The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 92)

An inevitable question arises here, Why did Toegye keep emphasising such an argument? As emphasised before, this, of course, becomes a crucial moral issue relevant to the practice of self-cultivation. In his view, the Seven Emotions – pleasure, anger, sorrow, fear, love, hatred, and desire – are not necessarily moral virtues and feelings like the Four BEginnings; therefore, they come from ki, which can always disturb i to transform them into “precarious” psychological feelings and “selfish” physical desires. Even though the Seven are said to be “originally good,”they can easily turn to evil. This is the main reason Toegye intended to distinguish the Four from the Seven, presenting a solid moral argument to support his Four-Seven thesis from a concrete standpoint of self-cultivation. He concludes by quoting Cheng Hao’s doctrine on the calming of the nature: “The mind (sim) can easily become aroused. What is difficult to comprehend is that its emotion of anger (one of the Seven Emotions) is especially excessive and difficult to control. When one is angry but immediately forgets one’s anger and examines the right and wrong of the matter at hand according to principle (i), then one will understand it is not true that one hates only external temptations.”

In this passage, Toegye wants to convince Kobong that the emotion of anger can never be manifestation of i. Otherwise, Cheng Hao and, in turn, Chu Hsi would not have urged to forget anger by means of grasping moral principles and virtues (such as benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom) represented by i. Toegye asks Kobong, “In general, which one is easily manifest and hard to suppress: i or ki?” Toegye’s answer is ki, not only because it is always in motion, but also because its activity varies according to different physical conditions. As he writes, “this indicates a way of suppressing ki by means of i,” and the method of “suppressing ki” is to control the Seven that can easily turn to evil. For him, then, anger should be understood as a manifestation of ki. To overcome the dehumanising tendencies (like anger) stimulated by ki, one should hold fast to the Four issued from i. In fact, Toegye’s entire philosophy of self-cultivation is based on such a theme; it developed especially as a fruitful result of his debate with Kobong. The impact of his Four-Seven thesis on it is quite profound.

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