Musonius’ Lectures

MusoniusTime to take a look at Musonius Rufus, a preeminent Stoic in Imperial Rome, most famous nowadays for being Epictetus’ teacher (and thus an indirect influence on Marcus Aurelius).

My notes in this post and the next are based on a new translation of the Lectures and Sayings by Cynthia King, which appeared with a preface by Bill Irvine.

Musonius was a rather frugal philosopher, bent on practicality, as any Stoic would be. For instance, he said that “seeking many proofs on each subject, we should seek practical and clear ones. It is not the doctor who brings many drugs to sick people who deserves praise … but rather the one who helps them in a noteworthy manner with the few drugs which he prescribes.” I’d really like some of my colleagues to internalize this point, as academic discussions in philosophy do tend to ignore Musonius’ advice, to everyone’s detriment. Indeed, he goes so far as labeling “absurd and dull” those people who unnecessarily complicated arguments when simple ones would do — though I should probably refrain from such comment during the wine & cheese reception… That particular lecture concludes with a most Stoic reminder: “Only by exhibiting actions in harmony with the sound words which he has received will anyone be helped by philosophy.” Deeds, not (just) words.

The second lecture translated by King is about competence in virtue, and Musonius argues that many people think they are virtuous, while in fact they haven’t developed competence at living well, simply because they haven’t put the effort into figuring things out. Here is the sort of analogy he presents, which is found again in Epictetus: “A person who has not studied letters, music, or sports does not say that he knows them. Nor does he pretend to possess these skills if he is unable to name also the teacher to whom he went. So why, by the gods, do we all declare that we have virtue? A human being has no claim by nature to any of those other skills, and no one comes into life with a natural ability for them.”

(In this respect, see my recent post on teaching virtue.)

The third lecture is one of my favorite. In contrast to the significantly more conservative ideas of Hierocles, Musonius develops the point that women should be taught philosophy because they are just as capable as men, and because it is just as important for the former as for the latter. Here are some excerpts:

“women have received from the gods the same reasoning power as men … a desire for virtue and an affinity for it belong by nature not only to men but also to women: no less than men are they disposed by nature to be pleased by noble and just deeds and to censure things opposite these … why would it be appropriate for men but not women to seek to live honorably and consider how to do so, which is what studying philosophy is?” Why indeed.

The following lecture continues along similar lines, debating the issue of whether daughters should receive the same education as sons: “It is obvious that there is not one type of virtue for a man and another for a woman. To begin with, a man must have good sense, and so must a woman. What, after all, would be the usefulness of a foolish man or woman? … Someone might say that courage is an appropriate characteristic for men only, but this is not so. It is also necessary for a woman — at least for a most noble one — to be courageous and free from cowardice so that she is overcome neither by pain nor by fear … As far as the virtues of a man and a woman are concerned, it is entirely appropriate for both men and women to have the same upbringing and education.”

It’s very refreshing to read these words by a Stoic, since even in their time Stoics were not always at the vanguard in terms of gender equality. Then again, there is an unfortunately high number of people in the most advanced countries of the 21st century who still seem to think the above sentiments are outrageous.

The fifth lecture goes back to one of the Stoics’ favored topics, which again will then be picked up repeatedly by Epictetus: theory or practice?

Musonius’ answer is both, but practice is more important: “Theory which teaches how one must act assists action and logically precedes practice, for it is not possible for something good to be accomplished unless it is accomplished in accordance with theory. But as a matter of fact, practice is more important than theory because it more effectively leads humans to actions than theory does,” before which passage he had used an analogy with medicine: “Suppose there are two doctors. One of them can talk about medical matters as if he had the greatest possible acquaintance with them, but has never actually cared for sick people. The other is not able to talk about medical matters but is experienced in healing in accordance with medical theory. Which one would you choose as your doctor if you were ill?” Needless to say, this is a rhetorical question…

He takes up the issue again in lecture 6, where he says, for instance: “Could someone acquire instant self-control by merely knowing that he must not be conquered by pleasures but without training to resist them?” Clearly not. And he gives specific advice to his students on how to practice: “We will train both soul and body when we accustom ourselves to cold, heat, thirst, hunger, scarcity of food, hardness of bed, abstaining from pleasures, and enduring pains.”

The lecture after that is concerned with the pains people go through in order to achieve things that, from a Stoic perspective, are simply not worth the trouble: “it is useful to consider how much trouble those who pursue illicit love-affairs undergo because of their wicked passions, how much others put up with for the sake of gain, and again how many ills some suffer in pursuit of fame. And yet, all these people undergo all this hardship of their own accord … wouldn’t everyone agree that it is much better to work to gain control over one’s own desires than it is to work to gain possession of someone else’s wife— and for a person to train himself to want little instead of struggling to become wealthy? And instead of exerting effort to gain fame, shouldn’t a person strive to overcome his thirst for it?”

While one could interpret this sort of passage as an example of how Stoicism counsels passivity and inaction, it clearly isn’t meant to do that. Musonius is talking about going through emotional pain in pursuit of things that are not worth it, like illicit affairs, money and fame. The reasoning doesn’t apply to things that are worth our efforts (even though they may be preferred indifferents), like love for our companion, or a public career that does good to others.

Moving on to political matters, Musonius argues that kings should study philosophy — even though the well known attempts by Plato with Dionysius II of Syracuse and Aristotle with Alexander the Great didn’t really fare that well. The reasoning is straightforward, in perfect Musonian fashion: “The person who intends to protect and help people must know what is good for a human being and what is bad, what is helpful and what is harmful, what is useful and what is useless … To diagnose good and evil, useful and useless, or helpful and harmful is the job of no one other than the philosopher.” Despite Plato’s and Aristotle’s failed ventures, even nowadays one wishes that politicians were a bit better at “diagnosing good and evil, helpful and harmful”…

Other lectures include standard as well as somewhat unusual Stoic topics, such as whether exile is an evil (nope); whether a philosopher should file suit against someone for assault (again, no); what the proper occupation for a philosopher should be (agriculture, it’s good for him!); sexual matters (here he is a bit strict: only within marriage, and only for procreation purposes!, though at the least he states that men should maintain the same high standards of behavior as women); whether marriage gets in the way of philosophy (nope, see Pythagoras and Socrates); what diet one should follow (basically vegetarianism, using inexpensive and easily obtained food; gourmet stuff is explicitly ruled out); he even gives advice on how to furnish a house! (use nothing that is difficult to acquire or hard to use — ancient Stoics were bad for the consumer economy).

And there is more. You can see why Musonius is often considered one of the most practical of the Stoics, and we are talking about a philosophy already known for being characterized by a very practical bent! I’ll leave you with his advice on shaving: “a man should cut his hair the way we prune vines, by removing only what is useless. The beard should not be shaved, since it is a protection provided to us by nature. Furthermore, the beard is the emblem of manhood— the human equivalent of the cock’s crest and the lion’s mane.” Think about that the next time you go to the barber! (For the record, I shave and keep my hair very short.)

9 thoughts on “Musonius’ Lectures

  1. The last point has an interesting historical sidebar. Hadrian was just the second bearded emperor, and I don’t know what Seneca (the younger, of course) thought of beards, as far as why Nero grew one (of sorts), other than to look older. Hadrian, before wearing the purple, heard Epictetus. That said, Cassius Dio claims it was to hide facial scars, that Hadrian did this. Even if true to some degree, I suspect, if not specifically Stoicism, some sort of Hellenophilia was an additional cause.

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  2. I like these reminders about the importance of practical wisdom and action. But the Stoics also insisted from the very beginning that they were after genuine wisdom as well – by which I suppose they were referring to sophia rather than phronesis. They wanted to get the truth, which means taking the arguments all the way down to the ground in theoretical knowledge. In that connection, my favorite snippet on the subject from Long and Sedley’s great collection is this:

    41 Knowledge and opinion A Cicero, Academica 2.145 (SVF 1.66) [Speaker: Cicero on behalf of the New Academy] (1) Zeno used to clinch the wise man’s sole possession of scientific knowledge with a gesture. (2) He would spread out the fingers of one hand and display its open palm, saying ‘An impression is like this.’ (3) Next he clenched his fingers a little and said, ‘Assent is like this.’ (4) Then, pressing his fingers quite together, he made a fist, and said that this was cognition (and from this illustration he gave that mental state the name of katalēpsis, which it had not had before). (5) Then he brought his left hand against his right fist and gripped it tightly and forcefully, and said that scientific knowledge was like this and possessed by none except the wise man.

    Long, A. A.; Sedley, D. N. (1987-04-09). The Hellenistic Philosophers: Volume 1, Translations of the Principal Sources with Philosophical Commentary (Kindle Locations 6196-6203). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

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  3. Musonius has been called the “Roman Socrates.” I admire him immensely due to his clear thinking and sensible use of logic in his accepted principles. He wasn’t always in alignment with his time but because he can think logically he was often ahead of it. Bravo Massimo for highlighting an oft-forgotten Stoic especially since he is arguably the greatest Stoic in practice.

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  4. “The person who intends to protect and help people must know what is good for a human being and what is bad, what is helpful and what is harmful, what is useful and what is useless … To diagnose good and evil, useful and useless, or helpful and harmful is the job of no one other than the philosopher.”

    Today’s philosophy seems to have lost its original focus.

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  5. @labnut it’s been that way for quite some time. Read the late Pierre Hardot’s writings and you’d be amazed how far out philosophy has moved away from helping everyday life.


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