The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 99)

To maintain his belief in the moral significance of the Four, he argued that the original human nature is the true nature of human beings: “The moon in the sky is the real one, whereas the moon on the water is only its reflection. Therefore, if one speaks of the former, one gets the truth; if one tries to grasp the latter, one gets nothing. The moon reflects on the water is also the moon. Even when the water flows quietly and clearly, the movement of the moon depends on its movement. But the existence of the moon and the shape of moonlight depends on its movement. But the existence of the moon and the shape of the moonlight depend on the degree to which the water’s surface moves.” Embedded in this statement is that Toegye accepts Kobong’s view that “the moon in the sky” is “the real moon,” representing the original human nature, and “the moon on the water” represents the physical human nature. That is to say, the original human nature is our true good nature in the Mencian context, whereas the physical human nature means its physical endowment after it comes into contact with physical form. This, in fact, corresponds to Chu Hsi’s philosophy. From Toegye’s standpoint of “distinction” and “separation,” his convincing argument is that “the moon reflected on the water” is not as authentic and stable as the real moon in the sky. The movement and shape of the water (and, thus, the reflected moon on it) are always conditioned by the external movement and physical flow of the water and wind. In other words, the original human nature (like the real moon in the sky) is unchangeable and its goodness remains intact, whereas the physical human nature (like the reflected moon) always changes according to, and is conditioned by, external stimuli (like the movement and flow of the water and wind). Of course, this argument applies to Toegye’s contrast of the Four Beginnings and the Seven Emotions.

Toegye’s line of reasoning is similar to Cheng I’s, although he did not quote Cheng I directly. Using an analogy of water and waves, Cheng I argued that the emotions of joy and love are unstable like the waves and currents of water represent temporary states of our psychological and physiological expressions conditioned by external stimuli, just as the waves and currents of water represent temporary states conditioned by physical conditions. As Cheng I said, “In human nature (in itself), there are only the Four BEginnings without any form of evil.” Like Cheng I and Chu Hsi (who supported the former’s argument), Toegye meant that the Four are truly the moral qualities of human nature. The Four are the autonomous manifestations of what Mencius calls its “original goodness,” just as “the clear, level, and tranquil state of water is the fundamental nature of water.”

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