of Mencius and thesis have a substantial portion of moral argument. The key to self-cultivation is to realise that the true reality of human nature is the original goodness of it that remains intact in the Four BEginnings, just as that of the moon itself is the “real moon in the sky.” In other words, the ultimate reality of human nature should never be confused with the physical formation of human nature both theoretically and practically.

Toegye seems to mean that the fundamental aim of self-cultivation depends on one’s realisation of one’s inner, moral nature in itself. It must involve what Mencius calls preserving (the mind-and-heart) and nourishing (human nature), which requires one to realise and extend the Four BEginnings. Indeed, it is precisely this fundamental framework of Cheng-Chu Neo-Confucianism in which Toegye attempted to convince Kobong from the beginning of the debate. Although Toegye himself did not argue exactly in this way, his Four-Seven thesis does have significant implications for the practice of moral and spiritual self-cultivation. Chapter IV will treat this topic more specifically by discussing his other major philosophical writings as well, especially those written after his debate with Kobong.

In 1566, eight years after the beginning of the debate, Kobong wrote a general summary statement of Toegye’s Four-Seven thesis according to his senior’s basic position. Toegye accepted it with pleasure; he finally was overjoyed to receive such a conciliatory letter from his junior friend. He found that Kobong’s summary is somewhat a representation of his own ideas, though it did not fully accommodate his entire Four-Seven thesis. However, the interesting point of this finale is that Kobong somehow gave up pushing his challenge further, especially about Toegye’s theory that i has its own self-manifesting capability in the case of issuing the Four (it is precisely this issue on which Yulgok subsequently focused his systematic critique of Toegye’s interpretation). Although this is a disappointing scholarly matter in the context of our own investigation, Kobong was probably satisfied with his impressive performance in the debate with Toegye and knew that his senior scholar would not revise his basic position any further. Obviously, Kobong respected Toegye as the leading scholar of the Cheng-Chu tradition in Korea, who had politely welcomed his challenge for nearly eight years. Also, Toegye praised some of Kobong’s idea and insights. Taken together, then, this probably led Kobong to accept the fundamental features of his senior’s interpretation.

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