BMCR 2003.12.07

Proclus, On the Existence of Evils. The Ancient Commentators on Aristotle

, , , On the existence of evils. [The Ancient commentators on Aristotle]. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003. 159 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN 0801441005 $65.00.

An exceptional circumstance enables the publication of this Neoplatonic treatise: Richard Sorabji accepted it into his series “The Ancient Commentators on Aristotle.” The character of Proclus’ argument might provide some justification for his decision insofar as Proclus replaces Plotinian concepts with Aristotelian ones in order to meet all the philosophical requirements which fidelity to the texts of Plato bearing on evil requires of him (Introduction, pp. 10-19). Opsomer and Steel establish that “Proclus firmly re-establishes Peripatetic orthodoxy” (p. 19). These would be slim grounds, however, for inclusion in the series because post-Plotinian Neoplatonism generally retrieves and elevates Aristotle. Nonetheless, all scholars of Late Antique and Medieval philosophy are obliged to Sorabji and even more to Opsomer and Steel for bringing this exceptionally learned, philosophically sophisticated, and immensely useful translation into our hands.

In fact, the book is very much more than a translation; the text of the little treatise On the Existence of Evils occupies only pages 55 to 104. In addition, besides a Philological Appendix, Select Bibliography, indices (passages, subjects, names), there are an Introduction, which, with its notes, fills pages 1 to 53, and Notes to the translated text which take up pages 105 to 131.

The 13 pages of the Philological Appendix amount to a substantial amendment to the “the excellent edition of Helmut Boese” (p. 8) of the 1311 Latin translation by William of Moerbeke, which Boese published together with a substantial portion of the lost Greek text reconstructed from the eleventh century Byzantine plagiarism confected by Isaak Sebastokrator.1 Although use is made of the subsequent edition and French translation of the De Malorum Subsistentia by Daniel Isaac,2 it is the Boese edition which the authors correct by means of a branch of the manuscript tradition they think had been underestimated, as well as by other considerations. The judgments of the translators are the fruit of long reflection. For many years Steel has been studying the translation made by Moebeke, the techniques the Dominican Archbishop of Corinth used to reproduce word for word the Greek text in Latin, and the possibilities for using it and the several Byzantine plagiarisms for restoring the Greek text lost after Moerbeke created his Latin rendition. In 1994 for a colloquium in Paris, Carlos Steel produced a painstaking comparison of the Moebeke text and the plagiarism of it in Book 4 of the De Divinis Nominibus by the pseudo-Dionysius.3 Professor Steel drew very unflattering conclusions both about the edition of the De Divinis Nominibus by Beata Suchla (1990) and also about the philosophical originality of Dionysius and the level of understanding he possessed of the arguments of Proclus. The present work continues these judgments about the mediocrity and startling contradictions in the Dionysian rendition (pp. 4-7). Nonetheless, the authors acknowledge that, because of the still spreading influence and the millennium-long almost unsurpassed authority of the pseudo-Areopagite as the transmitter of St. Paul’s mystical knowledge, the Proclean treatment of evil remains extraordinarily important for both philosophy and theology. His 1994 comparison enabled Steel to use Dionysius to regain more portions of the Greek text of Proclus and to correct Boese. These results are added to the other approaches so that the translators can aim at “translating the original Greek text of Proclus” (p. 47). In fact, we have a translation made from the best estimate scholarship has yet attained of the lost Greek text.

Good translators of philosophical works need more than good texts, they must also understand the author’s argument. Here too Opsomer and Steel rely on the work of others and make good use of it. Above all they take full advantage of the greatest work in Proclean scholarship of the second half of the twentieth century, the edition and translation of the Platonic Theology by Saffrey and Westerink. They also use the studies it has inspired and enabled, studies to which the translators have contributed elsewhere.4 The results are an Introduction and Notes to the text which make this an essential work not only for scholars of Neoplatonism, for historians seeking to understand the origins and development of the treatments of evil in the Hellenic philosophical and theological traditions, and for philosophers and theologians needing a clear statement of the most influential arguments on the subject of the existence of evil, but also for beginning students who are presented here with a short Neoplatonic text together with what they need to work their way through it.

The Introduction first gives us the place of the treatise among the works of Proclus and provides good reasons for giving it a late date. It goes on to consider the tradition of the text and Moerbeke’s translation; the matters I have outlined above are considered here. Before a structural analysis and an outline of the arguments of each of the chapters, Opsomer and Steel give a sophisticated account of Proclus’ treatment of evil and what motivates it. Crucial to this is a description of the texts from Plato which Proclus compels his own doctrine to interpret and reconcile. The Platonic texts determine that the gods are not the causes of evil and that souls are responsible for any evil they commit. Equally important for shaping Proclus’ views is the rejection of the teaching of Plotinus that “matter is the origin of all evil; it is evil as such” (p. 12). The position of Plotinus depends on his rejection of Aristotle and his identification of the substrate with privation. As indicated already, Proclus sides with Peripatetic orthodoxy against Plotinus and reasserts the Aristotelian definition of contrariety so that matter neither is the cause of evil nor is itself evil. On the other hand, he does not concede to Aristotle that privation is evil as such (p. 19). In turning against Plotinus on matter, Proclus is following in the tradition of Iamblichus, for whom limit and the indefinite come immediately after the One. “Matter is simply the lowest manifestation of unlimitedness. Hence it is produced by the Good, and hence it is not evil” (p. 17; see p. 50, note 62 and p. 121, note 250). Proclus finds a justification for the divine origin of the unlimited in the Philebus 23C9-10.

As a good scholar Proclus is not only interpreting the authoritative texts into reconciliation, he is finding his way between rejected positions offered in the philosophical tradition: (1) that there is a single source of evil just as there is a single source of good things, (2) that there is a form of evil, (3) that “a maleficent soul” is the principle of evil. Rejecting all three in order to exculpate the gods, Proclus seriously considers the idea that there is no cause of evil and, in fact, his solution to the problem comes close to this. The key to his position is the notion of parupostasis or “parasitic existence” in opposition to hupostasis (p. 26). The authors find the term used before Proclus and tell us that: “According to Simplicius ( in Cat. 418,4-6), Iamblichus has developed a number of arguments to show that evil exists en parupostasei and is the result of some failure.” They judge that as a philosophical term it occurred first in Porphyry (p. 51, note 81).

According to Proclus, parasitic existence belongs to “beings that neither appear through causes in accordance with nature nor result in a definite end.” Aristotle’s distinction between causality per se and per accidens is essential here. Opsomer and Steel write, for Proclus: “The accidental is not necessary, but indeterminate ( aoriston); and of such a thing the causes are unordered ( atakta) and indefinite ( apeira)” (p. 26). Evil happens because an agent does not attain its appropriate goal. Proclus writes: “Therefore it is appropriate to call such generation a parasitic existence ( parupostasis), in that it is without end and unintended ( askopon), uncaused in a way ( anaition pôs and indefinite ( aoriston).” (50.29-31).

Nonetheless, Plato, not Aristotle, has the last word. As a parasitic privation of good, deriving its power from the good, evil is not a contrary but a “subcontrary”, an idea Proclus finds in the Theaetetus 176A. “The notion of the subcontrary allows Proclus to maintain a form of contrariety between particular, i.e. relative, evils and the good, without attributing any independent being to them. … Because evils always parasitize upon good dispositions, they can usurp the power of those dispositions and use it against the good” (p. 31).

With such a substantial Introduction, the notes to the translated text can be brief, but in fact they provide what readers need to understand this treatise, even repeating what is given in the Introduction. Beyond it they tackle such vexed questions as the kinds of souls (notes 120 and 131), the reincarnation of human souls in animals (n. 183), the kinds of the unlimited (n. 251), and a summary of the whole Proclean metaphysical hierarchy (n. 356).

The net result is a book which is ideal for introducing students to Proclus and to Neoplatonism in the Iamblichan tradition. Let us hope that a paperback edition will appear shortly. In the meantime, this book is a necessity for every scholar of Neoplatonism and of Mediaeval philosophy and theology. No library with a serious collection in philosophy or theology can be without it.


1. Procli Diadochi Tria Opuscula (De Providentia, Libertate, Malo), Latine Guilelmo de Moerbeke vertente et Graece ex Isaacii Sebastocratoris aliarum scriptis collecta, ed. H. Boese, Quellen und Studien zur Geschichte der Philosophie, 1 (Berlin, 1960).

2. Proclus, Trois Études sur la Providence, III, De l’existence du mal, Texte établi et traduit par Daniel Isaac, avec une note additionelle par Carlos Steel, Collection des Universités de France (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1982).

3. C. G. Steel “Proclus et Denys: l’existence du mal,” in Denys l’Aréopagite et sa postérité en Orient et en Occident, Actes du Colloque International Paris, 21-24 septembre 1994, édités Ysabel de Andia, Collection des Études Augustiniennes, Série Antiquité 151 (Paris: Institut d’Études Augustiniennes, 1997) 89-116.

4. Proclus, Théologie platonicienne, 6 vol., texte établi et traduit par H.-D. Saffrey et L.G. Westerink, Collection des Universités de France (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1968-1997). See also Proclus et la Théologie Platonicienne. Actes du Colloque International de Louvain (13-16 mai 1998) en l’honneur de H.D. Saffrey et L.G. Westerink éd. A. Ph. Segonds et C. Steel, Ancient and Medieval Philosophy De Wulf-Mansion Centre Series I, XXVI (Leuven and Paris: Leuven University Press and Les Belles Lettres, 2000).