The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 43)

Hence, his assertion that all human beings have the Four Beginnings is based on the fundamental belief that they have what he calls “the mind-and-heart that cannot bear to see the suffering of others.” Every person’s spontaneous and immediate response to an urgent case like a child “falling into a well” is Mencius’ best illustration of his moral argument: “When one were, all of a sudden, to see a child on the verge of falling into a well, one will certainly experience the mind-and-heart of commiseration (to save the child). This is not to gain friendship with the child’s parents, not to seek the praise of one’s neighbours and friends, nor because one dislikes the cry of the child. From this, we can understand that a person without the mind-and0heart of commiseration is not human.

This passage suggests Mencius’ ontological view that the Four Beginnings of virtue are originally and naturally rooted in the human mind-and-heart. Mencius considered the “mind-and-hert of commiseration” as identical to the “beginning of benevolence.” He continues to say: “If one develops fully all of these Four Beginnings that one (naturally) possesses, the result would be like a fire starting up or a spring coming forth. When these are fully developed, one can protect the whole world within the four seas; however, if one fails to develop them, one will not be able even to serve one’s parents.” The Four Beginnings are, then, our natural innate seeds of moral self-cultivation. In the light of the Great Learning, one must nourish them to cultivate oneself and to transform others and the world. Mencius’ doctrine of the Four Beginnings corresponds to what Charles Fu calls the fourfold beginning of virtue, which basically means that the Four Beginnings are the spontaneous manifestations of our moral natures. This conviction upon the doctrine of the original goodness of “human nature” (song/hsing); evil is not inborn, but comes from one’s neglect to express the natural goodness of human nature inherent in the mind-and-heart as the Four Beginnings. Evil is due to one’s “failure” to control bad external influences. In Mencius’ own words, the way of self-cultivation necessarily involves one’s commitment “to realise the mind-and-heart to the utmost” or “to preserve the mind-and-heart and to nourish human nature.” Wing-tsit Chan correctly points out: “Mencius did not deviate from the general direction determined by Confucius. What we believe in Mencius is, therefore, orthodox Confucianism, developed along with idealistic lines.”

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