The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 117)


Ugye is not easily convinced. He maintains that if one could discuss human nature by referring “principally to i” (original human nature) and “principally to ki” (physical human nature), then one should also be able to discuss the Four and the seven in the same manner. In his third letter, Yulgok argues, however, that Ugye’s argument is wrong. Following Cheng-Chu teachings carefully, he points out: “The original human nature refers to i only, without mentioning ki; however, the physical human nature refers to both i in ki combined.” In other words, one cannot use Ugye’s theory to separate human nature arbitrarily into the original human nature and the physical human nature, especially given the fact that Ugye took the original human nature and the physical human nature to be two different human natures in opposition to each other. Ugye chooses to defend Toegye’s argument that the Four and the Seven can be discussed separately according to what is principally manifest in each case, just as original human nature and physical human nature can be spoken of separately.

In his fifth letter to Ugye, Yulgok encloses a poem on the inseparability of i and ki in concrete phenomena, presenting a theory of “one nature with two names.” In the concrete reality, “human nature” is the physical human nature that “already includes the original human nature”; this is, he asserts, because i already exists in ki. The underlying message of this argument accords with the Cheng-Chu doctrine that original human nature refers to the pure ideal state of i only, and that it is called physical human nature in terms of i and ki when it is to be understood in a concrete context of addressing its physical endowment. For Yulgok, then, the so-called original human nature is only an abstract concept of human nature; from an empirical perspective, one has to talk about the physical human nature. Note that his explicit interpretation of the oneness of human nature appears to have been influenced by Lo Chin-shun’s original thinking and Kobong’s interpretation, according to which two names are used in discussing one human nature.

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