The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 109)


Surely, the Four are mentioned by Mencius to convey the idea that human nature is originally and naturally good; that is to say, all human beings are naturally good because they possess the Four as innate roots of virtue. For this reason, Yulgok sees the Four as simply “the good side of the Seven.” In other words, the Four and the Seven are conceptually distinguishable, although they do not fit into the scheme of the moral mind and the human mind. But Yulgok, like Kobong, does not argue that the Four have any ontological or moral status independent of the Seven. As aroused moral feelings, the Four do not exist outside the Seven, the totality of all feelings. By suggesting that any of the Seven can be related to the Four in one way or another, Yulgok means that the Four and the Seven are not two different realms or kinds of feelings that exist in opposition to each other. For instance, the Four can serve as the virtuous source of any good feelings. From a stand point of self-cultivation, Yulgok means that the Four cannot have their own moral ground other than that of the Seven and that all of the Seven have the moral potential to become good feelings like the Four.

As Yulgok points out, if i is in control when ki does not disturb it, we have the Four; if ki already disturb i, we refer to both good and evil of the Seven. In his first letter to Ugye, he criticises Toegye for interpreting the Four and the Seven as two separate kinds of human feelings: “It would be appropriate for scholars to view Chu Hsi’s saying dynamically. Master Toegye refers to the Four BEginnings as good (feelings) but says that the Seven Emotions are also good. If he is right, this means that there are good feelings outside of the Four Beginnings. Where do these feelings come from? Mencius described them (the Four) generally; therefore, he gave only Four examples such as ‘commiseration,’ ‘shame and dislike,’ ‘courtesy and modesty,’ and ‘discernment of right and wrong.’ However other good feelings also belong to the Four Beginnings, and scholars should understand this fact as well.” Asking how human feelings can become good, without being grounded in moral principles (such as benevolence, property, righteousness, and wisdom), Yulgok maintains that Four as the mind-and-heart of commiseration, the mind-and-heart of shame and dislike, and so on, implying that they, like the Seven, are concrete feelings aroused from human nature. If “there are good feelings in addition to the Four,” this implies incorrectly that the mind has two ontological foundations. Given Yulgok’s critique of Toegye’s theory and his interpretation of the Four as the “good” feelings of the Seven, an obvious question thus arises: How so we recognise the issuance of the Four? Yulgok argues that the Four can be recognised when the good side of the Seven is influenced by the external stimuli. For example, commiseration occurs after seeing a small child falling into a well; in other words, without experiencing any external object, one cannot have the aroused feeling of commiseration. Like Kobong, Yulgok, though he never noticed, accords with Chu Hsi’s statements that “the Seven Emotions cannot be separated from the Four Beginnings” and that “the Four Beginnings can be understood in the context of the Seven Emotions.”

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