The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 162)

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As we have seen in his Four-Seven thesis, Yulgok emphasised the physical and empirical reality of ki, while utilising Lo’s philosophy. The role of ki plays a vital current in Yulgok’s theory and practice of self-cultivation. His understanding of good and evil is closely associated with his interpretation. The question is, Why does human nature lead to either good or evil when it is manifest in feelings, desires, or thoughts? This is, Yulgok argues, because, although i is purely and originally good, ki is not always pure and good in human beings. The original essence of ki is i itself; however, when turbid or impure ki controls the issuing process of feelings, it may lead one to evil. The following passage from his commentary will suffice to portray his conception of good and evil further: “What is good in the feelings rides on the clear and bright ki and is manifested straight from Heaven’s principle, without deviating from the Mean. It may be viewed as the beginning of humanity, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom; hence, it refers to the Four Beginnings. Although what is evil in the feelings is also founded on i, it is already disturbed by impure and turbid ki which may cause excess in some cases or deficiency in other cases.” For this reason, as Yulgok points out, Cheng I said that good and evil are all due to Heaven’s principle, and Chu Hsi said that human desires are due to Heaven’s principle. Nevertheless, other scholars, such as Toegye, who do not understand such theories consider the manifestation of i to be good feelings as the Four and the manifestation of ki to be evil feelings as the Seven. Yulgok argued, in his Four-Seven thesis, that Toegye used a metaphysical and ethical i-ki dualism as the basis of his interpretation. Hence, he criticised Toegye for presenting a dualistic analysis of the Four and the Seven in terms of the opposition of good and evil as well.

According to Yulgok, only after self-cultivation is established, can human nature be manifest as good, without being disturbed by physical form. The following passage describes his early determination to self-cultivation through what he calls the nourishment of ki (yanggi): “Ki can be transformed by nourishing it. Everyone is born with it. When it is well nourished, it comes under the control of our mind; when it is not nourished properly, our mind becomes its servant. When one’s mind controls ki, one’s body can serve as the master; therefore, one can become a sage or wise person. But when one’s mind obeys ki…one cannot avoid becoming a foolish or crazy person. It was Mencius who, among ancient people, nourished ki well.” Given the Cheng-Chu doctrine that physical dispositions are divergent in terms of “clarity” and “purity,” Yulgok argued that the learning of sagehood(songhak) cannot be completed equally or satisfactorily by every one.

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