The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 28)

During the second period of his life, from 1534 to 1549, Toegye served in a total of twenty-nine official positions in which he utilised his scholarly and literary talents. Although he carried out his official posts sincerely, he always wanted retire because he had no political ambition. In 1543 he got hold of the Chu Tzu ta-chuan (Great Compendium of Master Chu His) that was printed in Korea for the first time. He had not previous known such a work. He began to study it, and his resolve to resign from public life grew from his date. This compendium became another important Neo-Confucian text that shaped Toegye’s mature thought. He became familiar with Chu Hsi’s ideas to the extent that he often quoted them in his own writings.

Obviously, Toegye’s longing for an opportunity to devote himself to the study of Chu His at home corresponds to his strong dissatisfaction with the political problems of his time. In 1549 he finally left his official post, without permission, and went to Toegye (renamed Toegye later), a small place near a stream not far from his birth place. Here began the third period of his life, in which he studded, taught, and wrote. But as he became more famous, he was forced to accept few government positions throughout the twenty-one years of his retirement period. Toegye wrote fifty-three documents to resign from, or refuse, many high-ranking government positions. In these documents, he gave a number of reasons including a chronic illness, old age, lack of knowledge, and so on. In reality, however, he could not explicitly express his reasons in public. First, his retirement was due to the series of three serious purges of the Neo-Confucian literati that occurred during his lifetime. The painful aftermath of such purges made him finally extricate himself in 1549 from public life. Second, he had no ambition for political power and always wished to return to his home, so that he could fulfil his lifelong desire to devote himself to the Neo-Confucian way of learning nd self-cultivation. Furthermore, he had a serious interest in teaching and writing.

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