If the cosmos are good and the Good extends to all beings, why is there evil in the world? If Good extends to all things, and Being, Life and Mind all work to move us towards that which is best, how can any being do evil? The answer is that evil is not the typical duality of good vs. evil that people will often make it out to be. In truth, while Good is an absolute, evil is not. Evil exists, but evil must be understood as a parasitical force that feeds off of good, wholly dependent on good to sustain itself.
Good exists as a positive
Imagine something beautiful, such as a breathtaking waterfall. Now, instead of pausing and focusing on that experience alone, lift your mind higher and consider that this sight is not the only beautiful thing. There are many other experiences equally or more beautiful as this one.
Now, we must consider that there is something in common amongst all these experiences — in exactly the same way that there is something in common for all circles, all homes, or all dogs. That is, each of these things has some defining principle or principles: some unchangeable, transcendent, universal essence. However, this universal essence is not the only essence. We may conceive of the abstract “Form” of a circle, which would exist even if somehow we were able to remove all physical circles from the world.
There are also things such as Truth, Excellence, and Virtue— which we also consider to be good and beautiful without even giving it a second thought. And thus we may suppose that there is some Form for each of these other things: a Form of Truth, of Virtue, of Excellence, of Justice, etc.
With these universal essences in mind, we may also deduce that there is some Form of Beauty, which is the principle that all beautiful things have in common, and that this may potentially exist independently of all beautiful things. And connected to this Form of Beauty, we may consider an overarching principle or essence which all these different Forms of good things have in common. Something beyond these things closely connected to the Form of Beauty which all can ultimately trace their source from. This essential and primordial good would be the Form of the Good (tou agathou idean), which is that “which just things and all the rest become useful and beneficial” (Plato Republic, 505a). The ultimate source of this Form is the Good itself, also known as the One.
All things derive from the One, and the One is the Good because the Good is the best thing possible; for if something else were superior to the Good, the soul would turn to that instead. Additionally, the nature of the Good is to “unify things and perfect them,” (Kupperman 2014, 98) which is illustrated in the Republic where the Good makes all things beneficial and useful, and hence beautiful. However, the principle of unity belongs to the One-Being as the One (Monad) above the Intelligible Realm. This ultimately means that anything which fails to participate the Good also “ceases having the power of unity, and anything that ceases to have the power of union ceases participating the Good” (Kupperman 2014, 98). “Goodness, then, is unification, and unification goodness; the Good is one, and the One is primal good” (Dodds 1963, 17, C Prop. 13). This ultimately means anything that is not good fails to exist, lacking Being since it doesn’t participate in the Good. Good is thus seen as holding a positive existence, since all things in existence derive from it.
The Good cannot cause evil, nor does it neglect evil
Since the One is ultimately the source of Good, it is not the source of evil. Nor can the Gods that manifest from the One be the source of evil, as they are manifestations of Good. Thus to understand evil, we may imagine a room with a candlelight in the center. The closer you are to the fire, the closer you are to light; much like how you are closer to good when you show virtue and likeness to the Gods. Likewise, the further you distance yourself from the light, the further you step into darkness; much like the further you move from good, the more you move towards evil. However, darkness is merely the absence of light, as darkness does not hold an independent existence, but rather depends on an absence of light to manifest. Similarly, evil is merely the absence of good, with no independent existence (Sallustius, XII). Evil can thus be understood as being more akin to blinding ourselves to good than an opposing force that overtakes us.
We can thus see a link between human transgression and disasters. This is not because of angry Gods, since as perfect beings the Gods cannot get angry. Rather, it is understood that participating in evil will cause us to blind ourselves and thus prevents the light of the Gods from shining upon us, and instead puts us in communion with spirits of punishment, which creates the risk of disasters– both natural and man-made. However, if by prayers and sacrifices we find forgiveness of our sins by turning towards the divine, we heal our own badness and again enjoy the goodness of the Gods. To say that the Gods turn away from evil is akin to saying that the sun hides Himself from the blind (Sallustius, XIV).
Evil exists as a negative
We must first address why there is evil in the world when the Good extends to all beings. This is because evil cannot be understood as a thing with a positive existence, i.e., something with the qualities of Being, Life, or Mind. For this, let us suppose that there are kakodaimons (evil spirits) who are truly evil by nature:
- If they have their power from the Gods, they cannot be evil, as the Gods only produce Good.
- If they have their power from elsewhere, the Gods do not make all things. If they do not make all things, then either they wish to and cannot, or they can and do not wish to.
But since the Gods are good, we can see that neither of these options is consistent with the idea of the Gods if there truly are spirits that are truly evil by nature.
Even at the most basic level, an apparently evil spirit still desires the Good inasmuch as it desires existence, and will do whatever is necessary to maintain that existence. Certainly, evil spirits are evil, but they are not evil by nature. It’s impossible for them to be evil by nature because they exist, have Being, and therefore must come from the Good. Yet the Good cannot create evil. Thus we may conclude that spirits that seem evil merely fall from their participation of the Good, however not completely; otherwise, they would simply cease to exist due to absolute evil not having ousia (Being).
Evil is therefore merely the absence of good, similarly to how darkness is merely the absence of light. There is no positive, independent existence of evil; evil exists solely as a negative; and that means there is no absolute evil, as an absolute evil would mean evil has an independent existence.
The nature of evil
Aion, which is the source of Being, is derived from the One (which is the Good), and is the totality of all things and Good-in-itself. We can thus see that Good extends to all things. Being, Life, and Mind all move us towards that which is best. So we must acknowledge that evil is not a positive force, but a negative. People do not do evil for evil’s sake; otherwise, nature, which is crafted by the Gods (who only produce good), would itself be evil. Instead, evil is done in an attempt to achieve some form of good. This is because all beings participate in the Good to varying degrees and not uniformly, allowing us to make errors about the Good and thus accidentally do evil in the first place.
So where is the evil? There is no absolute evil with Being. Evil is merely a lacking of the Good. To whatever extent something fails to participate the Good, that is its evil. In this way, anything that is capable of not participating the Good to some degree is capable of evil. The word Greek word for sin, hamartia (ἁμαρτία), means “missing the mark,” and in Greek tragedies it represents an action performed thinking the results will be for the better but turn out for the worst, and this is the very truth of evil itself. Evil is an accident, its source lying outside of itself. As a lacking in the Good, evil activities occur when we try to do what seems right and virtuous, but is in fact not. Evil occurs when we misunderstand the Good and attempt to apply our faulty knowledge. This is true even for activities that seem purposefully evil. A person may mistake wealth for what is Good and therefore attempt to amass wealth at any cost.
Think of this: “if men sinned for the sake of evil, nature itself would be evil. But if the adulterer thinks his adultery bad but his pleasure good, and the murderer thinks the murder bad but the money he gets by it good, and the man who does evil to an enemy thinks that to do evil is bad but to punish his enemy good” (Sallustius, XII) then the evils are done for the sake of goodness. We can therefore garner that the soul sins because “while aiming at good, it makes mistakes about the good, because it is not primary essence” (Sallustius, XII), and thus lack perfection. “And we see many things done by the Gods to prevent it from making mistakes and to heal it when it has made them. Arts and sciences, curses and prayers, sacrifices and initiations, laws and constitutions, judgments and punishments, all came into existence for the sake of preventing souls from sinning; and when they are gone forth from the body, Gods and spirits of purification cleanse them of their sins” (Sallustius, XII).
Importantly about evil’s nature is that it is not found in any of the parts of the soul, or even in bodies. If it were, evil would have a kind of positive existence. Evil is, instead, found only in the relationships between the parts of the soul or between bodies and universal nature. Evil “exists” not within the things themselves, but within the processes that connect those things. More specifically, evil is found only when there is a failure of relationship within those processes (Kupperman 2014, 57).
We may give an example by comparing evil to a disease. In disease, there is a lack of a “vertical symmetry” (connection/likeness to the divine) that goes hand in hand with its “horizontal disturbance” (blindness from the divine), such as in the nature of bodily diseases, in which parts of the organism stop cooperating. However, each such disease still has a “vertical dimension” to an extent as well, for it participates in good, meaning that the form of the living being is merely “overcome by what is inferior.”
Evil & The Soul: The soul has many internal parts to it. In themselves, all the parts are good and useful, but they only reach their proper perfection when they co-operate in the right hierarchy: when reason controls the irrational parts, which is maintained through the virtue of wisdom. Evil arises when the hierarchy is reversed, when the Rational Soul is overpowered by the lower Irrational Soul.
Evil & The Body: Bodies are subordinate to nature and the World Soul and thus should upkeep a proper relationship with the natural world. The body’s relation to the natural is upkeeped through an understanding of its nature as part of the natural world surrounding it, and is protected through the right use of medical arts, exercise, etc. When it fails in this relationship, it may become host to evil, such as disease.
Overall, evil must be understood to have a parasitical & negative existence, with no independent existence of its own. Evil is real, but doesn’t exist as an Absolute in the way Good does. It must be understood as a parasite feeding off of and wholly depending on Good for its own existence.
Kupperman, Jeffrey S. Living theurgy: a course in Iamblichus philosophy, theology and theurgy. London: Avalonia, 2014.
Sallustius, “On the Gods and the Cosmos”, 4th Century AD, accessed May 17, 2017, http://www.platonic-philosophy.org/files/Sallustius%20-%20On%20the%20Gods%20(Taylor).pdf
Steel, Carlos G., Proclus, and Jan Opsomer. On the Existence of Evils (Ancient Commentators on Aristotle). Duckworth & Company, 2003.
Shaw, Gregory. Theurgy and the soul: the Neoplatonism of Iamblichus. Second ed. Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2014.
Uebersax, John S. “Plato’s Proof of God’s Existence.” Christian Platonism. June 17, 2015. Accessed July 09, 2017. https://catholicgnosis.wordpress.com/2013/11/28/platos-proof-of-gods-existence/