The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 161)

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Good and Evil:
The Nourishment of Ki

Yulgok makes a clear observation on the problem of good and evil. For him, good and evil can never be two separate ideas nor ontological entities directly opposed to each other. His philosophy of i and ki closely relates to his Four-Seven thesis. In his own words, “what is manifest is ki and the reason for its manifestation is i.” “This is the earlier Confucian scholars’ opinion,” and “even if a sage arises again, he cannot dare change this statement.” This theory is central to his entire Neo-Confucian metaphysics and ethics. Because i is a “metaphysical” and “passive” principle, whereas ki is a “physical” and “active” force, it follows that “what is irregular and different” in cosmic transformation is due to the activity of ki. In his Songhak chipyo (Outline of the Learning of the Sages), a work complied few years after his Four-Seven debate with Ugye, Yulgok articulates his view further: “What rides on Seven debate with Ugye, Yulgok articulates his view further: “What rides on the subtle moving and activating power of ki is i…I is what is formless (muhyong) and passive (muwi); hence, it is the master of what has form (yuhyong) and is active (yuwi). Ki is what has form and is active; it is the concrete thing of the formless and passive i. This is the great beginning of the investigation of i and ki.” In all concrete phenomena, such as feelings and self-cultivation, ki is what acts and becomes manifest, although there must be i as the principle of, or ground for, the process of ki’s manifestation. Hence, any dualistic view of i and ki destroys the fundamental Cheng-Chu doctrine of the inseparability of i and ki.

One important philosophical concept in the history of Neo-Confucianism is ki. In Ching Chinese intellectual history, it was often associated with such eminent thinkers as Wang Fu-chih (1613-1692), Yen Yuan (1645-1704), and Tai Chen (1724-1777), all of whom are known for their emphasis on the meaning and implication of ki in learning and self-cultivation. As Irene Bloom has amply indicated, however, the first Chinese thinker to develop such a philosophy was the Ming thinker Lo Chin-shun, who launched a significant change within the Chen-Chu school. In his Kun-chih chi, Lo criticised Chu Hsi’s dualistic philosophy of mind, human nature, and feelings. In Tokugawa Japan, the philosophy of ki was advocated by the prominent Japanese scholars of the Chu Hsi school (Shushigaku), especially Hayashi Razan (1583-1657) and Kaibara Ekken (1630-1714). Lo’s Kun-Chih chi was, in fact, an influential text for Hayashi Razan and Kaibara Ekken. Regardless of philosophical differences among these them, these Neo-Confucians all opposed the self-autonomous and transcendent reality of i as something that can exit independent of the physical and immanent reality of ki. In Choson Korea, Yulgok advocated a similar philosophy in the mid-sixteenth century. But we see strong traces of the influence of Lo Chin-shun especially his rethinking of Chu Hsi’s metaphysics i and ki. Yulgok gave prominence not only to Kobong’s Four-Seven thesis, but also Lo’s interpretation of human nature and of i and ki. Lo’s Kun-chih chi was an important text that Yulgok apparently admired.

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