The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 111)

Sharply aware of Cheng-Chu teachings, Yulgok points out: “What is called principle (in reality) refers to the principle that circulates by riding on material force. But it does not refer to the original essence of principle (i chi pinyon).” That is to say, “i in itself is purely good; however, when it moves by riding on ki (in the process of cosmic transformation), it divides into myriad variations which can lead to both good and evil. Hence, the physical endowment of human nature has both good and evil.” Yulgok continues to argue:

You (Ugye) said: “There can be the sprout of evil in human nature before feelings are aroused.” After thinking it over, I have discovered a serious flaw in this statement; your misunderstanding of the great fundamental (of the former sages’ and worthies’ teachings) lies right in it. What is unmanifest pertains to the original essence of hymn nature, the mystery of the Great Ultimate, the Mean, and the important foundation (of Confucian teaching). If, as you said, there is the sprout of evil in it, then this implies…that the Mencian doctrine of human nature as good is absurd, and not everyone can become a (sage like) Yao and Shun. The former wise people of the past, including Tzu-ssu in the Doctrine of the Mean, generally said (for all people) that “before feelings such as pleasure, anger, sorrow and joy are aroused, it is called the Mean”; they did not mean this specifically for superior persons only. Accordingly, Your statement is absolutely wrong.

For Yulgok, then, it is misleading to suggest that human nature in itself, before feelings are aroused, has any beginning of evil or even the slightest sign of it. Of course, he means to do full justice to the MEncian doctrine that human nature is originally good in the context of its innate roots of virtue.

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