The following is a brief synopsis of The Four-Seven Debate: An Annotated Translation of the Most Famous Controversy in Korean Neo-Confucian Thought, by Michael C. Kalton et al. (State University of New York Press, 1994).
The Four-Seven Debate was a debate in sixteenth century Korean Neo-Confucian philosophy, between Yi Hwang (Toegye, 1501-1570) and Gi Dae-seung (Gobong, 1527-1572), and between Yi I (Yulgok, 1536-1584) and Seong Hon (Ugye, 1535-1598), about the ways in which the Four Beginnings and Seven Feelings are similar to, or different from, each other.1
The Four Beginnings (compassion, shame, respect, and the sense of right and wrong) were described by Mengzi (Mencius, 372-289 BCE), who said, ”The sense of compassion is the beginning of benevolence (ren), the sense of shame is the beginning of righteousness (yi), the sense of respect is the beginning of propriety (li), and the sense of right and wrong is the beginning of wisdom (zhi). All human beings have these four senses, just as they have four limbs.” (Mengzi, 2A.6).2,3
The Seven Feelings were described in the Liji (Book of Rites) as basic feelings of which all human beings are capable. The Doctrine of the Mean (Zhongyong), a chapter of the Liji attributed to Zisi (c. 481-402 BCE), describes four basic human feelings or emotions (joy, anger, sorrow, and joy) whose arousal to appropriate levels results in a state of harmony, and whose non-arousal results in a state of centeredness or equilibrium, but the Li yun (Evolution of Ritual) chapter of the Liji describes seven basic human feelings or emotions (desire, hate, love, fear, grief, anger, and joy).4
The Zhongyong says, in describing the basic human feelings or emotions:
“When joy, anger, sorrow, and pleasure have not yet arisen, it is called the Mean (centeredness, equilibrium). When they arise to appropriate levels, it is called “harmony.” The Mean is the great root of all-under-heaven. “Harmony” is the penetration of the Way through all-under-heaven. When the Mean and Harmony are actualized, Heaven and Earth are in their proper positions, and the myriad things are nourished.”5
But the Li yun says,
“What is meant by the genuine (qing) in man? Pleasure, anger, sadness, fear, love, hate, desire, these seven we are capable of without having learned them.”6
The tone of the Four-Seven Debate, as manifested in the letters exchanged between Toegye and Gobang from 1559-1566, was quite courteous and respectful. The tone of the letters subsequently exchanged between Yulgok and Ugye was also quite cordial and respectful.
In a letter written to Gobong in 1559, Toegye says the emergence of the Four Beginnings is purely a matter of principle (li) and therefore involves nothing but good, but the emergence of the Seven Feelings includes material force (qi) and therefore involves both good and evil.7
In a reply written to T’oegye in 1559, Gobong contends that to say that the Four Beginnings are produced by principle and are therefore nothing but good, and that the Seven Feelings are produced by material force and therefore involve both good and evil, is to differentiate the one from the other and make them two distinct things. However, principle and material force are always combined in actual things, and are inseparable.8
In a reply written to Gobong in 1560, Toegye agrees that the Four Beginnings and Seven Feelings are equally feelings, but he says the Four Beginnings correspond to the original goodness of human nature, while the Seven Feelings correspond to changes in human nature that may be caused by external conditions. Toegye agrees that principle and material force are interdependent, and that just as there can be no material force without principle, there can be no principle without material force. But he suggests that the Four Beginnings are predominantly a matter of principle, and that the Seven Feelings are predominantly a matter of material force.
In a reply to Toegye, Gobong says that although the Seven Feelings combine principle and material force and involve both good and evil, the Four Beginnings are actually only those of the Seven Feelings that are in accord with principle and are good.9 Both the Four Beginnings and the Seven Feelings emerge from the same source: the mind and heart. The Four Beginnings are not a distinctive set of feelings that only arise from principle and not from material force.10
In a reply to Gobong, Toegye suggests that to say the Four Beginnings and Seven Feelings are the same, with nothing distinguishing them, is to say that principle and material force are the same, with nothing distinguishing them.11
In a letter written to Ugye in 1572, Yulgok explains that material force is what principle “mounts upon” (like a rider mounting upon a horse). Without principle, material force has nothing to guide it, and without material force, principle has nothing upon which to mount. Principle and material force are interdependent; there can’t be one without the other. “The Four Beginnings are the good side of the Seven Feelings, and the Seven Feelings are a comprehensive term that includes the Four Beginnings,” says Yulgok.12 The term, “The Four Beginnings,” is just another term for the subset of Seven Feelings that are good feelings. The Seven Feelings include the Four Beginnings.13
In a reply to Yulgok, Ugye compares the relation of principle and material force to that of a rider and a horse. Without the horse, the rider cannot come and go, but without the rider, the horse will stray from the proper path.14
In a reply to Ugye, Yulgok says that principle is formless, but that material force has form. Principle pervades, but material force delimits. Principle has no beginning or end, no before or after, and it isn't subject to the constraints of space and time, but it makes all concrete form and activity possible.15
1The Four-Seven Debate: An Annotated Translation of the Most Famous Controversy in Korean Neo-Confucian Thought, by Michael C. Kalton, with Oaksook C. Kim, Sung Bae Park, Youngchan Ro, Tu Wei-Ming, and Samuel Yamashita (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994).
2D.C. Lau translates this saying of Mencius as “The heart of compassion is the germ of benevolence; the heart of shame, of dutifulness; the heart of courtesy and modesty, of observance of the rites; the heart of right and wrong, of wisdom. Man has these four germs just as he has four limbs.” (Mencius, translated by D.C. Lau, New York: Penguin Books, 1970, pp. 82-83).
3Irene Bloom translates this saying of Mencius as “The mind’s feeling of pity and compassion is the sprout of humaneness (ren); the mind’s feeling of shame and aversion is the sprout of rightness (yi); the mind’s feeling of modesty and compliance is the sprout of propriety (li); and the mind’s sense of right and wrong is the sprout of wisdom (zhi). Human beings have these four sprouts, just as they have four limbs.” (Mencius, translated by Irene Bloom, New York: Columbia University Press, 2009, p. 35).
4Deborah Sommer, “Xing qing (The nature and feelings),” in The Encyclopedia of Confucianism, edited by Xinzhong Yao (Abingdon: Routledge, 2003), pp. 701-702.
5The Doctrine of the Mean, translated by A. Charles Muller, 2016, online at http://www.acmuller.net/con-dao/docofmean.html.
6Lisa Raphals, “Reflections of filiality, nature, and nurture,” in Filial Piety in Chinese Thought and History, edited by Alan K.L. Chan and Sor-hoon Tan (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004), p. 217.
7The Four-Seven Debate: An Annotated Translation of the Most Famous Controversy in Korean Neo-Confucian Thought, by Michael C. Kalton et al. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), p. 1.
8Ibid., pp. 4-6.
9Ibid., p. 9.
10Ibid., p. 32.
11Ibid., p. 55.
12Ibid., p. 131.
13Ibid., p. 134.
14Ibid., p. 140.
15Ibid., pp. 175-176.