Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.02.40

John Frederick Phillips, Order from Disorder: Proclus' Doctrine of Evil and Its Roots in Ancient Platonism. Ancient Mediterranean and Medieval Texts and Contexts v. 5.   Leiden/Boston:  Brill, 2007.  Pp. ix, 280.  ISBN 9789004160187.  $153.00.  

Reviewed by Todd Krulak, University of Pennsylvania (
Word count: 1590 words

Proclus has been the subject of intermittent attention over the past century, but the last forty years have seen a gradual increase in scholarly interest, evidenced by the translation of significant works in his sizable corpus and the proliferation of detailed examinations into various aspects of his philosophical ruminations. John Phillips' careful exploration of Proclus' doctrine of evil falls into the latter category and offers to the reader a dissection of the sage's exegesis of Plato and his appropriation or refutation of the interpretations of those Middle and Late Platonists who precede him. One of Proclus' later works, De malorum subsistentia (DMS), is a treatise that focuses solely upon the problem of evil and, for most readers, has served as the final word on the subject. Phillips argues that DMS is essentially a synopsis of Proclus' doctrine of evil and that, to get a more holistic picture of his thought, one must make a thorough accounting of the way in which he and his Platonist forebears interpreted those passages in Plato that speaks of evil. It is Phillips' interest in the exegetical tradition that is at the heart of his work, for while he does not shy away from presenting Proclus' musings on evil, he is keen to contextualize the Athenian philosopher in the light of previous interpretations of Plato.

The book is divided into six chapters, beginning fairly broadly before focusing on particular aspects of the relationship of evil to soul and body. The first chapter is an overview of Proclus' doctrine of evil. Here the reader is introduced to the primary motivation behind the sage's extensive treatment of the subject, namely the concern to retain a form of monism in which the Primary Cause is entirely good. The opponents are some gnostic philosophers and, closer to home, Platonists like Plutarch, Numenius, and Atticus, who would argue for a dualistic worldview in which there exists an evil world-soul that is co-eternal with and independent of the Platonic Demiurge. Proclus does not deny the presence of evil in the world, but he is keen to absolve the Divine of any direct responsibility. This idea of "direct responsibility" is key: Phillips demonstrates that, for Proclus, evil is not an entity willed by the Divine but comes about as the result of disharmony at lower ontological levels (e.g., a subversion of the proper relationship between the irrational and rational souls).

Chapter Two delves deeper into the nature of evil, categorized by Proclus as the privation of the Good. Phillips highlights the two key Platonic texts the philosopher interprets to be supportive of this reading -- Theaetetus 176a and Sophist 257b-259b -- and then proceeds to clarify how Proclus' position is formed in response to previous thinkers, most notably Plotinus. Both philosophers struggle to formulate a concept of the nature of evil "according to which (a) it exists and exists necessarily, (b) it exists as a special sort of privation that exceeds that which is a mere absence of being, so that it is an opposition to the Good and (c) nonetheless its opposition to the Good is not so complete that the result is a dualistic doctrine" (89-90); but Proclus differs from Plotinus on several issues, especially on the latter's contention that the privation of the Good is primary matter. Phillips' detailed discussion of this point demonstrates his mastery of the material and of the nuances involved in the exegesis of the aforementioned Platonic texts.

Chapter Three is the first of two chapters to examine corporeal evil, defined by Phillips as "privations of nature resulting both from the mixture in them [bodies] of dissimilar elements and from what he [Proclus] calls 'contrary form-principles'" (105) and as the "'chaotic and disorderly motion' of the 'corporeal nature'" (106). Proclus understands this "corporeal nature," a term borrowed from Plato's Statesman, to be the disorderly state mastered by the Demiurge as described in the Timaeus. Phillips again introduces the divergent readings against which Proclus contends, focusing primarily on those like Numenius and Plotinus who would see Matter as the Principle of corporeal evil and on Porphyry who argues that evil is derived from irrational, pre-cosmic bodies. Proclus, however, argues for a median state between these two poles, a proto-body introduced to matter by vestigial traces of the Forms. This proto-body, disorderly and chaotic in its motion, is the source of the evil found in natural bodies.

Chapter Four is an excellent discussion of the role of irrational nature in the formation of bodies. Phillips notes that Platonists recognized the need to explain the disorderly state that existed before the Demiurge fashioned the universe. For dualists like Plutarch, Numenius, or Atticus, this causes little consternation as they are able to attribute this to an evil World Soul. Monists like Proclus wish to deny that soul could be the source of evil but were faced with the difficult reality that the disorderly motion, though disorderly, is indeed a type of motion which in Platonist physics is brought about by soul. Proclus finds his solution in a revision of Stoic physics in which the lower, or irrational, nature, equated by the philosopher with the "mortal form of soul" in Timaeus 69c, is posterior to soul but capable of autokinesis. The result is an ontological layer which, though it has only the most tenuous connection to soul, is able to impart an imperfect motion to the pre-cosmic soup. Yet this lower nature also has connections to the higher orders which enable it to serve as a conduit for the good things that descend from these orders. Phillips' range is visible most clearly in this chapter as he capably highlights the important differences between philosophers and the ways that some of them utilize and manipulate Stoic principles for their own ends.

The fifth chapter is the first of two chapters on evil as a privation in the soul. Phillips here notes the varying interpretations of Laws 896e, which serves as the foundational text for figures like Plutarch and Atticus who would argue for an evil World Soul. Phillips explores the dualistic thought of these exegetes and enables the reader to better understand why monists like Proclus would find it necessary to reject any reading of Plato that suggests a principle of evil, and why they would prefer instead to interpret the evil in the Laws passage as representing a weakness of soul rather than as the product of an independent entity.

In the final chapter, evil as the product of weakness in the human soul is the topic, one that pits Proclus against Plotinus. The two philosophers agree that the soul's sinfulness is the result of an inherent weakness, but the area of contention is the degree to which Matter plays a role in the enticement of the soul to evil. The role of Matter in Plotinus' scheme has been noted above, but Proclus is resistant to viewing it as a First Principle of evil that draws down the soul, instead preferring to emphasize the soul's weakness as far as the level of its activities. That is, evil is not essential to the soul. This position enables Proclus to find in the soul (without having to adopt the dualistic tendencies of which Plotinus might be accused) a deficiency that can cause it to act in ways that cause disharmony and, thus, evil.

Phillips sifts through a significant amount of textual evidence that has the potential to overwhelm the reader. The author appears to recognize this possibility and so, at the outset of every chapter, provides a significant collection (usually anywhere between ten to fifteen pages) of Proclus' writings pertinent to the chapter's subject matter. Unfortunately, this is less helpful than it might have been as one is referred back to these excerpts relatively infrequently. After working one's way through these primary texts, it would have been valuable to have had Phillips' expertise brought to bear more directly upon them. This is not to say that they are not mentioned at all, for they find their way into footnotes and, less frequently, into the body of the text itself, but more often Phillips' interests trend towards previous interpreters of the Platonic texts, although he does not always provide excerpts from their works in the body of the text). Proclus' reactions to these philosophers are contained in the preliminary excerpts, of course, but Phillips might have aided the reader by commenting more overtly on them and indicating more clearly how and why these contribute to his project. Nevertheless, it is still useful to have these texts collected in one place.

The one other minor issue that detracts from an otherwise excellent book is the number of typographical and grammatical errors (e.g. a sentence on page four reads, "My intention in the present study is therefore not in the first place to present an analysis Proclus' doctrine of evil..."). In one instance, too, I found, a citation in a footnote for a work not present in the bibliography (242, n. 12).

These are all niggling issues, however, in the face of what is a strong contribution to Proclean studies. For those with an interest in Neoplatonism, Proclus, and/or the manner in which late antique philosophers grappled with the presence of evil in the physical world, Order from Disorder is a valuable book, but it is also one that requires a working knowledge of the Neoplatonists themselves, their terminology, and, to a lesser extent, their ontologies. Those who have this data set will find their time spent reading Phillips' work to be a wise investment.

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