In his Eleven Theses on Feuerbach, Karl Marx claims that "the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it," thus incisively criticizing the abstract, isolated way that philosophy in the West had been practiced away from the true reality of the world. According to Marx's conception, philosophy is to be fundamentally practical beyond theories, both simple and complicated (from the Greek "theorein"). Marx's criticism, however, would be pointless if directed at the Neo-Confucianism of East Asia. For the latter has always been preoccupied with a concrete praxis in the daily context. Neo-Confucianism is, by its very nature, fundamentally practical, regardless of its perceived shortcomings.
In the familiar division of philosophy influenced by Western approaches, we commonly conceive it as being composed of three parts: metaphysics, ethics, and epistemology. For T'oegye, this would be completely inadequate, for it miserably fails to capture its most essential aspect. The art of self-cultivation (or as Chung puts it, "a way of life and thought") is the most important part of philosophy proper. Just like metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, the art of self-cultivation, which I propose to call "sugihak" (the study of self-cultivation), has theoretical components, but its most essential component is its practical part. One who studies it must not only understand it theoretically, but must also internalize it and actively practice it in his or her relation to others. This is how it differs from theoretical disciplines (including the typically theoretical, philosophical ethics as widely taught in academia). You need not be ethical to teach philosophical ethics, but you cannot teach sugihak without exemplifying it. There should be a unity of thought and action in the art. The Neo-Confucian reflection can be on things in the world, but it must be directed toward oneself, thus "self-reflection." [End Page 205]
In this sense, Confucian learning is not a science but an art of self-cultivation and Chung's A Korean Confucian Way of Life and Thought: The Chasŏngnok (Record of Self-Reflection) by Yi Hwang (T'oegye)—hereafter, simply Chasŏngnok—is a testament to this conception of the way of life and thought at its best. In this work, the mature Yi Hwang (1501–1570), better known by his literary name T'oegye, presents an epitome of sugihak conceived under the newly developed Neo-Confucian principles and in a way that is unique and distinctively beyond any competing conceptions offered by his Chinese or Japanese counterparts. Appropriately utilizing the resources provided by the Cheng-zhu school of Song Neo-Confucianism, the mature T'oegye compiled Chasŏngnok when he was 58 years old. It is a vivid record of daily self-reflections (chasŏng) in the practical context of his individual life and community, immediate and distant. Altogether, the work contains twenty-two letters, most being replies to his counterparts. These include not only his students but also his philosophical adversaries, not the least well known being the young blood Kobong Ki Taesŭng, but including as well the lesser known but equally important No Ijae.
Typically, T'oegye not only acknowledged the importance of general commentaries but also personal yet philosophically couched letters. This is why he also edited Chuja sŏ choryo [Essential letters of Master Zhu] (T'oegye chŏnsŏ [Collected writings of T'oegye] 2: 348–372) in 1558.
T'oegye is modest and humble through and through. He constantly refers to himself as "Hwang" (his given name), even in letters to his students. It was explicitly written and complied for the purpose of helping others practice and effectuate sugihak, in this case, in the particularized Chosŏn Korean context of the sixteenth century. But one can imagine how it might be appreciated, and even be capable of modified application, in the contemporary world, mutatis mutandis.
It must be pointed out that T'oegye's lifelong passion for poetry is...