The Evil Soul

The Evil Soul

G. Reale, A History of Ancient Philosophy: The Schools of the Imperial Age, trans. John R. Catan (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990).

Today, I read about Middle Platonism, which existed in the first century B.C.E. and the first century C.E.

We have previously said that Plutarch admits the existence of an “evil soul’ inhering in shapeless matter. Plato had previously spoken of “evil soul” in the Laws…Plutarch goes well beyond the affirmations of this passage to achieve a vision of reality in which the two opposed principles of good and evil eternally face each other. This dualistic vision has its most typical expression in the treatise On Isis and Osiris. Here Plutarch tries to demonstrate that Egyptian mythology understood in the allegorical sense represents precisely the conception of two rival principles…Atticus also admits the existence of an evil soul, while Celsus affirms clearly that evil is “inherent in matter” and he considered matter hence as a principle antithetical to God, since God, through his nature, is good. (225-226)

There is lots that I don’t understand here. First of all, what is the “evil soul”? Does all of matter have evil within it, or a mixture of evil and good? My understanding (which is flawed) is that the Stoics believed God was the soul that existed in nature, giving it order and rationality. On page 222, I read that Albinus, who was presumably a Middle Platonist, believed that God ordered the mind and the soul of the world. Does the world have a good soul and a bad soul?

Could this sort of thinking have influenced the Gnostics? The Gnostics maintained that matter was evil, the creation of an evil sub-deity. The thing is, the Middle Platonists may not have believed that matter was totally evil. After all, according to them, God (or the Demiurge) played some role in the order of nature, and that was a good thing. Maybe the Middle Platonists thought that the evil of the world was due to the flawed nature of the raw materials that the Demiurge used in creation (see Cosmos from Chaos).

Could this thinking about the “evil soul” in matter have influenced Paul, who regards the flesh as corrupt? I once had a professor who denied that Paul believed the flesh became corrupt through the sin of Adam and Eve, since Paul does not explicitly say that. My professor must have assumed that Paul viewed the flesh as corrupt from creation, as if flaws are simply a part of nature. I don’t know. In Romans 8, Paul talks about the redemption of all creation, so he must think that corruption is not necessarily endemic to nature, since the corruption will be removed one day.

Rabbinic Judaism believed that humans had a good and an evil impulse. Yet, there were rabbis who thought that the evil impulse had a good purpose, since some measure of selfishness makes the world go round. Genesis Rabbah 9:7 states:  “Nahman said in R. Samuel’s name: BEHOLD, IT WAS VERY GOOD refers to the Good Desire; AND BEHOLD, IT WAS VERY GOOD, to the Evil Desire. Can then the Evil Desire be very good? That would be extraordinary! But for the Evil Desire, however, no man would build a house, take a wife and beget children; and thus said Solomon: Again, I considered all labour and all excelling in work, that it is a man’s rivalry with his neighbour (Eccl. IV, 4).” (Translation is the one on my Judaic Classics Library.) Did the rabbis believe that evil was simply a part of nature?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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