Sunday, March 24, 2013

Musonius Rufus - On How to Live

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 19th century. 

 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 attractive.

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 happy.

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.  


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