EWHA's Research Power for Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences
February, 2017
EWHA's Research Power for Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences


Theological Understanding of Toegye’s Thought





by Prof. Yang Myung Su (msyang@ewha.ac.kr)

Department of Christian Studies




In this book, I intended to illustrate the thoughts of Toegye (1501-1570), the prominent Korean Confucian scholar of the Joseon Dynasty, from the perspective of humanism and theology. To this end, I analyzed his arguments, which have become a subject of debate in the fields of anthropology, cosmology, and epistemology with the aim to discover their true meanings. By comparing his thoughts with Western ideas, I intended to reveal the universal meanings in his philosophy, and at the same time, identify any differences from Western philosophy and theology. By doing so, I aimed to discover the place that Toegye’s thoughts and Neo-Confucianism occupies in the history of both Western and Eastern thoughts.
Although it may initially appear that there is little in common between the East and the West, but, in reality, many similarities can be found among the humanist scholars of the two domains. They exhibit a similar awareness of issues, albeit taking divergent approaches towards discovering solutions. From the perspective of Neo-Confucianism’s theory of mind and heart, which deals with human nature and the human mind, Toegye stands somewhere between Kant and St. Augustine. While examining his thoughts overall, my first impression was that his ideas and logics are highly compelling. Toegye’s reasoning in his writing was as impeccable as the meticulous logic of Western scholars that I discovered by studying Kant’s philosophy. Unlike Western humanists, however, Toegye focused on feeling rather than human will when discussing the human mind, since he considered human will to be deeply corrupt. Despite his humanistic belief in Mencius’ theory that human nature is fundamentally good, Toegye aptly recognized the human being’s evil aspect. This lay at the heart of his debate with Gobong, another renowned Neo-Confucian scholar, on the four moral sprouts and seven feelings of human beings. Toegye’s logic behind his theory on human nature and mind becomes more distinctive in comparison to Western philosophy. 

Toegye’s understanding of the human nature creates a heavily religious undertone to his thoughts. In some ways, his thoughts have commonalities with Western idealism. This ultimately concerns the problem of evil. Classical idealism pursues pure good, and thus, it is intrinsically concerned with the evil aspect of the human being and the world. To realize goodness, it sought help from cosmic forces, which led to the emergence of metaphysics. Zhu Xi’s Neo-Confucianism was created in the same context, but Toegye placed particular emphasis on the activity of the force of good, which serves as the basis of the universe. This is, in other words, a matter of the activeness of li (meaning “the principle,” 理), which has remained a contentious debate issue from the Joseon period to the present day. Toegye’s emphasis is well understood by theologians, who consider God to be the efficient cause. Toegye argued that, theoretically, li and qi (meaning “the material force,” 氣) are not separable, but for moral practice, li i becomes a transcendent entity, which is independent from qi and seemingly compels us to move. By extension, the entire universe, which is made of qi, is moved by li. In short, Toegye considered li to be something of a living entity.

This is the source of the religious undertone of his thoughts. As for the governing force of the mind, Toegye considered it to be the coexistence of the issuance of the human mind and of nature. Although he argued for Neo-Confucianism’s principal proposition that the mind  governs nature and feelings, which identifies him as a humanist concerned with establishing the governing force of the mind, he also suggested that, in addition to the mind, there are another governing force of nature or li separately. Yet Toegye did not think that there is a presiding entity other than the human mind and his li is not an ontological substance. In this respect, his thoughts differ from Christianity. The issuance of li can be equated to the presiding of moral law, and an expression similar to the issuance of li is also used by Kant. Considering this, Toegye bears similarities with Kant and differs from Christianity, and his closeness to Kant may signify that his thoughts are far from religious. Then, how can we explain the religiosity of his thoughts? 

​Toegye’s li is different from Kant’s moral law. Li simultaneously refers to both heavenly mandate and the heavenly virtuous mind is the mind of the universe that transcends that of a human, and therefore allows Toegye to speak of the natural providence and the ultimate prevailing of li . If li presides with heavenly will, it can be said to be the presidency of moral law as suggested by Kant, and thus Toegye’s idea of the issuance of li can be understood to be in the same vein as Kant’s concept of the autonomous subject. However, li is not only heavenly mandate but also refers to the benevolent mind, and a metaphysical substance with a function. .Toegye tried to explain li’s transcendence and activity through the Substance-Function Theory. The concept of the activeness of li, emerging from the theory of mind and heart, Is increasing in its degree with cosmology and epistemology, which means that li establishes itself as a transcendent substance. This way, Toegye’s thought becomes religious and apparently stands close to theology.

In this book, I examined the essence of Toegye’s thoughts, which range from the issuance of li, the movement of li, to the arrival of li, which were contentious issues during the Joseon period. These are also respective subjects of anthropology, cosmology, and epistemology, which continue to be discussed among contemporary Korean Confucian scholars. As a Korean scholar who also studied Western philosophy and theology, I felt a sense of duty to reveal the essence of Toegye’s thoughts. The Southerners of the Giho School who embraced Christianity in the late Joseon period belonged to Toegye’s School, and believed that Toegye’s thoughts are compatible with Christianity. Thus, studying Toegye is important for theologians to connect Korean humanism with Christian spirituality. Just as early Christian spirituality was able to develop an advanced form of religion by combining the humanism of Plato and Aristotle, and  to possess the universal truth, Togye’s humanism can contribute to preventing today’s Korean Christianity from deteriorating into superstition and allow it to maintain its advanced form of religion.
Of course, Neo-Confucianism places excessive focus on self-cultivation and does not sufficiently study the structural evil of human life. Therefore, it failed to provide the proper critical perspective on the power dynamics of human society. Toegye’s thoughts comprise a kind of idealism, which pursues a world of pure good, and therefore it could not develop a theory of social justice required by the real world, where conflict of interest is a fact of life. Furthermore, Neo-Confucianism also excessively emphasized The objective courtesy, thereby failing to take the lead in responding to social changes accompanied by change in moral norms. From the perspective of political philosophy, Neo-Confucianism, by insisting on the political system of monarchy, clung to the top-down hierarchy and prevented various experiments in terms of political systems. We are well aware of the weaknesses of Confucianism during the Joseon period. Nonetheless, Toegye’s Neo-Confucianism is a globally valid form of Korean humanism and a valuable asset for theology in Korea. Toegye’s thoughts will significantly assist Korean Christianity to grow beyond faith for the sake of blessings, in order to develop spirituality for the purpose of self-cultivation. Religion requires humanistic spirituality in order to avoid falling into materialism. Moreover, as Toegye’s thoughts is a naturalistic humanism, it will help to rectify the West-centric view of civilization and to develop a nature-friendly form of spirituality. 

​The first chapter of this book deals with the discussion on the four moral sprouts and seven sentiments, and explains that it started from divergent opinions on the evil nature of human beings between Toegye and Gobong. The second chapter offers an understanding of Toegye’s concept of the issuance of li through the analysis of Kant’s practical reason, and discovered that the activeness of li is a way of securing the governing force of the mind for moral practice. The third chapter interprets Taegeuksaengyangui (太極生兩儀), which refers to the Confucian principle of cosmogony which holds that the Great Ultimate gave birth to first two forms of the universe, and explores the meaning of Toegye’s emphasis on the transcendence and activeness of li. The fourth chapter deals with epistemology of truth, and discovered the significance of the activeness of li in relation to cognition. The fifth chapter examines the True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven (Cheonju shirui), which was written by Matteo Ricci, with the aim to study the differences between Neo-Confucianism and Christianity. Lastly, the sixth chapter compares the theology of Thomas Aquinas with Neo-Confucianism in order to identify the differences between Western theology and Korean humanism in the medieval era.         

* Related Book
Theological Understanding of Toegye’s Thought, Published by Ewha Womans University Press on Feb. 25, 2016, 332 pages

52, Ewhayeodae-gil, Seodaemun-gu, Seoul 120-750 Korea
Tel +82-2-3277-2114  Fax +82-2-393-5903
Mobile View