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Schäfer, Christian (2004): Matter in Plotinus's Normative Ontology. In: Phronesis, Vol. 49, No. 3: pp. 266-294 [PDF, 185kB]


To most interpreters, the case seems to be clear: Plotinus identifies matter and evil, as he bluntly states in Enn. I.8[51] that ‘last matter’ is ‘evil’, and even ‘evil itself’. In this paper, I challenge this view: how and why should Plotinus have thought of matter, the sense-making έσχατον of his derivational ontology from the One and Good, evil? A rational reconstruction of Plotinus’s tenets should neither accept the paradox that evil comes from Good, nor shirk the arduous task of interpreting Plotinus’s texts on evil as a fitting part of his philosophy on the whole. Therefore, I suggest a reading of evil in Plotinus as the outcome of an incongruent interaction of matter and soul, maintaining simultaneously that neither soul nor matter are to be considered as bad or evil. When Plotinus calls matter evil, he does so metonymically denoting matter’s totally passive potentiality as perceived by the toiling soul trying to act upon it as a form-bringer. As so often, Plotinus is speaking quoad nos here rather than referring to ‘matter per se’ (for Plotinus, somewhat of an oxymoron) which, as mere potentiality (and nothing else) is not nor can be evil. In short: matter is no more evil than the melancholy evening sky is melancholy – not in itself (for it isn’t), but as to its impression on us who contemplate it. As I buttress this view, it will also become clear that matter cannot tritely be considered to be the αυτό κακόν as a prima facie-reading of Enn. I.8[51] might powerfully suggest, but that the αυτό κακόν, far from being a principle of its own, has to be interpreted within the dynamics of Plotinus’s philosophical thinking as a unique, though numerously applicable flaw-pattern for all the single kakã (hence the Platonic αύτό). To conclude, I shall offer a short outlook on the consistency of this interpretation with Plotinus’s teaching on the soul and with the further Neoplatonic development of the doctrine of evil.

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