To see where none should look
Plotinus on Evil, reading Ennead I.8.9.
Reflecting on evil, I decided to re-read a text I wrote about Plotinus many months ago. I share this with you, enjoy.
“An evil life is a kind of death.” - Ovid
I. Introduction: Knowledge of good and evil
In Ennead I.8.9 , Plotinus returns to a question posed in chapter 1 of the same treatise: "with what, then, do we know good and evil?" We know virtue through intellect, for "like is known by like." Intellect is Good in itself, and thus, virtue is known by an immediate act of recognition. However, a problem arises when we want to know vice. Vice is secondary evil, and thus participates in primary evil, which Plotinus has characterized as matter, being absolute formlessness. Intellect knows through forms, but then how do we know that which lacks form?
Plotinus suggests that we know vice just as we know the straight and the not straight with a ruler. This is how we know secondary evils, which are vice. By seeing a thing, we can also grasp what is lacking. Thus in seeing form in something, we can grasp where it is lacking form. But how then do we know absolute evil? Absolute evil is absolute formlessness, yet knowing happens through forms. Instead of conceding that absolute evil cannot be known, Plotinus claims that absolute evil can be known, be it not in the usual sense of knowing. It is known through "an alternative intellect that is not intellect, daring to see things that are not its own." What does this enigmatic passage mean? What is knowledge of absolute evil, if it does not happen through form?
II. Two methods to know evil
In answering the question of how we are able to know evil, Plotinus makes use of two seemingly incompatible, yet closely related methods: 'like is known by like', and 'contrary is known by contrary'. Throughout his argumentation he adheres strongly to these two principles, applying them not only to the knowledge of form, but also to absolute formlessness: absolute evil. Somewhat paradoxically, these principles that guarantee our knowledge of everything that is good, will also play an important role in our knowledge of evil.
For Plotinus, Intellect is good, and human intellection also shares in this goodness. Intellection happens through forms. Thus, the question of how we know virtue does not pose much of a problem. We know it with intellect itself, "for it recognizes itself." But how then do we know vice? For vice precisely consists in the relative absence of form, and knowing happens through forms. An even more serious issue is primary evil. If vice as the relative absence of form already poses difficulties, then how can we even begin to grasp primary evil? Plotinus' method is of 'contrary is known by contrary.' This method had been announced in I.8.1. In the present chapter it is utilized to claim that the knowledge of both secondary and primary evil will be the structural contrary of the knowledge of virtue and the Good.
A problem poses itself. If the knowledge of what is good is through form, and the knowledge of what is evil is through lack of form, then is not the way of knowing evil eerily close to how Plotinus describes knowledge of the One? The One is that which is beyond Being and Intellect, and thus beyond forms, and the knowledge of it is also characterized as a letting go of form. So, is the knowledge of evil merely the contrary of the knowledge of what is good in a general sense? Or is it rather the contrary of the knowledge of the One? The access to evil seems to be the structural contrary of the knowledge of the One.
III. How is vice known?
The knowing of virtue posed no problem. Intellect or intellectual virtue simply recognizes itself in virtue. How is vice known? Plotinus uses an Aristotelian example, saying "just as we know the straight and the not straight with a ruler, thus we know that which does not harmonize with virtue." In the De Anima Aristotle said:
“If we must construct the soul out of the elements, there is no necessity to suppose that all the elements enter into its construction; one element in each pair of contraries will suffice to enable it to discern both that element itself and its contrary. By means of the straight line we know both itself and the curved - the carpenter's rule enables us to test both - but what is curved does not enable us to distinguish either itself or the straight.”
The fact that knowledge happens through forms, yet vice is relative absence of form does not necessarily constitute a problem. For by knowing through form, we can grasp what falls outside of this. If we see a thing, we evidently cannot see every part of the thing, yet we are able to grasp these unseen parts, be it not through seeing. Seeing happens through forms, but seeing something also leads to a grasping of what escapes the seeing gaze.
The knowledge of vice thus does not consist in a seeing, but in the apprehension of what is not seen in the seen. This is in a sense knowledge of privation. Plotinus gives the example of looking at an "ugly face." We can look at such a face, and in a sense perceive the absence of the normal form the face is supposed to have. Although this is not the perceiving of a positive quality, but rather the perception of what is lacking.
IV. How is absolute evil known?
The problem of the knowledge of vice is now supposedly solved. We can know vice, because we can know what is good. We can grasp what is lacking in what is good, and this is the knowledge of vice. It is precisely because vice is not absolute evil, but still in the presence of form, that we can know it. But how then, do we know absolute or primary evil: "that which in no way has encountered form"?
In previous chapters of the treatise Plotinus had identified absolute evil as total formlessness, which is also matter. He is now suggesting that it is possible to know this, even though all knowing happens through form. This is possible because it is not the usual knowing through form that is able to grasp absolute evil, but "an alternative intellect that is not intellect, daring to see things that are not its own."
Plotinus is here referring to the Timaeus, in which a distinction is made between three sorts of existents and ways of knowing them. The first is Form, known by Reason. The second are objects perceptible by sense, known through Opinion and the help of Sensation. The third is the receptacle, "apprehensible by a kind of bastard reasoning by the aid of non-sensation, barely an object of belief."
Plotinus had already talked about this bastard reasoning in treatise II.4. : On Matter, there he says that the apprehension of matter consists in a lack of thinking, that "thinks without thinking." This lack of thinking does however not mean that nothing is grasped. Nothing is thought, but something is grasped nonetheless. Plotinus affirms that when soul thinks matter or evil through a bastard reasoning, this does not mean that it grasps nothing. It grasps something, namely matter. Which for Plotinus is not non-existence, but merely something different from being which does possess a positive existence. Likewise, in I.8.9., Plotinus affirms that the non-seeing necessary to grasp absolute evil does not mean that nothing is seen.
For example: if an eye is removed from all light, it does not see nothing. Rather, it sees darkness. But, seeing is only possible through light, so this seeing of darkness is a non-seeing. Resolutely sticking to his thesis that like is known by like, Plotinus suggests that grasping evil is not a knowing of evil. The metaphor of seeing darkness is applied to the soul's grasping of evil: "In this way, intellect, too, leaving the light that is internal to it, and proceeding in a way outside itself, comes to that which does not belong to it. It does not bring along its own light, and it experiences the contrary of what is, so that it can see contrary to itself." Intellect does not bring with it its own light: it does not grasp things through forms, it does not know through intellection, but it does experience things. In the same way that we do not see darkness (because seeing requires light), but do experientially grasp it. Because the formless character of evil excludes knowledge through forms, the only knowledge of it possible is experiential knowledge.
It is interesting that this resembles the knowledge of the One. Because the One is beyond Intellect, it cannot be grasped through forms. Like evil, it must be known in an experiential manner. Knowledge of absolute evil is thus structurally akin, but opposed to knowledge of the One. Vice, understood as secondary evil, is known by seeing the absence of form in form. Yet when it comes to absolute evil, there is no form, and thus no absence relative to a form to be grasped. The knowledge of evil is thus only possible through an experience in which "one experiences the contrary of what is." One leaves behind intellection, and thus being, to experience what is contrary to being.
One could say that the knowledge of the One consists in absolute self-knowledge wherein the knower and the known coincide. Whereas the knowledge of evil consists in knowledge of what is absolutely foreign to self. With what then do we differentiate the two? Knowing absolute evil is characterized as a becoming entirely other than oneself, departing from oneself; whereas the knowledge of the One consists in a self-knowledge in which "you are entirely yourself." When it comes to experiencing absolute evil, Dominic O'Meara speaks of a "contre-extase." As opposed to the experience of the One, Plotinus seems to open up the possibility of an experience of evil. However, this experience is not one of unification, but of absolute alienation.
V. Daring to see where none should look
What is the function of knowing evil within Plotinus' philosophy, and what does it mean to grasp what is entirely different from oneself? Plotinus' answer is not conclusive, at times affirming a certain benefit to this knowledge, at others cautioning against it. A clue to an answer can be found in the fact that Plotinus never seems to part with his principle that contraries are known by each other. When it comes to the knowledge of absolute evil, this principle also has an ethical function that can make us search for the contrary of absolute evil. Absolute evil could only be known by in a sense exiting from oneself and seeing what is wholly other. One experiences the absolute contrary of what one is, and thus by 'contrary is known by contrary' grasps the possibility of the Good.
In IV.8.7, Plotinus suggests that "the experience of evil results in a clearer knowledge of the Good in those whose power is too weak to attain knowledge of evil prior to experiencing it." This passage suggests that there is both an experiential knowledge of evil, and a theoretical knowledge of evil. The first being useful for those who are not capable of attaining the latter. There are thus two ways of knowing evil: a dialectical knowledge, what treatise I.8. is meant to bring about, and an experiential knowledge. Again, this is structurally similar to the knowledge of the One. There is a dialectical demonstration of its reality: what the Enneads are meant to bring about, but also an experiential union.
That knowledge of evil would result in a clearer knowledge of the Good seems to be in contrast to a suggestion Plotinus makes in Ennead V: "For if the things sought are alien to it, why should it seek them? But if they are of the same lineage, it is fitting for it to seek them, and it is possible to find that which it is seeking." The experiential knowledge of absolute evil consists in knowing what is other than oneself. The soul is good, and thus to know evil is to know what is entirely other than oneself. Seeking this knowledge would be in stark contrast to Plotinus' suggestion. For Plotinus, intellection is (ideally) a vision in which seeing and what is seen coincide. The higher the level of intellection, the more the seen and the seeing are one. The soul knows by recognizing itself in what is seen (for example the recognition of virtue through form), and Intellect as such is self-thinking thought. Furthermore, the experiential 'knowledge' of the One is described as absolute union. At the lowest level there is that which is absolutely other, matter or absolute evil. There, what is seen is entirely other from the seeing. The soul dares to look there, thus leaving behind the advice to not seek what is alien to it. The union with the One, and the non-seeing of evil are two ends of a spectrum of what it means to know, but both going beyond knowledge. They are two ways of going beyond knowing, for the better, and for the worse.
VI. Daring as cause
Both the knowledge of the One and the knowledge of evil are beyond intellectual grasping. Then what is it that differentiates the two? This is the different ethical evaluation they get. As Émile Bréhier notes: "le non-être de la matière est distingué pour nous du non-être de l'Un par des attitudes intérieures de l'âme et des attitudes extra-intellectuelles." Both are a type of non-being, but both incite a radically different reaction in the soul. Ecstatic union in the case of the One, despair and alienation in the case of evil. In Plotinus' doctrine of Hypostases, a higher Hypostasis brings forth an inferior one. The principle of this generation is a certain audacity or boldness (τόλμα) that makes the Hypostasis see beyond what it already (in a non-temporal sense) is. This daring is thus not merely an attitude of a human being, but a metaphysical principle that explains the production of lesser and lesser degrees of reality. Plotinus uses this audacity to explain why souls become evil, but also why Intellect results from the One.
The treatise I.8.9. thus does not merely contain a reflection on how evil is known, but also on how the soul becomes evil. It is not only known by daring to experience it, but also engendered by the soul's daring to contemplate what is other than itself. The treatise is thus (one of many) exemplary texts showing Plotinus' characteristic interweaving of intellection and being, contemplation and production. This daring that produces is however not futile, but serves a certain function within the system:
“It [soul] comes thus into this world by an autonomous inclination and at the bidding of its own power, with the purpose of bringing order to what is inferior to it. And if it extricates itself promptly, it suffers no harm, acquiring a knowledge of evil and learning the nature of vice, while bringing its own powers into the light and exhibiting deeds and productions which, if it had remained inactive in the incorporeal world, would have been useless, as never coming to actuality; and the soul itself would never have known what capacities it had, since they would never have been revealed or developed.”
VII. Conclusion: two ecstasies
There is a function to Soul's long and painful descent into matter. A function guaranteed by the principle of 'contrary is known by contrary'. It is because the soul is able to experience what is contrary to itself, that it can gain knowledge of what it is. This is made possible by the non-temporal co-existence of Hypostases. VI.9.8. describes the inherence of a Hypostasis in the higher Hypostasis that brings it forth. As such, the One brings forth Intellect, but inheres in Intellect. And Intellect brings forth Soul, but both Intellect and the One inhere in Soul. Hence the description of a circle moving around its centre, wherein the circle contains its centre. It is this dependence of Soul on the primary Hypostases that makes up its essence. To know oneself, is thus to know one's "lineage." Hence why the ascent to the One is an ascension to "the principle in oneself."
It is the descent into matter, the forgetting of one's lineage, that makes up the contrary of the ascension to the One. A descent which Plotinus advises not to take, for it is not fitting to seek what is alien to one's lineage. This descent can however lead to the grasping of its contrary. The experience of evil can incite a clearer knowledge of its opposite, the Good. And perhaps it is not unfit to apply Plotinus' words on intelligible matter, to evil itself: "what is indefinite is not in all cases to be considered as an object of contempt — and the same goes for whatever is intrinsically shapeless — if it is going to give itself over to the things ranked above itself, that is, to the best things."
Aristotle. The Complete Works (Two Volumes) . Edited by Jonathan Barnes. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.
Émile Bréhier. Études de Philosophie Antique. Paris: PUF, 1955.
Plato. Timaeus. Critias. Cleitophon. Menexenus. Epistles. Translated by R. G. Bury. Loeb Classical Library 234. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1929.
Plotinus. The Enneads. Edited by Lloyd P. Gerson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Plotin. Traité 51. Traduction et commentaire par Dominic O'Meara. Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1999.
Plotin. Les deux matières. Traduction et commentaire par Jean-Marc Narbonne. Paris: Vrin, 1993.
Jean-François Pradeau. L'imitation du principe: Plotin et la participation. Paris: Vrin, 2003.
 Plotinus, The Enneads, ed. Lloyd P. Gerson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), I.8.9. 1; I.8.1. 7-17.
 Enneads, I.8.1. 8-9.
 Enneads, I.8.9. 20.
 Enneads, I.8.1.
 Enneads, I.8.9. 3.
 Enneads, I.8.1. 12-14: "If however, the scientific understanding of one contrary is identical to the scientific understanding of what is contrary to it, and evil is contrary to good, the scientific understanding of good will be of evil, too; so, it is necessary for those who intend to know evils to comprehend good, since the better precedes the worse." See "contraries are subjects of the same science." In Aristotle, "Prior Analytics," in The Complete Works: Volume One, ed. Jonathan Barnes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 1.24a 21-22.
 Enneads, I.8.9. 4-6.
 Aristotle, "De Anima," in The Complete Works, 1.5.411a6.
 Enneads, I.8.9. 8-10.
 Enneads, I.8.9. 12.
 Enneads, I.8.9. 15.
 Enneads, I.8.9. 19-20.
 Plato, "Timaeus," in Loeb Classical Library 234: Timaeus. Critias. Cleitophon. Menexenus. Epistles, trans. R. G. Bury (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1929), 52b2.
 Enneads, II.4.10.31. See also: "This direct apprehension, although wanting to be an act of thinking, is not that, but rather, in a way, a lack of thinking; then, its representation of matter should be more spurious and not genuine, as it is composed of that difference that is not true together with another kind of reason. And perhaps it was with an eye to this that Plato said it was to be apprehended by a 'spurious act of calculative reasoning.'" In Enneads, II.4.10. 7-12.
 "Is this experience identical to the one the soul has when it thinks nothing? No. Whenever it thinks nothing, it expresses nothing - or rather it experiences nothing. By contrast, when soul thinks matter, it has an experience like an impression from something that lacks shape." In Enneads, II.4.10.
 "So, it remains that if indeed evil does exist, it exists among non-beings as a sort of form of non-being and is involved in some way with that which is mixed or associated with non-being. 'Non-being' does not mean 'that which is absolutely non-existent', but only something different from being." In Enneads, I.8.3. 4-7.
 Enneads, I.8.9. 23-27.
 Enneads, I.8.9. 25.
 Jean-François Pradeau beautifully stresses Plotinus' quasi-identification of Intellect and Being, "La question n'est plus tant de savoir comment un sujet de connaissance (l'âme ou l'intellect) connaît un object (du genre être, un étant), mais comment le principe premier, l'Un, engendre une seule et même chose qui est être et intellection. Car Plotin ne se contente plus d'affirmer comme ses prédécesseurs platoniciens ou aristotéliciens que l'intellect a la totalité de l'être pour objet de pensée, ni même que tout ce qui est pense d'une certaine manière, mais il soutient que l'Intellect et l'être sont une seule et même chose, que l'Intellect ne pense pas seulement l'être, mais qu'il est l'etre et que la somme des intelligibles doit aussi être, puisque seuls les intelligibles sont à proprement parler." In Jean-François Pradeau, L'imitation du principe: Plotin et la participation (Paris: Vrin, 2003), 46.
 Enneads, I.6.9. 20.
 Plotin, Traité 51, trad. Dominic O'Meara (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1999), 145.
 Enneads, IV.8.7. 10-20; V.1.1. 23-35.
 Enneads, IV.8.7. 15-17.
 Enneads, V.1.1. 25-35.
 Enneads, V.1.5. 20. See Aristotle, "Metaphysics," in The Complete Works, 12.9.1074b29 - 1075a10.
 Enneads, VI.9.1. 35-41.
 Émile Bréhier, "L'Idée du Néant et le problème de l'origine radicale dans le néoplatonisme Grec," in Études de Philosophie Antique (Paris: PUF, 1955), 259.
 For a text on τόλμα, see my essay “Philosophy and Audacity.” Available on this Substack.
 "It [Intellect] truly coheres with itself, without articulating itself, since it comes immediately after the One, having dared to depart somehow from the One." In VI.9.5. 25-30. For audacity as the reason behind the soul's corruption: V.1.1. 4-5. The question on whether the soul is thereby also the cause of evil is far more problematic, as both affirmations and rejections of this thesis can be found in Plotinus, resulting in a seemingly paradoxical doctrine in which the soul both is and isn't cause of evil. As Jean-Marc Narbonne puts it: "Sans matière, pas de chute; sans âme, pas de matière. [...] l'âme peut engendrer le mal radical sans engendrer le mal radical, c'est-à-dire sans être la source ou la cause de ce mal, et la matière peut être la cause de la chute de cette âme dont elle est en même temps l'effet." In Plotin, Les deux matières, trad. Jean-Marc Narbonne (Paris: Vrin, 1993), 206.
 Enneads, IV.8.5. 28-32.
 "And just as in nature these aforementioned three [One, Being/Intellect, Soul] are found, so it is necessary to believe as well that these are in us." In Enneads, V.1.10. 5-7. On this inherence in ourselves, see also: Enneads, III.8.9. 20-24.
 Enneads, VI.9.8. 1-10.
 Enneads, V.1.1. 25-35.
 Enneads, VI.9.3. 20-22.
 "For the nature of the soul will indeed not arrive at what entirely is non-being, but when it descends, it will come to evil, and thus into non-being, but not into what is entirely non-being. Moving in the opposite direction, it will not come to something else, but to itself; thus in being in nothing else, it will not be in nothing, but will be in itself, that is, in itself alone, and not in that Being there, for a self does not become Substantiality, but 'transcends Substantiality' by this intimate contact." In Enneads, VI.9.1. 35-41.
 Enneads, IV.8.7. 15-17. For this reason, Pradeau ascribes to the much stronger claim that matter plays a necessary role in the soul's ascent: "Ce n'est donc pas à partir de la matière que quelque chose est constitué, mais c'est à l'occasion d'une réflexion sur elle que la cause véritable peut se connaître et produire." In Pradeau, L'imitation du principe, 151.
 Enneads, II.4.3. 1-3.