The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 147)

In his Four-Seven debate with Kobong, Toegye did not talk directly about the moral mind and the human mind; as we have observed, rather, Yulgok discussed them extensively. In addressing the fundamental difference between the Four Beginnings and the Seven Emotions, Toegye did address the relationship between the mind, human nature, and feelings, although he did not directly quote Chu Hsi’s statements about the distinction between the human mind and the moral mind. For example, he politely urged Kobong to clearly distinguish the four from the Seven, so that Kobong will not have an “unfortunate consequence” of misunderstanding i as ki. He means that the Seven, unlike the Four, are basic physical desires and emotions without a moral status. In other words, the emotion of anger, for example, is not a moral virtue or feeling: therefore, it must come from ki, which can transform it into the “precarious” and “selfish” dimension of the mind. From a concrete standpoint of self-cultivation, Toegye argues: “The feeling of anger (one of the Seven) is especially excessive and difficult to control. When one is angry, one should immediately forget one’s anger and examine the right and wrong of the matter at hand, according to principle (i).” For him, this is the main reason for distinguishing the four from the Seven in a conceptual and moral context.

In his other philosophical letters and treatises, Toegye follows Chu Hsi’s interpretation to clarify the way of mind cultivation. He maintains that the human mind represents the selfish desires and feelings identified with physical form, whereas the moral mind pertains to moral principles and feelings. The following passage illustrates his point: “The human mind is the source of human desires; therefore, our selfish desires come from it. The mind-and-heart (sim) aroused from physical form is called the human mind, for even the sages have it. The activity of human desires (inyok) really starts from this; therefore, the human mind is called the source of selfish human desires. The mind-and-heart of the ordinary people who act against Heaven becomes indulged by material desires. The material desires are wicked.” Unlike Chu Hsi, Toegye sees more explicitly that the precariousness and instability of the human mind cause evil. For him, the human desires can be selfish, materialistic, and wicked. The question is, How does one cultivate the so-called human mind? For Toegye, it can be rectified and become good. From a standpoint of self-cultivation, he argues that: “The so-called human mind and moral mind are already in opposition to each other. The former belongs to its own substance of selfishness: however, because it can follow the latter’s command, it can become one with the moral mind. Although the human mind is completely blended with the moral mind, we cannot say simply that two are one.” All evil is due to “selfish material desires” caused by the human mind, and ki stimulates the human mind. Implicit in this argument is that one must, therefore, exercise a sincere and serious effort to preserve and nourish the moral mind; to to so, one must hold fast to the command of one’s moral will over one’s unstable and precarious human mind. This is precisely why Toegye emphasised the necessity of transforming the “selfish desires” issued from the human mind into the ultimate goodness of the moral mind or “Heaven’s Principle” (chilli).

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