Choosing our Relations: Simplicius on Friendship

One of our most useful texts on Neoplatonist ethics is a commentary on the Handbook of Epictetus, written by Simplicius, one of the last Athenian Platonists, who was exiled together with Damascius and the other philosophers in 529.

Commenting on §30 of the Handbook, in which Epictetus explains how “the appropriate actions for us to do are usually measured out for us by our relations,” Simplicius offers a framework for classifying relations, and an extended discussion of friendship, as situated within that framework. It’s worth noting that Epictetus himself doesn’t mention friendship at all within §30. For Epictetus, this section deals with how to correctly apply our power of choice (prohairesis) to “natural” relations between human beings. §31 of the Handbook deals with our relations to the Gods, and only in §32 (in the context of the appropriate use of divination!) does Epictetus himself get around to mentioning friendship.

Simplicius classifies relations along three axes:

(1) whether the relation is natural or prohairetic (i.e., having to do with the faculty or exercise of choice, prohairesis, which is centrally important to Epictetus’ ethical theorizing)

(2) whether the relation is associative or disassociative (that is, drawing the relata together harmoniously, or driving them in opposing directions through conflict or opposition)

(3) whether the relata themselves are similar or dissimilar in kind.

Combining these three binaries yields eight categories into which a relation can fall. I summarize Simplicius’ examples in the following chart:

Associative of similarsbrothersfriends
Associative of dissimilarsfather & sonteacher & student
Disassociative of similarsmembers of unrelated familiesenemies
Disassociative of dissimilarsthings which are divided by spatial or temporal intervalsprosecutor & defendant

Simplicius’ example of a natural relation that is disassociative of dissimilars is accurate, but perhaps a bit challenging. I would suggest, by comparison with his example of a prohairetic disassociation of dissimilars, that “predator and prey” would also fit into the natural class, and be a bit more clear for the modern reader than the spatial and temporal intervals.

For our purposes here, it’s the natural/prohairetic distinction that is the most important. Simplicius explains that prohairetic relations have a greater value than merely natural ones. But this is not just that there is a special value in employing our prohairesis deliberately and intentionally (though Epictetus would certainly say that this the case). Even more importantly, there is a special class of prohairetic relations which, unlike all of our natural relations, improve or benefit the soul. By contrast, Simplicius suggests that all natural relations (and implicitly, some prohairetic ones, too) benefit only our bodies or our material goods—which, in Platonic terms, are our soul’s possessions, and the possessions of our possessions, respectively.

So, our parents qua parents give life to our bodies, and provide us with material goods. But our teachers, insofar as they are good and genuine teachers, improve our souls by leading us toward virtue. Simplicius explains:

Teachers are nurturers and care-givers not of our bodies, but of ourselves, and they act not by natural necessity (like parents among both irrational animals and human beings), but by a good prohairesis that imitates the divine Goodness in leading souls fallen into the realm of generation back up whence they came.

(p. 86 Dübner; trans. Brennan & Brittain)

In the very best cases, our parents will act toward our souls in this prohairetic way. But in such cases, the parent is acting not as a parent, but as a teacher. Thus, there is the prospect of transforming our merely natural relations into soul-elevating prohairetic relations, through the appropriate use of our prohairesis. The same holds for the transforming the relation between mere siblings into one of friends. And so, Simplicius can conclude that “prohairetic things have something greater than a natural bond … because rational and prohairetic substances are more elevated than natural substances, and approach more closely to the Unity that unifies all things” (p. 89 Dübner; trans. Brennan & Brittain, modified). To understand some of what Simplicius has in mind here, recall that the Gods will all of their relations. So insofar as we can turn our merely happenstance, natural relations into deliberately chosen ones, we are assimilated more closely to the Gods.1 And as Simplicius himself says, “pure friendship, because it leads the friends’ souls to unity, is the finest practice for unity with God” (ibid.).

Importantly, the activity of choosing our relations is ongoing: not something which happened in the past, when the relation was first established, but something which we continue to do for the duration of the relationship. This too will reflect in time the way in which the Gods act eternally.

We can see this from a concern that the translators raise about the naturalness of relations between family members. Simplicius has just reminded the reader about Plato’s account of the choice of lives that each soul makes prior to birth. Simplicius writes:

So even if your brother is unfair, you must preserve the natural coordination to a brother entailed by the relation, and you must preserve the agreement you made with the universe when you chose to come to these rather than to some other parents, brothers, or relatives.

(p. 85 Dübner; trans. Brennan & Brittain)

Commenting on this passage, Brittain and Brennan claim that “The line between natural and prohairetic relations gets a bit unclear if after all we chose our relatives,” suggesting that the crucial distinction is “not the natural/prohairetic split, but rather the “reversible/irreversible split (or revocable/irrevocable)” (p. 136 n. 80).

I think, however, that the translators’ note misses the point in a way that illuminates something important about Simplicius’ view of prohairesis. In the passage just quoted, Simplicius is reminding us of a choice made in the past, as a means of ethical encouragement in the present. But the encouragement works precisely because that choice is over-and-done: while its effects persist into the present, the choice itself belongs entirely to the past, and for that very reason, the relation which resulted from that choice is no longer, considered in itself, subject to our prohairesis. A relation based on such a past, but now immutable, choice is for Simplicius an entirely natural relation.

This is illuminating, insofar as it reminds us that prohairetic relations are chosen in the present, in a consistently ongoing way. We are actively choosing our friendships at every moment that we continue to maintain them. The Greek verb philein (related to philia, ‘friendship’) does an excellent job of expressing this, in a way that’s hard to do in English. Compare the way that in English, I correctly say that I love so-and-so at every moment that our relation, of lover and beloved, continues, and not only at the first moment of that relation (the moment that I “fall in love”). The sense of philein is more like that, and not at all like the English verb ‘befriend,’ which I really only do at the moment where the relation begins. This suggests that I do not need to make another one-and-done choice to actively terminate a prohairetic relation; rather, just as I can stop loving (at which point the other person ceases to be my beloved), so to I can just stop “friending.” And because friendship is a reciprocal relation, it will only take a failure of prohairesis by one of the friends to end the relation of friendship for both parties.


(1) This elides an important distinction between will (boulēsis) and choice (hairesis). The distinction is critical for Proclus, as we see in the last few sections of his On Providence. I’m still working on exactly how Simplicius thinks of this distinction; watch this space for a follow-up.

3 thoughts on “Choosing our Relations: Simplicius on Friendship

  1. This was lovely and very thought-provoking. I really enjoyed the chart (possibly because I just like tables too much). I was thinking about dysfunctional families and how the loss of trust is similar to enemy/stranger relations, and it was a new way to consider breakdowns. But on a happier note, functional friendships and student/teacher (or mentor/mentee) are great things. 😁

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Kaye! Sharing the chart was really my primary motivation for the post; there is just so much that each of us can unpack from it.

      If you’re interested in reading Simplicius, the English translation of his commentary on the Handbook is in the Ancient Commentators on Aristotle series, so your university library can probably get you access to it. Alas, it’s split into two volumes, with the exact same (!) introduction and indices repeated in both. Sigh. The material I’m referring to in this post is early in volume 2.


      1. … the exact same introduction and indices in both? 😳😧😱 It couldn’t have just been a single volume? That seems inefficient, yikes. But thank you!


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