Evil in Platonism of the 2nd and 3rd Centuries A.D.: A Doctrine Developed through Philosophical and Religious Argument
The question as to the nature and origin of evil presents a major “challenge to philosophy and theology” (Ricœur, 2004). The aim of this research project is to investigate how Platonists in the 1st to 3rd centuries A.D. (from Plutarch to Plotinus, inclusively) confronted this challenge and how they developed their ideas and concepts in dealing with thinkers of their time. Their doctrine of evil per se has been examined frequently in the secondary literature, but insufficient attention has been given to the issue of how their systems were conceived and further developed in controversial discussion with other schools of philosophy, on the one hand, and with Christians and Gnostics, on the other.
Since the Middle Platonists and Neoplatonists conceived their philosophy as the interpretation of the doctrine of Plato, their interpretation of Plato needs to be judged against the texts of their master himself. The first part of the project hence consists of explaining the notion of evil in Plato’s work. Building on this, the ensuing investigations will seek to explain where the differing interpretations of Plato originated and in what cultural, philosophical and religious contexts they came into being.
The second step involves consideration of the (Middle) Platonic concept of evil in the context of disputes with the other schools of philosophy. Two authors have been selected to serve as examples. On the one hand, the views of Plutarch will be described and observed, in particular considered as a response to the Academics, neo-Pythagoreans and Stoics. This will also include scrutiny of the way Plutarch related to religious traditions (Zarathustra; Egypt). On the other hand, research will be conducted into the doctrine of Numenios, clarifying the way in which Numenios reacted to the positions of the other Neo-Pythagoreans and the Stoics and how they took into account also the ancient wisdom of the Orient (and hence of the Jews).
And finally, this research project will address the arguments between Platonists, Christians and Gnostics concerning the theme of evil. In the course of this, Kelsos’ controversial discourse with the Christians and Gnostics, as well as that of Plotinus with the Gnostics, will be examined.
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