The Korean Neo-Confucianism of Yi Toegye and Yi Yulgok (Part 75)

The question is, What motivated Toegye to maintain it in such a way? More specifically, why did he prefer to set the Four over the Seven in terms of an i-ki dualism? This is a moral issue with profound implications for the practice of self-cultivation: the whole dilemma for Toegye was to formulate a convincing interpretation of the Four-Seven contrast that must be addressed in both philosophical and moral contexts. Throughout the whole debate, he criticise Kobong for maintaining what he considers as an unconvincing view that the Four and the Seven cannot be analysed separately in terms of i and ki simply because i and ki are inseparable in concrete phenomena including feelings. Of course, his argument is morally grounded. In other words, Toegye maintains the distinction between the Four and the Seven in terms of what we may call an ontological and conceptual i-ki dichotomy and an ethics good-evil contrast. To Kobong’s way of thinking, it is, however, not possible to divide feelings into two group: the Four as good (“manifestations of i”), and the Seven as good or evil (manifestations of ki”). Of course, Toegye’s basic mission was to emphasise the former in the light of the Mencian doctrine of the goodness of human nature, insofar as the Four should be considered as the genuine roots of moral self-cultivation. He means that the Four have their own status of self-manifetation and self-regulation outside the Seven, whereas the Seven should be understood as basic physical and mental feelings and desires. It is, therefore, crucial to distinguish the Four from the Seven in both theoretical and practical contexts.

Toegye’s Four-Seven thesis is a good example to illustrate his strong commitment to Cheng-Chu orthodoxy. Given this commitment to transmitting it in Korea, it was natural for him to quote and interpret the existing vocabulary of Chu Hsi’s philosophy. He was also clearly aware of certain impact of Lo Chin-shun (Cheng-an, 1465-1547) on some of his contemporary Neo-Confucians in Korea (including Kobong, as Toegye has claimed); in his Four-Seven letter to Kobong, Toegye condemned Lo’s criticism of Chu Hsi as well as his theory of the oneness of i and ki

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