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

The Miraculous Last Outpost of the Roman Empire (Part I)

A pilgrim tour from Norway to Mount Athos

Text by Øystein Silouan Lid, and pictures by Torbjørn Fink.
The majestic rocky Mount Athos, a natural outpost.

In this post I reproduce a beautiful article originally published in Norwegian, in the newspaper Dagen, from Bergen. It is about a tribute to Mount Athos, titled: ‘Mirakla i Romarrikets siste utpost‘ (‘The Miraculous Last Outpost of the Roman Empire’), written by the journalist Øystein Silouan Lid, who happened to travel to the Holy Mountain, in May 2016. The English translation was prepared by the author on the occasion of its publication on the portal pemptousia.com, in August 2016. I am grateful to Øystein Silouan Lid for his permission to reproduce it here. The pictures I am using for this post are property of Torbjørn Fink, one of the members of the pilgrims group, to whom I am grateful as well.

The Church of Protaton, in Karyes, the capital of Mount Athos (photo by Torbjørn Fink).

This summer [2016 -ed.] ten Norwegians were granted an audience at The Holy Mountain, the last remaining part of the Roman Empire. The monks who live here tell stories of miracles and wonders as a normal part of everyday life. Mount Athos has been called the one place on planet earth that has changed least over the centuries. The Orthodox monks who dwell here, live as they did during medieval times, praying and working. They come to dedicate their lives completely to God, and the last thing they want is for the hard-to-reach peninsula to become a tourist attraction. Nevertheless, the monastic republic in northern Greece has a remarkable pull on people from all over the world.

When the famous CBS news magazine 60 minutes in 2009 asked permission to come do a story on The Holy Mountain, the request was categorically denied. It took two years of negotiating before one of the monasteries finally said yes. It was therefore not without trepidation that the Norwegian journalist set foot in Karyes, the administrative centre of Mount Athos, before setting off on foot towards the ancient monastery of Iviron.

East-north view of the Iviron Monastery.

The forest on each side of the footpath has a jungle-like appearance. Wild edible peas, dill and oregano grow in several places. Suddenly we notice the wonderful fragrance of incense – the smell is easily recognized from the Orthodox liturgy. Yet here we are, in the middle of the forest, and no one is swinging the censer. 

On the path from Karyes to Iviron Monastery.

Small signs and wonders such as these happen all the time here on Athos, says Panagiotis Pavlos. He is a scholar of philosophy at the University of Oslo, and presently our local guide. We are not far from the house of saint Paisios (1924-1994), regarded as one of the holiest men of the monastic peninsula. While he was alive people came by the thousands to visit him – on this very path. They were healed from all kinds of diseases, delivered from demons, and received spiritual counsel. It was said that his mere presence could change the hearts of the pilgrims who came to see him, and draw them towards Christ. Panagiotis was himself one of the many people who came to visit the saint’s kellion (monastic cell) in the forest, and is a friend of the monk who lives here today – father Arsenios.

– Christos anesti (Christ is risen)! Panagiotis cries out, and before long a man with a flowing beard is seen in the doorway.

Father Arsenios greets his old friend warmly and the Norwegians politely, before telling a few of the numerous stories of signs and wonders which took place right here in his cabin. A phenomenon father Arsenios tells us about, is the ability of saint Paisios to know what the guests would ask him, before even opening their mouths. 

– Once, a lawyer came to Mount Athos. He didn’t believe the stories about Paisios, and decided to put him to the test. He planned to present himself as a doctor, instead of a lawyer. When he arrived at the gate he found himself in a group of 50 people who all had come to see the saint. Elder Paisios opened his door, looked the lawyer straight in the eye, and said: “Go away, and take your lies with you to the court room”. The man never doubted again, says father Arsenios.

The kind of Christianity preserved on Athos has a rather unique history. After the capitol of the Roman Empire fell to the occupying Muslim army in 1453, Mount Athos became the last remaining outpost of Imperium Romanum. Already in the year 972 it had been established as a self-governing monastic state within the empire by the emperor John the First, Tzimiskes. 

Today the «Autonomous Monastic State of the Holy Mountain» is the only republic where the banner of the Eastern Roman Empire – the characteristic double eagle – still can be seen waiving in the wind on top of official flag poles.

Mount Athos is today considered to be the spiritual centre of the Orthodox Church. Over 2.000 monks reside in the 20 operative monasteries, having dedicated their lives to prayer for the entire world.

Aproaching the Holy Mountain.


–The monks find the reason behind their monastic calling in the words by Jesus Christ (Matthew 19) regarding a life of celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of God, about selling all belongings, giving to the poor, and following Christ, says father Johannes, the priest in St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Norway, as well as the spiritual guide of the group.

Fr. Johannes, fr. Seraphim and Øystein Lid, at the south gate of Iviron Monastery.

To be continued…

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: