The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 149)

In his Four-Seven thesis, Toegye cites Chang Tsai’s and Chu Hsi’s doctrine that “the mind commands human nature and feelings.” The mind combines, comprehends, and directs both human nature and feelings. Toegye means Chu Hsi’s sayings that “the mind unites i and ki” and that “Human nature consists of principles embraced in the mind, while the mind is where these principles are united. Human nature is principle. The mind is reservoir that issues it forth into operation.” In the Sim mu cheyong lyon (Critique on the Saying “the Mind Does Not Have Substance and Function”), he discusses the mind in terms of “substance” and “function”: “We refer to what is tranquil as substance (che) and what moves as function (yong), and this is based on the Book of Changes. We refer to the unmanifest state as substance and the manifest state as function, and this is based on the Doctrine of the Mean. We refer to human nature as substance and feelings as function, and this is based on Mencius. These texts are all about the substance and function of the mind.” The unmanifested state of the mind refers to human nature, whereas the manifested state of the mind feelings. Toegye is, of course, clarifying the Cheng-Chu theory that the mind has both substance and function, meaning that the former is human nature and the latter is feelings. Human nature is the mind before it is aroused, whereas the feelings are the mind after it is aroused. To put it in another way, the former is the ontological reality of the mind, the mind-in-itself, whereas the latter is the concrete, experiential manifestation of the mind. For this reason, the mind is said to unite, command, and apprehend human nature and feelings. Chu Hsi wrote in this regard: “The mind is the master of human nature and feelings,” as it is “the master of the self.” Toegye adds: “What is stimulated by external things is the mind, and that by which the mind moves is feelings.” What is bestowed by the mind and becomes manifest to function is feelings. Because feelings are inevitable expressions of the mind, it follows that self-cultivation must require one to attain the so-called centrality of the mind in its absolutely pure state before the issuance of feelings.

Why do “selfish desires” arise? This question is, of course, relevant to Toegye’s Four-Seven thesis. Selfish desires occur when the mind, the master of the self, does not control aroused feelings property, leading them to become selfish desires. The Seven Emotions can become evil, if they do not attain their due degree and measure. This is due to the activity of ki that can always cause “selfish desires.” We can use Toegye’s rider-horse analogy to explain it in the following manner: when i (like the rider) is undistributed by the ki (the horse) that follows it, we have good feelings like the Four Beginnings; however, if i ids controlled by the distorted ki, we have evil feelings like the disharmonised Seven Emotions. In other words, we have good when the moral mind commands the human mind, whereas evil arises when the latter does not comply with the former’s moral guideline. In Toegye’s dualistic way of moral reasoning, this can be prevail when the Four dominate over the Seven; evil can prevail when the Seven dominates over the Four. The problem with the Seven is their excessiveness; therefore, they must be controlled so that they do not cause selfish desires. “The Seven may become evil, if they do not attain their due degree and measure.” There are proper ways to be joyful, angry, sorrowful, fearful, loving, hating, and desiring; otherwise, they become selfish and evil. For this reason, Toegye emphasised that these emotive feelings and desires, which are not necessarily morally grounded or oriented, necessarily require a discipline of emotional control and moral cultivation. To practice such a discipline, however, one first need to understand the conceptual and ethical distinction between i and ki and, hence, between the Four and the Seven. This is, indeed, part of the essence of his Four-Seven thesis that Kobong finally accepted.

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