The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 114)


The underlying theme of this argument reveals three crucial points: first, the Four are the moral norms of the Seven; the Seven, if expressed properly, are identical to the Four; and therefore, there is definite continuum between the Four and the Seven. For example, to be pleased in seeing others that one loves is the feeling (chong) of love and to be sorrowful on account of bereavement is the feeling of sorrow. Note that love and sorrow are, in fact, two of the Seven Emotions; more to the point, these feelings, according to Yulgok, refer to “the beginning of benevolence.” The noticeable feature of his argument here is that these feelings are identical to what Mencius calls the mind-and-heart of commiseration, one of the Four BEginnings. To be angry when one ought to be angry is the feeling of anger, one of the Seven Emotions; this is, Yulgok asserts, identical to “the beginning of righteousness” or what Mencius calls the mind-and-heart of shame and dislike. Furthermore, to know properly when one should, or should not, be joyous (angry, sorrowful, or fearful) is the feeling of right and wrong or the beginning of wisdom that is identical to what Mencius calls the mind-and-heart of right and wrong, one of the Four Beginnings.

Obviously, Yulgok’s interpretation is significantly different from Toegye’s, according to which the Seven are never inborn moral qualities like the Four. For Toegye, the Seven are conditional, short-lived, and “pre-carious” expressions of our physical and psychological feelings and desires. The whole dilemma for Yulgok was to interpret the Four-Seven relationship meaningfully and creatively in the entire legacy of Mencius, the Doctrine of the Mean, and Cheng-Chu doctrines, presenting his philosophical views and his experiential and hermeneutical insights. Hw wanted to convince Ugye that the Four should be considered as moral roots of the Seven and that, if any of the Seven is harmonised, it is certainly a good feeling that corresponds to one of the Four. This is remarkably similar to Kobong’s original views. We can recall that, without giving a clear-cut explanation, Kobong moved beyond Cheng I and Chu Hsi and generally argued that the emotion of “love” (one of the Seven), if properly harmonised, can be considered as “the mind-and-heart of commiseration” or “the beginning of benevolence” (one of the Four). As I have discussed, Kobong did not articulate such a topic either explicitly or clearly in his debate with Toegye. This is exactly the area of the Four-Seven debate to which Yulgok makes his own contribution.

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