The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 47)

But the crucial question is, How do human nature and the Four Beginnings relate to what Mencius calls feelings (chong) in general? His vigorous view that the “mind-and -heart of commiseration” is the “beginning of benevolence” does not answer the question at all. For Mencius, however, we have little doubt that there can be no discussion of human feelings outside of the context of the Four Beginnings of virtue. He seems to have suggested that the Four Beginnings are our innate, good feelings (chong). Another problem is revealed in the following key passage: “The ability that human beings possess without learning is their innate ability (yangnung); the knowledge that human beings possess without deliberation is their innate knowledge (yangji). Young children all know to love (ae) their parents. As they grow, they all know to respect their elder siblings as well. Loving one’s parents is benevolence, and respecting one’s elders righteousness. These (innate ability and knowledge) are universal in the world, that is all.”

In my own reading, Korean Neo-Confucians including Toegye and Yulgok never cited such a key passage that indicates another main aspect of ambiguity. What does Mencius mean by love in the context of the Four Beginnings and the seven Emotions? It is possible that he was unaware of the fact that love is one of the Seven Emotions mentioned in the Book of Rites. In any case, he meant that love )”loving parents” in his own terminology), one of the Seven Emotions, is a natural human feeling, part of what he calls the “innate ability” and “innate knowledge” of human nature to do good. As Wing-tsit Chan correctly comments on Mencius, “since human nature is good, love is therefore an inborn moral quality.” But the whole problem is precisely this: Mencius identified the innate feeling of “love” with the moral virtue of “benevolence,” which he referred to not only as an ontological and moral quality of human nature itself, but also as the mind-and-heart of commiseration, one of the Four Beginnings. The question is, Can love be benevolence? Surely there is likely a meaningful link between them. Sung Chinese Neo-Confucians, especially Cheng I and Chu His, commented on this kind of issue, which later became an important part of the Korean Four Seven debates. On the whole, however, they did not directly pay much attention to the Four-Seven controversy in detail.

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