Yi Hwang (T'oegye)


Yi Hwang (1501-1570) best known by his honorific name T'oegye, is one of the two most honored thinkers of the Korean Neo-Confucian tradition.  His fully balanced and integral grasp of the complex philosophical Neo-Confucian synthesis woven by Chu Hsi during China's Sung dynasty marks the tradition's arrival at full maturity in Korea.  His "four-seven debate" with Ki Taesŭng established a distinctive problematique that strongly oriented Korean Neo-Confucian thought towards exacting investigation of critical issues regarding the juncture of metaphysics and their all-important application in describing the inner life of the human heart-and-mind.


T'oegye was born of a relatively modest aristocratic lineage in the village of Ongyeri, near Andong in Kyŏngsan province, about 200 kilometers southwest of Seoul.  He took the civil service examinations and served in government for a number of years, but his true longing was for a life of quiet study, reflection, and self-cultivation.  He retired from office in his late forties to pursue his dream, and the following two decades were a period of tremendous productivity in spite of frequent recalls to office as his fame as a scholar and teacher grew.

Neo-Confucianism was adopted as the official orthodoxy at the foundation of the Chosŏn dynasty in 1392. The rich synthesis of a metaphysical system of Taoist proportions, meditative cultivation of consciousness reminiscent of Buddhist practice which Chu Hsi and other early Neo-Confucians wove about the core of traditional Confucian concerns for government and proper social ethics provided wide scope for varied and uneven development. During the first century activists in government focused on institutional reform while far from the capitol scholars in the countryside concentrated on the more meditative and self-cultivation oriented features of Neo-Confucian learning.  The differing orientations crystallized into bloody clashes and purges by the end of the fourteenth century as young men steeped in moral rigorism began to move from the countryside into government. 

T'oegye's comprehensive grasp of Chu Hsi's thought clarified the balance between activity and quiet, government and retired self-cultivation, and by the end of his life it was his disciples who were moving into high government positions. A year before his death he crystallized and presented to the king his understanding of the way metaphysics and psychological structures inform ascetical theory and  eventuate in the conduct of daily life. This work, the Ten Diagrams on Sage Learning (Sŏnghak sipdo) became one of the most famous and influential works of Korean Neo-Confucianism.  After T'oegye it was no longer possible to deny the legitimacy of intensive, almost monastic devotion to study and meditative self-cultivation when the situation permitted, nor to ignore that the proper fruition of such formation should be the proper conduct of government and the ordering of society.

On the level of philosophical theory T'oegye left a lasting imprint on Korean Neo-Confucianism, for his "four-seven debate," carried on in correspondence with a younger scholar, Ki Taesŭng (1527-1572) established the problematique for Korean thinkers for centuries. In particular, it centered Korean Neo-Confucian reflection on questions relating to the interface of metaphysics and psychological theory.  For T'oegye and other self-cultivation oriented Neo-Confucians, this was a topic of intense concern: in the framework of Neo-Confucian thought, a proper, metaphysically grounded understanding of the structure and functioning of the psyche explains human perfection and imperfection; it is thus the foundation for any theory for the practice of spiritual cultivation.


(Adapted from article written for Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1994 )