The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 46)

Although the term chong in the preceding passage can be rendered as “feelings,” it is not clear what Mencius means by it. The left character of this term is identical to the term sim itself; in the Mencian context, then, the chong can be translated as the “mind-and-heart” as well. In general, Mencius tended to emphasise the status of human in terms of the mind-and-heart. For example, he says: “What the superior person (kunja) calls human nature (song) refers to benevolence righteousness, propriety, and wisdom rooted in the mind-and-heart (sim).” Another passage illustrates this point further: “Our mouths desire tastes, our eyes desire colours, our ears desire sounds, our noses desire smells, and our limbs desire ease and comfort. These desires are certainly due to our nature. But there is also fate (ming). This is why the superior person does not call these desires human nature (song).” For Mencius, the Four BEginnings are to be considered as the four roots of moral goodness inherent in human nature. But he did not spell out whether by feelings he meant only the Four BEginnings as the mind-and-heart. What about those physical desires that he mentioned in the preceding passage; did he consider them as feelings as well? This was a sign of ambiguous legacy at the heart of Mencius’ teaching, one that the Four-Seen debates in Korean addressed while generating a wellspring of creative thought. Toegye, Yulgok, and their challengers cited and discussed some of the quoted passages.

What Mencius intended is, of course, to distinguish general physical desires and physiological sensations from the Four BEginnings of Moral virtue. To him, the Four BEginnings do not come from the outside, but are inherent in the mind-and-heart (sim). At the same time, according to the Book of Rites and Doctrine of the Mean, other feelings, like the Seven Emotions, also do not come from outside, but arise from within under external influence. Taken together, Mencius definitely meant that benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom are moral virtues pertaining to human nature (song); the Four Beginnings, such as commiseration, are our moral roots and expressions pertaining to the mind-and-heart (sim). This is his ontological and moral conviction that these “beginnings” of virtue are fundamental qualities of human nature. In other words, all human beings are born good because they naturally possess the Four Beginnings.

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