Pseudo-Dionysius and the Non-Existence of Evil:
The Saga Continues…
So far I’ve written about St Athanasius on evil, published a related article on this, and followed it up with a blog post on Darth Nihilus. All of these were thoughts on how to solve the problem – if evil is absolute non-existence, then what does it mean to be sinful and yet go about our daily lives as very much live people? If sin is evil and is the absence of relation with God from whom all being comes, then surely as soon as one sins, one should cease to exist?
I’ve offered a number of solutions to this so far – one using St Maximus to suggest that we are given a grace period in our lives on earth in which to work toward virtue and participation in God, where once that grace period is over, those of us who have chosen nothingness will collapse back into nothingness. I also offered an interpretation of Athanasius suggesting that perhaps we’ve already started to become nothing in our very lives now, and that we become a sort of person-shaped black hole – a real negative influence on the world by merit of sucking goodness into our empty, hollow selves, so that we become less and less persons the more we sin (the Darth Nihilus theory).
Yesterday, as I was reading through Ps-Dionysius’ Divine Names, I came across an alternative idea that works as a nice mid-way between these two ideas. Dionysius is also a big fan of evil being non-existence, but he takes the time to wrestle with our problem on exactly how that translates into our lives.
Firstly, it helps that Dionysius has got a thoroughly Neoplatonic understanding of participation and goodness. Everything comes from God, who is Good, and we all have a share in that goodness to a greater or lesser extent – so there are gradations of goodness. The nice thing about this, is that he can then talk about gradations of evil. Things are not just either good or evil for Dionysius. There must be something in between, since clearly those of us who sin have not fallen into nothingness – we still have being, ie. goodness. Therefore, when we sin, we become a little more un-real – there is a small amount of evil in us. And since evil is the privation of goodness, what this really means is that we have failed to be virtuous – there is an absence of virtue in us. This then, is another way that Dionysius describes evil:
“Hence the evil inhereth not in the devils or in us, as evil, but only as a deficiency and lack of the perfection of our proper virtues.” (DN Ch. 4, p89)
(Apologies for the antiquated 1920s translation, my newer English translation is in a box in Cumbria somewhere). As already hinted at in this quotation, this applies not only to Dionysius’ understanding of humans, but also to devils and demons as well. There is no evil being, only beings which have turned to evil.
Crowley is a fine example of a demon who clearly isn’t by nature evil.
Even more interestingly, Dionysius extends this to say, since all things were made good, all things must by nature be good. It is only by acting against its nature that a being is evil:
“Wherefore ‘tis not evil for a creature so to act as preserveth its nature undestroyed; evil is the destruction of its nature, the weakness and deficiency of its natural qualities, activities, and powers.” (DN Ch. 4, p89-90)
“… hence the devils are not evil in so far as they fulfil their nature, but in so far as they do not.” (DN CH. 4 p89)
Dionysius offers us a very positive view of the potentiality of all beings to be good. So long as there is a someone, then there is still hope for them – they have not yet lapsed into true absence. This also gives us a vivid understanding of evil as weakness. It is not power but deprivation, and failure to truly live:
“…they are called evil because they fail in the exercise of their natural activity. The evil in them is therefore a warping, a declension from their right condition; a failure, an imperfection, an impotence, and a weakness, loss and lapse of that power which would preserve their perfection in them.” (DN CH. 4 p89)
Dionysius tells us that someone who is evil is never strong. Contrary to lots of popular depictions, where a villain believes they’re shutting off various compassionate elements of their character for the sake of strength and power, Dionysius says all such persons have is a deficit of Goodness, which is being itself. They are simply gradually becoming nothing. This is where the comparison fits more with the Darth Nihilus theory I suggested last time. In choosing evil we are gradually becoming less and less real, more and more a nothing and a no one.
Thanos believes himself to be gaining power by throwing his daughter off a cliff. Dionysius thinks this just makes him weak.
Dionysius also manages to overcome a serious problem in Neoplatonic thought through this same reasoning. Both Plotinus and Proclus wrestle with the problem of matter being evil, or to what extent, at least, matter is evil. Plotinus especially ends up implying matter is evil, and Proclus whilst conceding that matter as a something must come from the One, still places matter at the very bottom of the hierarchy of things furthest from the One. Dionysius has a much more positive view of matter, precisely because he starts with the principle that everything comes from God, and everything that comes from God is good. Matter exists and is therefore good. And if matter is necessary for the development of the universe, as Dionysius believes it is, then how could such a necessity ever be considered anything but good?
Where he leaves us with some unanswered questions however, is the extent to which beings today can still reach for the goodness in their prelapsarian natures. Is my perfect nature still within my grasp if I just try to be virtuous enough, or has there been some kind of ontological change in the Fall that means I can no longer attain this nature? This is perhaps an element of Neoplatonism that lingers in his thought, or a testament to the fact that I haven’t read enough Dionysius to draw a solid conclusion, but certainly in Chapter 4 of the Divine Names, we have very little recognition that retrieving our original natures and acquiring being in God through virtue might pose a difficulty of any kind. Either way, Dionysius’ is taken up by Maximus, who resolves these tensions by describing a balance between ascetic practice clearing space for virtue and the Holy Spirit instilling virtue through grace, but that is a story for another day!
The interesting thing we can take away from here is that Dionysius proposes that sin is gradually undoing us as people, but more hopefully, that:
“… the depraved sinner, though bereft of the Good by his brutish desire is in this respect unreal and desires unrealities; but still he hath a share in the Good in so far as there is in him a distorted reflection of true Love and Communion.” (DN CH. 4 p85)
Pseudo-Dionysius, Divine Names. C.E Rolt (trans.) (Grand Rapids, 1920). CCEL version online.