The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 22)

Yi On-jok’s philosophy of Principle

In contrast to Hwadam, Yi On-jok (Hoejae, 1491-1553) formulated an early Korean philosophy of principle (ihak/li-hsueh) during the first half of the sixteenth century, before Toegye. His major works include the following: Taehak change poyu (Supplement of the Ta-hsueh chang-chu), a commentary on textual ambiguities and problems of the Cheng-Chu commentary on the words and phrases of the Great Learning; Chungyong kugyong yon ui (Extended Meaning of the Nine Rules of the Doctrine of the Mean), an elaborated explanation of governmening the state and society, outlined in Chapter 20 of the Coctrine of the Mean; and Kuin non (Records in Search of Humanity), a commentary on collected quotations on the Confucian concept of benevolence (in/jen).

Hoejae is better known as the first Korean Neo-Confucian who emphasised principle with respect to cosmology and morality. Although he generally followed Chu Hsi’s theory of i and ki, philosophy focuses on the sattus of i as the basis of all activities of ki, emphasising the metaphysical and ethical concept of i. His entire metaphysics can be summarised in terms of his theory that “since i is substance and ki is function, the former is prior and the latter is poster.” Principle is the same as the great Ultimate, the essence of cosmic transformation and moral self-cultivation. In fact, Toegye liked his philosophy of i and praised Hoejae as one of the :Four Confucian Worthies of Korea.”

Other important thinkers were Yi Hang (Ilchae, 1499-1575), Cho Sik (Nammyong, 1501-1572), Chong Chi-un (Chuman, 1509-1561), and No Su-sin (Sojae, 1515-1570), who followed the Cheng-Chu school. They were Toegye’s contemporaries but interpreted Cheng-Chu teachings in different ways, developing their own ideas and views.

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