The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 30)

Until Toegye’s time, there was no accepted custom of any form of free debate between a master and a disciple or between a senior scholar and a junior scholar. It was unthinkable for a disciple to engage himself either formally or informally in a free debate with his master; similarly, a junior scholar would not dare challenge or criticise, by any means, a senior scholar with reputation and fame. However, Toegye’s Four-Seven debate with Ki Kobong broke this tradition for the first tie in Korean intellectual history. Before the date began, Toegye was sixty years old and the most highly respected scholar of the day; he had not only served as the head of the Songgyungwan seven years earlier, but also resigned from, or refused, a number of high-ranking government positions. Kobong was, by contrast, thirty-two years old and a young scholar who just began his official career after passing civil-service examinations. As a virtuous man and serious scholar, however, Toegye welcomed Kobong’s challenge and accepted his criticism. Actually, he could have followed the old tradition simply by ignoring Kobong’s challenge or considering his views inferior or wrong. He often praised Kobong’s thoughtful comments and did not hesitate even to revise his own views whenever he discovered their shortcomings. When Kobong expressed a point of view contrary to his, Toegye never considered it incorrect at once, but kindly explained to him why and how he had reached a different interpretation. This clearly indicates Toegye’s modest moral character and serious scholarly attitude toward seeking the truth. the Toegye-Kobong debate stimulated the rather quiet scholarly environment of the time in Choson Korea, thereby giving rise to a unique philosophical development in the whole history of Korean Neo-Confucian thought.

The underlying structure and content of Toegye’s Four-Seven philosophy focus on the primary role of principle with respect to both metaphysics and ethics. As we will see shortly, his entire Neo-Confucianism addresses such a concept of principle and its implications for self-cultivation. It reveals certain patterns of the philosophical continuity of the Cheng-Chu school. Many passages in his Four-Seven letters and other writings indicate Toegye’s highest respect for Chu His and his faithful followers, especially the late Sung thinker Chen Te-hsiu, who had a good deal of impact on the development of Toegye’s mature philosophy. Toegye was, indeed a Korean paradigm of Cheng-Chu orthodoxy, who sought to ground his Four-Seven philosophy on the metaphysical, ethical, and spiritual grounds of the Cheng-Chu tradition. He was, in fact, the first major Korean critique of the Lu-Wang school of the mind. As he revealed in his Four-Seven thesis in particular, his Neo-Confucianism emphasises a way to cultivate sagehood, the ultimate truth of human nature, calling for a Neo-Confucian way of life that integrates intellectual insight, moral effort, contemplative disciple, and spiritual cultivation.

After Toegye, this transmission of Korean Neo-Confucianism was carried on by his disciples including Yu Song-nyong (1542-1607), Kim Song-il (1538-1598), and Chong Ku (1543-1620). As part of the Yongnam school (Yongnam kappa), it became closely identified as the “school of the primacy of principle” (Churipa). This, then, is a brief outline of Toegye’s biography.

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