De Malōrum Sitū

De Malōrum Sitū

In the beginning of the second book of the Posterior Analytics Aristotle introduces four scientific questions. One can have demonstrable knowledge in one of four ways. With complex events, one can ask either “τὸ ὅτι” (is it the case that some x is related to y) or “τὸ διότι” (why is it the case that some x is a y). For instance, one might want to know whether it is the case that the sun is eclipsed by the moon. This type of inquiry ceases when one ascertains a yes or no answer. It is the case that x is or undergoes y, suffices as a kind of knowledge. But then one seeks the causes of eclipses, the second type of inquiry. This ends in the attribution of causes, as when we learn that the moon can move in between the sun and the earth and project its shadow. Sometimes, however, we seek to know whether something exists (εἰ ἔστι), and, if it does, what its nature is (τί ἐστιν). Hence, someone might ask whether God exists and, if so, what properties He has. These questions would end in an affirmative or negative judgement, on the one hand, and an enumeration of properties on the other.

In the first ten chapters of the De Malorum Substantia, we have arrived at the conclusion that evil does in fact exist. Thus, with respect to (εἰ ἔστι), we can say, evil exists “in those things that are not capable of remaining established in complete accordance with the good.” We arrived at this conclusion dialectically. On the one hand, there are some who assert that evil does not exist. They say that everything derives or emanates from the Good. Since effects participate in their causes, as heat participates in the fire that caused it, so anything that derives from the Good will participate in the Good. If this is true, then evil must not exist, since everything that is will participate in the Good insofar as everything that is is an effect of the Good. Hence, evil must not be among beings, which is to say that it is not. On the other hand, some argue that evil must exist, for some things seem at least prima facie contrary to the good, like injustice and vice generally. These things are not mere privations or absences of the good, but they seem to have some power or causal efficacy that militates against or resists the good. But only what exists can militate or resist. Hence, evil must exist. Moreover, evil seems necessary for generation and corruption. Things do not go out of being unless they are destroyed. But the good of each thing preserves it in being as Socrates says in the Republic. This means that, if things are destroyed, the good must not preserve it in being, which is to say evil must somehow prevail. What’s more, insofar as corruption is the condition for future generation, then neither generation nor corruption would exist in a world without evil. Yet generation, corruption, and vices clearly exist, as experience makes clear. Hence evil must exist. Proclus’ answer tries to accommodate the truth of both sides of the argument. Evil does exist, in a way, but only for particular things unable to constantly contemplate and participate in the good.

Proclus’ answer might look as if it were a thesis statement of sorts, one that he will argue for throughout the treatise. But this is only partially true. For we should recall the opening question “what is the nature of evil, and were does it originate?” In other words, Proclus’ main quarry is to answer the τί ἐστιν and τὸ διότι questions. What is the nature or being of evil, and from what principle or principles does it have its being? These questions will be answered later, when Proclus argues that evil has a quasi-definition as παρυπόστασις, evil is a parasitic privation of a good that conflicts with a thing’s nature. I would call this a quasi-definition only insofar as definitions need genera, species, and specific differentia. Yet properly speaking it seems that only beings divide this way. Something must have a positive nature, like rational animal to belong to a genus and species. Insofar as evil doesn’t have being univocally or unproblematically, it doesn’t fit neatly into the Porphyrian tree. The first question, what is it, therefore, will be answered, but with a quasi-definition. With respect to the second, what are its causes or principles, Proclus will argue that evil is uncaused insofar as one cannot properly attribute to it an efficient, formal, or final cause. Evil does not have a material cause either, for, as Carlos Steel and Jan Opsomer argue in their introduction, matter is not evil for Proclus.

Given this heuristic division of the text by Aristotelian questions, one might ask why Proclus spends so much time ‘looking for’ evil along the different levels of reality. Afterall, ποῦ ἐστιν, where is it, is not a proper scientific question in above division. One doesn’t necessarily arrive at a definition by inquiring into place. Socrates’ rational animality, for instance, isn’t decerned from his “being sat in the agora” or “at Cephalus’ house.” Yet, we should interpret Proclus’ pursuit of evil across the chain of being in a different sense. He tells us that he will begin this part of treatise by inquiring into “where there is evil.” Not having access to the Latin, I would guess this is “ubi sit” or “ὅπου εἶεν.” Taken either way, it seems like Proclus is searching for those genera of being that evil belongs to by nature. Indeed, Proclus has told us a few lines above that he wants to know “which class of beings evil belongs to.” This search for the genera affected by evil could be interpreted as a τὸ ὅτι, ‘is it the case that,’ type of question. Is it the case that evil belongs to this kind of substance or to that kind? This moves dialectic forward, since it prepares one for an examination of causes, of the sort that follows immediately after Proclus’ investigation into logical or categorical place. In other words, one might say that a proper etiology depends on an accurate topology.

But before we dive into the Procline universe, we should note that he has already provided us with some helpful clues. Proclus said that “evil exists for the things that do not have a nature… disposed to remain in the good in an unmixed way.” Unlike Socrates, then, who wondered whether one could find his or her way to Megara without already knowing its location in advance, we needn’t worry about our destination. In a sense, we already know where we’re going and which beings are most suspect. If evil exists only where beings “do not remain” in the good, it must exist alongside some kind of change or potency. One must defect or turn from the good in order to become vulnerable to evil. Hence, we should expect that evil will exist in material beings, since matter is a principle of potency. Conversely, evil will not exist amongst beings always in act or that always realize their nature.

And this is indeed what we find when we let Proclus lead us down the levels of being. Like Dante’ Virgil and Virgil’s Sibyl, Proclus turns out to be an excellent guide, as he explains the causes of things in their various places. For instance, we start by learning that gods have no share in evil, or rather evil has no share in their being. The gods are being, thinking, producing, and power in an unmixed way. In fact, they are altogether beyond being, as the unit is prior to and beyond number and the center prior to the points along a circumference. The gods contain all of being supereminently in themselves in the manner fitting a cause. Proclus informs us that there are many arguments he might give us or any “questioner” as to why evil cannot exist with the gods, but he wonders “whether we should raise questions while remaining in the divine abodes.” Yet, Proclus explains that, if even embodied souls can rise to contemplate the gods and partake of the heavenly “banquet” devoid of evil, then a fortiori the gods themselves can have no share in it whatsoever. “There is no warmth in snow, as they say, nor cold in fire. Hence there is no evil in the gods either, nor is there anything of a divine nature in evil things.” Moreover, if, as Plato says in the second letter, that the first things revolve around the first, the second around the second, and the third around the third, then how could there be evil in the gods. “For all things that proceed from their principle accomplish their procession through likeness and in continuity.” If we accept this metaphysical principle, then we must admit that the gods, who proceed from the One or the Good, must not change or defect from the Good. For that which changes is not “similar to the One.”

If it is impious to speak of evil amongst the gods, perhaps one would do better seeking it amongst their messengers and the superior kinds. Not enough is given about the nature of angels, demons, and heroes in this work. However, in his Ten Problems Concerning Providence, Proclus clarifies that the superior kinds help the gods administer providence in particular parts of the cosmos. Furthermore, they are described as being able to “see things in time non-temporaly, divided things undividedly, and things in location non-locally.” This passage is good evidence for the claim that, whatever else these three kinds are, they share in the divine in an eminent way. Hence, I am tempted to say that they are immaterial creatures. If they are divine and immaterial, it would be unfitting if evil had a place in their midst. Moreover, the first class, the angels, are supposed to be interpreters of the gods, as Diotima says in the Symposium. Yet an interpreter must know the will the one he is interpreting. And, since knowledge and ignorance are contraries, it follows that an interpreter must not have the latter. Insofar as ignorance is “evil” and “far distant from the gods” it has no place among the interpretive class. Therefore, the angels qua knowers will not be evil.

Perhaps evil is to found amongst the lower two classes: demons and heroes. Indeed, some thinkers maintain that demons became evil through their own choices. Becoming evil, they “defile souls, lead them to matter… and draw them away from their journey to heaven.” Yet this creates a dilemma. Either demons are perpetually evil or they change. If they are perpetually evil, how did they come from the Good? If they change, they are not “demons in essence.” As it stands, I worry that this might be a circular argument regarding the demonic nature. We started by asking whether there was potency, and hence the potential for evil in demons. Proclus says no, there is no potency, because, if there were, these demons would not be true demons, since demons don’t change. To be sure, I think Proclus has other arguments to assert that demons are always in act, though it seems like this one, as it stands, runs the risk of circularity.

In any event, we can say that it is a non-sequitur to conclude that they are evil because they punish humans, as some people maintain. As Proclus puts it, this “would be just as if one called some schoolmasters and pedagogues mischievous because, having been appointed to chastise wrongdoings, they do not allow those who make mistakes to have a better position than they deserve.” Demons are executors of divine providence, which oftentimes appears harsh to wrongdoers, but this is hardly evil in itself.

As for heroes, they are always doing what they have been ordered to do by providence. Moreover, they seem to do perform their tasks consistently. This constancy is contrary to the nature of evil. For evil is “by nature unsteady and unstable…for not always means potentiality. And this potentiality characterizes those things for which there is also evil.” If heroes, along with demons and angels always act according to nature, it is difficult to see how they could be evil. As Proclus says, “the gods and the superior kinds have received a fine treatment from us, we may say: there neither is nor will be evil in them.”

One ought to look for evil in beings with potency, starting with the best souls moving towards the worst. The best souls, on the one hand, seem not to experience evil insofar as they maintain themselves in a life of contemplation and virtue. Yet one could argue that, insofar as they become embodied, there is some evil in them, especially if one “wishes to call generation itself evil.” Generation in time and in bodies seems like an evil because it hinders souls from preserving “in this earthly realm that invariable and immutable life of the intellective realm.” Since they cannot unwaveringly maintain their relation to the good, they are subject to “a certain kind of weakness as regards action.” This is exactly what Proclus told us to expect before we began our search for evil in beings. It will be in those beings that fail to maintain their relation to the good.

If even Socrates, a virtuous man, suffers some evil through generation, then a fortiori we should expect evil even more so in “that truly variegated and manifold tribe” of flighty and capricious souls, souls which fail to choose and remain in the good. The best thing for soul as soul is not just to contemplate intelligibles, as someone has said somewhere, i.e. Aristotle, but contemplating the divine mind, as someone has said somewhere else, in the Ethics. Souls that fail to contemplate being fall further and further into the body and leave themselves open to evil, in much the same way Plotinus argued in I.8. As Proclus puts it, “what is the origin of evil for us (meaning most embodied intellects)? It is the continuous communion and cohabitation with what is inferior to us. It is also oblivion and ignorance, which come about by looking at that which is dark and not intellectual.”

Proclus ends this itinerary of the mind by examining the lowest and most irrational souls, those of animals. We should expect some evil in them, insofar as they do not even have reason to correct their desires. Yet, it is clear that they are not evil simply because they are irrational. For “evil does not consist in acting according to nature, but in lacking appropriate virtue. ” It is alright for a lion to be lion, even if this entails aggression and lack of reason. They are not deprived of a faculty that they were not supposed to have in the first place. As Aristotle says in the Categories, there is a difference between not-seeing for an eye and a stone, it is evil for one and not the other.

Most importantly, Proclus draws a crucial point regarding beings that come to be in time. They start out imperfect and progress or regress according to their habits. Although he has said earlier that one might consider generation itself evil, here he seems to be saying that true evil is to lack what one ought to have. As he puts it, “this, then, is its evil: the privation of a virtuous disposition. In the case of a privation, the underlying nature may be perverted, and possibly even… the complete opposite of its own virtue. And if some things may become either better or worse on account of their habits, too, should one be surprised, then, to see an evil nature arise out of bad habits?” While descending into a body involves the dampening of one’s prior activity, this weakness is not nearly as evil as becoming bad through bad habits. This applied across the level of embodied souls. Evil is primarily a result of failing to realize our nature—not embodiment as such.

This concludes our topology of evil, so to speak. We have learned that evil exists primarily in changeable souls, the souls of men and animals, who fail to live according to their natures. This is what we were told to expect in ch. 10, and Proclus makes a convincing case that indeed evil exists only where there is potency to act contrary to a nature. One might wonder, though, how this account fits into the treatise as a whole? As I said above, I think this survey fittingly proceeds Proclus subsequent account of evil as anaitios or uncaused. One needs to know where evil is before one can inquire into its nature or causes. Moreover, his account here proceeds fittingly into an account of matter, since Proclus began with gods and must work his way down to matter in order to give a complete top-to-bottom ontology.

I would like to end with a question that occurred to me several times while reading this text. While Proclus rejects matter as primary evil, some of his comments sound Plotinian in spirit. Take for example, Proclus’ claim that “potentiality characterizes those things for which there is also evil.” Or again his claim that immaculate souls, like Socrates, who instantiate human nature, necessarily “drink a certain quantity from the cup of oblivion. ” Embodiment, in other words, even for the best souls involves a diminution of power, and “you may, if you prefer, call this the evil of these souls.” One might wonder how different this is from Plotinus’ critique of matter. For my part, I think Proclus makes a crucial correction Plotinus’ theory of evil by characterizing matter, not as evil per se, but as the necessary condition for the possibility of evil, to use admittedly Kantian language. Yet, I think this position is much stronger philosophically for monists and Platonists in general, since it absolves the Good for necessarily bringing forth matter. Moreover, I think it distinguishes Platonism from Gnosticism insofar as the latter hold that matter is always and everywhere evil or a mistake of the demiurge.

Conor Stark
Conor Stark

Conor is a PhD student at the Catholic University of America (Washington, DC, US).

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