90 - A Decorated Corpse: Plotinus on Matter and Evil

Plotinus struggles to explain the presence of suffering, evil and ugliness in a world caused by purely good principles – and tells us what role we should play in that world.

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Further Reading: 

• E. Eliasson, The Notion of “That Which Depends on Us” in Plotinus and its Background (Leiden: 2008).

• K. McGroarty, Plotinus on Eudaimonia. A Commentary on Ennead I.4 (Oxford: 2006).

• D. O’Brien, Plotinus on the Origin of Matter (Naples: 1991).

• D.J. O’Meara, “Evil in Plotinus (Enn. I, 8),” in D.J. O’Meara, The Structure of Being and the Search for the Good (Aldershot: 1998), §IX.

• J.-M. Narbonne, Plotinus in Dialogue with the Gnostics (Leiden: 2011).

• P. Remes, “Plotinus’ Ethics of Disinterested Interest,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 44 (2006), 1-23.

• J.M. Rist, “Plotinus on Matter and Evil,” Phronesis 6 (1961), 154-66.

Ben's picture

Quit excusing evil.

If making things in matter is by nature less than perfect, why would a perfect being use matter to make anything? Why does moral perfection allow itself ANY excuses whatsoever? It doesn't matter whether it is "specific" evil or "relational" evil. The result is the same. The point is perfection wouldn't allow it in any way, shape, or form. It's called negligence, lack of forbearance or prevention and any number of *rudimentary* moral concepts easily deployed to logically eradicate yet another inane defense against the logical problem of evil.

It seems to me that a main reason people want to justify a defense against the logical problem of evil (aside from saving a theistic belief system) is because they feel *entitled* to attaining justification in this world on these terms or they don't want to admit they themselves would have no place in a perfect world. Who wants to admit that it is impossible to exact perfect moral decisions or argue yourself out of existence? Yet such black and white thinking infests human thinking and people won't settle for "good enough." It's irrational, unnecessary, and foolhardy, yet helps to keep the mainstream theisms in our world. Shame.

Peter Adamson's picture

Problem of evil

I'm not sure if you're talking here about Plotinus' solution; as I explain in the episode he is not responding to our modern "logical" problem of evil, which is what you are talking about. He is just trying to explain the metaphysical possibility of evil in a world derived from a good principle. This is a problem about causation, not about why God would allow this or that evil to occur.

I also happen to think the logical POE has been pretty much laid to rest, as I also briefly say in the episode, because all you need to do is sketch a scenario (no matter how ridiculous or unlikely, so long as it is logically possible) in which God co-exists with evil. Plantinga has in my view pretty much managed that with his version of the free will defense -- we could talk about that here in teh comments if people want to. On the other hand for more or less the reasons you say here I am impressed by the evidential problem of evil, which I think a theist is going to have a great deal of difficulty overcoming. (Basically the difference is between saying that the existence of evil is flat out incompatible with the existence of the classical theist God, and saying that evil is very strong evidence against the existence of such a God.)


Ben's picture

Plantinga's blind spot.

Point taken, however Plantinga presumes that a morally perfect god would have to create anything at all if including evil were unavoidable. Why not just *not* create anything? This god in all his awesomeness doesn't need anything else to exist anyway. What happened to his god's free will? Why would a perfect being have in its nature a motive that necessarily entails evil? Etc. Just a huge blind spot in that debate. No big deal.

Peter Adamson's picture

Plantinga's blind spot

I don't think Plantinga necessarily misses that point (it would be surprising if he did since it is a pretty basic point, and one that is actually raised frequently in debates over the POE). For one thing, the objection presupposes that the world as a whole is more bad than good -- which makes it pressing to wonder why God would have created it at all. But that is not what the logical POE says. It says that there should not be any evil in a world created by a good God -- even a tiny bit.

Furthermore, the whole point of Plantinga's defense is that creaturely free will has a positive value, and that God is motivated to create us (at least in part) by the opportunity to realize this value. And then, Plantinga argues, it is at least logically possible that God can create free creatures only at the cost of allowing evil to exist. So, far from missing the point you're raising (i.e. why would God even create anything) Plantinga explicitly gives a reason why God would have created: in order to produce creaturely free will. Of course, there may be others, e.g. the chance to create natural beauty, etc etc.

Incidentally Plantinga doesn't need to say, and I think wouldn't say, that God must create anything if He is to be good. The standard view in the tradition anyway (not sure where/if Plantinga himself addresses this) is that God would be just as good even if He didn't create, and that creation is supererogatory. In other words He creates out of generosity, not obligation.

By the way perhaps I should reiterate that I am not ultimately on Plantinga's side, since I lean towards thinking the evidential POE is lethal. But given the very low threshold needed to meet to defeat the logical POE, I think Plantinga was able to manage it.

Ben's picture

Low expectations for moral perfection.

I understand you are defending the position hypothetically, but I don't see why. That Plantinga can come up with something that has a positive value is completely irrelevant. Might not a perfectly good being be willing to do all manner of evil to attain a Klondike bar? Well maybe if we have no idea what "perfect" and "good" and "evil" means.

But we do of course have at least some inescapable bare minimum idea of what these terms must mean (and maybe I'm preaching to the choir here). At least enough to nix Christian philosophy central. Last time I checked, "perfect" means "without blemish" and "evil" constitutes a blemish as far as any moral metric goes. Christianity (and Islam) admits that "evil" exists and so they are stuck with the circular square they've concocted.

All language referring to things like "the world as a whole is more bad than good" is a completely recognizable moral concept. It's an "on balance" moral concept that necessarily says there's some evil in the moral ledger. A "perfect" moral ledger, by definition (and I don't even see how this is remotely debatable), should have absolutely no red in it. No evil. No blemishes of any kind. Pick any other moral concept that incorporates evil in any way, shape, or form and you're doing it wrong. Otherwise, what the heck does "perfect" even mean?

All I have to do to invent a hypothetically better god is just to say that my fictional perfect god never allows for any evil. It only acts if there's no red in the moral ledger. And how can Christianity (or any theistic belief system that believes it has a perfect deity) allow for a hypothetically more perfect deity? How can they possibly settle for less?

I understand you are mainly just exploring philosophical history here in your audio clip, but it is a little strained to say the core issue is debatable.

Peter Adamson's picture

Defending Plantinga

Hi again -- actually in a sense I'm not defending the position only hypothetically. I do believe that Plantinga defeated the logical problem of evil. In other words he showed that there is no logical contradiction between the existence of a perfectly good god and the existence of evil, by giving us a logically possible scenario in which both exist. The fact that the scenario may be very hard to believe is not really relevant, because as I've said the standard of logical possibility is so low (that is: the scenario doesn't need to be even slightly plausible, it only needs to be logically consistent). You may say this is a pretty minor victory but the logical POE has generated so much debate that I think we should give Plantinga credit for defeating it (if I'm right that he did), even if the evidential POE comes along afterwards and proves a harder nut to crack.

In fact the position you're outlining does still look like the logical, not evidential, POE -- you're saying that the existence of any evil whatsoever proves there is no God. And Plantinga's reply seems to me right: we might imagine scenarios where even an omnipotent being would have to allow some evil, to secure some larger good. That is, such scenarios are logically possible, even if not particularly believable.

It seems to me that the retort you may be wanting to make to Plantinga is that even this is wrong, because the value of free will is not sufficient to justify the existence of evil. But surely it is valuable enough to justify a little bit of evil? Imagine if in the entire history of the universe there was only one minor example of suffering -- wouldn't it be worth having that to secure the reality of free will? If so, then we now need to appeal not to the sheer existence of any evil, but to the amount and nature of it -- which takes us into the evidential version.

By the way Plantinga's defense assumes some other things we haven't gotten into because they are more technical, for instance a libertarian/incompatabilist view of freedom and the logical possibility that every creature God can create would at some point sin (he calls this "transworld depravity," which as I always say when I teach this, would be a great name for a rock band). So we haven't gotten into the real business end of this yet, it does get rather complicated.

Ben's picture

Better than not vs. Perfection

As I've said, this kind of thing: "Imagine if in the entire history of the universe there was only one minor example of suffering -- wouldn't it be worth having that to secure the reality of free will?" is an "on balance" moral concept and not a concept of moral perfection. Would *I* choose such a scenario? Of course! That sounds like a great deal, because those are the moral circumstances this moral moderate is continually faced with. However, the situation of a moral moderate isn't the metric here. *Perfection* is. Even the least evil imaginable in any scenario constitutes a logical breach of that standard. A single drop of evil is a blemish. Perfection by definition is blemishless. This isn't me be a morally stingy person (like I would personally care if reality were only 1% evil), this is me being a definitionally "stingy" person. It's just the definition of the god being proposed. Why aren't we holding it to it?

I agree on the rock band name, btw.

Peter Adamson's picture


Sure, I see your point. But what Plantinga is exploiting is the thought that a world where all possible worthwhile values are realized is simply not logically possible. Thus God can no more make a world that both has free will and lacks evil, than He can make a square circle. If this were true, then it would be no sign of "imperfection" on God's part to allow evil. After all the only way He can avoid allowing evil is to refrain from giving His creatures freedom, and that would be (we're supposing) worse.

Obviously we're assuming here that God is constrained by what is logically possible but that's a pretty reasonable assumption, denied by only a few philosophers (including Descartes!). Your demand that God is perfect is likewise reasonable but it doesn't require that God perform actions that cannot be performed. And Plantinga's whole argument is to show that the kind of world you are envisioning is impossible, at least if it contains freedom (or that it at least might be impossible).

Ben's picture

Full circle.

I agree. Which brings us full circle to the illogical presupposition (since they already believe their god has free will) that this god necessarily has to create anything at all. Plantinga jumps out of frying pan and into the fire.

And then even if their god has say *a lot* of free will, but not *complete* free will, and is somehow *forced* to create something, and it just so happens that no morally perfect thing is logically possible to create, *that* means there's a blemish *in that god's nature* which makes it do morally imperfect things. His nature isn't allowed to be imperfect either.

And of course, this completely sets aside the strong inference that making this world a better place without sacrificing any free will really would be trivially easy to do. The word "probably" just isn't the best friend of theistic philosophy, but I'm sure you know that.

Peter Adamson's picture

More on logical possibility

Well, the claim was never that God has to create anything, but that it is better for Him to do so than not. And then the next claim is that the best logically possible world contains some evil in it, because that world also has free will in it and it is literally impossible for a world with free will to lack evil. Thus it is not morally imperfect for Him to create this world -- if anything He is generously going above and beyond the call of duty, by creating a good world when He had no obligation to do so.

Once God has created a world with genuine free will, arguably (depending on your conception of freedom, and issues like "middle knowledge" -- we'll get to it later in early modern philosophy) it is up to creatures, and not Him, how much evil it contains -- that is probably the way to go if you want to defeat the evidential version of the POE.

Josh's picture

Logical Possibility

Sorry to resurrect this argument; I'm making my way slowly but surely through the backlog and I just thought I'd throw this out there.

Doesn't the notion that God must be constrained by what is logically possible (eg, free will coexisting with the absence of evil) defeat the notion that God is omnipotent? Surely part of omnipotence includes the power to do things which are otherwise logically impossible, otherwise it is not truly omnipotence. Under this designation, wouldn't we have to admit a sort of curtailed omnipotential, which runs counter to the claims of many religions?

possible solution's picture

logical possibility

you seem to be asking if the stone paradox disproves the idea of omnipotence. (Averroes, Aquinas and pseudo-Dynesius among others put forth this question). Many seem to simply reject the argument on the grounds that incoherent ideas (like a square circle) don't fit into possible things.

Luisa Costa Gomes's picture

Optimism and Pessimism

I can´t quite understand why my being an optimism or a pessimist will have any bearing on the objectivity of evil´s existence...It was called "psychologism" back in the day and philosophers used to be weary of it.

Peter Adamson's picture

Glass half full/empty

Hi -- that's a fair point, the facts are the facts and philosophy shouldn't just be arranged around our psychological dispositions. I still think Plotinus can be deemed an optimist though, relative to contemporary or near-contemporary views, in two ways:

1. He thinks it is possible (indeed inevitable) for human souls to transcend their bodily condition and unite to intellect. Not all Neoplatonists would agree.

2. I think his position is more optimistic than that of the Gnostics, who consider the physical world to be fundamentally evil; Plotinus sees it as fundamentally good. And I think to a large extent his philosophical position is motivated by his starting intuition that the world is a good and not a bad thing (so here you might accuse him of starting from optimism, rather than arguing himself to it, but of course there's a chicken-and-egg problem here!).

Luisa Costa Gomes's picture

Facts? What facts?

I am sorry, I think I was not clear. Psychologism is the interference of psychological concepts in philosophical argumentation. Being an "optimist", (whatever that means) in today´s dominant thought, is not the same as being an optimist five years ago. The concept of optimism (as the contrary, maybe, to a vulgata of Schopenhauer´s views as "pessimism") is itself vague and common sensical, with historical, moral and cultural specificities.For me, the question "is Plotinus theory optimistic?" falls into the same category of " Plato was a heartless slave owner" (yes, but was he happy?). Life, one thing; philosophy, another thing, entirely different. Does Plotinus ever writes about optimism?
Furthermore, why is it pessimistic to "consider the physical world fundamentally evil"? Wouldn´t it be even more "pessimistic" to consider the enthelechial world fundamentally evil? All Platonists consider matter as shadow. Plotinus view is, as you say, clever and ingenious, by thinking of reality in terms of "degrading" light. Lumière dégradée, beautiful and elegant idea.

Peter Adamson's picture


Ok, I think I see what you mean. You're right, I wasn't trying to draw attention to a facet of Plotinus' personality (well, maybe that too but not mostly that). I was only trying to say that his philosophical position assigns the physical universe a more positive value than that of rivals, especially the Gnostics but even Platonist predecessors like Plutarch.

Luisa Costa Gomes's picture


Thank you. How would you rate,then, let´s say the Marquis de Sade, who defended that there´s always the same amount of Evil in the world. It can´t get any better. But it can´t get any worse, either. Optimist? Pessimist? Fair enough?

Peter Adamson's picture


Well presumably he was a sadist, right? But seriously: that strikes me as a somewhat odd view. Surely I can increase the sum total of evil in the world by doing something evil? Or does some other evil somewhere else need to vanish at the same time? Anyway I guess I'd say it's neither optimistic nor pessimistic.

Never occurred to me I might need to cover the Marquis de Sade in the podcast at some point...

Luisa Costa Gomes's picture

Fair enough

Different approach. Thank you for all your replies!