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.