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Simplicius of Cilicia On Epictetus’ Stoicism: Medicine Of The Body & Medicine Of The Soul

‘Job’, Jules Bastien Lepage, 1876.Huile sur toile. Musee des Beaux Arts de Nancy. Picture by Amber Tree @ Flickr.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is an extract from Simplicius of Cilicia’s ‘Commentaries upon Epictetus’ Handbook’,  Chapter XIV, commentary on the Enchiridion chapter 8. paragraphs 38.50 to 41.52. Translated by Charles Brittain & Tad Brennan. Bloomsbury, 2002.


‘Don’t seek for what happens to happen as you wish, but wish for it to happen as it happens; and you will be happy.Epictetus Enchiridion chapter 8

…Accordingly, the good doctor causes the soul to turn away from the things towards which it had inclined by applying irritants to them, just as women who wish to wean their children anoint their nipples with something bitter. To start with, the souls choose death and the separation from the body over bodily pain and the exigencies of life, as if they were choosing the lighter of two bad things (which would not have happened to them had they been happy in their bodily concerns). All the same, they become accustomed to hating the pleasures down here and turn their back on them, keeping themselves away from them by the fear of a distress many times greater coming from it, just as children, at the beginning, are kept from harmful things by fear. Similarly, someone who takes pleasure in a harmful food or drink, but frequently experiences pain and a sharp distress from it, abstains from it through the fear of encountering them. And yet if they could use them without distress, who would turn their back on pleasures, even if they happened to be genuinely harmful?

Abstaining from pleasures on account of the fear of a greater distress is not in itself a liberation from emotion. It is more of an exchange; we get the pleasure of being free from distress in exchange for the pleasure of enjoyment which had been accompanied by the additional emotion of fear. Nevertheless, in the beginning, when we’re childish and senseless in our dispositions, this does contribute a starting point for resentment and suspicion of the things with which we had felt this intense sympathy. And later, when we learn their nature (i.e. that in addition to being harmful they also bring pains many times greater than the pleasure), and turn to ourselves and find that the good is inside us, and not in the body or in external things, and furthermore perceive our likeness to what is superior, and revere that likeness, then we no longer choose the life in accordance with nature through fear, but through knowledge and virtue. After all, children also avoid or do things through fear; but later, when they come to their senses, do the same things thereafter by choice.

This is the aim of the God that looks after us: that the rational soul should not be welded to the body and external things, and that it should abstain from them, not through fear but by choice, since it is in choice and aversion that our good and bad are located. And this is the end towards which the medical treatment of Providence is hastening: the elevation and return of the soul to the choice of the natural life. It is like the best doctors, who provide bodies with a natural condition by means of cutting and burning and the like, so that the bodies may perform their natural activities. Justice is the art of curing wickedness, and the apparently bad things around us have the same function as the things we’re displeased with when our doctors use cuttings and burnings and painful remedies. (This is why childish and senseless people are displeased at these things too.) Anyone who attempts to pay attention to the events that happen to himself and to other people, and keeps watch on the resultant dispositions of their soul, will agree readily, I think, that these displeasing things furnish the soul with a great starting point for disdain for the body and external things, or, as the wondrous Epictetus would say, for the things that are not up to us.

The medical art involved with bodies has one part that is therapeutic, which uses opposites to correct diseased bodies, and another part that is hygienic, which uses regimen and exercise to bring healthy bodies to a more stable and perfect degree of health (and some of these exercises are extremely arduous, and bearable only by those who are courageous and enduring). Similarly, the Assistant of souls does not merely treat diseased souls by means of the unpleasant things in life, but also exercises those that are healthy, renders them more healthy and courageous, and displays their virtue to make it more evident to others for imitation. For it is clear that even good human souls are in need of exercise, just as healthy bodies are, because ‘Motion strengthens, idleness emaciates,’ as Hippocrates says. Why? Because while things that always have their own perfection and are always engaged in their own natural activities, have their activities ready to hand and prepared, those that are not always active require exercise in order to imitate eternal motion; otherwise, when the occasion calls they fall short of what is needed, because they have become forgetful and deadened through the idleness of their activities. For what is only intermittently active because of its lack of intensity needs to regain its strength through activity.

All exercise is accomplished through the same things as the primary activity for the sake of which we exercise. At any rate the exercise for wrestling is constant wrestling; and the exercise for boxing is constant boxing and accustoming oneself to blows. Similarly in the exercise for war, the people drilling together imitate warriors; and the bigger and stronger their sparring partners are, the more the exercise accomplishes its own goal. So if one is exercising against pleasure in order to gain control over it, then one must come to grips with pleasant things, and accustom oneself to despise them; and if against distress, then one must partake of distress; and if against fear, then one must plunge oneself into fearful things; and if against pain, then one must be eager for the ordeal by flogging which noble Spartan youths practised, as well as for all the painful exercises preparatory to that ordeal (or for what our Sallustius did, placing a burning ember on his bare thigh and blowing on it, in order to test how far he could endure). For the exercises do not differ at all in species from the primary activities; they differ only by being somehow less onerous, in as much as it is up to us to stop whenever we wish.

So since God sent human souls down into the realm of generation provided with powers through which they can make use of the snares and distractions in that realm without being harmed by them, and transcend them, God sets frequent contests for souls, and sets exercises for these powers so that they don’t grow slack or lose intensity through idleness, and come to grief when the occasion calls for their use. Heracles, Theseus, Diogenes and Socrates would not have become such as they were, nor would the greatness of human virtue have been revealed or the extremes through which it can pass, had God not challenged the first two to struggle against the most fearsome of the beasts and wrong-doers among men, or propelled the second two to the extremes of simplicity and the natural life. It should also be perfectly clear, I think, to anyone who attends to it, that those who perform well in special circumstances will come out more courageously the rest of the time. For if habituation renders contests with the most fearsome things mere child’s play, so that some people choose them for the sake of a little cash, how in more moderate cases could exercise fail to prepare us to despise the things that seem unpleasant to those who are unexercised?

So whether these apparently unpleasant and arduous things are applied to the souls as therapy for those who are diseased or as exercise for those who are healthy, in either case they wouldn’t be bad for them. If we called them bad, we would be saying that medical treatment and exercise are bad for bodies, because they are arduous. But since they happen completely in accordance with their value – the value of nature and of prohairesis– they wouldn’t be bad, because what is according to things’ value is just, and what is just is good. Yet even for bodies, given that qua bodies they are insensate, being cut and burned is not bad, since dissolution into simple components is not bad for the composite. So if we don’t say that medical treatment of bodies is bad, when it exercises them and burns and applies traction and cuts off parts, and does the same things that humans do when they inflict unsparing punishments – if we rather say that it is good, and reward the medical practitioners with gratitude and remuneration – then why do we not love the medical treatment of God? For God does none of these things from anger, or vengefully, or contrary to our value, or to our harm, but rather medicinally and solicitously and in a paternal way, and to our greatest benefit; or, as it would be sufficient to say, ‘according to divine goodness’.

Persian illustration from Hafiz Ibn Kathir (c. 1300 – 1373) , ‘Stories of the Prophets’, which has a chapter telling the story of Prophet Ayub’s illness.  Arabic Ayub is Hebrew Job.

God’s medical treatment comes in many forms: he treats some people with diseases, poverty, or dishonour; others with famines, plagues, earthquakes, inundations, shipwrecks, wars, or man-made punishments. Hence these are not bad things, but rather goods, given that receiving medical treatment is a good thing. But if someone doesn’t think it is right to call these things ‘goods’, on the grounds that they are not desirable per se as goods strictly speaking must be, then let the objector not immediately call them ‘bads’, but rather ‘necessary for the acquisition of what is genuinely good’. We choose them for its sake, since of necessity we need them for it. After all, no one chooses medical cuttings and burnings and the like per se either: we choose them because we are striving for health, and it is necessary to obtain it through them. The wise have rightly called these things ‘necessary’, since it is wholly necessary to accept them in advance, if the good is going to make its appearance. Nonetheless, they are also goods themselves, given that they contribute towards the good (some towards bodily health, others towards the health of souls). But they are at a lower level of descent than the primary goods; and it is by comparison to these that the vulgar consider them to be bad; but they are thinking about these things wrongly, in my opinion, given that it is necessary for us to acquire the good through these things.

If, therefore, the objections put forward by the argument raising difficulties have been resolved, and everything that happens, happens according to value (either of nature or of prohairesis), and everything happens through the agency of God with the aim of benefit, then it is clear that every right-thinking person will both ‘wish for it to happen as it happens’ (given that he does not resent the things done in the dispensation of justice and medical treatment), and will also revere, honour, and nobly love a Doctor of this sort, and define him as a benefactor.


‘Ayub in the curing waters’, Persian illustration from Hafiz Ibn Kathir (c. 1300 – 1373) , ‘Stories of the Prophets’, which has a chapter telling the story of Prophet Ayub’s illness.  Arabic Ayub is the Hebrew Job.


More about Simplicius of Cilicia:
Simplicius of Cilicia On Epictetus’ Stoicism: Medicine Of The Body & Medicine Of The Soul

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