Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.12.31 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.12.31

Cinzia Arruzza, Les mésaventures de la théodicée: Plotin, Origène, Grégoire de Nysse. Nutrix, 6.   Turnhout:  Brepols Publishers, 2011.  Pp. 320.  ISBN 9782503534220.  €70.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Ilaria L.E. Ramelli, Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, Milan ; Durham University (

[The Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]

This careful book is the revised version of a doctoral dissertation. It compares the theodicies of Plotinus on the one hand, and of Origen and Gregory of Nyssa on the other hand. Part One deals with Plotinus' theodicy, Part Two with Origen's, and Part Three with Gregory's. Arruzza correctly shows how Middle Platonism, emphasizing Plato's hints concerning matter, and interpreting Plato's dialogues in a dualistic fashion, elaborated a metaphysical notion of evil ("mal en soi, sur un plan ontologique", 15) with which both Plotinus and Origen were faced in the elaboration of their own theodicies. Both the theodicy of Plotinus and that of Origen are rightly seen by Arruzza also as products of a reaction to "Gnostic" systems. In this connection, it would be good to add that Jean-Marc Narbonne has recently traced much more of the Enneads than just the Großschrift to Plotinus' dialogue with some "Gnostics."1 Indeed, Christians, including "Gnostics", were certainly among Plotinus' disciples; according to Porphyry, Vita Plotini 16, “many Christians” attended his classes. On p. 19, the author speaks of a "rencontre complexe entre platonisme et christianisme" in reference to Plotinus, Origen, and Gregory of Nyssa. I fully subscribe, but instead of "Platonism and Christianity" I would rather say "'pagan' Platonism and Christian Platonism" to avoid the impression that only "pagan" Platonism is true and legitimate Platonism, while Christian Platonism is not in fact Platonism but is just "Christianity".

Arruzza analyzes well, and concludes correctly, that while Plotinus affirms the necessary existence of evil and matter as the last stage of the procession from the One, Origen and Gregory are adamant that matter must be saved qua creature of God, and evil must be kept distinct from matter if we are to claim that God is not responsible for evil – the main concern of theodicy (288). Arruzza stresses Plotinus' identification of evil with matter, though she does not tackle in depth the thorny issue of its relation to the soul – an issue that is also closely related to theodicy. In Treatise 51, Plotinus remarks that matter is not only evil, but also the cause of the soul's vice. If evil / matter derived from the soul, it would ultimately depend on the first principles (Treatise 33). Admitting this would clearly destroy theodicy, whose first pillar from Plato onward was θεὸς ἀναίτιος. God, or the first principle(s), must be free of any responsibility for evil. In this respect, Plotinus disagreed with the "Gnostics" whom he knew, since he maintained the goodness of all the divine, as well as of the world.2 The same was steadfastly maintained by both Origen and Gregory of Nyssa.

In the course of her examination, Arruzza rightly put the following question: "il reste à se demander si dans l'identification entre mal et non être qu'on trouve au cours des pages de Plotin, Origène et Grégoire on peut lire une des premières manifestations de cette tradition," viz. "du mal comme privatio boni" (287). It is worth remarking in this connection that in fact, shortly before Plotinus and Origen, the Christian Middle Platonist Bardaisan of Edessa entertains a notion of evil as privation, negativity, and weakness that comes close to Origen's. Notably, Bardaisan too, exactly like Origen and Gregory, was a supporter of apokatastasis, one of the very first ever, and there may have been relations between his school and Origen's.3

I come to a few quibbles. Instead of "succession of worlds" ("succession des mondes", 148) in Origen's case it would be preferable to say "succession of aeons". The world (κόσμος) is one; the series is of αἰῶνες, with their different arrangements of rational creatures, their free choices, and their spiritual progress. It might also be questionable to assert that Origen did not conceive of God as infinite (148), even though this statement is often repeated in scholarship. Likewise, the expression "preexistence of souls", which is widespread in scholarship and not confined to the present work ("préexistence des âmes", 134; cf. 143), in reference to Origen's doctrine is imprecise. It is very probable that in Origen's view the question is not of disembodied souls that at a certain point, as a consequence of sin, fall into mortal bodies. Rational creatures possessed a fine, immortal body from the moment of their creation as independent substances onward; that light, luminous body got transformed into a mortal one in the case of humans as a result of their sin, and into a ridiculous one – in what precise sense, it is impossible to establish with certainty – in the case of demons, also as a result of their sin. With the resurrection and restoration, humans will recover their immortal bodies, and with the restoration demons too will recover their glorious bodies.4 It seems to me that a possible, very interesting parallel with Plotinus emerges here. In Treatise 50.6-7, Plotinus thinks of demons as endowed with bodies made of intelligible matter. This might be identifiable with the αὐγοειδὲς ὄχημα, “luminous vehicle", that souls are said to assume in their descent in Treatises 14, 26 and 27.5 Now Origen too deemed rational creatures (logika) to be endowed with a subtle body, which may or may not become a heavy and mortal body on account of their sin. There is even a verbal resonance, given that Origen too designated the subtle and spiritual body of rational creatures as both αὐγοειδές and an ὄχημα (the latter notion is clearly conveyed by the sentence, τῷ δὲ αὐγοειδεῖ τὴν ψυχὴν ἐποχεῖθαι πρώτῳ λέγουσιν, ὅπερ ὕστερον ἐνεδύσατο τοὺς δερματίνους χιτῶνας).6 Origen’s description of the spiritual body as αὐγοειδές is further confirmed by the sixth- century theologian Gobar (ap. Phot. Bibl. cod. 232, 288a).

Arruzza is, on the other hand, absolutely correct in speaking of the preexistence of bare souls in the case of Philo (135). Indeed Philo inspired Origen profoundly, but had a different notion of the spiritual death of the soul. Unlike Origen, he seems to have thought of an actual ontological destruction of the soul that sins, while Origen distinguished the spiritual death of sinning souls from their ontological annihilation. In addition, Philo notably did not have an eschatological doctrine of apokatastasis (he did theorize the apokatastasis of a soul, but not the eschatological restoration of all rational beings), also because his thought was not altogether eschatologically oriented.

The author's judgment about Origen’s doctrine of apokatastasis – "dans le refus de la possibilité d'une rébellion éternelle envers le Créateur, se montre en plein jour la difficulté de l'élaboration d'une idée entièrement accomplie de liberté personnelle" (290) – might seem to overlook the fact that in Origen's – and Gregory's – line the choice of evil is never really free. It rather depends on an obnubilation, a deception, an illness of the soul that must be cured (the element of deception and obnubilation in Gregory's explanation of sin is caught very well by Arruzza herself on p. 217). In Origen's view, the eventual apokatastasis rests, not on creatures' lack of freedom, but on the omnipotence of the Logos, Physician and Teacher, on God's supreme Goodness, and on Christ's incarnation, death, and resurrection. 7 An important aspect of both Origen’s and Gregory's doctrines of apokatastasis, indeed, seems to be somewhat neglected: namely, its being grounded in Christ and being inconceivable without Christ. As it is, its description comes closer to a kind of movement that flows from evil's non-existence. It must be stressed that even the eschatological disappearance of evil is repeatedly justified by both Origen and Gregory by means of a scriptural passage first and philosophical argument after. The scriptural passage is 1 Cor 15:24-8, from which, as from many other elements, it is also clear that the eventual restoration will be a work of Christ and God. Origen is particularly clear that it will be essentially a miracle of God, when he uses the argument from God's omnipotence to "correct" Plato's idea that some sinners are "incurable" and unable to be purified. Christ-God, who created them, will also be able to cure them, because Christ-Logos is more powerful than any evil or illness of the soul. Nihil enim omnipotenti impossibile est, nec insanabile est aliquid Factori suo (Princ. 3.6.5; cf. Cels. 8.72)

This rich book on a fascinating topic, accurate also from the editorial viewpoint, is a welcome contribution to the fields of imperial philosophy and especially of Patristic philosophy, a discipline that still needs huge amounts of investigation and requires vast competence.

Table of Contents

Première Partie: Théodicée plotinienne
Ch. 1: Le mal en tant que non-être et matière
Ch. 2: La première mésaventure de la puissance
Ch. 3: Les mésaventures de la providence
Ch. 4: Contre le libertin. La polémique antignostique
Ch. 5: La deuxième mésaventure de la puissance
Deuxième Partie: Théodicée chrétienne: Origène
Ch. 6: La chute et le retour
Ch. 7: Une mésaventure platonicienne: la matière
Ch. 8: Encore le libertin: Origène contre le gnostiques
Ch. 9: Les temps du retour
Troisième Partie: Théodicée chrétienne: Grégoire de Nysse
Ch. 10: L’enchantement et le désenchantement
Ch. 11: Entre anges, démons, et hommes
Ch. 12: Le paradoxe de la double création
Ch. 13: La mésaventure de la liberté


1.   Jean-Marc Narbonne, Plotinus in Dialogue with the Gnostics, Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2011.
2.   See again Narbonne, Plotinus in Dialogue with the Gnostics.
3.   Ilaria Ramelli, Bardaisan of Edessa. A Reassessment of the Evidence and a New Interpretation. Also in the Light of Origen and the Original Fragments from De India, Piscataway: Gorgias, 2009. Patricia Crone agrees with me on the presence of the apokatastasis doctrine in Bardaisan: s.v. "Daysanis," in Encyclopedia of Islam, 3rd edn., Leiden: Brill, 2012, 116-18.
4.   Full argument in Ilaria Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls? The ἀρχή and τέλος of Rational Creatures in Origen and Some Origenians” in Studia Patristica 54 (Leuven: Peeters, 2012) (forthcoming).
5.   This connection between the bodies of demons and the souls' "luminous vehicles" is suggested by Narbonne, Plotinus in Dialogue with the Gnostics, 46.
6.   Ap. Procop. Comm. in Gen., PG 87.1, 221A.
7.   For the Christological basis of the apokatastasis doctrine in Origen see Ilaria Ramelli, "Origen and Apokatastasis: A Reassessment" in S. Kaczmarek and H. Pietras (eds.), Origeniana Decima (= Bibliotheca Ephemeridum Theologicarum Lovaniensium 244), Leuven: Peeters 2011, 649-70.

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