The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 182)

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Yulgok says in the Hakkyo mobom, a treatise on the education of youth, that “the empty words of bad scholars has no practicality.” For learning, then, one must work hard on actions; otherwise, “our learning is nothing but a vulgar affair.” For Yulgok, Confucian learning is not a “nominal” process; students must concentrate on the “practicality of learning.” Good scholars must seek the practical implications of learning. In other words, they are simultaneously good thinkers and politicians. In the Kyongyon ilvi (A Diary of Lectures Before the Throne), Yulgok argues that the king cannot govern the nation properly if his learning and self-cultivation are not practically oriented.

Yulgok Songhak chipyo underscores the practical unity of “knowledge” and “action”: “In the effort of self-cultivation are both the way of knowledge and way of action. The way of knowledge is to illuminate good, and the way of action is to make the self sincere.” In another passage, we read: “Only after the investigation of principle is properly done, can one put oneself into practice. Hence, there must be the practical mind (silsim) before one can have any practical achievement.” The underlying theme of Yulgok’s argument means that the mind-and-heart” (sim) is the master of knowledge and action; it is what makes one’s learning possible and useful. It is thus crucial to maintain the practically oriented mind: “Without the practical mind, one cannot understand the myriad things and cannot put them into practice. If one’s mind is practical, all phenomena are true, and they can be all understood. This is why Chou Tun-i said: ‘Sincerity is the foundation of the sages.’ I think that sincerity is the foundation of self-cultivation and government administration.” In the context of Yulgok’s Four-Seven thesis, one’s efforts at straightening physical nature, nourishing ki, and investigating the principles of things can be fruitful. Without practical learning, then, one can neither achieve self-cultivation nor pur what one learned into practice.

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