Plotinus and Evil
How does evil get into the world? Where does it come from? Why is it here?
For religions that attribute a fallen nature to man, this isn’t such a problem; after all, it was you and me. For Socrates and his epigones, it’s a considerably trickier problem. If all of material reality is defined by likeness to Ideal Forms in a Divine realm, how could evil be an Ideal Form, and therefore be something Divine? If evil is not an absolute, how can we recognize it? You’ll remember that Socrates, in the Republic and elsewhere suggests that wickedness is more or less a matter of degrees of knowledge, and therefore separation from the Forms. Wrongdoers don’t know any better. Punishment can teach them.
Following this logic, Plotinus (part 1 here) gets himself tied up in knots about evil, which seems appropriate for the subject. He’s compelled to rail against evil, as if it was an existent, while seeing it as an absolute lack- the complete non-existence of Good- the Form that Aristotle tells us is the one upon which all else depends. But do we think of evil as a positive force or an absolute lack? The latter might make for a reasonable secular explanation of human evil- a deficient character lacking all goodness. Does it ever manifest itself that way in the world though? It seems like evil requires something more than simply the lack of goodness: amorality differs from immorality. Plotinus describes evil traits arising from this basic weakness of character: licentiousness, cowardice and so forth, which feels like a reasonable explanation of vice. But then, by the same token, we could define as “evil” everything from you cheating on your taxes to me flirting with a waitress to a mother strangling her child. It seems to be more than just a lack of something.
“How can there be any contrary to the Absolute good when the absolute has no quality?”
So Plotinus treats this non-existent as an existent. He defines absolute evil as total formlessness, which is amorphous matter- and therefore a lack of any Ideal Form as a sort of negative Ideal Form, a primary evil; and a sort of secondary evil manifesting in bodies, which thus are not directly evil. In other words, Evil behaves a lot like the other Forms, and particularly like Good, of which it is the exact negation.
In Theatetus, Plato summarizes the paradox that “while evil has no place in the divine order, it haunts mortal nature and this place forever.” Plotinus sees Evil as the contrariety of Good, but one which does not exist in a necessary connection to Good. As an absolute- in fact as the absolute Absolute- Good can’t rely on anything. Nor does Evil need Good in order to come into the world, which it does, nobody would deny, by man. Finally, if the Absolutes are what is most true, it is possible that there are lies and evil seems to fit the bill nicely.
Notice how the star-souls, those “gods of heaven” that Socrates and Plotinus later talk about, are not something the Jews or Christians would have recognized necessarily, but we’re still a long way from Homer and his quarrelling, trouble-making Olympians. The gods of heaven, who are subsumed beneath a single ruling god, are at least semi-material (since we don’t have to imagine stars), but they contain absolutely no evil, nor vice. They are perfected versions of us. We’re matter. And that “matter not yet brought into order by the Ideal-Forms” Plotinus believes could contain evil. Evil, in this way, manifests itself in bodies, while drawing them away from that which orders them. Evil is disorder and imbalance. Evil detaches us from the Forms and sinks us in the dark, mucky place of unlikeness. So we achieve goodness by disengagement from our bodies. Conversely, evil negates the soul to a wallowing endpoint in which it as close to death as a soul can get.
To visualize this, think of a ladder of individual being stretching up from the formless mire of absolute evil, whose likeness is vice, through a mixed middle state, and up to the Forms, of which the ultimate is Good. Goodness in us would be literal ‘high-mindedness’. Evil would be wallowing in our material existence. One is almost afraid to ask if procreation would therefore be good or evil. If it’s the latter, for the good of the species, let us do evil.
It’s hard not to consider acts of pure evil, say the Norway shooter and his deeds, in terms of this theory. On one hand, it is satisfactory to consider his evil as an utter lack of all goodness and his soul as a fallow place where no goodness can find purchase. This is still a metaphysical morality; that is, evil as a noun and not just an adjective; and it does get the job done.
But it also feels incorrect somehow. In addition to an absence of Good, it seems as if there should have been something added to make him evil. I realize this suggests possession (an idea, incidentally, not alien to Socrates either) and maybe we’d rather not go there. But only a demonic metaphysics seems to capture the sense that a person like that is not only inhuman, having had their humanity drained from them, but something Other than human, an invader on the earth.