You are here

Lecture Twenty-sixth: The Controversy between Plotinus and the Gnostics

THE period of the activity of Plotinus as a teacher at Rome lasts from 244 to 262 A.D., a period in which there was great activity of thought in the Church, and much controversy with the Gnostics and other heretics, who sought to introduce into its doctrine many elements borrowed from Eastern religion and Western philosophy. Nor can there be any doubt that Plotinus was brought into close contact with such speculations, and that he had to maintain his ground against them in the discussions of his school. The Neo-Platonist system was, as we have seen, the concentrated result of Greek philosophy, and its disciples were the natural representatives of the principles of that philosophy in the defensive war of ancient culture against the new ideas that were invading the world. The echo of these controversies is discernible not only in the one directly polemical work of Plotinus against the Gnostics, but also in many of his later writings, particularly in his discourses upon Providence.1 From these we can gather that Plotinus had to meet an attack upon his doctrines from two sides, both from those who represented a deeper Pessimism and from those who represented a higher Optimism than his own. And, indeed, these two attacks sometimes merged in one, in so far as the Gnostics, who carried the dualism of Greece to a form more extreme than Plotinus, at the same time maintained in a somewhat imperfect form, the Christian doctrine of the redemption of the lost and degraded.

It is curious to notice the intensity of passion with which Plotinus threw himself into the defence of both aspects of his own doctrine, and insisted upon the necessity of the exact compromise by which he attempted to reconcile them with each other. From the nature of the case, he had to maintain a balance between opposites. He had, to put it shortly, to prove that the world is relatively good, or rather that it is the best of all possible worlds, because the One, which is also the Good, is its source and its end. Yet, on the other hand, he had also to contend that, as a material world, it is evil and opposed to the divine, and that the great object and purpose of the moral and religious life is to escape from it. In the effort to maintain at once these two opposite positions, his philosophy is, as it were, torn asunder. We cannot say that he was ever shaken in the conviction of the truth of his own system; but there are passages in his later works which show how deeply he felt the stress of upholding it against its assailants. And while, even in these works, there are chapters full of the glow of passionate faith, yet I think it is true that, as his dialectic becomes more subtle and complicated, the movement of his thought becomes less spontaneous and less vividly imaginative. On the whole, it is in his earlier writings that we find the finest expressions of sublime religious enthusiasm. And the reason seems to be that his thought, through all the first period of his teaching, dwells mainly on the soul's ascent from grade to grade in the spiritual world, or, in other words, on the ways in which it may escape from matter and sense, and return into union with the divine. Love of beauty, dialectic, and the practice of moral virtue are described as different means by which it can purify itself and prepare for true final deliverance; and the various orders of being are represented as stages which the soul has to traverse on its upward way to God, in whom alone it can find rest and blessedness. The climax is found in the ninth book of the sixth Ennead, in which Plotinus devotes his highest powers of imaginative expression to describe the flight of the ‘lonely soul,’ the soul that has freed itself from all difference and finitude, to the ‘lonely One,’ ϕυγὴ μόνου πρὸς μόνον. It had not yet occurred to Plotinus to deal seriously with the difficulties which arise when we consider that all these lower stages of being, with all the evils they contain, must owe their existence to that divine or absolute Being, who alone is conceived as perfectly good.

Now these difficulties were first brought before Plotinus in an effective way by certain members of the Gnostic schools, who maintained that the sensible and material world was produced by an evil Demiurgus or Creator; that the spirits of men, in so far as they belong to that world, are subject to darkening and polluting influences; and, finally, that they, or rather the elect among them, are to be delivered from such influences by a Redeemer emanating from the higher spiritual world, who should descend into the world of sense to break the chains by which they are bound. Plotinus had made the world-soul the lowest grade in his Trinity of the spiritual world, and had treated it as the mediating principle through which the higher grades communicate with the world of sense and matter. But the idea that the material world is essentially evil, was abhorrent to him; and if he was obliged to admit—if, indeed, it were necessarily involved in his philosophical principles—that that world has evil in it, yet he is eager to maintain that it is as good as it can be, and even that it is in essence good, and only accidentally evil. This world-despising mystic, therefore, when he encounters the coarser and more pronounced dualism of the Gnostics—which not only condemns the material as such, but gives over the present world to the evil one, and regards it as essentially the kingdom of Satan—remembers that he is a Greek, and that sensible beauty is for him, if not the perfect manifestation, yet the reflexion and product of a still higher ideal beauty. From this point of view, therefore, he is fain to glorify that very phenomenal world from which, in his mystic mood, he had turned away almost with loathing, as the best of all possible material worlds. As a material world, it is a ‘shadow of good things, and not the perfect image of them’; but, at the worst, it provides the first stepping-stone from which, and by means of which, we can ascend to a higher order of being. Hence he is roused to anger against those who would destroy the fine balance of the Platonic spirit, in which the aspiring idealism that seeks to emancipate the intelligence from the bondage of sense is so perfectly poised against the artistic feeling that clings to the sensible, as the manifestation of the ideal. And he does not reflect that this fine balance has already been destroyed by his own mysticism.

Urged by such motives Plotinus, in his discourse against the Gnostics, endeavours to go as far in the direction of Optimism as his general principles will allow him. This world is, indeed, he allows, only a reflexion or copy of the higher world, and, as a reflexion, it cannot be equal to its original; but it comes as near to that original as a reflexion can do. We are not to say that this world is evil, though there are many untoward things in it; it would be too much to expect that it should have all the perfection of the intelligible world. But, he asks, allowing that it is only an image, “what more beautiful image could there be? After the fire of the intelligible world, what better image of it could there be than our fire? What earth, outside of the intelligible earth, could be better than ours? After the self-centred unity of the intelligible world, what sphere could be more perfect or more regular in its revolution than the sphere of our heavens? Or, again, if we set aside the sun of the intelligible world, what other sun could shine more brightly than ours?”2 That contempt of the world of sense, which the Gnostics regarded as a proof of the elevation of their spirits, is rather, Plotinus contends, a proof of the opposite; for he who despises the beauty he has seen, must be one in whom it does not awake the reminiscence of the higher beauty from which it is derived. “For what musician, who has perceived the harmony of the intelligible world, will listen without emotion to the harmonies of sensible sound? Or what scientific man, who possesses the knowledge of geometry or arithmetic, will not rejoice to recognise the symmetry and proportion and order of the objects that are presented to his eyes? Even one who looks at a picture can hardly be said to see it, unless he recognises in it a visible imitation of ideal beauty, and unless it carries him out of himself and awakens a reminiscence of the truth it imitates. It is this reminiscence, indeed, which is the beginning of love. If, then, he who sees beauty well represented in the face of a man, be carried beyond it to the intelligible, can anyone be so inert and insensible of soul as to behold all the beauties of the material world with all its symmetry and order, and all the glory of form which shows itself in the heavenly bodies, far off as they are, and yet not to take all this to heart and reflect with reverence what they are, and from what original they come? He who can do so, hath truly beheld neither the one nor the other.”3

Above all, the supposition that the general system of the world is evil, and that no good is to be found in it except in the souls of those men whom the Gnostic called spiritual, strikes Plotinus as an absolute inversion of the truth. To him, as an inheritor of the tradition of Plato and Aristotle, the principle seems axiomatic that Providence looks to the whole rather than to the parts, and that the world-soul participates in good in a higher degree than the souls of individuals. In particular he holds to the peculiarly Greek idea (which Philosophy adopted from mythology), that the heavenly bodies, the sun and the stars, are in a special sense the organs of the divine, and are lifted by their perfect order and regularity of movement far above the change and contingency of the life of man. “It is absurd,” he declares, “that they (i.e. the Gnostics), who have bodies like other men and are subject to sensuous desire, and to fear and anger, should form such a high idea of their own capacity, and should assert that they can attain to the intelligible, while they will not concede to the sun, which is far less exposed to passion and disorder and change, a greater wisdom than belongs to us men, who are the creatures of a day and who are kept back from the truth by so many illusions. Yet they assert that their own souls, yea, and the souls of the meanest of men, are immortal and divine, while the whole heaven and all its stars, composed as they are of nobler and purer elements, have no part in immortality; and this, though they see the perfect order and symmetry that prevails in the heavens, and the disorders of our earthly life. It is as if they supposed that the soul, which is immortal, of set purpose chose the worse place for itself, and surrendered the better place to the souls of mortal men.”4

The world of sense, then, is for Plotinus as good as it can be, and we see its goodness the more, the more we look to the whole or to those parts of it which, like the heavenly bodies, partake in its eternity, and the less we look to the changing lot of mortal creatures upon earth. Man occupies a middle rank and partakes at once of immortality and of mortality, and for him, therefore, we may expect a mingled and checkered life, corresponding to his double nature. Somewhere in the hierarchy of being there must be such a creature as man, and the defect of his nature shows itself in a weakness of will, which makes him incapable of sustaining himself in the intelligible world. Yet we are not to suppose that this original defect is a fixed limit to man's soul. He can by experience of evil learn to choose what is good, and the way upward as well as the way downward is open to him. As Plato said, “Virtue owns no control but its own,” and by his conduct in one life man chooses the δαίμων that is to rule him in the next. We might be disposed to refer this idea of transmigration and of the possibility of an ultimate deliverance from the necessity of being born again into the world of sense, to influences derived from the East, and especially from India, where the doctrine prevails to this day; for we know that Plotinus accompanied the Emperor Gordian in his campaign in the East, and he might there have come into contact with some representatives of the Indian pantheism. But his language shows that he is merely developing the ideas of Plato.

Plotinus has several ways of explaining evil which seem to run into, or alternate with each other. In the first place, he refers it to the free choice of the individual. He is specially earnest in denouncing the idea of fate, in the sense of an external necessity which determines all individual things and beings. Indeed, he points out that such an idea, if universalised, is self-contradictory. “This necessity,” he declares, “by its very excess destroys itself and does away with the enchainment or continuous connexion of causes. For it would be absurd to say that our different members are fatally moved, because they are moved by the directing principle of our will—seeing it is not one thing that gives and another that receives the impulse, but there is one principle present in all our members determining them to move and be moved by each other. So, in like manner, if in the whole universe there be one principle which is common to that which acts and to that which is acted on, and the movement of one part cannot be referred to that of another, we should express the truth best by saying, not that all things happen through the causation of one by another, but that all things are one. On this hypothesis, then, we could not even say that we are ourselves, or that any action is ours, but all our counsels and resolves must be referred to the determination of another. In that case, to say that we act would be like saying that our feet kick, when we kick by means of them. We must, therefore, maintain for each individual his own individuality, and we must give to each the credit of his own acts and thoughts, whether they be good or bad. And especially we must not attribute our deeds to the whole, least of all our evil deeds.”5

In this way Plotinus shows that a thorough-going system of necessity is inconsistent with the attribution to the individual of an independent will or even of a self; for the idea of necessity presupposes relatively independent things or beings, one of which determines the other, but if the determination of one by the other is absolute, there will be no independent things or beings. We must, on that hypothesis, treat not only freewill but even self-consciousness as an illusion; for an ego or self can only exist on condition that we are entitled to refer actions and thoughts to it as apart from all other things or beings. And the same holds with all individuality, whether self-conscious or not. Fate, therefore, is a self-contradictory conception; for if the principle of the whole never gives, nor can give, an independent individuality to the parts, it cannot of course take it away. This, no doubt, is an important thought, and the consideration of it may suggest an answer to an objection commonly brought against the idea of freedom. It is often said that, if we regard the universe as a whole and refer it to one principle, which, as the principle of the whole, must be absolute and infinite, we cannot admit anything like freedom or independence in any of the parts. But to this it may be answered that, if we adopt such an argument, we are really limiting that very principle, which at the same time we are declaring to be absolute and infinite; in other words, we are maintaining that an infinite Being cannot go beyond itself or give rise to any creature even relatively independent of itself. Thus we seem to be driven to the conclusion that, if there be any ultimate unity at all, it must be a Pantheistic unity, in which all difference is so completely lost that even the illusive appearance of it becomes inexplicable. In the language of Plotinus, the doctrine of necessity carried to the extreme contains the negation of itself; for the many existences, which are connected by links of necessity, must collapse into one, and to say that the one Being who includes all is necessary, has no meaning.

So far, the argument of Plotinus is irresistible; but how does he himself escape the difficulty? He also holds that the Absolute One does not go beyond itself, and that its activity, so far as we can ascribe to it activity, is directed only to itself. He holds, to put it broadly, that it is not responsible for the existence of those lower forms of being, which nevertheless must be allowed to spring from it, and to owe their existence to it. But how then can they exist at all, if the Absolute does not realise itself in them? Plotinus, as we have seen, is obliged to fall back on the strange supposition of an action of the Absolute which is accidental, or has only an external necessity. The inexplicable law that the higher form of being always produces a lower form, though without any action directed to the lower, is used by Plotinus at once to account for the existence of the lower, and yet to save the higher from any responsibility for it. Hence we have a descending scale of degrees of reality, each of which produces the imperfect image of itself in that which follows it, till ultimately we are carried beyond the intelligible world into the region of matter, in which defect turns into physical and moral evil. Thus God is saved from being the cause of evil by a twofold expedient: first, by the interposition of a number of intermediate beings between the highest and the lowest; and secondly, by the idea that the production of the lower is an accidental result, and not the aim or object of the activity of the higher.

But it is obvious that this is no satisfactory solution of the difficulty. For, in the first place, the very idea of an accidental operation of the Absolute is self-contradictory, as it implies that the Absolute in its outgoing activity is subjected to a law which is not involved in its own nature as absolute. And, in the second place, the interposition of the pure intelligence and the world-soul between the absolute One and the region of matter, only distributes the problem of evil over the different grades of reality, without doing anything towards the solution of it. Plotinus, indeed, seems to maintain that, though the intelligence and the world-soul are defective as compared with the One, yet there is, strictly speaking, no evil, till we reach the material world. But this contradicts the doctrine of Plotinus himself, that evil lies essentially in defect, in the negative as such. It also contradicts another of his doctrines, according to which the reason for the descent of an individual soul into the material world must lie in something defective in its nature as a soul, or even as an intelligence. For, as we have seen, Plotinus repeatedly refers this fall to the self-will of the soul, which withdraws itself from the whole, and seeks to be something for itself. In one passage, indeed, he seems to find a reason for the fall in the need of the soul to learn by experience of evil that ‘good is best.’6 But this, again, would imply that the soul in the intelligible world is a mere possibility or potentiality, and that it requires to pass through the trial and discipline of this world, in order to become developed. Such a conception, however, involving, as it does, that existence in the material world may itself be regarded as a necessary stage in the development of the spirit, would necessitate, if it were worked out to its consequences, a complete transformation of the whole view of Plotinus as to the relation of the two worlds. Finally, when Plotinus refers all evil to matter, he makes it inexplicable how the soul should ever descend or enter into connexion with matter; or how, if by some external necessity it does so descend, the responsibility for the evils to which that fall gives rise, should ever attach to the soul itself.

In his discourses upon Providence, the principal aim of which is to maintain that God is not responsible for evil, Plotinus adopts another and a more promising line of argument. He compares the course of the world to a drama in which there is much conflict between the dramatis personae, yet in which such conflict is always subordinated to the unity of the whole. And, in connexion with this metaphor, he goes on to maintain that the nature of the universe will be more rational and perfect if it allows room, not only for difference, but also for antagonism between its separate parts; indeed, he even seems to suggest the idea that the highest unity is that which admits and overcomes the greatest antagonisms within itself. Now in the intelligible world there is a perfect organic unity overcoming all its difference; but in the world of sense, which is its copy, this difference changes into a conflict of opposites which can never be completely overcome or reconciled; and in this world, therefore, the parts are continually warring against each other and even destroying each other. Here, then, we have a continual process of generation and decay, a mixture of good and evil which cannot either be separated or reconciled. Yet, through all this checkered existence a certain providential order is maintained in the rise and fall of individuals and the interchange of existence. Thus, though evil exists in the world, it is continually subordinated to good. Justice is ever being done, in so far as it is the character of individuals that determines their fate; and the movement of the whole system is an imitation on a lower plane of the perfectly organic constitution and process of the intelligible world. And if it be objected that in this world we often see the wicked triumphing and the good depressed, Plotinus bids us remember that suffering and death are little things to an immortal being. The conflicts and wars of the phenomenal world, we are to consider, are after all rather a dramatic exhibition than a real battle; and the dramatis personae who have been slain on the stage, as soon as the curtain is down, rise up to begin a new play, in which the parts are distributed anew, according to the goodness or badness of their acting in the first piece.

“A rich life,” says Plotinus, “manifests itself in the universe, which creates all beings, giving manifold variety to their existence, and unceasingly producing beautiful forms to be, as it were, its living playthings. And when we contemplate the battles of mortal men and the weapons they use when, ranked in graceful order, they fight against each other, it appears to us like a Pyrrhic dance; and it suggests to our minds the thought that the serious business of mankind is nothing but play, and that death is not at all to be feared; for, after all, those who die in battle only anticipate by a short time that which would happen to them in age, and those who depart soonest from the earth will the sooner come back. Again, if men be deprived of their property, they may easily compute with themselves that it was not really their own beforehand, and that the robbers have gained no serious possession in that of which they will soon themselves be robbed; for, we may even say, to keep such goods is worse than to lose them. We must, then, regard all that befals us like actions upon a stage, and we must consider that the murders, the various kinds of death, the conquest and plundering of cities, are but changes of scene and character, and theatrical imitations of tears and lamentation. For here, as in all the vicissitudes of life, it is not the inner soul but the outward shadow of humanity which laments and complains and bewails itself when, with the whole earth as stage, men make their manifold exits and entrances. Such, indeed, are the doings of those who understand only how to live the lower and outer life, and have not discovered that all its sorrows, and even its most serious interests, are only play. For none but the man who knows the real earnest of life is called upon to be in earnest; while play is seriously treated only by those who do not know what earnest means, and who are themselves but playthings. But if a really earnest man takes part with them in the game and undergoes the vicissitudes which they undergo, he will know that he has lighted upon the plays of children and will take off his mask. Even a Socrates may play, but he plays only with the external Socrates. We should, therefore, keep in mind that weeping and lamentation are not to be taken as proofs of the presence of real evils; for children also weep and lament when no ill has befallen them.”7

In this attempt to explain, or explain away, evil, we see Plotinus wavering between a justification of it as a necessary means to a greater good, and the denial of its reality except as a transient appearance of the phenomenal world; and it is obviously just because he is not able to carry out the former principle successfully, that he is obliged to resort to the latter. The idea that the highest unity is that which manifests itself in the greatest differences and antagonisms and overcomes them, is, as we have seen, suggested by Plotinus; but in his view of the sensible world he practically gives it up. Yet it really contains the solution of many of his difficulties. For it carries with it the consequence that the Absolute must be conceived, not as excluding, but as including, all differences and oppositions. If we adopt this principle, however, we must regard the Absolute not as an abstract unity, but as a unity in which all difference is embraced. We must raise the pure intelligence above the One to which Plotinus subordinates it, while conceiving it with Plotinus as a conscious self, a self whose self-consciousness implies and includes the consciousness of the intelligible world. Farther, we must conceive the intelligible world, not as a world of pure forms or abstract intelligences, but as simply the external world under all the conditions of time and space; and we must recognise this world of externality and of change, as the opposite counterpart, and therefore as the necessary correlate, of the pure unity and transparent difference of self-consciousness. Finally, we must represent this divided and finite world as yet a world in which spiritual life is realised, not in one but in many spirits who, in spite of their finitude and change, or by means of it, are having developed in them the same principle of self-consciousness in which the whole system finds its beginning. For the idea that the highest unity is the unity of the greatest differences leads, not only to the conception of that unity as spiritual, but also to the conclusion that God can realise himself only in a kingdom of spirits, to whom he has given the same independent selfhood which constitutes his own nature; for

“God is chiefly God by going forth

To an individualism of the infinite

Eterne, profuse, intense.”8

If it be true that the Absolute is not a self-contained, but a self-manifesting spirit, He must also be a Father of spirits. In the striking words of Schelling, He can only give himself to his creatures as he gives a self to them, and with it the capacity of participating in his own life. On such a view, his infinity will not be, as Pantheism would make it, the negation of their independent life, but the very reason and source of its freedom.

Now it is a stroke of insight on the part of Plotinus to discern that spiritual life, at least in creatures who are under the conditions of the sensible world, must itself become the source of greater division and strife than could exist among creatures who do not partake in reason, a division and strife which rise even to internecine war. Thus, after stating that “the reason of the world, in order to be perfect, must produce in itself not only difference, but contrariety,” he goes on to say that, if reason has this character in itself it will show it still more in its products, in so far as these are further separated from each other. “Now the sensible world has less unity with itself than that higher world which is its reason or principle Consequently, it is more manifold and admits greater antagonism in the members of it. Hence also their desire to maintain their own life, and their impulse to compel all things into unity with themselves, is greater; and, in the egoistic effort to seek their own good, by their very love they destroy the objects of their love, when these are perishable; for the part, in its endeavour to attain the whole, drags to itself all that it can. Thus the good and the evil are thrown into opposition, as when the same art of dancing compels the many members of a chorus to make opposite and contrasted movements; for, though we call one part good and the other bad, yet the combination must be pronounced excellent. It might, indeed, be objected that this way of looking at the matter involves that there is no badness at all; but the answer is that it does not involve the denial of the badness of individuals, but only that their badness is to be attributed to any one but themselves.”9

Plotinus, then, goes on to show how the divine Being may give to the evil and the good their appropriate parts in the drama of existence, according to the characters which may have so far developed in themselves; and how their playing of these parts may be itself a further step in the evolution of their characters, which will be rewarded in their next incarnation, as actors who play their part well may receive a higher rôle in the next piece, and those who play it ill may be degraded. The doctrine of transmigration is thus used as a means of escape from some of the difficulties connected with the imperfect evolution of individual character in the short life of man.

The doctrine thus stated is not without ambiguity, but it seems to contain a principle which would go farther to explain the origin and limit of evil than the theory which Plotinus generally advocates. For what on that theory Plotinus seeks is to free all the powers of the intelligible world (to which on different grounds he gives the name of God) from responsibility for evil, simply by denying that their activity is primarily directed to the sensible world, which nevertheless they produce. In the passage just quoted, however, it seems to be suggested that the highest unity must realise itself in the extremest division;10 from which it would follow that God cannot be a mere self-contemplative reason, but must be regarded as realising himself in a world of spirits who, as such, are conscious of a universal life, a life which is centred in itself. Evil may thus be explained as springing from good and from God, in so far as it arises from the conditions of the development of finite spirits in whom the germ of a divine life is implanted. For, as possessing such a life, they must be independent, not only in relation to men, but even in a sense in relation to God.

Further, as Plotinus points out, this selfhood of finite spirits shows itself at first in the greatness of their claims, in what Hobbes calls their “natural right to all things” that sets them in rivalry and antagonism to each other. For, as Carlyle often reminds us, a self-conscious being is one who cannot be satisfied unless he has the universe to himself; and yet actually he is at the same time but one individual, an insignificant part of this partial world, and he necessarily comes into internecine conflict with others, so soon as he attempts to realise the claim which his selfhood makes him set up. This enormous contrast of actuality and possibility, of individuality and universality, of a narrowly limited existence under conditions of time and space and an infinite want claiming to be satisfied, is the essential problem of human life, the problem which finds expression in the writings of Marcus Aurelius and St. Augustine, of Pascal and Rousseau, in all the writers who have penetrated deeply into the secrets of the inner life. It is the same antithesis which is involved in the Platonic doctrine that man always seeks the absolute good and can be satisfied with nothing less: from which it seems to follow that his actual life as an individual can bring to him nothing but a series of disappointments. For if he seeks an absolute good in anything finite, he must be disappointed; yet at first there seems to be nothing else in which he can seek it. The source of his evil, therefore, is his ignorance of that which he is seeking. And if it be asked how he can be seeking what he does not know, the answer is that what he seeks is a complete satisfaction of the self, and that he has not yet learnt that the self must be lost ere it can be saved. He cannot be satisfied with anything short of the life of God, but he has not yet discovered that the life of God is a life of giving and not of taking, and that he who would participate in it must accept its principle. Yet even in this his independence is maintained; for, as he is a self, he must learn from his own experience to accept that principle, and no power can make him accept it, except as the result of his own life and experience.

Now, if this view be true, the difficulties as to evil which beset Plotinus lose at least a part of their force. For, in the first place, evil, as a subjective experience, cannot be absolute, cannot be other than the perversion or imperfect development of a nature which is rooted in good. It can be nothing but the seeking of the finite as if it were infinite; and its fundamental characteristic must be ignorance—the self-contradiction of a being who knows not what he really is, and, therefore, seeks his good where it is not to be found. On the other hand, as an objective fact, evil can exist only as the collision of individual selves who by such self-ignorance are brought into conflict with each other. We only hesitate to call it ignorance, and to generalise the saying of Christ that those who do evil ‘know not what they do,’ because the term ignorance rather suggests the absence of some particular piece of knowledge, and not the whole attitude of a self-conscious being towards himself and towards others. Further, we have to observe that the conflict of self-conscious beings with each other, which includes almost everything we call evil, is itself part of the discipline by which the selfishness and self-will that causes it may be overcome. For it is only through the experience of the evil of self-seeking in oneself and others, that a clear consciousness of the good to be found in self-surrender can be developed.

From this point of view, the error of Plotinus is that he does practically admit the existence of absolute evil, that is to say, of a matter that cannot in any way be made a means to good. But, in a passage already quoted, he partly corrects this error when he refers the fall not to matter but to egoism, to the wish of finite spirits to be something for themselves; and when he explains this egoism as itself a result of that desire for the good which, when it becomes developed and enlightened, is turned into the love of God. In this he shows a true insight into the fact that evil is a self-contradictory state of the will of a rational being. The correlative truth would be, that such a will does not need to be rooted out, but only to be brought into harmony with itself; for the change from selfishness to love is not the extinction of the self, but rather the opening up of the way to its true realisation. Plotinus, however, is too deeply imbued with the conception of evil as a purely negative element, introduced into the soul by its connexion with the body, to adopt any view of the process of its purification and conversion to good, except that it is an escape from this defiling contact. He is unable, therefore, to work out the consequences of his alternative idea of evil as consisting in self-will and self-seeking. And, though he protests against the Gnostic conception of the world as evil, and as the creation of an evil Demiurgus, he cannot get rid of the dualistic assumption which is at the bottom of that conception. All we can say for him is, that he gives us the means of correcting the defects of his own view, when he suggests that the highest unity is that which overcomes and reconciles the greatest antagonism; when he recognises that this greatest of antagonisms is to be found in the conflict of self-conscious beings with each other; and above all, when he shows that this antagonism, though in itself the very essence of evil, arises from the fact that, as self-conscious, they must seek the highest good for themselves.

Turning to the other main difficulty of the subject, the difficulty either of referring or of not referring the origin of evil to God, who is the principle of all things, we see that Plotinus adopted a very lame solution of it, when he regarded matter as the utmost result of the transeunt activity of the One, as an effect of its overpowering energy, which yet has no connexion with its inner nature. It was the last refuge of Greek Dualism to think of the Absolute as subjected to a foreign necessity. And this Plotinus at times is near admitting when he maintains with Plato the absence of envy in God; when he speaks of the creative activity as, for that reason, essential to God and even of the sensible world as a manifestation of him; and above all when he declares that the descent of the soul of man into this world is necessary to its own spiritual development. If, indeed, we reject the false opposition of an immanent and a transeunt operation of God, and conceive of him as essentially self-manifesting, and as capable of fully manifesting himself only in and to spiritual beings to whom he imparts the principle of his own life, we can see our way to the solution of the difficulty which Plotinus is seeking. In other words, we can see how the divine Being may be regarded as the principle or first cause of all his creatures and yet not in the strict sense the cause of evil as such. For, if the root of evil lies in the self-will of creatures, who, in seeking themselves, divorce themselves from the life of God and become the rivals and enemies of each other, yet, on the other hand, such self-will is a necessary element in the inchoate consciousness of self, and it is only by passing through it and overcoming it that the consciousness of a self which is at one with man and with God can be developed. A self-conscious being cannot possibly be, or become, good by the determination of another; and in this sense we may say that it is impossible even for God to create a good spirit, a spirit which is good apart from its own will, or good except by the overcoming of evil within and without it. For the very consciousness of self carries with it the assertion of self and the seeking of self; and in a finite being such self-assertion and self-seeking have in them the germ of all that is evil. Such a being has by its own experience to discover that it can be one with itself only as it is one with God, and it must discover this for itself. From this point of view we can say that evil is essentially involved in the existence of finite spirits, and that even divine power could not prevent it, if God was to be the Father of spirits who could share in his own life. For a spiritual kingdom is necessarily a kingdom of freedom, and this means a kingdom of those who have realised for themselves their membership in it. Thus it may be seen that the Christian idea of God as self-revealing suggests, or contains implicitly in it, the solution of the problem which Plotinus vainly endeavoured to solve by distinguishing the immanent from the transeunt or outgoing operation of the Divine Being.

This idea, however, was at first only implicitly contained in Christianity, and its full evolution is to be found only in the history of the development of Christian doctrine and of the philosophy which arose out of it.

  • 1. III, 1–3.
  • 2. II, 9, 4.
  • 3. II, 9, 16.
  • 4. II, 9, 5. We cannot say with certainty that these words were directed against Christianity, but no language could more clearly bring out the opposition between the spirit of intellectual aristocracy that still clings to Neo-Platonism and the levelling Universalism of the Christian faith, with its uncompromising claim of the highest for the most degraded of men. It reminds us of the striking passage in the Confessions of St. Augustine, in which he tells us what he found and what he did not find in Neo-Platonism, and how, therefore, he could attain no final satisfaction in it, but only in the Christian faith. He found in Neo-Platonism a conception of the spirituality of God, which freed him from the materialistic tendencies of his earlier Manichaeism; but he did not find in it that doctrine of the Word made flesh, which showed that all humanity is sacred, even in its utmost degradation, which humbled man with the sense of his unworthiness, yet at the same time revealed to him an infinite hope. Ubi erat illa aedificans caritas a fundamento humilitatis, quod est Christus Jesus?… Non habuit illae paginae vultum pietatis hujus: lacrimas confessionis, sacrificium tuum, spiritum contribulatum, cor contritum et humiliatum, populi salutem, sponsem, civitatem, arrham spiritus sancti, poculum pretii nostri. Conf. VII, ch. 20, 21.
  • 5. III, 1, 4.
  • 6. In IV, 8, 5, Plotinus says that “if the soul soon escapes from the world of sense, it has suffered no loss by entering it, but, on the contrary, has gained the knowledge of evil, and learned to recognise its essential nature; it has become conscious of its own powers and manifested them in action, powers which would never have come into exercise if it had remained in the intelligible world. Thus the soul could never have known its own possessions; for only the actual exercise shows the capacity, which would otherwise remain unknown, and could not even be said to exist in any true sense.”
  • 7. III, 2, 15.
  • 8. I cannot find the reference for this quotation.
  • 9. III, 2, 67.
  • 10. Of course, Plotinus saves his consistency, in appearance at least, by taking the greater division of the sensible world for granted.