The Harmonic Nonbeing of Evil: Plotinus’s Neoplatonic Mysticism

If a candle burns alone in the darkness, and the flame and its emanating light are all that exist, whence comes the darkness? If everything that exists is One, and the One is Good, whence comes evil? The paradox of Plotinus’s Neoplatonism is before us, the paradox of how all of existence emanates from the One and yet evil still operates in the world. For Plotinus, is evil real or an illusion? If all is One, is anything real, or is all an illusion? Finally, what is the role of the human being, the human soul—in relation, participation, unity, or differentiation—with the One? And with evil?

Candle Flame

Neoplatonism was born in Rome through the writings and teachings of the Platonic philosopher Plotinus in the year 265 ce. Carrying forward Plato’s philosophy while drawing on 600 years of philosophical, religious, and cultural development in the Mediterranean, Plotinus conceived of a “suprarational mysticism”[1] of the divine, the One without a second, in which the universe is a living continuum, from the inanimate matter of minerals to the luminosity of the gods.[2] The One is all things, yet also it is no thing; in order for the One to generate being, it in itself is not being.[3] The One exists, but it exists outside of being and time.[4] “The One,” writes Richard Tarnas, “also called the Good, in an overflow of sheer perfection produces the ‘other’—the created cosmos in all its variety—in a hierarchical series of gradations moving away from this ontological center to the extreme limits of the possible.”[5] The One is like the flame of a candle and the emanating light is the “other,” the overflowing of utmost perfection. A flame cannot help but emit light, and light cannot emanate without a source. They are inseparable, and yet distinct nonetheless. Jacob Sherman describes the emanation of the many from the One thus: “The doctrine of emanation of Plotinus. . . pictures the many as epiphenomena that proceed from the One but do not remain within the One. . . Plotinus’s One remains unmoved within itself, and the many are distinct from this One.”[6] Although the One radiates all things into being, the One itself cannot be interacted with. The candle flame will burn us, while the light will not: the flame and light are distinguishable, and it is clear that while the flame creates the light, the light does not cause the flame.

As existence emanates from the One it radiates out in hierarchical gradations like the fading brightness of a candle’s light. The brightest, closest to the One, is the Intellect, which then radiates out to Soul. Tarnas writes, “The three ‘hypostases’—One, Intellect, and Soul—are not literal entities but rather spiritual dispositions.”[7] Individual human souls, as well as the World Soul, derive from this hypostasis Soul.[8] Again, there is no ultimate difference between these aspects of the One, but rather a more subtle distinction: the light further from the candle flame is distinctly less bright than the closer but it is the same light.

Contemplating the spiritual distinctions of the One brings into question the reality of the world, and particularly the reality of the individual human soul as individual. According to Plotinus, the human soul contains all the hierarchical stratifications of the One; part of the human soul never left the One, never left the core of the candle flame.[9] Yet Plotinus also speaks of the soul’s descent away from the One, into incarnation, saying, “Those souls which descend deepest show their light furthest down.”[10] What is being illuminated by their light? Once again, whence comes the darkness? Sherman writes,

Plotinus’s emanation cosmology sees the contraction of form as an isolated mass surrounded on both sides by two infinities; form floats upon the surface of the chaotic illimitation of nonbeing, and gazes heavenward to the infinite pleromatic vaults of the One’s ineffable simplicity.[11]

This image portrays a dynamic tension between the One, which is outside of being, and the ‘chaotic illimitation of nonbeing’: what emerges between these two different yet parallel infinities is form, existence. A contradiction seems to exist in Plotinus’s thought, for although the One may not have a second, something else seems to exist in relationship to the One by its very nonexistence. All that emanates from the One Plotinus deems to be Good; thus the evil experienced within the world must either not emanate from the One—and therefore not exist—or, if evil is real, then it must be part of the One. Finally, in paradoxical contrast to these first two possibilities, perhaps evil does exist in such utter contrast to the One it can only be named nonbeing, which is what Sherman’s image seems to present. This third possibility appears to place, in a non-spatial sense, both the nonbeing of evil and the One that generates all things, outside of being itself.

Plotinus seems to hold contradictory views on the subject of evil throughout his writings. At times evil appears to be a presence on the edge of being, at the point when the emanation of the One ceases. At others evil seems to be a tangible part of the One expressed by the material realm. Finally, evil also appears to arise only in relationship: the relationship between soul and body, between spirit and matter, and in the interactions between incarnated individuals. Evil shifts from a noun to a verb; it is not a being but rather an action; there are no evil people, only evil deeds.

The individual soul moves away from the divine Intellect and descends into material reality by turning away from the totality of the One and instead focusing inward upon itself. The soul becomes “a deserter from the totality; its differentiation has severed it; its vision is no longer set in the Intellectual; it is a partial thing, isolated, weak, full of care, intent upon the fragment; severed from the whole; it nestles in one form of being.”[12] By focusing on its own particularity the soul becomes particular, and thus an individual. Plotinus presents this movement of the soul as a fall, but he also affirms it as part of a larger movement “determined by the eternal law of nature.”[13] He goes on to say that “there is no inconsistency or untruth in saying the Soul is sent down by God.”[14] Yet once embodied the soul that exists on the periphery of the One’s emanation can potentially forget its origin, depending how far the soul descends. Plotinus writes, “As long as they have not touched the lowest region of process (the point at which non-being begins) there is nothing to prevent them rising once more.”[15] This image gives the sense that non-being, which has a “point” at which it “begins,” is an actual entity, the infinite chaos beyond the One’s power.

Encountering the knowledge of evil and gaining an understanding of sin will not in itself harm the human soul—if that soul returns quickly to its source.[16] According to some interpretations of Plotinus that evil exists outside the One as nonbeing, while according to others evil is present at the periphery of the One’s emanation in the material world. Tarnas writes,

The material world, existing in time and space and perceptible to the senses, is the level of reality furthest from unitary divinity. As the final limit of creation, it is characterized in negative terms as the realm of multiplicity, restriction, and darkness, as lowest in ontological stature—holding the least degree of real being—and as constituting the principle of evil.[17]

It seems clear from this excerpt that matter, and the principle of evil, are on the periphery of the One’s emanation: they have the ‘least degree of real being’ rather than complete nonbeing. Yet, just as it is difficult to differentiate the exact location at which a candle’s light has completely faded and utter darkness begins, the distinction between the end of being and the beginning of nonbeing may be equally blurred.

Plotinus emphasizes that to be in a body is to be “apt to body-punishment,”[18] and even goes so far as to say, “The soul is evil when it is thoroughly mixed with the body and shares its experiences and has all the same opinions.”[19] To live a divine life as an embodied soul one must have “detachment from all things here below, scorn all earthly pleasures.”[20] Lloyd Gerson elaborates on the point of the evil of matter:

As Plotinus reasons, if anything besides the One is going to exist, then there must be a conclusion of the process of production from the One. The beginning of evil is the act of separation from the One by Intellect, an act which the One itself ultimately causes. The end of the process of production from the One defines a limit, like the end of a river going out from its sources. Beyond the limit is matter or evil. (Emphasis added.)[21]

In Gerson’s interpretation of Plotinus, matter, and therefore evil, are caused by an act of the One. However, Plotinus also indicates in the Enneads that matter is still able to participate in the Good of the One, in seeming contradiction with himself. He writes,

No principle can prevent anything from partaking, to the extent of it own individual receptivity, in the nature of Good. If, therefore, Matter has always existed, that existence is enough to ensure its participation in the being which, according to each receptivity, communicates the supreme Good universally. (Emphasis added.)[22]

I emphasize Plotinus’s repeated point about matter’s individual receptivity because this indicates the limited participation matter is able to have with the Good. In turn, this excerpt of Plotinus can be contrasted with Tarnas’s interpretation of Plotinus’s Neoplatonism, which “portrayed nature as permeated by divinity, a noble expression of the World Soul. Stars and planets, light, plants, even stones possessed a numinous dimension.”[23] This image of numinous nature appears to indicate an intimate participation of matter in the Good, implying that matter itself is not evil.

If matter itself is not evil, but a human soul becomes evil by being in a material body, how can this contradiction be reconciled? Returning to Plotinus’s statement about the soul in the body we can reinterpret his words slightly: ‘The soul is evil when it is thoroughly mixed with the body and shares its experiences and has all the same opinions.’ The body, and matter in general, is only evil when it becomes an object of desire that impedes a soul from returning to its divine source. Matter can only be the goal of desire for beings who are self-conscious and able to choose material desire, specifically human beings. “This is not because body itself is evil,” Gerson writes.

The evil in bodies is the element in them that is not dominated by form. One may be desirous of that form, but in that case what one truly desires is that form’s ultimate intelligible source in Intellect. More typically, attachment to the body represents a desire not for form but a corrupt desire for the non-intelligible or limitless.[24]

Evil then can be interpreted not as an entity—it remains nonbeing—but as existing as an action. Acts of evil, or acts of any kind, take place within the unity of the One because the One is simultaneously a multiplicity. Plotinus writes, “In virtue of the unity the individual is preserved by the All; in virtue of the multiplicity of things having various contacts, difference often brings about mutual hurt; one thing, seeking its own need, is detrimental to another.”[25] He goes on to speak of the action of the entire Cosmos coordinating the beings within it:

The beings thus co-ordinated are not the causes; the cause is the co-ordinating All; at the same time it is not to be thought of as acting upon a material distinct from itself, for there is nothing external to it since it is the cause by actually being all.[26]

From this perspective, any punishments for wrongdoings, for temporary acts of evil, can be seen as medicine for the whole although they are experienced as suffering by the individual part.[27] Furthermore, unmerited suffering, for example from disease or poverty, Plotinus considers accidental consequences of the greater actions of the All, and not as individual punishments.[28]

As the One radiates out from itself, through Intellect, Soul, and on to incarnated materiality, the One’s emanations do not actually come into being until they look back at their source: their moment of contemplation is their moment of becoming. This brings up the question of what might happen if part of the emanation never looked back—would it never come into being? Might this be how evil can be present in the One’s creation? If something never looked back it would not come into being, making it nonbeing, meanwhile it is not a form of nonbeing that enters the One from outside. The monism is kept intact while the action of evil—of not looking back or literally re-specting the One—is accounted for within creation.

The soul’s encounter with evil is a necessity for the soul to be able to contemplate and respect the One. Plotinus writes, “Where the faculty is incapable of knowing without contact, the experience of evil brings the clearer perception of Good.”[29] Matter is only considered evil when it impedes the human soul from returning to the One, yet paradoxically evil also seems to be necessary for the soul to know how to turn back toward the One, toward the Good. Gerson writes, “To deny the necessity of evil is to deny the necessity of the Good.”[30] Evil’s role within the One is to produce a harmony that weaves through the notes of the melody of the Good. It is the self-consciously acting human soul that allows, through its actions, the necessity of evil to play its role in creation. The “negative reality” of evil, writes Tarnas, “plays a necessary role in a larger design, and ultimately affects neither the perfection of the One nor the well-being of the philosopher’s highest self”[31]—the highest aspect of the human soul that always remains with the One. The very perfection of the One seems only to be completed by the dynamic harmony evil provides. The candle flame is brightest, and therefore contingent upon, the very darkness that lets it shines forth.


Works Cited

Gerson, Lloyd. “Plotinus.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition). Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Accessed March 13, 2013. <;.

Givens, Terryl L. When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012.

O’Brien, Elmer, ed., The Essential Plotinus. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1981.

Plotinus. Enneads. V.2.1. Translated by A.H. Armstrong. 7 volumes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966-88.

Plotinus. The Heart of Plotinus: The Essential Enneads. Edited by Algis Uzdavinys. Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom Inc., 2009.

Sherman, Jacob H. “A Genealogy of Participation.” In The Participatory Turn, edited by Jorge N. Ferrer and Jacob H. Sherman, 81-112. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2008.

Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View. New York, NY: The Random House Publishing Group, 1991.


[1]Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View, (New York, NY: The Random House Publishing Group, 1991), 84.

[2] Plotinus, The Heart of Plotinus: The Essential Enneads, ed. Algis Uzdavinys (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom Inc., 2009), 136-7.

[3] Plotinus, Enneads, V.2.1, trans. A.H. Armstrong, 7 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966-88), 5:59.

[4] Terryl L. Givens, When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012), 76.

[5] Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, 85.

[6] Jacob H. Sherman, “A Genealogy of Participation,” in The Participatory Turn, ed. Jorge N. Ferrer and Jacob H. Sherman (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2008), 96.

[7] Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, 85.

[8] Plotinus, The Heart of Plotinus, 136.

[9] Plotinus, The Heart of Plotinus, 137.

[10] Ibid, 139.

[11] Sherman, “A Genealogy of Participation,” 89.

[12] Plotinus, The Heart of Plotinus, 163-4.

[13] Ibid, 165.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Plotinus, The Heart of Plotinus, 146.

[16] Ibid, 165.

[17] Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, 85.

[18] Plotinus, The Heart of Plotinus, 140.

[19] Plotinus, Enneads, I.2.3.

[20] Elmer O’Brien, ed., The Essential Plotinus (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1981), 88 (Enneads VI, 9:9, 11).

[21] Lloyd Gerson, “Plotinus,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta, accessed March 13, 2013, <;, section 2, para. 15.

[22] Plotinus, The Heart of Plotinus, 166.

[23] Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, 213.

[24] Gerson, “Plotinus,” section 2, para. 17.

[25] Plotinus, The Heart of Plotinus, 151.

[26] Ibid, 152.

[27] Ibid, 157.

[28] Plotinus, Enneads, IV.3.16-17.

[29] Plotinus, The Heart of Plotinus, 167.

[30] Gerson, “Plotinus,” section 2, para. 17.

[31] Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind, 85.

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