Musonius’ sayings

Musonius
Musonius

We have just taken a look at Musonius Rufus’ Lectures, as newly translated by Cynthia King (with preface by Bill Irvine). It is then time to turn to the collection of short Sayings that are part of the same book to further our picture of an influential Stoic and teacher of Epictetus.

The Sayings are essentially aphorisms, not the sort of comprehensive essays that we have seen in the Lectures, but they are nonetheless useful to improve our understanding of Musonius and his Stoic worldview.

Here are a few of my favorite, with some accompanying comments:

[22] “It is not possible to live well today unless you treat it as your last day.”

This is a standard Stoic theme, which will become recurrent in Marcus’ Meditations. We live in the here and now (hic et nunc), because we have control only over what we are doing now, not on our past (which is already behind our reach, so to speak), nor on our future (which is still beyond our reach).

[23] “Why do we criticize tyrants, when in fact we are much worse than they are? We have the same inclinations as they do; we just lack opportunities to act on them.”

I love this one. It’s a forceful reminder that we shouldn’t be so cocky about how much better things would be if we were running the joint.

[28] “Choose to die well while you can; wait too long, and it might become impossible to do so.”

Very modern, perfectly applicable to current debates on the right to die, for instance, and part of the Stoic general theory of the acceptability of suicide, if carefully considered — what Epictetus called “the open door.”

Speaking of dying, two more on the same subject:

[29] “It is not proper for one to die who is helpful to many while he is alive, unless by dying he is helpful to more.” [35] “Given that all must die, it is better to die with distinction than to live long.”

The latter sentence cannot fail to bring to mind Achille’s famous choice: he tells his mother, the Nereid Thetis, that he’d rather have a short and glorious life than a long one lived in obscurity. Accordingly, he decides to take part in the Trojan War, leading to the well known outcome of his death at the hand of Paris. But I don’t think this is what Musonius had in mind. More likely, he was taking seriously the Stoic doctrine that we are by nature social-rational animals, from which it follows that the point of our lives is to be useful to each other (live with distinction). No point, then, in living long just for the sake of duration.

The first sentence, by contrast, in these days is likely to bring up the cult of suicide bombers, but it has always been the case, across cultures and times, that we have looked favorably toward people who sacrificed themselves for the common good, and I think that’s all one needs to read in Musonius.

[36] “In order to protect ourselves we must live like doctors and be continually treating ourselves with reason … words of advice and warning administered when a person’s emotions are at their height and boiling over accomplish little or nothing.”

The first part expresses what I think is a beautiful, and quintessentially Stoic, sentiment, while the second one is a wise piece of counsel that we all would do well to heed.

Modern Stoics associate the doctrine of the dichotomy of control most vividly with Epictetus, but here is Musonius’ rendition of it:

[38] “In our control is the most beautiful and important thing, the thing because of which even the god himself is happy— namely, the proper use of our impressions … we must concern ourselves absolutely with the things that are under our control and entrust the things not in our control to the universe.” (Except that Epictetus would have said Zeus, or God, instead of the universe.)

Let me finish with a famous exchange with Epictetus himself (then Musonius’ student, of course), from which Epictetus learned a lesson he would not forget, and which he used with his own students in Nicopolis:

[31] “[Epictetus:] ‘If I made a mistake in these arguments, I didn’t thereby kill my father, did I?’ [Musonius:] ‘Slave, how was your father involved in this in order for you to kill him? What did you do? There was only one mistake to make in this argument, and you made it.'” Ouch!

9 thoughts on “Musonius’ sayings

  1. [28] “Choose to die well while you can; wait too long, and it might become impossible to do so.”

    Massimo, I note you interpret this to be a reference to Stoic suicide. May be you’re right but I always thought he was meaning – Remember, while you still can, to train and prepare yourself for death, so that when it comes, you will be ready. If you delay this important task, when death comes, it will find you unprepared.

    I would guess that the sort of training/preparation he had (may have had) in mind is to be found throughout Marcus Aurelius. Given that MA is Musonius Rufus’ great grand pupil (MR/Epictetus/Rusticus/MA), this is not so fanciful.

    However, it is perfectly true that the ancient philosophers were often reported as having reached 80 years old or so and then dying (by choice) by simply holding their breath. If you or I tried this, we would start breathing again once we passed out. It is clear that Stoic sages were made of sterner stuff.

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  2. ” ‘If I made a mistake in these arguments, I didn’t thereby kill my father, did I?’ [Musonius:] ‘Slave, how was your father involved in this in order for you to kill him? What did you do? There was only one mistake to make in this argument, and you made it.’ ”

    Not sure how to read that but if it means that making mistakes in an argument is not inconsequential and we should strive to avoid them, I agree.

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  3. [28] “Choose to die well while you can; wait too long, and it might become impossible to do so.”

    I agree with Donald’s interpretation. Death will catch us unawares. We need to prepare for the unexpected in many ways so that when it comes our affairs are in order, family harmony is intact, friendships are repaired, debts are paid and we have made the best contribution we can to society. This is in keeping with the Stoic philosophy of living in the now as completely and productively as possible. That also means leave no unfinished business and especially ‘let not the sun go down on your wrath‘.

    Marc, I would rather interpret that paragraph as meaning that we should take ownership of our mistakes and not shrug them off as being inconsequential or to import mitigating circumstances. It is an argument for the acceptance of full responsibility for all mistakes, small, large, inconsequential or critical.

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  4. [36] “In order to protect ourselves we must live like doctors and be continually treating ourselves with reason … words of advice and warning administered when a person’s emotions are at their height and boiling over accomplish little or nothing.

    These two pieces of advice tie in together very well. When one is consumed by strong feelings such as passionate anger, one is beyond the reach of even one’s own doctor of reason. Here I think the appropriate advice is feel it and then deal with it. One’s feelings are legitimate, recognise them and affirm them but do not act on them. Having felt them their force will dissipate and only then will they be amenable to the ministrations of reason.

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  5. I think both Marc’s and labnut’s interrogations are reasonable. Yes, mistakes in arguments can make a difference, and yes, the virtuous thing to do is to own up to them.

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  6. The bigger picture is nagging at me. Your essays are mostly drawn from writers like Seneca, Marcus, Musonius, Cicero, Plato, Aristotle, etc. Why were all the definitive writings of Stoicism created 2000 years ago. Has nothing happened in the intervening 2000 years? From about 1600 onwards we have seen the great flowering of science but we have seen no comparable advance in schools of thought like Stoicism. I know philosophy as a whole has advanced in the last four centuries but it is nothing like the astounding advances by people such as Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, etc.

    One explanation might be that philosophy flowered and reached its zenith 1,400 years earlier due to a wholly extraordinary period of genius and now it is in a phase of diminishing returns. If that is true then we can expect that science will likewise enter a long period of diminishing returns.

    By any standard the thinkers of that time were dazzling in their genius. What was so special about that time that a small population, that only recruited its thinkers from a tiny elite, could produce so many figures of genius? When one compares the adverse conditions of that time with our own very favourable conditions, their achievement is all the more startling.

    I am overawed by their achievements, so far ahead of their time, and find them inexplicable. Also surprising to me is the way we accept this as a matter of course. And for this reason we are overlooking the fact that something truly remarkable that we simply do not understand.

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  7. labnut,

    Ah,mother causes of the Greco-Roman golden age are hotly debated among historians, but it certainly was an incredible time for human progress.

    As for the intervening 2000 years, Stoicism ceased to exist as an active school with the end of the Roman Empire, but it did influence a number of important philosophers, including Descartes and Spinoza.

    And, of course, it is coming back! Modern scholars like Larry Becker, Bill Irvine, and others are contributing to a revival and, more importantly, an update of Stoic ideas. Which is why I’m interested enough in them to keep a regular blog devoted entirely to the subject.

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  8. I must go back and look at your discussions of Musonius (I am currently reading and commenting on his lectures on my own blog). I find him to be very insightful and direct in his philosophy, focusing on topics that one might not immediately think would be addressed (occupations suitable for philosophers, sexual matters, gender roles, etc.).

    I agree that Stoicism seemed to have the pause button pressed for centuries, but I am not surprised that this was the case, in light of events occurring during that time. Neither am I surprised it is making a revival of sorts today. Our general (but not wide open) tolerance of ideas other than the dominant thrust in society makes exploration of things other than the “normal” to be possible without excessive punishments, and overall worthwhile. So many people struggle with a wealth of images, ideas, expectations, and challenges in their daily lives that happiness may be elusive. In fact, happiness is not something that is emphasized as much as wealth, success, and finding your little spot in the world economic machine. Stoicism is one way for people to attempt to connect with other values and place them in a position of prominence in their own lives.

    Even though the ancients spoke to truths that may be considered universal and timeless, these ideas must still be interpreted, added to, or otherwise adjusted to fit with what it is to be alive today.

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