Tolkien on evil: the Plotinian context

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 3

The previous post in this series noted a certain aporia in Plato’s treatment of evil, a tension, that is, between a metaphysical account of evil on the one hand (evil as privation and/or rooted in matter) and a psychological account on the other (evil as a disorder in the soul). Plato’s own position aside, the line that some of his Neoplatonist followers would take was to interpret his theory of evil along dualistic lines, and this despite Neoplatonism’s general impetus to soften Plato’s being-becoming dualism within a more encompassing, monistic emanationism. Thus, on the one hand, Plotinus in his Enneads makes such familiar statements as “evil cannot be included in what really exists or in what is beyond existence; for these are good. So it remains that if evil exists, it must be among non-existent things, as a sort of form of non-existence…” (Plotinus, Enneads 1.8.3, trans. Armstrong). On the other hand is Plotinus’s tendency to attribute to matter, as the last emanation from the One barely above utter non-being, as the primary cause of evil. Souls, accordingly, which have their origin in a higher order of reality, become evil to the extent that they lose their focus on their heavenly, divine source in the Good and become distracted instead by the material conditions of contingent, bodily existence (5.1.1; see also O’Brien, “Plotinus on Matter and Evil,” 183-187). Once freed from the body, the soul will become free of evil (Enneads 1.8.3-5; see also Elders, The Metaphysics of Being, 125). For Plotinus, consequently, the existence of unformed matter as an inherently evil entity is necessitated by the need for a cause of the evil found in an allegedly otherwise good soul: “For if evil occurs accidentally in something else, it must be something itself first, even if it is not a substance. Just as there is absolute good and good as a quality, so there must be absolute evil and the evil derived from it which inheres in something else” (Enneads 1.8.3).

In contrast with Tolkien, then, there is indeed for Plotinus an “absolute evil,” though he also wishes to avoid as much as possible saying that the absolute evil of matter truly exists or has being in any kind of positive sense (for an effort at reconciling this tension in Plotinus’s thought, see O’Brien, “Plotinus on Matter and Evil”). Matter, rather, has at best only “non-being.” For Plotinus, accordingly (but here he sees himself as merely following Plato’s Theaetetus, which he quotes), the conflict between good and evil is eternal and thus basic to reality: “We must consider, too, what Plato means when he says ‘Evils can never be done away with,’ but exist ‘of necessity’; and that ‘they have no place among the gods, but haunt our mortal nature and this region for ever… [E]vil must exist of necessity, since the good must have its contrary’” (Enneads 1.8.6, citing Theaetetus 176a). Plotinus further links this understanding of evil with the tragic metaphysics of Plato’s Timaeus: “‘For the generation of this universe was a mixed result of the combination of intellect and necessity.’ What comes into it from God is good; the evil comes from the ‘ancient nature’ (Plato means the underlying matter, not yet set in order by some god)” (Enneads 1.8.7, citing Plato, Timaeus 47e5-48a1). Lacking being or existence in the proper sense of the term for Plato and Plotinus, the evil that is matter is nonetheless very much an uncreated and eternal causal principle in their accounts of the universe.

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