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Plotinus on Good and Evil
The act of defining what shall be considered Good or Evil is a central part of many philosophies and religions. The subject is often approached with very little rationality and a great deal of rabid sentiment and heavy-handed authoritarianism, as sharp lines between Good and Evil are drawn in the metaphoric sand. It is no coincidence that in the East Good and Evil are shown divided sharply into the two sides of the ying-yang symbol, or that in the West these two have often been imagined as the manifestation of competing spiritual forces (of God and the Devil). Amidst all of this, Plotinus is a refreshing voice precisely because he does not attempt to delineate sharply between the Good and the ill, but rather takes a broad view of the inter-relationship of all things with the divine. To summarize quite brutally: Plotinus believes that the true Good is the universal One --infinite in time and space, unchanging, unthinking, and unmoving, yet manifesting foremost in the Intellect and in the soul and finally in the physical; the Evil is nothing more or less than the furthest remove of the Good (in this case that would be the physicality of matter) and the addiction of the soul to that removal.
Plotinus' metaphysics have been described as neo-Platonic by his philosophical descendants, and he himself would certain have attributed much of his philosophy to the master Plato. However, there also appears to be some elements of his writing which imply further study beneath the religious leaders of the East where he served in his youth. Plotinus' understanding of the universal One are eerily like what one may now read about Buddhism in China or Japan. This One is a source of endless emanation, with all energy and being flowing outward from it. Plotinus describes this as similar to the unfolding of a seed, in which the plant moves from a single all-encompassing source to develop its stem and bud and leaves and thousand petals, while remaining always rooted in its source. As the One is infinite, all things which are possible will come into being within it. The plentitude of the One is such that its creation cannot stop until such time as it has created all that can conceivably be, even that which is far removed from its original forms and designs. Plotinus suggests that the Intellect is among the first fruits of the One, but that the world of physical matter is among its last and most incomplete and corrupted. In as much as the physical is the farthest removed from the One, it is worse than the One. This means that if a man were to incline himself towards the physical instead of towards the transcendent intellectual/spiritual self, then this inclination would be mistaken -- it would, in Plotinus' words, be called Evil. (He would add, if such a thing could exist..., for as will be discussed later, Plotinus is rather skeptical about Evil's independent life) So Plotinus may be found saying that inasmuch as matter is a mere shadow in relationship with the form of the divine, and a mere layer of existence which is the least among many co-existing levels of life, that matter and the physical is the "the very essence of Evil."
It is worth noting here that Plotinus is a pantheist. Own would be very far astray indeed to suggest that he looks out at the exterior world and considers it, as some gnostics would, to be the work of an evil demon, or even to be inherently flawed -- as Christian suggested. Rather, Plutinus imagined that nature was itself in tune with the forms. Each thing was birthed from the Source, which fills all things with soul. In this manner the sun and stars themselves, though they may be physical bodies, are also gods. In this manner mankind, though flesh, is part of the divine. Nature as such is not precisely Evil, as it to partakes in the divine. It is, however, incomplete. The act of valuing the incomplete over the complete is the original act of evil. Man ought to reject the material and focus his soul on gaining communion with the great over-arching spirit of the One.
The Good which is to be sought is identical to the One -- it is that which is pure of being, true to Form, and filled with radiant power. The closest which man can come to the One without transcending identity itself is to identify entirely with the intellect and the soul. Plotinus argues for this transcendent intellect, which Plato never proposed, by using Plato's own description of a conversation with a slave boy in which the child "remembered" mathematics. Plotinus argues that we do not merely "remember" forms, because then we would never be seeing the form itself but only a representation there-of. He argues that instead our intellect is such that it exists simultaneously within our bodies and in the world of forms, partaking in the glory of the One itself -- if we can only learn to turn towards that glory and knowledge. This is the Good, this flesh-denying focus on the things of the spirit and of glory. When mankind acts in accordance with the Good, he does so by putting aside his own desires and transcending the limitations of his mind and body to participate fully in the multitudinal nature of the One. These flights of religious transportation prepare the soul for its final transition, from physical life into that physical death which may presage a greater life.
So what Plotinus means by Good is now clear, though the achievement of that goal may be seen only as a step towards our understanding of Good and Evil. One might argue -- if the Good is all creating and within everything, from whence came Evil, and what is its nature? Somehow the mere answer that Evil is the appearance of the Good in such dilute form that it is considered contemptible to the primally Good seems somewhat weak. Why is it that men react so strongly against Evil if it is merely a lesser Good -- the face of simple nature itself? The answer is that Evil is more than merely the touch of nature. True Evil exists when the self attempts to separate itself from the One, by the force of intellect. This creates a barrier between the natural order of diluted Good and the meaning of that dilution. When this occurs, matter can blockade a soul's return to the One. A man may pursue material things at the cost of pursuing the spiritual or even make the mere mistake of seeing and worshiping the physical without comprehending that it is merely the sensual representation of greater forms. Matter is not Evil in itself, but it becomes Evil as it serves as an object of attachment. Evil is a lapse from form, whether from dilution and distance from the source-seed, or in self-conscious choice to deviate from the form based on one's corrupted desires.
In either case, Evil is nothing more or less than the failure to achieve the highest Good. Hence, wherever Plotinus writes of Evil, he speaks in theoretic terms: "if Evil exists.... If such things be possible..." he says, fully aware that Evil is not distinct from Good, but merely the lowest order of that Good. Evil is seen as existing in the "non-being" of Good. The functionality of matter's Evil is in its ability to un-be Goodness and forms. This can be explained by a quick diversion into Plotinus' predecessors. In all this talk of forms, Plotinus is being truly Platonic, albeit advancing a rather developed form of the theories. The idea of forms was first introduced into Greco-Roman thought with the story of a great cave in which prisoners (representing the souls of mankind) were constrained face a blank stone wall. On those walls they saw shadows cast by puppeteers who walked to and fro outside. They saw these shadows and perceived them as real things, and as true experiences. This was obviously a metaphor for the world we living humans see about us, which we perceive as real. One prisoner, Plato theorized, might break lose and manage to turn his face towards the true sun and to see the puppeteers. Afterwards, all the others would perceive him as insane, but he alone would know the truth about the world. In this is an obvious metaphor for the philosopher that pursues the truth of the forms. The entire allegory of the cave deals with the way in which physical matter is nothing more or less than a shadow of the Forms or Ideals, illuminated by the light of the divine One. For this sake, Plotinus refers to matter as being "mere shadow in relation to real Being, [and thus] the very essence of Evil, if such is possible." If the Good is omnipresent and pantheistic -- if the Good…[continue]
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