The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 71)

Toegye means that both Tzu-ssu and Mencius referred specifically to what he calls the “original essence of human nature” or human nature in itself, unmixed with the physical endowment by ki. For him, what they meant is the “pure” and “original” goodness of i that refers to i in itself, before being disturbed or conditioned by external stimuli. In fact, the Chinese Neo-Confucians like Chu Hsi did not pay any attention to the Four-Seven relationship in terms of original human nature and physical human nature. Toegye was the first Korean Neo-Confucian to address this topic. Citing the Sung Neo-Confucians like Chu Hsi, he attempted to explain the distinction of the For and the Seven. Of course, he wanted to convince Kobong the following point: because human nature can be understood in terms of its two names, it logically follows that feelings can be discussed in terms of their two names, the Four and the Seven. When understood in terms of i and ki, the Four-Seven relationship is, he asserts, similar to the original nature-physical nature relationship. For him, then, the Four pertain to the original human nature, and the Seven to the physical human nature. As he writes, “Where do the feelings of commiseration, shame and dislike, courtesy and modesty, and discernment of right and wrong come from? These are nothing but manifestations of human nature characterised by the virtues of humanity, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom. Where do the feelings of pleasure, anger, sorrow, fear, love hatred, and desire come from? These are aroused as physical form comes into contrast with external things.”

Arguing in the Mencian sense, Toegye means that the Four come from human nature in itself and that they should be understood as the inborn moral qualities or fundamental seeds of goodness. For this reason, the Four according to Toegye, come from the physical human nature; that is to say, pleasure, anger, sorrow, fear, love, hatred, and desire are basic feelings that arise from external influence. They should be understood as conditional and short-lived expressions of our psychological and physiological states. Certainly, the Mencian doctrine of human nature is supported by his argument that the Seven, unlike the Four, are not moral feelings, the genuine roots of morality. As the MEncian idea of “making the desires few” implies, it means, from a perspective of self-cultivation, that a moral nourishment of the Four and a measure of emotional control over the Seven are quite relevant here.

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