On Good and Evil (part II)

What is Good (ἀγαθόν) and what is Evil, or Bad (κακόν)? How can we discern them? The question touches upon both metaphysics, or ontology, and ethics. I have been looking for a while into a couple important texts in Neoplatonism and Early Christian thought on the issue: a) Proclus’s – the great Athenian Neoplatonic philosopher of the 5th century – treatise De Malorum Subsistentia (English translation with commentary: On the Existence of Evils, edited by Jan Opsomer and Carlos Steel, London: Bloomsbury 2013), and b) the Περὶ Θείων Ὀνομάτων (On the Divine Names) treatise (especially chapter 4) by Dionysius the Areopagite (critical edition: Corpus Dionysiacum I. De Divinis Nominibus, edited by Beate R. Suchla, Berlin: De Gruyter, 1990; English translations (a selection) by Clarence E. Rolt, London: SPCK, 1920, and John Parker, London: Parker, 1897). Dionysius was a Christian author of a disputed origin, and his text is nowadays widely agreed to be dated at the beginnings of the 6th century). These texts, along with a much earlier treatise, Plotinus’s Ennead I.8, Περὶ τοῦ τίνα καὶ πόθεν τὰ κακά (On what are and whence come evils), cause an immensely fruitful brainstorming to anyone wishing to dive into the problem of Good and Evil in Late Antiquity.

At a first glance, and from the overall stance of greek philosophical thinking, it is quite safe to generally ascertain that evil does not exist. From Plato and onwards evil’s existence is understood only by means of reference to the good. The original Platonic epistemological disposition towards evil is more or less maintained by all his successors – even by those who stand somehow remote from the core of Platonic philosophy. Now, such a disposition should not lead us towards a manichaistic dualism. For Plato, Plotinus, Proclus and Dionysius the common bottom line is that evil exists only as privation, lack (στέρησις), absence of the good. Already in Platonic, and consequently Neoplatonic (pagan) thought, the good is more or less identified with God (in many Platonic dialogues, i.e. Theaetetus, Republic, Timaeus, Plato does everything possible to make clear that evil should not be connected with the divine in any way).

Christian philosophy of late antiquity works out further the understanding that good is whatever derives from God. And as a matter of fact, everything derives from, precisely is created by, God. Thus, the entire creature is good, and, in general, everything that exists is good, since good and being are almost identical notions. The latter idea is responsible for a paradoxical syllogism: if one accepts that evil is (exists), and, if all existence stems from God the Good, and therefore is good as well, then one should acknowledge that evil is good. The syllogism is obviously ending to an ἄτοπον, and one has to figure out then, how evil should be qualified. What starts to become more consciously clear throughout the development of late Antique Christian and, later on, Byzantine philosophical tradition is that, evil has no natural existence. In other words, nothing which is or happens could be evil. To this it should be added that generation (γένεσις), corruption (φθορά), alteration (ἀλλοίωσις), diminution (φθίσις) had been already acknowledged and defined by Aristotle as something neutral, being neither good nor evil. So, for the Greeks, everything pertaining to being is not evil. Rather, the basic constant of cosmological thinking was that evil should be associated with disorder and disorderly states of being. Within Christian tradition, however, corruption and death cannot be equally claimed as good, since they are not natural in that nature was not created by God to end up in death. I shall not enter here into the discussion of what is ‘natural’ and what is not in the after-Fall state of creation, according to the Church Fathers. For the time being, I shall only mention in passing that the Areopagite does never adhere to a view that admits evil being associated within anything that is.

But if evil is not present in nature in the way scetched above, then one should rather turn from the attempt of inventing evil metaphysical principles, towards the faculty of will, that is to locate evil within the sphere of morality. The moral understanding of Evil is persistent in the thought both of pagan thinkers and the Church Fathers as a disposition (which also leads to activity) opposed to God and to God’s goodness. Thus evil is not an opposition of essences or subustances, i.e. God’s good substance versus an x’s bad substance (here is crucial to note that, the entire Christian philosophical and theological tradition maintains that God’s essence is both unknown and unknowable), but as a certain decision for opposing God. To understand this better, one might consider that for the Christian thought, the power that designs, creates, maintains and sustains, and saves the world is God’s divine energeia (divine activities). Life itself (at least, the way we understand life; Dionysius devotes an entire chapter on the divine name of Life, in the above mentioned treatise) is consisted in, and dependent on, God’s activity. Therefore, opposition to God would imply opposition to the presuppositions of life and to life itself. Seen from this point of view, evil substantiates as corruption and destruction.

If evil is connected to will, then one, because of the freedom granted from God that allows one to act even against God, is free to decide to act against God’s Word (the Word of God here meaning not an ethical commandment for a morally accepted life, but the ontological foundation of the cosmos). Hence, evil is that which opposes God, who is The Good. As such evil could be introduced to the cosmos only by a living being that being free demonstrates the ability to use its freedom in order to act against God. Thus, evil appears when a rational being decides to act against its creator, against its creative algorithm (this obscure expression aims at pointing to the ontological implications of the problem of evil, which derive from the moral understanding of it). In the hierarchical structure of cosmos – a structure largely conceived within Neoplatonic philosophy – not only humans but also angels, demons, souls, are rational beings. Similarly, in the Christian tradition there is a hierarchy in the invisible realm, a central difference (among many others) being the fact that – in contrast to pagan Neoplatonism – demons are defined as angels fallen, after their willed direct opposition to God. In other words, the loss of humbleness of some angels prompted them to think that they can reverse the parameters of the(ir) creation, that is to replace him who created the world, by themselves. It is extremely interesting to deepen into the mystery of the human being and see, or understand somehow, how this corruption affected not only the angels, but also the human soul and mind (with detrimental consequences to the bodily constitution of the human being, as well), so that the human being believed that can become God ‘in the place’ of God and without God. This wish, this irrational desire, (again this prédication of desire depends on the association of rationality with a positive source of being: rational is what is in accordance with its Logos of being, whereas irrational what is in discordance) is the matrix for the birth and growth of Evil, the latter not being primarily identifiable as such, but secondarily, as dependent on the Good.

The above general outline, intends to show that a differentiation between good and evil, and a discernement of the latter, should be based on a rather simple remark, that evil does not exist. One may speak of evil as absence of the good. Thus, ontological, so to say, evil does not exist. This last point is very well conceived by many major Greek philosophers and theologians, both pagan and Christian, i.e. Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus (who is admittedly a particular case in that in several regards he moves beyond the main lines of Greek thought on the issue), Proclus, Dionysius, Maximus the Confessor, John of Damascus, who argued on evil by starting from the good and ending up to the good. So it was clear to them that one cannot speak of evil as such. Even Proclus, who attempts to define evil as such, uses all the qualities of the good, structuring what one could call the ‘non-ontology of evil’. If the good, is inherent to human beings, then each human being should be rightly expected to have a sort of inner information of what is good and bad and therefore how is worth acting.

To conclude, I do not think I could agree with the idea that good and evil are two sides of the same coin. There is an asymmetry between them. Man cannot think of, nor speak about, evil the way man can do that about the good. For the latter is, whereas the former is not

Κομματικὴ ἰδιοτέλεια τοῦ καθ᾽ ἕκαστον καὶ πολιτικὴ ἀνιδιοτέλεια τοῦ καθ᾽ ὅλου

* Τὸ παρακάτω κείμενο γράφηκε ἐδῶ, στὸ Ὄσλο, τὸν Ἰανουάριο τοῦ 2015, μὲ ἀφορμὴ τὴν πολιτικὴ κατάσταση πραγμάτων στὴν Ἑλλάδα, μὲ τὸν ἀρχικὸ τίτλο: ̔Ἐν ὅψει τῆς 25ης Γενάρη 2015 ̓. Ξανακοιτάζοντάς το ὅμως σήμερα, διαπιστώνω ὅτι δυστυχῶς, παραμένει ἐπίκαιρο. Τὸ μόνο ποὺ ἔχει ἐπισυμβεῖ εἶναι ἡ ἐπὶ τὰ χείρω ἐξέλιξη πολλῶν πολιτικῶν πραγμάτων ἐν Ἑλλάδι τοῦ 2019 – πράγματα ποὺ ὅταν κανεὶς τὰ ἐπισημαίνει ταυτοποιείται αὐτομάτως τουλάχιστον ὡς πάσχων τὴν ἔλλειψη διεθνιστικοῦ ἀλτρουισμοῦ – καὶ ἡ συνήθης κυκλικὴ ἀντιστροφὴ ρόλων, ποὺ ὁ ἀναγνώστης ἀμέσως θὰ ἀντιληφθεὶ. Ἑπομένως, τὸ τηρῶ αὐτούσιο παρὰ τὸ φαινομενικῶς ἄκαιρον ὁρισμένων σημείων του⋅ ἄλλωστε, γνωρίζουμε καλὰ ἤδη ἀπὸ τὸν καιρὸ τοῦ Θουκυδίδη ὅτι στὸ διάβα τῆς ἑλληνικῆς ἱστορίας εἶναι πάγιες οἱ κρίσιμες στιγμὲς στὶς ὁποῖες ὁ λαὸς καλεῖται ἐκ τῶν πραγμάτων νὰ ἀποδεικνύει τὸ βαθμὸ ἐπαγρύπνισής του.

Ἀφουγκραζόμενος τὸν Γολγοθᾶ τὸν ὁποῖο ἀνέρχεται ἡ πλειοψηφία τῆς ἑλληνικῆς κοινωνίας, ζώντας ἀπὸ ἀπόσταση τὴν ἀγωνία ἐκατομμυρίων ἀνθρώπων ποὺ δίνουν καθημερινὰ μάχες ἀγωνιζόμενοι γιὰ τὰ στοιχειώδη σὲ ἕνα σχεδὸν ἐν συνόλῳ καταρρακωμένο κράτος (παρὰ τοὺς πασιφανῶς οὐτοπικοὺς περὶ τοῦ ἀντιθέτου ἰσχυρισμοὺς τῆς παραπαίουσας, γιὰ μία ἀκόμη φορά, δυστυχῶς, πολιτικῆς ἠγεσίας), αἰσθάνεσαι τὰ χιλιάδες χιλιόμετρα ἀπόστασης ποὺ σὲ χωρίζουν ἀπὸ τὸν τόπο τοῦ μαρτυρίου ἐξ αἴφνης νὰ μηδενίζονται. Ἐλλείψει ἄλλων δυνάμεων συνδρομῆς πρὸς τοὺς ἀναξιοπαθοῦντες ἀναζητᾶς τρόπους ἔμμεσης στήριξης. Αὐτὴ ἡ ἀναζήτηση σὲ ὁδηγεῖ νὰ συλλογισθεῖς ζητήματα ποὺ νιώθεις ὅτι πρέπει -ἂν ὄχι νὰ ἀπαντηθοῦν- τουλάχιστον νὰ τεθοῦν ἀπὸ κάθε πολίτη, ὁ οποῖος γιὰ μία ἀκόμη φορὰ θὰ ἐπιδιώξει τὴν προσεχὴ Κυριακὴ νὰ ἐνσαρκώσει μὲ τὴν ψῆφο του μια ελπίδα σωτηρίας.

Ἡ κρισιμότητα τῶν περιστάσεων καὶ ἡ τραγικότητα τῆς φάσης αὐτῆς τῆς ἱστορίας ποὺ διανύουμε προκαλοῦν τὴν διατύπωση ἑνὸς ἀσυνήθους, καίριου, ὡστόσο, ἐρωτήματος: γιὰ ποιὸ λόγο οἱ Ἕλληνες πολίτες δὲν λαμβάνουν σοβαρὰ ὑπ’ ὄψιν τὴν ξεκάθαρη θέση τοῦ Ἰσραηλίτη ἄρχοντα καὶ βασιλέως τῆς ἀρχαιότητας Δαυίδ, ὁ οποῖος προτρέπει καὶ παροτρύνει: ῾μὴν πιστεύετε σὲ ἄρχοντες, σὲ παιδιὰ ἀνθρώπων⋅ είναι αδύνατον αὐτοὶ νὰ σᾶς προσφέρουν σωτηρία᾽ (Ψαλμός 145, 3: ‘Μὴ πεποίθατε ἐπ ̓ ἄρχοντας ἐπὶ υἱοὺς ἀνθρώπων, οἷς οὐκ ἔστι σωτηρία’); Φαίνεται ὅτι ἡ προτροπὴ αὐτὴ τοῦ Δαυίδ φέρει ἕνα καίριο πολιτικὸ περιεχόμενο, ἀπολύτως χρήσιμο καὶ συνάμα ̔φωτογραφικά ̓ ταιριαστὸ στοὺς Ἕλληνες.

Ὁ λόγος;

Διαθέτουμε ὡς λαὸς μία μοναδική, πανίσχυρη ἰκανότητα –τόσο ἰσχυρὴ ποὺ ὅταν δὲν τὴν ἐλέγχουμε μᾶς ὁδηγεῖ μαθηματικὰ στὸν ἀφανισμό- νὰ προσκολλώμαστε σχεδὸν ψυχοπαθολογικὰ στοὺς ἡγέτες μας. Αὐτὴ ἡ προσκόλληση εὐθύνεται κατὰ κύριο λόγο γιὰ δύο τινά. Ἀφ ̓ ἑνός, γιὰ τὸ γεγονὸς ὅτι ἐξακολουθοῦμε νὰ λατρεύουμε τὰ πολιτικὰ πρόσωπα –ἡ ἀνάλυση αὐτὴ ὑπερβαίνει κάθε συγκεκριμένο πολιτικὸ χῶρο- μολονότι ἡ ἱστορία ἤδη καταγράφει ἐγκληματικὲς εὐθύνες εἰς βάρος ὅλων ὅσοι ἔχουν προδώσει ἐπανειλημμένα ὡς τώρα –καὶ συνεχίζουν νὰ τὸ πράττουν- τὶς ὑγιεῖς προσδοκίες τοῦ ἑλληνικοῦ λαοῦ, ἐνῶ ἔχουν ἀναδείξει μὲ τὴν πολιτικὴ πράξη -καὶ ἐνίοτε φαυλότητά- τους τὶς χειρότερες ἀδυναμίες του. Ἀφ ̓ ἑτέρου, γιὰ τὸ ὅτι εἴμαστε συχνὰ ἀνίκανοι νὰ ἀπομονώσουμε ὅποιον ἡ συνείδησή μας μᾶς καταμαρτυρᾶ ὅτι βλάπτει τὸν τόπο. Ἐδῶ ὁ ̔τόπος ̓ θὰ πρέπει νὰ κατανοηθεῖ καὶ μὲ τὴν ἔννοια τοῦ ̔χώρου ̓. Εἶναι καίριο νὰ μὴν βλάπτεται ὁ τόπος, καθὼς ἔχει μεγίστη σημασία ὡς χῶρος, ὅπως ἔχει πολλαπλὰ ἐπισημάνει καὶ ὁ Παναγιώτης Κονδύλης, παρὰ τὶς ἐσφαλμένες δημόσιες ἐκτιμήσεις ἑνὸς πρώην Πρωθυπουργοῦ ἀλλὰ καὶ ἑνὸς ἄλλου ἀρχηγοῦ νεοσύστατου κόμματος, οἱ ὁποῖοι προκρίνουν μίαν ἀκαθόριστη ἔννοια ̔εὐημερίας τοῦ λαοῦ ̓ ἀκόμη καὶ εἰς βάρος τῆς γῆς του, χωρὶς νὰ φαίνεται νὰ ἀντιλαμβάνονται τὸν ἐγκληματικὸ κίνδυνο αὐτοῦ τοῦ στοιχειώδους λογικοῦ σφάλματος.

Ἡ τυφλὴ προσκόλληση σὲ ἀνθρώπους στοὺς ὁποίους ἡ ἀνάθεση τῆς μοίρας τοῦ τόπου γίνεται μὲ κύριο κριτήριο τὸν ἐνθουσιασμό, τὴν συναισθηματικὴ ἔξαρση καὶ τὴ συνακόλουθη ψυχολογικὴ ἐξάρτηση τοῦ ψηφοφόρου ἀπὸ τὸ πρόσωπο τοῦ ῾ἡγέτη᾽, ἀπορρέουν ἀπὸ μία θεμιτή, ἀνιδιοτελῆ κατ ̓ ἀρχήν, συμπάθεια, εὐπιστία καὶ τυφλὴ ἐμπιστοσύνη πρὸς τὸ (πολιτικό) πρόσωπο, στοιχεῖα τὰ ὁποῖα εἶναι χαρακτηριστικὰ τῆς ἀρετῆς τοῦ ἑλληνικοῦ λαοῦ ἐν γένει. Αὐτὴ ἡ ἀρετὴ ὅμως συχνὰ μετατρέπεται σὲ ἰδιοτελῆ προσκόλληση ἡ ὁποία συνεπάγεται τὴν ἐν τέλει τύφλωση τοῦ πολίτη, ὁ ὁποῖος τότε πλέον εὐθύνεται γιὰ τὸ παράδοξο τῶν ἡμερῶν νὰ διεκδικοῦν ἐκ νέου τὴν ψῆφο τῶν Ἑλλήνων πολιτικὰ ὄντα τὰ ὁποῖα ἔχουν ὁδηγήσει τὸν λαὸ σὲ βιωμένη καταστροφή.

Ἕνα δεύτερο ζήτημα ποὺ τίθεται σὲ συνάρτηση μὲ τὰ προηγούμενα εἶναι: ἔχουμε, ἄραγε, οἱ Ἕλληνες συνείδηση τοῦ διακυβεύματος τὸ ὁποῖο ἡ πολιτικὴ πράξη καὶ ἐν προκειμένῳ τὸ συνταγματικὸ δικαίωμα τῆς 25ης Ἰανουαρίου καλεῖται νὰ διαχειριστεῖ; Ἔχουμε ἰδία γνώση, ἐπίγνωση τοῦ διακυβεύματος, ἤ ἀποκοιμόμαστε στὴ ναρκωτικὴ μαγεία τοῦ πλεονάζοντος πολιτικοῦ ψεύδους; Ἑνὸς ψεύδους ποὺ ἐπιχειρεῖ νὰ σχετικοποιήσει τὸ διακύβευμα ἀλλοιώνοντάς το καὶ προσαρμόζοντάς το στα μέτρα καὶ σταθμὰ τῆς ἑκάστοτε πολιτικῆς ἰσχύος τῶν κομμάτων;

Ὁ βασιλέας καὶ προφήτης Δαυίδ φαίνεται νὰ ἔχει σαφῆ γνώση καὶ συνείδηση τοῦ πολιτικοῦ παιγνίου, γι’ αὐτὸ καὶ εἶναι παράδοξα εὐθύς, ὅταν αὐτός, ἕνας πανίσχυρος ἄρχοντας ὁ ἴδιος, προειδοποιεῖ τὸν λαό του ὅτι μὲ τοὺς ἄρχοντες δὲν ὑπάρχει σωτηρία.

Γιατί;

Διότι σωτηρία σημαίνει ἀκεραιότητα. Ἡ ἀκεραιότητα ὅμως σημαίνει ἑνότητα, ἡ ὁποία πάντως προϋποθέτει τὸ ὅλον. Τὸ ὅλον, ὅμως, de facto δὲν μπορεῖ νὰ ὑπηρετεῖται ἀπὸ κομματικοὺς σχηματισμούς. Διότι αὐτοί ἀποδέχονται ἐκ τῶν πραγμάτων μόνον θεωρητικὰ τὸ ῾῾ἡ ἰσχὺς ἐν τῇ ἑνώσει᾽᾽, καθὼς στὴν πολιτικὴ πράξη τους υἱοθετοῦν τὸ ῾῾ἡ ἰσχὺς ἐν τῇ πολώσει᾽᾽, ὑπηρετώντας ἔτσι τὸ ῾῾διαίρει καὶ βασίλευε᾽᾽ πρὸς ὤφελος τῶν ξένων ἰσχυρῶν παικτῶν (συμμάχων). Ἔτσι, ὅμως, προφανῶς, δὲν ὑπάρχει σωτηρία.

Σκεπτόμενος κατ᾽ αὐτὸν τὸν τρόπο, μπορεῖ κανεὶς νὰ ἀξιολογήσει καὶ νὰ ἐκτιμήσει τὶς προθέσεις καὶ ἐκείνων οἱ ὁποῖοι, μὴ ἔχοντας ὑπάρξει ποτὲ ὡς τῶρα σὲ κυβερνητικὲς θέσεις, ἤ, ἔστω, σὲ κόμματα ἐξουσίας, ἐπιζητοῦν ἤδη τὴν ψῆφο τοῦ ἑλληνικοῦ λαοῦ ἐπιστρατεύοντας τὴν ὑπόσχεση γιὰ ῾῾κυβέρνηση ὅλου τοῦ λαοῦ᾽᾽, ὅλων τῶν Ἑλλήνων. Αὐτὸ εἶναι εὐχῆς ἔργο, βεβαίως. Φαίνεται, ὅμως, εἶτε οἱ τοιοῦτοι νὰ ἐθελοτυφλοῦν εἶτε νὰ ἀγνοοῦν καὶ αὐτοὶ ὅτι κυβέρνηση τοῦ ὅλου καὶ κόμμα -ἔστω καὶ ἐκ πολλῶν συνιστωσῶν συνιστάμενο- δὲν μποροῦν νὰ συνυπάρξουν. Ἡ αὐτοδυναμία ὅταν ἐπιδιώκεται εἰς βάρος ἄλλων, μολονότι θεωρεῖται ἐπιτυχία αὐτοῦ ποὺ τὴν ἐξασφαλίζει, συνιστᾶ ἀδυναμία καὶ ἀποτυχία γιὰ τὸ ὅλον. Ἡ πολιτικὴ ρητορεία, ἄλλωστε, τοῦ δικομματισμοῦ τὸ ἀπέδειξε αὐτὸ περίτρανα ἐπὶ δεκαετίες, ἀφοῦ στὸ ἰδεολογικό της ῾῾ὅλον᾽᾽ δὲν χώρεσε τὸ ὀντολογικὸ ῾῾καθ’ ἕκαστον᾽᾽, μὲ συνέπεια, τὰ ἰδεολογήματα ΠΑΣΟΚ καὶ ΝΔ, ἀριστερᾶς–δεξιᾶς, διεθνισμοῦ- ἐθνικισμοῦ, προόδου–συντηρητισμοῦ, σοσιαλισμοῦ-φιλελευθερισμοῦ, νὰ ἔχουν πλέον ὁδηγήσει τὸν λαὸ στὴν ταπείνωση, τὸν ἐξευτελισμὸ καὶ τὴν ἐξαθλίωση.

Ἴσως εἶναι πιὰ καιρός, μὲ τὴν συμπλήρωση 190 χρόνων κομματικοῦ πολιτικοῦ βίου στὸν ἑλλαδικὸ χῶρο καὶ 40 χρόνων μεταπολίτευσης, νὰ συνειδητοποιήσουμε καὶ νὰ ἀναλογιστοῦμε ἔμπρακτα ὅτι, αὐτὸς ὁ λαὸς ἀξίζει σωτηρίας, ἀξίζει ἑνότητας καὶ, ἄρα, ἔχουμε χρέος ὡς ῾῾καθ᾽ ἕκαστον᾽᾽ νὰ ὑπερασπιστοῦμε τὸ ῾῾καθ’ ὅλου᾽᾽.

Ἀξίζει, ὡς πολίτες φέροντες ψῆφο νὰ ὑπηρετήσουμε παντί τρόπῳ τὴν πάσης φύσεως ἀκεραιότητα αὐτοῦ τοῦ τόπου καὶ αὐτοῦ τοῦ λαοῦ, ἀντιμετωπίζοντας δανειστὲς καὶ πάσης φύσεως σωτῆρες μὲ μία πυγμὴ, παύοντας νὰ ἀναθέτουμε παρελθόν, παρὸν καὶ μέλλον σὲ ὁλίγιστους, ὁλιγάρχες καὶ ὁλιγαρχομένους, σὲ ἀνθρώπους τῶν ὁποίων οἱ ἰδεολογικὲς ἀγκυλώσεις καὶ στρεβλώσεις, ὁ πολιτικὸς ἀμοραλισμός, ἡ ἔλλειψη ἠθικῆς ἀκεραιότητας καὶ σοφίας δὲν τοὺς ἐπιτρέπουν νὰ δοῦν τὸ ὅλον στὸ κάθε ἐπιμέρους, μὲ συνέπεια νὰ εἶναι ἀδιάφοροι καὶ ἀνίκανοι γιὰ τὴ σωτηρία τῶν μὴ ταυτιζομένων μὲ τὴν δική τους ἑτερότητα.

Ἀς ἐπιβάλουμε, ἐπιτέλους, στὸ βαθμὸ ποὺ ἐξαρτᾶται ἀπὸ τὴν ψῆφο μας, τὸ τέλος τῆς κομματοκρατίας καὶ τοῦ κατακερματισμοῦ, κραυγάζοντας στοὺς ἐκπροσώπους μας στὸ Ἑλληνικὸ Κοινοβούλιο ὅτι ὀφείλουν στὸν ἑλληνικὸ λαό, αὐτοὺς ποὺ εἶναι τῶρα ἐδῶ, ὅσους ἔφυγαν καὶ ἐκείνους ποὺ εἶναι νά ̓ρθουν, τὸ χρέος τῆς ἑνότητας.

Sketchy thoughts on Good and Evil (part I)

Quite a time ago a friend had asked me to write to him about how do I define Good and Evil, and what do they mean to me. I had pondered on the issue and provided him an answer, which I reproduce here without modifications; it might be of some interest. Not much has changed in my views, I believe.

My friend, thank you for your question. I shall start by providing you with the original Greek terms for Good and Evil. Secondly, I shall give you a rough outline of the grounds Good and Evil are established on in the Greek philosophical tradition and thought, both pagan and Christian. Then, I will write about some fundamental distinctions that will allow you to understand what I am about to claim, namely that:

a. The Good is ontologically identical with: love, beauty, goodness, truth, wisdom, unity, being, life, peace, freedom. On the moral level, you can add all the derivatives of the above, plus, for instance, benevolence, stillness, unselfishness, etc. This has become partly clear by the Greeks 2-3 thousand years ago, but the experiential understanding of it culminated in its theoretical constructions ca. 1500 years ago.

b. Evil is ontologically validated as a paradox reality. For it is about: lack, privation, chaos, destruction, deprivation of substance and form, in fact, Evil is about non-being, and It is non-being itself. But it is not non-being in a way exceeding being, but in a way of absolute nothingness. Could you imagine that? I admit, I have difficulties in imagining it. For, we are beings and as such our relation with corruption is only accidental, partial and never complete. Obviously, we will never reach that state of “non-state”, and even if we did, it wouldn’t allow us to know anything about it. For knowledge is only knowledge of something, and a ‘something’ is already a being! The best the human mind can do, is to depict Evil in ontologically positive ways. All I mean is that the worst version of Evil the human mind can think of, with or without speculation, is an evil ‘entity’, yet a being.

But let’s move on.

I.

A. For the word Good the Greek word options are: 1. ἀγαθός; grammatically masculine genre (Greek has three concrete identifications of nouns, reflected almost always in the suffix of the words: masculine, feminine, neutral). Used both as adjective and noun, the term is extensively used in the literature, since its origins with Homer, to predicate both God, a good man and/or an animal. 2. ἀγαθό(ν); grammatically neutral, predicating material and immaterial things. When predicating immaterial ‘matters’ it serves as adjective, whereas in predicating material goods is holding a noun’s value.

B. For the word Evil the Greek term is: κακό(ν); it is grammatically neutral, and this makes already a point about the understanding of Evil. (There is, similarly to the above, a broadly used masculine word (κακός), but it is always serving as adjective, and thus we don’t need to expand over this since the scope of your question is rather metaphysical than moral. You may see in the Greek literature, Christian – non-Christian, Ancient, Medieval and Modern, pagan and non-pagan, that evil(s) is always rendered either in the singular κακόν, or in the plural κακά.

II.

Greek philosophy, whether in antiquity, late antiquity, early christian times, Byzantium, or the modern times, has always clearly distinguished between Metaphysics / Ontology, Epistemology, and Ethics. But never, among the Greeks these directions become segregated and split from each other: a radical distinction between Metaphysics and Ethics started within western Medieval thought and now, of course, these fields have become so remote from each other as the earth is remoted from the sun. For the Greeks the discussion on the first principles of the Cosmos, the origin and the nature of beings, the constitution and the function of human knowledge, as well as the proper way of living, have always been unified and united, so that morality was a natural outcome of wisdom. This is a very very sketchy outline which can help you to place a discussion on Good and Evil, within Greek civilisation and tradition of thought, whether pagan or Christian. Moreover, one might bear in mind that the Greeks have never been living without religion, namely without reference to the Source of everything. The very constitution of Greek thought posits the fundamental questions and attempts to provide with answers that explicate and rationally advance the mythical outcomes, which, again, are full of religious consciousness. It might be interesting, for you, by the way, to have a suggestion on the origin of the term θρησκεία (religion). Θρησκεία, has been suggested, relates etymologically to terms such as, θρώσκω (to see, to look at; interesting, by the way, that man in Greek is rendered as ἄνθρωπος {compound word, consisted of the preposition ἄνω (up) + θρωπος {he who sees}), θεωρῶ, θωρῶ (to envisage, to have a vision), θεωρία (theory), and much more.

III.

At a certain point, man opened up for a transition from mythical to philosophical thought. One should think of this transition not exclusively on historical terms (namely: it happened once and for ever) but as a constant development the human mind is under even now. You can see, for instance, both on the level of beliefs and traditions of many tribes and on the level of practice in many societies, that there are still thousands of mythical elements that regulate people’s way of being. The Greeks quite early conceived of deity, of divinity, in personal terms (although the Presocratics had thought of the natural elements as principles), and they were very conscious about God’s existence. A divinity that could be contacted in many ways, that could even be influenced by humans in a quite flexible manner; here are hundred thousands of people who suffer being dominated, if not tortured, by concepts of entities of divinity that impose limitations, restrictions, legal relations and many other annoying determinations and prohibitions in the relation of the divine and he human.

That is why I said above that the passage from myth to reason, is still in process. However, I don’t mean that rationality should be praised as divinity. I am only referring to the possibility of encountering with a Good God who is real being, beyond imaginatory perceptions, or blind conduct by sectes of people who claim infallibility or any of the other many tortures of human life and history. So, in this transition, from myth to logos, from mythical thought to philosophical thought, man discovered some fundamental distinctions applying to the cosmos, the metaphysical reality and the way the human being is able to know. Plato recapitulated and advanced these distinctions further, and Aristotle led them to new directions. I list some of the most central of them here, as being relevant to our discussion:

i. Similarity – Dissimilarity

ii. Sameness – Otherness

iii. Identity – Difference

iv. Union – Division

v. Unity – Multiplicity

vi. General – Particular

vii. Form – Matter

viii. God – Man

ix. Cosmos – Chaos

x. Intelligible – Sensible

xi. Being – Non-being

xii. Freedom – Necessity

xiii. Good – Evil

(The list is certainly not perfect; one may add several more distinctions, such as potentiality-actuality, cause-effect, etc, but I shall abstain from entering into such a digression now).

All these above distinctions refer and apply to an ontology of the eternity, as I would call it. Roughly speaking, in the Greek thought prior to Christianity the understanding of the cosmos is that it is eternal. A potential consequence with respect to our topic is, that good and evil are also eternal powers. This has become clear already by Heraclitus, the Milesian wiseman, who had remarked that “War is the Father of all”. In this view, Evil is not something necessarily bad: it facilitates life and development. Indeed, what would be the point of qualifying evil in a world ruled by necessity? The any ‘bad’ that happens is at the same time good in the sense that one can neither reject it nor avoid it. But, if this is so, why then Evil is such a bad thing that we have to call it so, and to contrast it to the Good?

Well, there might be some good reasons for that. For the sake of methodological convenience, I would like us to agree that the best manner of identifying evil is the referential one to the good. So that, if we have to name such a thing as evil, it should be that which is lacking all what constitutes the good. Don’t you, really, think this would be the only appropriate way to reach a real notion of Evil, as an Evil perfectly contrasting the Good? And, then, our understanding about Good and Evil would make good sense? This dialectics could be followed further, but I shall not do it now. What I shall do though, is to give you some inputs that you can find implicit in Plato, because he only intuitively sensed them, and he did not endorse them in an explicit manner. So, here are, in addition to the above distinctions, a couple more; 

i. Eternity – Time (Plato deals with this, though, in the Timaeus dialogue, but the setting here now is different: for Plato time is the moving image of eternity).

ii. Created – Uncreated.

I should like to stay a bit on the second distinction that will also illuminate the first. This distinction is about a novelty that is introduced in the human thinking by the Greek Church Fathers, competent thinkers who addressed Greek thought by means of Christianity. Their thought consists of a combination of theological experience of the truths found in the Old and the New Testament and the reasoning of philosophical thinking. The substantial difference, the novelty in their mind is, that the world is not regarded as eternal. It has a beginning. This beginning is an entrance into being made by, or caused by, the not-being (note here the distinction between not-being I use now and non-being I used earlier about Evil: not-being is referring to ‘exceeding being’, that is being in all its fullfilment and even furthermore. It is beyond the area of what Plato had sensed as ‘beyond being’ (ἐπέκεινα τῆς οὐσίας), whereas Evil is non-being since it is lacking even this it).

Now, roughly, again, the only eternal – conventionally speaking since our language and mind cannot conceive of it – is God’s being. God himself is that eternally being, and that completely being, so that if you decide to call a human or an animal, or even a plant or a stone being, then God should be called not being. In such a world created out of absolute nothing and without any necessity, not even the necessity for God to prove his omnipotence, as St. Augustine beautifully asserts in his Commentary to the book of Genesis, the only reason explaining being and creation-hood, is divine love. It is God himself who decides, we don’t know why and how, to proceed to the production of everything, of all, out of nothing. And since God is the perfect being, carrying on the perfections of the predications of Good I wrote you at the beginning of this answer, what he creates is being and nothing less.

But if this is so, how then does Evil enter into the picture? Is God creating Evil? If yes, how would it be possible, since we know that from the similar comes a similar? A man, for instance, cannot give birth to an apple. This is of course, a simple example, because in God all multiplications are united, as the water in the source before started watering several farms. And, if not, then, how does Evil exist? Was not God omnipotent enough, so to speak, as to not allow the emergence of Evil? So what is Evil? And where does it locate? And why does it exist? These are both difficult and easy questions. A way to conceive of this mystery, is to affirm that God is creating freely. As such, God’s creations have been inherited with the gift of freedom. But freedom is not only about the very gift, but also its use. The latter, its use, is something that God does not wish to determine, or prohibit. Any determination would annihilate immediately the very reality of freedom. And where does freedom abides? Certainly, in the human will. There are many intermediary states that I omit here, and I have to, before reaching the conclusion that, it is the free will, the freedom of will, the human being disposes that is crucial in the decision to be made of either communicating God and thus share in divine love, or to contrast and oppose the source and instead raise a fake, falsely, source of everything, that is ourselves. The first option is an affirmation to goodness. The second is the revelation of evil.

P.S. You may object that while my answer claimed to remain within metaphysics it ended up within moral considerations. Yet, you would be right. For there exists no ontological evil. These sketchy mixed thoughts aimed to tell you that the reality of evil is a paradox. For evil is not…

Platonism and Christian Thought in Late Antiquity

A very interesting anthology I am currently working on together with excellent co-editors, is about to be released by Routledge, in June 2019. The idea for such edition was conceived in the aftermath of the International Workshop in Oslo on the Philosophy of Late Antiquity, that was held at the Department of Philosophy in the University of Oslo, in December 2016. The volume Platonism and Christian Thought in Late Antiquity contains 15 essays and an Introductory chapter that cover topics on the interface between Platonism and Christian thought in this period. The authors, who are scholars from several disciplines, contribute on topics distributed in 4 parts:

I. Methodologies

Sébastian Morlet, on The Agreement of Christianity and Platonic Philosophy from Justin Martyr to Eusebius

Christina Hoenig, on Augustine and the “Prophecy” of Plato, Tim. 29c3

Christine Hecht, on Porphyry’s Daemons as a Threat for the Christians

II. Cosmology

Enrico Moro, on Patristic Reflections on Formless Matter

Eyjólfur Kjalar Emilsson, on Plotinus’ Doctrine of Badness as Matter in Ennead I.8. [51]

Torstein Theodor Tollefsen, on Proclus, Philoponus, and Maximus: The Paradigm of the World and Temporal Beginning

III. Metaphysics

Lars Fredrik Janby, on Christ and Pythagoras: Augustine’s Early Philosophy of Number

Daniel J. Tolan, on The Impact of Ὁμοούσιον on the Divine Ideas

Panagiotis G. Pavlos, on Theurgy in Dionysius the Areopagite

Dimitrios A. Vasilakis, On the Meaning of Hierarchy in Dionysius the Areopagite

Sebastian Mateiescu, on The Doctrine of Immanent Realism in Maximus the Confessor

Jordan Daniel Wood, on That and How Perichōresis Differs from Participation: The Case of Maximus the Confessor

IV. Ethics

Emma Brown Dewhurst, on Apophaticism in the Search for Knowledge: Love as a Key Difference in Neoplatonic and Christian Epistemology

Adrian Pirtea, on The Origin of Passions in Neoplatonic and Early Christian Thought: Porphyry of Tyre and Evagrius Ponticus

Tomas Ekenberg, on Augustine on Eudaimonia as Life Project and Object of Desire

The book is part of the Routledge Studies in the Philosophy and Theology in Late Antiquity, directed by Mark Edwards and Lewis Ayres.

Check it out:

https://www.routledge.com/Platonism-and-Christian-Thought-in-Late-Antiquity/Pavlos-Janby-Emilsson-Tollefsen/p/book/9781138340954