In §17 of the De Malorum Subsistentia (“On the Existence of Evils”), Proclus explains why there is no evil in the daimones. Here, Proclus is working his way down the metaphysical hierarchy, from the Gods, through angeloi, daimones, heroes, various classes of souls, and finally to matter, looking to see at what point evil could possibly enter into things.
The daimones, he explains:
- are not evil in themselves, since they have their existence directly from the Gods (who are, of course, perfectly good; Proclus’ own discussion has just demonstrated this), and because, insofar as they are daimones by nature, they are not subject to change.
- are not evil for others, since they have a good role to play, in at least two respects. They are good in punishing wrongdoers, since this is always done for the improvement of the wrongdoer, just as a schoolteacher punishing or otherwise correcting an erring student. And they are good in preventing those who are not yet able to ascend from doing so, just as (and this is Proclus’ own example) the guardians of a temple prevent those who are in need of purification from entering. Both of these functions are (ultimately) good, both for the individual souls toward whom they are directed, and in view of nature as a whole.
This sheds some helpful light on Proclus’ “Common Hymn to the Gods of Wisdom,” where he prays:
“That a daimon doing cruel things may not hold me forever submerged in the streams of forgetfulness, while I am far away from the Blessed Ones.”(quoting van den Berg’s translation, from memory)
Given the discussion above, the “daimon doing cruel things” is not evil in either of the two respects just considered (nor in any other respect). And so “cruel” neither means nor entails “evil.” The prayer then seems to be that Proclus himself can arrive at a place such that he is no longer in need of corrective punishment, and such that he has been sufficiently purified as to be able to ascend toward the Gods. And this makes sense. Souls (including Proclus) are the sorts of beings which are subject to change, while the higher beings like the daimones are not; so, if Proclus prays for change over time (where he asks not be submerged “forever”), it should be at the level of soul where the relevant change happens.
I’m pretty sure that van den Berg has at least some relevant discussion of this, but unfortunately, I’m quoting the hymn from memory, and don’t have the entire book available to me at the moment. Regardless, it was this discussion in De Malorum Subsistentia which brought home to me what’s going on here.
Two other passages in De Malorum Subsistentia seem to shed still more light on the hymn, in regard to lēthē, “forgetfulness” or “oblivion.”
To be sure, ‘it is necessary’ for every soul ‘to drink a certain quantity of the cup of oblivion,’ as Socrates says in the Republic. This oblivion, however, is different in different souls: in some cases it involves the loss of a certain disposition, while in others it is only the burying of activity. Thus, if you like, you may call this ceasing of activity ‘oblivion’ when the disposition remains inside like a light that is unable to proceed externally because of the surrounding darkness; or you may, if you prefer, call it the ‘evil’ of these souls.De Malorum Subsistentia §21; trans. Opsomer and Steel
And amplifying this, a few pages later:
But an imperfection may always be twofold: it may consist either in the halting of activity <or in> the lack of a disposition. That which is deficient only in its activity is better on account of its natural virtue, and in that it has, prior to its activity, a perfect disposition.De Malorum Subsistentia §27; trans. Opsomer and Steel
The common denominator for lēthē, then, is the cessation of the activity which is proper to our nature. For souls who are submerged deeply in lēthē, this will first require cultivating a certain disposition (which they can then go on to actualize), while for souls who are less deeply submerged, it merely requires activating the disposition which is already present. In Aristotelian terms (which I think are appropriate and helpful here), all human souls, qua human soul, have the first potentiality for goodness and ascent to the Gods. It is the task of the more corrupt/forgetful/oblivious souls to develop the second potentiality (= first actuality), while the more pure souls which already have that disposition, need only bring it fully to activity (that is, second actuality).
There’s a lot more that might be usefully considered here, including the contrast of Proclus with Iamblichus (and others) on the very possibility of evil daimones, and Proclus’ own distinction between daimones by nature and daimones by disposition in §17. But all that I leave for another time.