The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 49)

Though obscure in itself, this passage implies that the Four Beginnings are truly the defining characteristics of human nature. To put this in another way, the Four are the innate, autonomous, and moral manifestations of human nature, just as the clear, level, and tranquil state of water is the fundamental nature of water. To Cheng I, the Four Beginnings and the emotions of joy, love, and anger are aroused feelings coming from human nature; however, joy, love, and anger should be understood as our psychological and physiological states, just as the waves of water represent a temporary state conditioned by external influence. This distinction was important for him to address the way of self-cultivation in the light of Mencius and the doctrine of the Mean together. He argued that the practice of self-cultivation involves what Mencius calls “preserving (the mind-and-heart) and nourishing (human nature),” which means to retain what the Doctrine of the MEan calls “the state of equilibrium before (the emotions of) pleasure, anger, sorrow, and joy are aroused.” Of course, Mencius meant that self-cultivation requires one to realise and nurture the Four. On the other hand, Cheng I asserted that one ask has to maintain what the Doctrine of the Mean calls “the state of harmony after pleasure, anger, sorrow, and joy are aroused,” which can be done by letting aroused feelings to “attain due degree and measure.” This line of reasoning became another important issue in the Four-Seven controversy in Korea.

But the whole subject matter became much more complicated when Chu His systematised a coherent synthesis of the entire Confucian tradition of metaphysics and ethics. According to him, Cheng I was correct in saying that “love is a feeling, whereas benevolence is human nature.” Chu His said: “Although the spheres of human nature (song) and feelings (chong) are different, their mutual penetration is like the bloodstream in which each part has its own relationship (with other parts).” Commenting on the Mencian doctrine of the Four Beginnings, Chu His distinguished human nature from feelings: “Commiseration, shame and dislike, courtesy and modesty, and (moral discernment of) right and wrong are feelings (chong). Benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom are human nature (song).” These passages, of course, correspond to Cheng I’s interpretation of Mencius. In other words, what Mencius calls the Four Beginnings are inherent moral “feelings” aroused from moral virtues, such as benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom, which constitute the essence of human nature. As Chu His emphasised, the Four Beginnings are “illuminating virtues (myongduk)” or “great virtues.” “The Four Beginnings are the principles of the Way (to)…and moral feelings (uri chong).

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