The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 58)

Toegye, Yulgok, and their challengers addressed the question of whether the Four BEginnings, like the Seven Emotions, are feelings understood in general sense or they are to be conceived as what Julia Ching calls “moral institutions” independent of the Seven Emotions. Should the Four BEginnings rather be considered fundamental roots of the human potential for moral self-cultivation i the MEncian sense? Unlike the Chinese, the Korean thinkers debated on the question of whether the Four are “natural, spontaneous, and autonomous manifestations of the mind-heart” associated with moral “knowing and willing.” Evidently, the Korean found this issue important in determining if the Four have such characteristics as “self-regulation” and “self-manifestiation.” Of course, such an issue was necessary to provide an ontological and moral justification for the Mencian doctrine of the original goodness of human nature. As for the Seven Emotions, they debated on the questions of whether the Seven Emotions are merely mental feelings and physiological states without any ontological or moral status in relation to the Four Beginnings. They addressed the following issues: first, why does the Book of Rites describe the Seven as feelings “not acquired through learning from the outside”; second, in what sense does the Doctrine of the MEan describe them in terms of “equilibrium” and “harmony,” and why does it emphasise emotional control by attaining their “proper measure and degree”; third, why do the Seven Emotions bring about evil; fourth, do they represent the totality of feelings, whereas the Four Beginnings constitute the good side of the Seven; fifth, is there any continuum between harmonised emotions (e.g., love) and the Four BEginnings (e.g., commiseration); and finally, what do all these issues mean for the practice of self-cultivation?

Another topic, which had been left unexplained by Chu Hsi and his followers, was the issue of how to interpret the Four and the Seven in term of principle (i) and material force (ki). This became a complicated issue for Korean thinkers who wanted to interpret Chu Hsi’s statement that “the Four BEginnings are manifestations of i and the Seven Emotions are manifestations of ki.” In a sense, the issue was initially a textual one; however, it quickly became a significant issue, for it related directly to one’s proper understanding of learning and self-cultivation. The compelling question was whether Chu Hsi’s theory could be interpreted dualistically in the dichotomous system of i and ki (as Toegye had done), or non dualistically in terms of the inseparability and oneness of i and ki (as Kobong and, in turn, Yulgok had done). In this regard, the unsettlings issue was whether it is wiser to acknowledge that the Four BEginnings should be considered as a subset of good feelings within he Seven Emotions, instead of differentiating them according to the system of i and ki.

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