Commentary on Epictetus' Enchiridion

by Simplicius (c. early sixth century)

(I take great pleasure in presenting Simplicius’ commentary on Epictetus’ Enchiridion. This rendering is taken from a 1722 edition that I purchased late last year. The book contains 79 chapters, so I estimate the series will run approximately sixteen months.

Simplicius was a prominent Neoplatonist philosopher in the sixth century. He was born Cilicia and studied philosophy at Alexandria and Athens. In addition to writing his commentary on the Enchirdion, he also wrote extensive commentaries on certain works by Artistotle. When I purchased the book, I was expecting to see a commentary with a heavy Neoplatonist bias. However, to my suprise, I found the contrary to be the case.

The translator of the text was George Stanhope, who was the Dean of Canterbury and Chaplain to the King of England. With the modern reader in mind, I have updated some of the language and have removed the excessive capitalization from the text. RL)

Copyright 2001 Richard H. Lewis


If the reader be curious to know Epictetus’s character, he may find it at large in an account of his life and death, written by Arrian, who also compiled the Discourses of Epictetus, and digested them into several distinct tracts. The same Arrian composed this very book too, which goes by the name of Enchiridion, being a collection out of Epictetus’s Discourses, of such remarks and rules, as he thought most seasonable and necessary, and most likely to affect men’s minds. For this much Arrian himself declares, in his Epistle Dedicatory to Messalinus; to whom he addressed this book, as being both a particular friend of his, and an exceeding admirer of Epictetus. (Though the same things indeed, and delivered in almost the same expressions, lie scattered up and down in those writings of Arrian, which are called Epictetus’s Discourses.)

The principal design of this book (if men would but suffer themselves to be wrought upon by it, and would reduce what they read into practice) is, to set our souls as free, as when their Great Father and Creator first gave them to us; to disengage them from all those slavish fears, and confounding troubles, and other corruptions of human nature, which are wont to subdue and tyrannize over them.

It is called an Enchiridion, or Manual, because all persons, who are desirous to live as they ought, should be perfect in this book, and have it always ready at hand: A book of as constant and necessary use, as the sword (which commonly went by this name, and from whence the metaphor seems to be taken) is to a soldier.

The discourses are lively and moving; and all, but the stupid and sottish must needs be affected with them: and, though not at all equally, yet all in some degree: and it is to be hoped, they will be so affected, as to be made sensible of their own failings, and infirmities; and awakened into serious thoughts and endeavors of reformation. In short, the man, that can read these reflections, without any impression or concern at all, is lost to all the methods of amendment in this world, and can only be made wiser by the fiery discipline of the next.

The instructions he gives, are built upon human nature: and on the foundation of them all is man, considered as a rational soul, making use of the body, as its instrument of operation. Upon this account, he allows all those innocent pleasures, which nature requires, and such as are necessary to keep up a succession of mankind in the world; and so he does likewise, the enjoyment of such other things, as the condition of the present Life makes desirable to us: But then it is constantly with this reserve; that the reasoning faculty preserve its own liberty, so as not to be enslaved to the body, or any of its sensual inclinations; but be constantly raising itself up above these, and aspiring to the enjoyment of its own proper happiness. So that we may take the advantage of all the world calls good, which can any way conduce to our true happiness, provided it be done with due temper, and moderation. But, as for such as are wholly inconsistent with that true happiness, we are absolutely forbidden the having anything at all to do with them.

One very remarkable excellency these writing have, is, That they render all, who govern themselves by them, truly happy at present; and do not content themselves, with turning men over to a long payment, by distant promises of their virtues being rewarded in a future state. Not but that there most certainly shall be such a state, and such rewards: for it is impossible, that that being, which serves itself of the body, and of its appetites and affections, as so many Instruments to act by, should not have a distinct nature of its own; a nature that continues entire, after these are lost and destroyed; and consequently, it must needs have a perfection of its own too, peculiar and agreeable to its essence and nature. Now, though we should suppose the soul to be mortal, and that it and the body perish both together; yet he that lives according to these directions, will be sure to find his account in them; for he cannot fail of being a truly happy man, because he attains to the perfection of his nature, and the enjoyment of that good, which is accommodated to a rational soul. And thus the body of a man, which is confessedly mortal, enjoys its own proper happiness, and can ask nothing farther, when it attains to all that vigor and perfection, of which the nature of a body is capable.

The discourses themselves are short and sententious; much after the manner of those precepts, which the Pythagoreans call their Memorandums or Moral Institutions: though among these indeed, there is some sort of method and connection, and a mutual relation almost all through; as will appear hereafter, when we come to consider them particularly. And these observations and maxims, though they be put into distinct chapters, are all yet upon one subject, and belong to the same science; viz. That of amending the life of man. They are all directed to one and the same end; which is, to rouse and invigorate the reasonable soul, that it may maintain its own dignity, and exert all its powers in such operations, as are agreeable to uncorrupt nature.

The expressions are perspicuous and easy; but yet it may not be amiss, a little to explain and enlarge upon them: and that, as well for the writer’s own sake, who by this means will be more sensibly affected, and carried to a closer and deeper consideration of the truths contained in them; as for the reader’s benefit, who, perhaps, not being very conversant in such kind of writings, will be led into a more perfect understanding of them, by these explanations.

Now the first thing to be cleared upon this occasion is what sort of persons these Instructions were designed for; and what virtues especially, they are capable of cultivating, in the men that submit to be directed by them.

And first, it is plain, they are not proper for the man of consummate virtue, who hath absolutely purged away all the dregs of human nature: for he (so far as this mortal state will admit of such perfection) makes it his business to divest himself of flesh and sense, and all the appetites and passions that attend and serve the body; and is entirely taken up with the improvement of his own mind. Much less can they suit the circumstances of a speculative virtue, which is a degree still higher than the former. For such a person is exalted even above the rational life, and attains to a sort of God like contemplation. They are adapted then more peculiarly, to an interior rank, who lead their lives according to the dictates of reason, and look upon the body as an instrument of action, contrived for the use of the soul: men, who do not confound these two, nor make either as part of the other; nor the body and soul both, as equally constituent parts of human nature. For he that supposes the man, strictly speaking, to consist as much of body as soul, hath a vulgar notion of things; is depressed and sunk down into matter; ; hath no more pretensions to reason than a brute; and scarce deserves the name of man. He that would answer that character in good earnest, and assert the dignity and prerogative of a nature, by which God hath distinguished him from beasts, must take care to preserve his soul, as nature requires it should be, in a state of superiority over the body; so as to use and manage it, not as a part of the same common nature, but as an instrument, wholly as its government and disposal. And such a person as this, is the proper object of those moral and political virtues, which the following discourses are intended to excite men to.

That the real essence of a man is his rational soul, Socrates hath undertaken to demonstrate, in that dialogue which Plato gives us, between him and his beloved Alcibiades. And Epictetus, proceeding upon this foundation, directs his scholars, what sort of practices and conversation are proper to make a man, thus framed by nature, perfect. For as the body gathers strength by exercise, and by frequently repeating such motions as are natural to it; so the soul too, by exerting its powers, and the practice of such things as are agreeable to nature, confirms itself in habits, and strengthens its own natural constitution.

I would not have the reader take it ill, to be detained a little longer from the following discourses, only whilst I present him with so necessary an introduction to them, as the explaining a little this notion, which Epictetus all along takes for a granted truth, viz. That the real essence of the man is his rational soul, which makes use of the body, as its instrument of action. For Epictetus sets before us the operations, peculiar to such a person, and becoming his character; and then he makes it his business to excite all his scholars to get a perfect knowledge, and to employ themselves in the constant practice of them: that by such daily exercise we may, as I said, give the finishing stroke to nature, and be as perfect as our condition is capable of being. This is the ground Epictetus goes upon; which he does not at all attempt to prove, but takes it, as I said, for a fundamental truth, sufficiently plain, and acknowledged before.

But the method, in which Socrates proceeds, is this: he makes use of clear and familiar examples, and tells us, That a man in cutting (for instance) uses his knife, and he uses his hand too: then, inferring from hence, that the thing used, considered as an instrument, is different from that which employs it; he concludes, that it is the man, which employs the body as an instrument. Now in truth it is the rational soul, and nothing else, that employs this body, in the exercise of arts, and trades, and all manner of operations. From hence again he draws this farther Inference: viz. That which employs the body, hath the government and disposal of what it so employs. And then he forms his argument into this disjunctive syllogism, either the soul alone, or the body alone, or both together, must needs be the man. Now if the man has the command of the body, and the body cannot command nor dispose of itself, then it is evident, that the body alone cannot be the man. It is evident again, that body and soul together cannot be the man, for the very same reason: For if the man has the government of the body, and the body itself has no part of that government; then it is plain, this prerogative does not extend to soul and body both, and therefore both cannot be the man. But, in short, if the body in its own nature be void of all life and motion, and if it be the soul, which animates and moves it, (as we see in handicraft trades, the workman is the principle of motion, and the tools have none, but what they derive from him,) then it follows, that the body is to the soul, what a tool is to the artificer: And consequently, that the soul, being the original of all operation, is truly and properly the man.

So then, whoever would make the man his care, must consult the advantage and improvement of the soul, and pursue the happiness peculiar to this: for he that bestows his pains upon the body, does not (it seems) advance himself, and his own good, (properly speaking) but only that of his Instrument. Much more extravagant and absurd is it then, to lay himself out upon riches, or any external advantages of that kind; because, in so doing, he pursues a very foreign Interest, on much more distant than the former: For he neither makes the man, nor the man’s instrument, the object of his care; but all terminates in those things, which make for the convenience of this instrument only.

Chapters 1 - 3