The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 112)


It is clear that Yulgok supports Kobong’s Four-Seven thesis. In the context of the Doctrine of the Mean, both thinkers see the difference between the Four and the Seven as the problem of whether or not aroused feelings are. Of course, this is a concrete ethical issue for the practice of self-cultivation. But the relevant question is, Where does evil come from? Like Kobong, Yulgok argues that evil does not have its own ontological ground other that the Seven, the totality of the feelings. Another key question is, If human nature is originally and naturally good, why and how does evil become apparent in human feelings? For Yulgok, as well as for Kobong, the problem of good and evil must come from the physical endowment of human nature; when the Seven are not properly directed, they may not end up with good and can lead to evil. As indicated in his diagram of mind, human nature, and mind Yulgok asserts that the Four are harmonised moral feelings that constitute the good part of the Seven. Before the Seven are aroused, the unmanifest state of human nature is good; however, when it is stimulated by external things, either good or evil can arise, depending on whether the Seven become harmonised. Therefore, any of the Sun, if harmonised properly according to moral principles, is a good feeling like the Four. In short, then, this is the fundamental basis of Yulgok’s understanding of good and evil, one that corresponds to Kobong’s original thinking. That which becomes harmonised is good, and that which does not become harmonised is evil. Like Kobong, Yulgok means that there are no two different “origins” of the Four and the Seven and that the Four-Seven relationship cannot be discussed from an ontological or ethical perspective of the good-evil opposition. Good and evil are never two opposing realities of feelings pertaining to the Four, on the one hand, and the Seven, on the other hand.

In his third letter to Ugye, Yulgok underscores that the Four Beginnings are only “other names of good feelings.” To him, it is never possible for the “good side” and the “totality” to be divided into the two kinds of feelings that are separate from, or in opposition to, each other. Thus, “Chu Hsi’s saying that ‘the Four BEginnings are manifestations of i; the Seven Emotion are manifestations of ki” is meant only in a general sense”; he would not expect others to separate the Four and the Seven in terms of i and ki too much. Yulgok continues: “Contemporary scholars are unable to grasp the meaning (of Chu Hsi’s theory) and simply defend it by distinguishing their explanations and by dragging in quotations. How could they arrive at the truth of its real meanings?” Implicit in his claim is a criticism of Toegye’s Four-Seven these: that is to say, Toegye misunderstood and misinterpreted Chu Hsi, and his problem is his dualistic view of the Four and the Seven in terms of i and ki.

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