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Book Review: Musonius Rufus – On How to Live -translated by Ben White (Ozimandias
Publishing – Kindle Edition 2012)
Musonius Rufus was a Roman philosopher of the first century
C.E. He was strongly Stoic as were many philosophers of the Roman
Empire. He was said to be a contemporary and friend of Apollonius
of Tyana, teacher of Epictetus, was exiled by Nero, and returned to Rome after Nero’s death.
As a Stoic he was practical-minded and valued virtue and hard work.
Subjects of the text include “the good”, law, women,
resilience, leadership, work, obedience, food, true wealth, and old age. The
translator notes in the prologue that there are basically four ways or fields
of study where we gather and pass on knowledge of how to live: philosophy,
history, literature (or oral tradition), and religion.
Gaius Musonius Rufus practiced an ethical philosophy where
he was willing to die for his principles in the tradition of Socrates and
indeed he was imprisoned and then exiled by Nero. He suffered derision from his
peers. He preached peace to the armies of Vespasian. He was one of few men to
protest against the violence of the gladiator games. After his death he was
honored as a man of great principles and courage. His views on sexuality may
seem a bit harsh in modern times but philosophers of the time often stressed
control of sexual excesses and there were also biases of the culture. All the
fragments of words and dialogues of Musonius’s teachings were compiled from his
students and other men of the time, not being compiled in one volume until the
His section on “The Good” is an exposition on the excellence
of virtue, hard work, honor, and self-honesty. As in most of the ancient
philosophy schools he advocates conduct in accord with teachings:
“Philosophy only profits you if your conduct is in harmony
with sound teaching.”
Musonius admired the strict training methods of the Spartans
and utilizes stories from Sparta
such as the one about Lycurgus the Spartan who lost an eye to a malicious man.
He was then given the ability to pick the man’s punishment. He chose to take
the man and train him, converting him from a “violent creature” to a
“reasonable man, a good citizen.” Musonius considers that humans were born with
an inclination towards virtue and that this should be fostered. People generally
consider themselves to be intelligent and just, good and moderate. This is the
inherent nobility of the human soul, says Musonius. This idea is not far off
from the Buddhist notion of ‘basic goodness’ or the ‘noble heart’.
Regarding law, Musonius first notes that philosophers should
train themselves to be undisturbed by insults and even blows (again in the
manner of a young Spartan warrior in training). To become annoyed and angered
is petty and can be a sign of weakness of character. He promotes forgiveness
and seeing that the person who has wronged you probably acted out of ignorance
and would not do so if he was properly taught.
Musonius was somewhat of a champion of women’s rights,
though in the context of Roman society. He says women can be good philosophers
since philosophy is simply knowledge about life. As among men he stresses
self-control as a virtue among women as well as modesty, restraint, and good
household management. He advocated that men and women be taught in the same
ways and held to the same standards since they are equal. He does agree with
general segregation of work tasks due to the difference in bodily capabilities
among men and women. Good conduct and a noble character should be the product
of philosophy, he says, for men and women.
On enduring hardship Musonius points out that we often
endure hardships for dishonorable reasons so it would be better to endure them
for honorable reasons and to cultivate contentment with what we have instead of
suffering for what we don’t have. Musonius stresses that self-control brings
pleasure and lack of it often brings pain. Discipline as a source of happiness
is noted in many belief-systems. He stresses virtue as a practice, like
medicine and music, rather than just theory. He sees training in two modes: 1) training
of body and soul – things like enduring heat, cold, thirst, hunger, hard beds,
and patience under suffering, and 2) training unique to the soul – things like
learning to recognize what is beneficial and what is not and developing the
ability to resist temptations and to avoid bad habits.
His words on leadership stress the ethical qualities of
leaders as most important. He says leaders should act with a sense of duty
rather than one of imposing their will. A king, as protector and benefactor of
his people, should study philosophy in order to be able to discern what is
moral. A leader should also practice self-control and avoid excesses.
Discipline, order, courtesy, courage, and the ability to reason are other
necessary kingly attributes. The ability to debate successfully is another
important asset. A king should also be efficient in putting plans into action,
resolute in facing hardships, humane, patient, and a good judge of what is just.
Musonius gave this dialogue to a Syrian king who thanked him for the teaching
and offered him anything in return. Musonius chose in return that the king
should remain faithful to the teaching.
Musonius talks about exile as a punishment. Many philosophers
including Musonius were exiled from Rome
under Nero as well as others so this was a common punishment since before
Hellenic times for those thought to be problematic. Musonius speaks of the
benefits of exile: being away from those who hate you, being free of political
duties, and a further opportunity to become content with what you have. He
quotes Socrates (as he often does) saying that the universe is the fatherland
of all. He gives a few examples of exile being a blessing in disguise: Diogenes
becomes a philosopher in exile and Spartiacus the Spartan ends up cured of his
medical ailments while in exile.
His section on work is a warning against laziness,
sluggishness, and carelessness. He recommends farming as an honest living that
requires hard work. He also recommends a shepherd’s life as conducive to
philosophy and mind training and gives the early poet Hesiod as an example.
“The most necessary and useful things are possible to learn
alongside farm work, especially if you are not kept working constantly. But
have periods of rest.”
He complains that philosophy has become infested with the
voluminous doctrine of the sophists of the cities. Musonius recommends a rural
atmosphere as conducive to learning the moral lessons of philosophy.
His section on marriage favors good companionship, mutual
love, and common interests. He suggests disregarding status of family, wealth,
and physical beauty as important factors in a relationship. Health, virtue, and
self-control are better qualities, he says. He sees marriage as a noble social
bond that helps us to be kinder to our neighbors as well. He notes the
sacredness of marriage in myth: Hera as the patroness of marriage and Eros and
Aphrodite as influencing love and marriage. He promotes marriage as a good thing
among philosophers as well – perhaps some philosophical schools promoted
celibacy and avoidance of marriage as a distraction.
The section about sex is partly a reaction to the
unfortunate results of sex in 1st century Rome:
illegitimate children often cast out into poverty, risky abortions, and
addiction to excessive sex. Musonius promotes self-control and avoidance of
adultery. He includes homosexuality as an unnecessary excess as well. He even
suggests avoiding sex with courtesans and maidservants (common in the Roman
culture) as dishonorable.
Musonius also praises children and those who have and care
for many children. He notes that those types of parents are often well-liked
and well in tune with Zeus as the god of hospitality and friendship. He despises
those who would kill off a later born son to increase the inheritance of the
first-born, noting that a brother-brother bond is a greater wealth benefit than
merely more possessions.
The section on obedience stresses that one should obey one’s
parents and superiors as much as is reasonable except when it clearly
contradicts the good, the just, and the moral. He stresses obedience to one’s
moral principles ahead of obedience to those who outrank one. If parents lead
their children to misdeeds, he says, the children should endeavor to re-educate
the parents and that with the attitudes and self-control required of
philosophers they should be able to do so. If one’s father is misleading one
then one should appeal to Zeus, the father of all men, who stands for kindness,
justice, moderation, honesty, and morality.
Musonius spoke much about food. He believed that the
practice of moderation and self-control in eating and drinking laid a
foundation for a life of discipline and self-control. Simple foods rather than
luxurious and hard-to-find foods are more useful and nourishing, he says. Fruits,
vegetables, milk, cheese, and honey and raw foods are the most preferable
followed by cooked grains and vegetables. Meat is least desirable. He calls it
a less civilized food, more suited to wild animals. He also says meat is a
‘heavy’ food that dulls the mind and intellect. Since the gods feed on the vapors
rising in the air and we are closest to the gods we should try to emulate them
more than animals. The foods he suggests are ‘lighter’ and so more like the
foods of the gods. Gluttony is disparaged. Eating too much, too fast, too many
sweets and sauces, and eating too often or at the wrong times are also
discouraged. He says: “Most men live to eat. I eat to live.”He notes that the enjoyment of food only
occurs for the short time we are chewing and swallowing but the real benefit
comes from nourishment during digestion so that the real benefit of food is
nourishment and not pleasure.
Concerning “True Wealth” - When encountering a dishonest
beggar posing as a philosopher Musonius suggested with a grin to give him
money, suggesting that money was more of a curse than a boon. Clothing should
be practical and moderate rather than elaborate. Housing as well, he says, should
be practical and moderate.
“To help many people is much more commendable than living a
life of luxury. How much nobler to spend it on people than sticks and stones.”
“Whatever is difficult to obtain, or not convenient to use,
or not easy to protect is judged worse- what we acquire easily, use with
satisfaction, and find easy to keep is better!”
He also says that, “Foolishness is next of kin to madness.”
He admired Lycurgus of Sparta as the lawgiver that drove
extravagance from Sparta
and replaced it with an ideal of frugality. Lycurgus also promoted deprivation
as a means to develop courage and banished luxury as a corrupting influence.
These qualities of courage, discipline, and resilience caused the Spartans to
be admired as the best of Greeks.
Musonius also curiously promotes cutting of the hair as a
practical measure that can aid work but he praises the beard, seeing it as a
necessary male feature like a cock’s crest. One could also say this about the
hair. This piece is more opinionated than moral but does reflect some views of
the time. Musonius equates ornamental hair-cutting (rather than practical
hair-cutting) and shaving with luxury and feminine-type desire to look
He gives a final section on Old Age. Here Musonius suggests
the same words to the aged as to the youth:
“Live methodically in harmony with nature.”
Musonius notes rich men full of sadness and despair about
their old age and again notes that true wealth is in one’s moral qualities and
abilities to help others. He says that philosophy teaches what is helpful and
what is harmful and if one learns it and practices it at any age one can be
Regarding death he often stipulates that one should not
regard death as an evil and one should approach it with fearlessness and
courage. Death is inevitable. The elements dissolve into one another and
re-manifest out from one another. In dissolution earth becomes water, water
becomes air, air becomes ether – and vice versa in manifestation. This is a
long-standing Greek metaphysical notion that is shared in India and both
likely have similar origins. He also suggests that those who listen to
philosophers should not overly praise them but rather put their teachings into
practice. Philosophers serve to show people their errors and faults rather than
to dazzle them with clever wisdom. A philosopher is more like a doctor,
revealing what needs to be worked on to cure one’s moral flaws.
This was a great introduction to Musonius Rufus and shows
that the ancient Romans had sound, practical, and ethical philosophers around.
One may think of the Romans as given to excesses, cruelty, and extravagance but
there were certainly many among them of high moral, compassionate, and sensible
character. Here is one among many philosophers in the pagan times of antiquity
that should be better known today. I think that after Christianity came to
dominate western and European culture much of this ancient moral wisdom was
lost. Even though Musonius was pagan as Romans were his philosophy as well as
the philosophy of many of the ancient Greeks is more secular, more practical,
and much less religiously inclined than those of the later Christians who
infused morality with religious dogma.