Guthrie: Tratado 51 (I, 8) — Of the Nature and Origin of Evils?


Of the Nature and Origin of Evils.


1. Studying the origin of evils that might affect all beings in general, or some one class in particular, it is reasonable to begin by defining evil, from a consideration of its nature. That would be the best way to discover whence it arises, where it resides, to whom it may happen, and in general to decide if it be something real. Which one of our faculties then can inform us of the nature of evil? This question is not easy to solve, because there must be an analogy between the knower and the known. The Intelligence and the Soul may indeed cognize forms and fix their desires on them, because they themselves are forms; but evil, which consists in the absence of all goods, could not be described as a form. But inasmuch as there can be but one single science, to embrace even contraries, and as the evil is the contrary of the good, knowledge of the good implies that of evil. Therefore, to determine the nature of evil, we shall first have to determine that of good, for the higher things must precede the lower, as some are forms and others are not, being rather a privation of the good. Just in what sense evil is the contrary of the good must also be determined; as for instance, if the One be the first, and matter the last; or whether the One be form, and matter be its absence. Of this further.



2. Let us now determine the nature of the Good, at least so far as is demanded by the present discussion. The Good is the principle on which all depends, to which everything aspires, from which everything issues, and of which everything has need. As to Him, He suffices to himself, being complete, so He stands in need of nothing; He is the measure and the end of all things; and from Him spring intelligence, being, soul, life, and intellectual contemnlation.


All these beautiful things exist as far as He does; but He is the one Principle that possesses supreme beauty, a principle that is superior to the things that are best. He reigns royally, in the intelligible world, being Intelligence itself, very differently from what we call human intelligences. The latter indeed are all occupied with propositions, discussions about the meanings of words, reasonings, examinations of the validity of conclusions, observing the concatenation of causes, being incapable of possessing truth “a priori,” and though they be intelligences, being devoid of all ideas before having been instructed by experience; though they, nevertheless, were intelligences. Such is not the primary Intelligence. On the contrary, it possesses all things. Though remaining within itself, it is all things; it possesses all things, without possessing them (in the usual acceptation of that term); the things that subsist in it not differing from it, and not being separated from each other. Each one of them is all the others, is everything and everywhere, although not confounded with other things, and remaining distinct therefrom.


The power which participates in Intelligence (the universal Soul) does not participate in it in a manner such as to be equal to it, but only in the measure of her ability to participate therein. She is the first actualization of Intelligence, the first being that Intelligence, though remaining within itself, begets. She directs her whole activity towards supreme Intelligence, and lives exclusively thereby. Moving from outside Intelligence, and around it, according to the laws of harmony, the universal Soul fixes her glance upon it. By contemplation penetrating into its inmost depths, through Intelligence she sees the divinity Himself. Such is the nature of the serene and blissful existence of the divinities, a life where evil has no place.


If everything stopped there (and if there were nothing beyond the three principles here described), evil would not exist (and there would be nothing but goods). But there are goods of the first, second and third ranks. Though all relate to the King of all things, who is their author, and from whom they derive their goodness, yet the goods of the second rank relate more specially to the second principle; and to the third principle, the goods of the third rank.


3. As these are real beings, and as the first Principle is their superior, evil could not exist in such beings, and still less in Him, who is superior to them; for all these things are good. Evil then must be located in non-being, and must, so to speak, be its form, referring to the things that mingle with it, or have some community with it. This “non-being,” however, is not absolute non-being. Its difference from being resembles the difference between being and movement or rest; but only as its image, or something still more distant from reality. Within this non-being are comprised all sense-objects, and all their passive modifications; or, evil may be something still more inferior, like their accident or principle, or one of the things that contribute to its constitution. To gain some conception of evil it may be represented by the contrast between measure and incommensurability; between indetermination and its goal; between lack of form and the creating principle of form; between lack and self-sufficiency; as the perpetual unlimited and changeable-ness; as passivity, insatiableness, and absolute poverty. Those are not the mere accidents of evil, but its very essence; all of that can be discovered when any part of evil is examined. The other objects, when they participate in the evil and resemble it, become evil without however being absolute Evil.


All these things participate in a being; they do not differ from it, they are identical with it, and constitute it. For if evil be an accident in something, then evil, though not being a real being, must be something by itself. Just as, for the good, there is the Good in itself, and the good considered as an attribute of a foreign subject, likewise, for evil, one may distinguish Evil in itself, and evil as accident.


It might be objected that it is impossible to conceive of indetermination outside of the indeterminate, any more than determination outside of the determinate; or measure outside of the measured. (We shall have to answer that) just as determination does not reside in the determined (or measure in the measured), so indetermination cannot exist within the indeterminate. If it can exist in something other than itself, it will be either in the indeterminate, or in the determinate. If in the indeterminate, it is evident that it itself is indeterminate, and needs no indetermination to become such. If, on the other hand (it be claimed that indetermination exist), in the determinate, (it is evident that) the determinate cannot admit indetermination. This, therefore, demands the existence of something infinite in itself, and formless in itself, which would combine all the characteristics mentioned above as the characteristics of evil. As to evil things, they are such because evil is mingled with them, either because they contemplate evil, or because they fulfil it.


Reason, therefore, forces us to recognize as the primary evil, Evil in itself. (This is matter which is) the subject of figure, form, determination, and limitation; which owes its ornaments to others, which has nothing good in itself, which is but a vain image by comparison with the real beings—in other word, the essence of evil, if such an essence can exist.


4. So far as the nature of bodies participates in matter, it is an evil; yet it could not be the primary Evil, for it has a certain form. Nevertheless, this form possesses no reality, and is, besides, deprived of life (?) ; for bodies corrupt each other mutually. Being agitated by an unregulated movement, they hinder the soul from carrying out her proper movement. They are in a perpetual flux, contrary to the immutable nature of essences; therefore, they constitute the secondary evil.


By herself, the soul is not evil, and not every soul is evil. What soul deserves to be so considered T That of the man who, according to the expression of Plato, is a slave to the body. In this man it is natural for the soul to be evil. It is indeed the irrational part of the soul which harbors all that constitutes evil: indetermination, excess, and need, from which are derived intemperance, cowardliness, and all the vices of the soul, the involuntary passions, mothers of false opinions, which lead us to consider the things we seek or avoid as goods or evils. But what produces this evil? How shall we make a cause or a principle of it? To begin with, the soul is neither independent of matter, nor, by herself, perverse. By virtue of her union with the body, which is material, she is mingled with indetermination, and so, to a certain point, deprived of the form which embellishes and which supplies measure. Further, that reason should be hindered in its operations, and cannot see well, must be due to the soul’s being hindered by passions, and obscured by the darkness with which matter surrounds her. The soul inclines towards matter. Thus the soul fixes her glance, not on what is essence, but on what is simple generation. Now the principle of generation is matter, whose nature is so bad that matter communicates it to the beings which, even without being united thereto, merely look at it. Being the privation of good, matter contains none of it, and assimilates to itself all that touches it. Therefore, the perfect Soul, being turned towards ever pure Intelligence, repels matter, indeterminateness, the lack of measure, and in short, evil. The perfect Soul does not approach to it, does not lower her looks; she remains pure and determined by Intelligence. The soul which does not remain in this state, and which issues from herself (to unite with the body), not being determined by the First, the Perfect, is no more than an image of the perfect Soul because she lacks (good), and is filled with indetermination. The soul sees nothing but darkness. The soul already contains matter because she looks at what she cannot see; or, in the every-day expression, because the soul looks at darkness.


5. Since the lack of good is the cause that the soul looks at darkness, and mingles therewith, the lack of good and darkness is primary Evil for the soul, The secondary evil will be the darkness, and the nature of evil, considered not in matter, but before matter. Evil consists not in the lack of any particular thing, but of everything in general. Nothing is evil merely because it lacks a little of being good; its nature might still be perfect. But what, like matter, lacks good entirely, is essentially evil, and possesses nothing good ? Nature, indeed, does not possess essence, or it would participate in the good; only by verbal similarity can we say that matter “is,” while we can truly say that matter “is” absolute “nonentity.” A mere lack (of good) therefore, may be characterized as not being good; but complete lack is evil; while a lack of medium intensity consists in the possibility of falling into evil, and is already an evil. Evil, therefore, is not any particular evil, as injustice, or any special vice; evil is that which is not yet anything of that, being nothing definite. Injustice and the other vices must be considered as kinds of evil, distinguished from each other by mere accidents; as for instance, what occurs by malice. Besides, the different kinds of evil differ among each other either by the matter in which evil resides, or by the parts of the soul to which it refers, as sight, desire, and passion.


If we grant the existence of evils external to the soul, we shall be forced to decide about their relation to sickness, ugliness, or poverty. Sickness has been explained as a lack or excess of material bodies which fail to support order or measure. The cause of ugliness, also, has been given as deficient adjustment of matter to form. Poverty has been described as the need or lack of objects necessary to life as a result of our union with matter, whose nature is (the Herac-litian and Stoic) “indigence.” From such definitions it would follow that we are not the principle of evil, and are not evil in ourselves, for these evils existed before us. Only in spite of themselves would men yield to vice. The evils of the soul are avoidable, but not all men possess the necessary firmness. Evil, therefore, is caused by the presence of matter in sense-objects, and is not identical with the wickedness of men. For wickedness does not exist in all men; some triumph over wickedness, while they who do not even need to triumph over it, are still better. In all cases men triumph over evil by those of their faculties that are not engaged in matter.


6. Let us examine the significance of the doctrine that evils cannot be destroyed, that they are necessary, that they do not exist among the divinities, but that they ever besiege our mortal nature, and the place in which we dwell. Surely heaven is free from all evil because it moves eternally with regularity, in perfect order; because in the stars is neither injustice nor any other kind of evil, because they do not conflict with each other in their courses; and because their revolutions are presided over by the most beautiful harmony. On the contrary, the earth reveals injustice and disorder, (chiefly) because our nature is mortal, and we dwell in a lower place. But when Plato, says, that we must flee from here below, he does not mean that we should leave the earth, but, while remaining therein, practice justice, piety, and wisdom. It is wickedness that must be fled from, because wickedness and its consequences are the evil of man.


When (Theodor) tells (Socrates) that evils would be annihilated if men practised (Socrates’) teachings, the latter answers that that is impossible, for evil is necessary even if only as the contrary of good. But how then can wickedness, which is the evil of man, be the contrary of good? Because it is the contrary of virtue. Now virtue, without being Good in itself, is still a good, a good which makes us dominate matter. But how can Good in itself, which is not a quality, have a contrary? Besides, why need the existence of one thing imply its contrary? Though we may grant that there is a possibility of the existence of the contrary of some things—as for instance, that a man in good health might become sick—there is no such necessity. Nor does Plato assert that the existence of each thing of this kind necessarily implies that of its contrary; he makes this statement exclusively of the Good. But how can there be a contrary to good, if the good be “being,” let alone “above being”?22 Evidently, in reference to particular beings, there can be nothing contrary to “being.” This is proved by induction; but the proposition has not been demonstrated as regards universal Being. What then is the contrary of universal Being, and first principles in general? The contrary of “being” must be nonentity; the contrary of the nature of the Good is the nature and principle of Evil. These two natures are indeed respectively the principles of goods and of evils. All their elements are mutually opposed, so that both these natures, considered in their totality, are still more opposed than the other contraries. The latter, indeed, belong to the same form, to the same kind, and they have something in common in whatever subjects they may be. As to the Contraries that are essentially distinguished from each other, whose nature is constituted of elements opposed to the constitutive elements of the other, those Contraries are absolutely opposed to each other, since the connotation of that word implies things as opposite to each other as possible. Measure, determination, and the other characteristics of the divine nature are the opposites of incommensurability, indefiniteness, and the other contrary things that constitute the nature of evil. Each one of these wholes, therefore, is the contrary of the other. The being of the one is that which is essentially and absolutely false; that of the other is genuine Being; the falseness of the one is, therefore, the contrary of the truth of the other. Likewise what pertains to the being of the one is the contrary of what belongs to the being of the other. We also see that it is not always true”to say that there is no contrary to “being,” for we acknowledge that water and fire are contraries, even if they did not contain the common element of matter, of which heat and cold, humidity and dryness, are accidents. If they existed alone by themselves, if their

being were complete without any common subject, there would still be an opposition, and an opposition of “being.” Therefore the things that are completely separate, which have nothing in common, which are as distant as possible, are by nature contrary. This is not an opposition of quality, nor of any kinds of beings; it is an opposition resulting from extreme distance, and from being composed of contraries, thereby communicating this characteristic to their elements.


7. Why is the existence of both good and evil necessary? Because matter is necessary to the existence of the world. The latter is necessarily composed of contraries, and, consequently, it could not exist without matter. In this case the nature of this world is a mixture of intelligence and necessity. What it receives from divinity are goods; its evils derive from the primordial nature, the term used (by Plato) to designate matter as a simple substance yet unadorned by a divinity. But what does he mean by “mortal nature? ” When he says that “evils besiege this region here below,” he means the universe, as appears from the following quotations: “Since you are born, you are not immortal, but by my help you shall not perish.” In this case it is right to say that evils cannot be annihilated. How then can one flee from them?27 Not by changing one’s locality, (as Plato) says, but by acquiring /irtue, and by separating from the body, which, simultaneously, is separation from matter; for being attached to the body is also attachment to matter. It is in the same sense that (Plato) explains being separated from the body, or not being separated from it. By dwelling with the divinities he means being united to the intelligible objects; for it is in them that inheres immortality.


Here follows still another demonstration of the necessity of evil. Since good does not remain alone, evil must necessarily exist by issuing from the good. We might express this differently, as the degradation and exhaustion (of the divine power, which, in the whole hierarchic series of successive emanations weakens from degree to degree). There must, therefore, be a last degree of being, beyond which nothing further can be begotten, and that is evil. Just as the existence of something after a first (Good) is necessary, so must also a last degree (of being) be necessary. Now the last degree is matter, and contains nothing more of the First; (and, as matter and evil are identical,) the existence of evil is necessary.


8. It may still be objected that it is not matter that makes us wicked; for it is not matter that produces ignorance and perverted appetites. If, indeed, these appetites mislead us to evil as a result of the perversity of the body, we must seek its cause, not in matter, but in form (in the qualities of the bodies). These, for instance, are heat, cold, bitterness, pungency, and the other qualities of the bodily secretions; or, the atonic condition or inflammation of certain organs; or, certain dispositions which produce the difference of appetites; and, if you please, false opinions. Evil, therefore, is form rather than matter. Even under this (mistaken) hypothesis we are none the less driven to acknowledge that matter is the evil. A quality does not always produce the same results within or outside of matter; thus the form of the axe without iron does not cut. The forms that inhere in matter are not always what they would be if they were outside of it. The (“seminal) reasons” when inhering in matter are by it corrupted and filled with its nature. As fire, when separate from matter, does not burn; so form, when remaining by itself, effects what it would if it were in matter. Matter dominates any principle that appears within it, alters it, and corrupts it by imparting thereto its own nature, which is contrary to the Good. It does not indeed substitute cold for heat, but it adds to the form—as, for instance, to the form of fire—its formless substance; to figure adding its shapelessness; to measure, its excess and lack, proceeding thus until it has degraded things, transubstantiating them into its own nature. That is the reason that, in the nutrition of animals, what has been ingested does not remain what it was before. The foods that enter into the body of a dog, for instance, are by assimilation transformed into blood and canine secretions, and, in general, are transformed according to the animal that receives them. Thus even under the hypothesis that evils are referred to the body, matter is the cause of evils.


It may be objected that one ought to master these dispositions of the body. But the principle that could triumph over them is pure only if it flee from here below. The appetites which exercise the greatest force come from a certain complexion of the body, and differ according to its nature. Consequently, it is not easy to master them. There are men who have no judgment, because they are cold and heavy on account of their bad constitution. On the contrary, there are others who, because of their temperament, are light and inconstant. This is proved by the difference of our own.

GUTHRIE, K. S. Plotinus: Complete Works: In Chronological Order, Grouped in Four Periods. [single Volume, Unabridged]. [s.l.] CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017.