The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 150)

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The key to simhak is to control one’s selfish desires issued by ki; it is to hold fast to i, which issues the four as moral forces. Hence, one should have a clear distinction of “Heaven’s principle” and “selfish desires”: the former is what enables aroused feelings to become morally and emotionally harmonised, whereas the latter may lead them to evil. In his Songhak sipto written few years after the debate with Kobong, Toegye argues that it is extremely crucial to be “very clear on the distinction of principles and desires,” so that one can “illuminate Heaven’s principle” and put it into practice. One’s grasp of the distinction “depends on whether or not one’s mind governs one’s feelings.” It is precisely in this concrete context of self-cultivation that Toegye, unlike Chu Hsi, not only affirmed the self-manifesting capability of i in concrete phenomena including moral virtues (such as the Four), but also formulated a more rigorous view of selfish desires as “wicked” and “evil.” Toegye must have formulated this argument from an experiential standpoint of his own practice of self-cultivation.

Toegye’s simhak certainly justifies his Four-Seven thesis in the sense that moral cultivation means to preserve the Four Beginnings and to control the Seven Emotions. To assert that the Four, the essential moral qualities of human nature, are not aroused by i, or that they are aroused by ki in the same fashion as the Seven are aroused, is, in Toegye’s view, totally wrong in both theoretical and practical contexts. such an assertion would be absurd not only metaphysically and ethically, but also in the Neo-Confucial context of self-cultivation. In other words, benevolence is a moral virtue; therefore, the moral feeling of “commiseration” (the beginning of benevolence) must be different from the emotion of “anger” (one of the Seven) aroused by ki. As Toegye argued in his Four-Seven thesis, the way of simhak means to suppress the dehumanising tendencies of the Seven that are manifestations of ki and, therefore, easily become evil. this points to what he calls “the way of suppressing ki by means of i.”

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