The King’s Court or Retainers’ Court: Neo-Confucian Theories and Political Philosophies of Toegye and Yulgok

군왕의 정치와 신하의 정치: 퇴계와 율곡의 성리학과 정치사상

Hyoungchan Kim, Korea University
Visiting Scholar, Department of Asian Studies

This presentation will discuss the political views of Yi Hwang (1501-1570, Toegye) and Yi I (1536-1584, Yulgok), the two most prominent Confucian scholars who founded the two main schools of Joseon Neo-Confucianism, on the basis of their Neo-Confucian theories.

From the perspective of Toegye, personal self-cultivation should focus on fostering the potential of the original nature in the form of pure li (principle) before the manifestation of the mind. When this theory was applied to the field of politics, study and self-cultivation focused on the cultivation of the King’s mind, which is the starting point of all acts of governance. The importance of the mind of the King, of education and training carried out in order to cultivate the mind, and of a variety of strategies and obstacles designed to prevent the mind of the King from succumbing to various temptations, all of which were consistently emphasized by Toegye, emerged from this philosophical and political perspective. 

For Yulgok, study and self-cultivation on a personal level meant the complete revelation of li or of the original nature, which has been distorted by one’s qi (matter or energy). This could be achieved by purifying one’s qi through the exercise of one’s will, which would enable one’s mind to function in a more moral way. In the political domain, he thought that the ideal method of governing was to enable the King to perform his tasks through the employment of respected and able retainers. Furthermore, he attempted to realize a morally ideal polity by assigning primacy to the philosophical and ideological legitimacy of the intelligentsia in public office who had inherited the accumulated tradition of the Confucian sages over the royal succession of the King based on consanguinity.

Toegye and Yulgok chose to emphasize the role of the King or that of retainers depending on the prevailing political situation and their own personal circumstances, and such a political system based on mutual checks between the King and his retainers became predominant in Joseon.