The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 62)

Toegye’s Four-Seven Thesis

The Four-Seven debate between Toegye and Kobong began in the form of correspondence in the spring of 1559 and lasted for about eight years until the winter of 1566, producing six long letters of high quality. As Yi Sang-un said, “it was genuinely a scholarly and philosophical debate in the history of Korean Confucianism, resulting in a great development of Sung Neo-Confucianism in Korea.” Unquestionably, the Toegye-Kobong debate is the most important intellectual event in the entire history of Korean Confucian thought. As Tu Wei-ming pointed out correctly, “it symbolises a major landmark of philosophical sophistication in the tradition of East Asian Confucianism.” It is a highly challenging and penetrating debate on two of the most important problems in the Cheng-Chu tradition of Neo-Confucianism; namely, its metaphysics of principle and material fore, and its moral and psychological philosophy of mind, human nature, and feelings. Indeed, the Toegye-Kobong exchange generated the Korean model of sophisticated scholarly communication for subsequent generations of the Cheng-Chu school in Choson Korea.

The initial correspondence appeared to Toegye nothing more than a textual matter of clarifying the Chonmyong to (Diagram of the Heaven’s Imperative) composed by Chong Chi-un (Chuman, 1509-1575). But it became the starting point of the Four-Seven debate. Chong’s diagram summarises the basic teachings on Neo-Confucian metaphysics and ethics. As indicated before, it was influenced by the Chonin simsong habil chi to (Diagram of the Oneness of Heaven and Human Beings, Mind, and Nature), the first diagram of Kwon Kun’s Iphak tosol, which is the earliest Korean diagrammatical treatise on Cheng-Chu Neo-Confucianism. The important aspect of Chong’s Chonmyong to is the following statement: “The Four BEginnings are manifest from i (sedan paloi); the seven Emotions are manifest from Ki (chilchong paloki).” Indeed, Chong was the first Korean Neo-Confucian to mention the distinction between the Four and the Seven. And yet, his Four-Seven statement appears to have originated from Chu Hsi’s unexplained saying that “the Four BEginnings are Manifestations of i; the Seven Emotions are manifestations of ki.”

Toegye revised Chong’s saying into a slightly different version that is the same as Chu Hsi’s saying: “the Four Beginnings are manifestations of i (sedan ijibal) and the Seven Emotions are manifestations of ki (chilchong).” With some doubt about the feasibility of separating the Four and the Seven into such a dichotomous system of i and ki, Toegye wrote a short but unconvincing note to Kobong and asked him for his feedback on the revised version of Chong’s original Four-Seven statement. In addition, Toegye politely requested Kobong to consider the following revised version of Chong’s another statement: “The issuance of the Four Beginnings (involves) purely i and, therefore, does not have evil (literally, “that which is not good”); the issuance of the Seven Emotions includes ki also and, accordingly, has (both) good and evil.”

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