The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 166)

Embedded in Yulgok’s argument is that all human feelings and desires are basically cognitive because they are aroused as the consciousness of our mind responds to external stimuli. His notion of emotion is somewhat similar to modern cognitive theories of emotion, according to which emotions are either wholly or partially cognition or dependent on consciousness. From Western perspectives, we can refer to it in terms of what is sometimes called the behavioural theory of emotion. Those emotions that pertain to our physical, individual “needs” are aroused from what Western philosophers and psychologists call physical sensations-perceptions accompanied by physiological disturbances. Those emotions that belong to our moral virtuous behaviour are aroused from value judgements. Yulgok also says elsewhere: “Evil comes from one’s physical endowment of nature.” even the wisest people, such as sages and worthies, have natural and physical feelings and desires because it is the principle of nature. In the “Sugi” (Self-Cultivation), the first and most important part of his famous Songhak chipyo, Yulgok states: “To be joyful when one should be joyful and to be angry refers to good feelings, while to be joyful when one should not be joyful and to be angry when one should not be angry refers to bad feelings.”

As revealed in his Four-Seven thesis, the fundamental implication of his argument is a significant moral issue. Addressing a concrete way of emotional integration, Yulgok emphasises the “harmony-disharmony” link between the Four and the Seven. Although feelings are considered to be basically good, they can become evil if they are not properly harmonised and expressed. This is, he argues, due to one,s excessive craving for physical, emotional, and material desires (food, pleasure, comfort, sex, and so on). The feelings and desires of sages and worthies follow moral principles. By contrast, those of inferior persons arise excessively, easing to evil; this is because their physical endowment is highly “turbid” and “impure”.

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