BMCR 2003.11.14

Simplicius. On Epictetus’ Handbook 1-26, 27-53

, , On Epictetus' Handbook 1-26. Ancient Commentators on Aristotle, edited by Richard Sorabji. London: Duckworth, 2002. viii, 184 pages. ISBN 9781472501943
, , On Epictetus' Handbook 27-53. Ancient Commentators on Aristotle, edited by Richard Sorabji. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002. viii, 192 pages. ISBN 9780801439049

These two volumes constitute a welcome though unusual addition to the ongoing series of Aristotelian commentaries edited by Richard Sorabji. They contain a translation of Simplicius’ commentary along with a translation of Epictetus’ Handbook in lemmatized form. Also included is an extensive introduction, notes, and Greek/English, English/Greek indexes. Oddly, the introduction is repeated in the second volume. The translation is faithful and fluid, but happily eschews the grammatical literalness that would make Simplicius’ rambling style difficult to swallow in English. The concise notes provide most of the relevant references. For more detailed discussion, one should consult Ilsetraut Hadot’s introduction to the commentary with Greek text (1996) and the translation of the first 29 chapters (2001).

Simplicius’ work is a commentary not on an Aristotelian work but a Stoic one. Epictetus’ Handbook (sometimes called ‘Manual’ or ‘Encheiridion’) is a brief compendium of Stoic ethical teaching. It is mostly extracts from the much more substantial Discourses, which consists of lectures or discourses transcribed by a student, the historian Arrian. Two questions naturally arise: why did the Neoplatonist Simplicius care to write a lengthy commentary on this work and why does it belong alongside a series of commentaries on Aristotle’s writings? As Brittain and Brennan explain in their helpful introduction, the answer to both questions is the same.

Simplicius embraced the long tradition within which Aristotle’s philosophy was held to be in harmony with Platonism. Hierocles of Alexandria in the 5th century claimed that Ammonius Saccas, the mysterious teacher of Plotinus, held this view. And, for the most part (Plotinus’ criticisms of Aristotle notwithstanding), this is the viewed shared by all Neoplatonists. But long before Ammonius, Antiochus of Ascalon in the 1st century B.C.E. held that, at least in ethical matters, Stoicism was also in harmony with Aristotelianism and Platonism.

The penchant for harmonization should not be trivialized, as it sometimes is, as mere eclecticism or uncritical polemical coalition building. It should not be supposed to be a peculiarity of late ‘decadent’ Platonism. Aristotle himself, it will be recalled, indicated the harmony of Plato’s philosophy with Pythagoreanism. Simplicius’ conviction that Epictetus’ little book is a powerful and effective expression of an ethical position in harmony with Platonism and with Aristotelianism is what lies at the basis of all the attention he lavished on it. And it more than justifies, to my mind, the inclusion of the present work in Sorabji’s important series.

In his introduction to his commentary, Simplicius asserts that Epictetus’ precepts ‘render the people who believe them and put them into practice blessed and happy without the need to be promised the rewards of virtue after death — even if these rewards always do follow too’ (1, 48 – 2, 3, pp. 37-38, trans. Brittain and Brennan). As Simplicius immediately adds, however, the blessedness of the embodied person, so conceived by Epictetus, is inferior to that of the disembodied person. The happiness of the latter is found in the philosophical life of contemplation.

Simplicius thus indicates the key to the Neoplatonic interpretative approach to ancient ethics. The virtue of the embodied person — identified with the ‘popular and political virtue’ of Plato’s Phaedo (82A10-B3; cf. 69B6-7; Rep. 365C3-4; 500D8 with 518D3-519A6; 619C7-D1) — is essentially concerned with behavior and the proper constitution of the embodied soul. Simplicius’ contemporary Olympiodorus, in his commentary on Plato’s Gorgias, makes basically the same case. As for what virtuous behavior for a human being consisted in, there was considerable agreement among most of the ancient philosophers. None of the Neoplatonists supposed, for example, that one who lived a life according to Aristotle’s ethical treatises would be acting in a way substantially different from a self-proclaimed Platonist. But the virtues of the person immersed in ‘externals’ is different from the virtues of the ‘real’ or ‘true’ person, what Plato calls the ‘real self’ (cf. Laws 959B3) and what Aristotle calls ‘the divine part in us’ and the part that is ‘really us’ (cf. EN K 7, 1177b26-1178a4; cf. I 4, 1166a22-23; I 8, 1169a2). Simplicius did not think that there was an essential discordance between Stoic ethics and Platonism any more than he thought there was a discordance between Aristotelian ethics and Platonism. Though Stoics and Aristotle differed on immortality, their account of what constituted embodied human excellence was in line with Plato’s. As Brennan and Brittain argue, Simplicius no doubt found that the use of a Stoic handbook on ethics for Platonic debutants was protreptically powerful since it begs no questions in favor of the Platonic view of immortality. And, as other Neoplatonists like Plotinus and Porphyry note, living an ethical life of self-restraint and balance is crucial preparation for the self-recognition that leads one to embrace one’s own true self.

Simplicius’s commentary is especially interesting at those points where he feels obliged to adduce Platonic metaphysical and psychological arguments either to supplement or to counter false Stoic doctrine. For example, Simplicius argues that the demonstration by Plato of the identification of the person with the rational part of the soul in Alcibiades is merely ‘hypothesized’ by Epictetus (3, 3-25, pp. 39, trans. Brittain and Brennan). Such a demonstration would presumably open the way for a further demonstration of the immortality of that part. In a similar vein, Simplicius takes the first sentence of Epictetus’ Handbook ‘Of existent things, some are up to us and some are not up to us’ (4.1ff) and interprets this according to Aristotelian (and Plotinian) anti-deterministic arguments.

Simplicius claims that in order to understand ‘what is up to us’, we have to situate such matters within a proper metaphysical framework (4, 52 – 5, 4, pp. 41-2, trans. Brittain and Brennan). This means that we have to begin with the Good, the first principle of all. This explicit insinuation of the normative into a metaphysical framework is a hallmark generally of Neoplatonism and goes some way to explaining what is sometimes perceived as the dearth of Neoplatonic treatises directly dealing with ethical matters and of commentaries on Aristotle’s ethical works. In fact, this perception arises from an (unneoplatonic) interpretation of Aristotle’s ethics as capable of being segregated from metaphysical assumptions. One salutary result of reading Simplicius’ commentary is the realization that for the Neoplatonists metaphysical understanding is both constitutive of and instrumental to a happy life.

The authors argue in their introduction (21-22) that the fundamental difference between the Stoicism of Epictetus and the Platonism of Simplicius, reflected throughout the latter’s commentary, concerns the sources of psychological events. Simplicius believes that embodied persons are in principle never exempt from non-rational desires or emotions. The Stoics believed that the ideal personal state, that of the sage, consisted in the elimination of all emotions. I suspect that the difference may not be quite as great as is here supposed. The text the authors adduce as evidence for the difference is slippery (cf. 78, 20, pp. 46, v. 2, trans. Brittain and Brennan). Simplicius here says that no one would spend time eating and excreting unless one were ‘provoked’ ( ἐρεθιζόμενος) by the irrational desire to do so. I don’t think that Simplicius has to be taken to mean that in this case the irrational desire (here, an appetite or ἐπιθυμία) is the source of the action even if it is in some sense the source of the ‘psychological event’, presumably, of having the desire. It is hard to believe that the Stoic sage, however psychologically removed from his body one might imagine him to be, would not be similarly ‘provoked’. On the other hand, there is no indication that Simplicius’ understanding of Platonism and of the harmony of Stoic ethics with Platonism, would lead him to hold what would in fact be in contradiction to the Stoic position, namely, that the appetite could be the source of action for a person. For Simplicius, the determination to endorse the appetite or to ‘give in to it’ is not necessarily to be explained in a way other than the way Epictetus would explain it.

In the introduction, the authors have a helpful and interesting discussion of Epictetus’ and Simplicius’ differing understandings of προαίρεσις (pp. 22-24). Unfortunately, they opt simply to transliterate the term in their translation (though in other volumes in the series, e.g., Sharples’ translation of Alexander of Aphrodisias’ Quaestiones, the term is translated as ‘choice’). This produces as a translation of ἐπεὶ καὶ τοῦτό ἐστιν ἐφ’ ἡμῖν, ἡ αἵρεσις καὶ προαίρεσις ἡμῶν as ‘And this is what is up to us: our choice and prohairesis’ (7, 33, pp. 45). This is not particularly helpful, especially to the Greekless reader.

Clearly, as the authors show, προαίρεσις is an important term for Simplicius’ psychology and ethics. They argue that Simplicius is taking over the term from Aristotle (it does not appear in Plato), where they take it to mean something like ‘settled choice’ or ‘decision’. They contrast this use with Epictetus’, in whom it means something like ‘general disposition to assent’ to both ordinary and evaluative impressions. They then argue that Simplicius was probably unaware of the fundamental difference in these uses, treating then as basically the same. Further, they speculate that Simplicius might have supposed that the Epictetan disposition was related to the Aristotelian choice as potency to actuality. But it seems to me that Aristotle frequently uses the term in a way that makes appropriate its translation as ‘intention’ or ‘intentional’ rather than ‘choice’ (cf. e.g., EN 1113a4-5; the term is so translated by Urmson in another volume in the series, in Simplicius’ commentary on Aristotle’s Physics). For example, in the famous first sentence of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that ‘every action and every proaivresi” seem to aim at some good’ where the Greek term is rendered nicely in the recent Oxford translation of Rowe and Broadie as ‘undertaking’. Even in the third book’s discussion of the voluntary and the involuntary, the broader meaning is often not excluded. In this case, its meaning does not seem so far removed from a disposition; it does not need to be understood in the sense of a settled, specific decision.

These two volumes would make a splendid focus for an advanced undergraduate or graduate course in ancient philosophy even though the cost for students would be a bit steep. Such a course could bring together a treatment of Platonic and Stoic ethics and psychology, Neoplatonic hermeneutics, the connection between ancient ethics and metaphysics, etc. Not the least benefit of such a course would be that it would provide to the student a fairly accessible introduction to the last phase of the history of ancient philosophy. One wonders if in this case the publisher would not consider making an exception to its policy only to produce books in this series in hard covers.