A Stoic for All Seasons Series: A Day at the Beach with Musonius Rufus by Kevin Vost

It is not good to be entirely without experience of cold and heat, but one ought in some degree to feel the cold in winter and likewise the heat in summer and to seek shade as little as possible. –Musonius Rufus, Lecture 19.

[I]ndeed, philosophy is nothing but the practice of noble behavior. –Musonius Rufus, Lecture 4

One nice advantage of religious holy days and secular holidays is that they gives us the opportunity, year after to year, to think, honor, and feel gratitude, again and again, to men and women who have contributed in special ways across time to the common good of humanity.  I know of no official Stoic holidays, though I recall that Epictetus sometimes mentions the Roman feast of the Saturnalia in December that celebrated an ancient golden age under the rule of the god Saturn. I know too that Marcus Aurelius happened to die on St. Patrick’s Day (two centuries before Patrick was born).  In any event, I don’t see why we could not periodically celebrate some great Stoics at particular times of the year.

Now, we don’t know the exact dates of birth or of death for many of them, but since there are four great Roman Stoics from the period of the late Stoa (Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius), and these four are highly influential to modern Stoicism, I suggest that we could at least start our celebrations with a Stoic for all four seasons.  If it remains within my control, I hope to write a series of four brief articles for each of the four seasons, and I’m starting right now with Musonius Rufus (c. 25 – 100 AD). So, if you have an ear for classical music, get Vivaldi’s Summer going gently in the background and prepare to start the summer with me and the man who taught and inspired Epictetus, a man called by some, “the Roman Socrates.”

I chose the summer theme for Rufus, not because he wrote extensively about summer, though you can see from the opening quotation that I was able to track down one little nugget, (that I, a great fan of not only shade, but of icy air conditioning, will try to put into practice this summer). The main reason I settled on summer for Rufus is that I have often read about, and have sometimes been asked to compose “summer reading” lists.  I discovered Epictetus, Seneca, and Aurelius in my early 20’s and have enjoyed them for more than 30 years, but it was not until my mid-50s that I first read Rufus’s lecture fragments and sayings. I suspect he is still the least read and least known of the Roman Stoics (and would be intrigued by readers’ comments that might confirm or refute my suspicions), and though we do not have more than some dozens of pages of his philosophy, I have found them well worth the read, and re-read, and re-read, and I hope that you will too, if you have not already formed such a virtuous reading habit.

Rufus is one of the Stoic champions of the classic cardinal moral virtues. His teaching is rich in common sense and in focus on the practical application of philosophy for living a good and virtuous life.  In The Porch and the Cross, my book on the four great Stoics and how they have influenced Christianity, cognitive psychotherapy, and modernity in general, I concluded by choosing among many possibilities one word to capture the essence of each of the four great Stoics. For Rufus I chose the word “sanity.”  Rufus wrote that “thoughtlessness is very close to insanity” (Lecture 21) and I find him among the most thoughtful and sane persons I have ever read.

I must cut this praise short though and cut to the chase, for as Epictetus told us, “Rufus used to say, ‘If you have time enough to praise me, then I know what I am saying is worthless,” (Epictetus’ Discourses, 3. 23).  Rufus’s lessons are eminently worthwhile and he would clearly rather have us far too busy studying and living Stoic philosophy to waste our time even in well-deserved praise.  

Next, I’m going to provide just a few samples of Rufus’s wisdom about a couple of the topics he’s rightly most famous for: the intellectual and moral equality of women with men and the need for us students of philosophy to live out and practice every day of our lives the truths that we acquire. I start with my own paraphrased abridgements from a few of Rufus’s extant lectures and then the briefest of commentary, excerpted with slight adaptations from my The Porch and the Cross. Hoping these snippets will have whetted or re-whetted appetites for Rufus’s Stoic wisdom, I’ll conclude with a list of recommended summer reading.   

Lecture 3: Should Women Study Philosophy?

Absolutely!” declares Musonius. Women have received the same gift of reason from the gods that men have, the same senses, most of the same body parts, the same capacity to know right from wrong, and the same inclination to virtue. Women no less than men are pleased by good and just deeds and decry what is base and shameful. Why would it not be appropriate for women to seek to live honorably and learn how to do so? That is what philosophy is all about. Should not a woman be good like a man?  

A woman should have the practical prudence to manage a household or a state.  She must be self-controlled to remain free from sexual improprieties, to avoid being a slave to her desires, argumentative, extravagant, or vain, so that she can control anger, preserve over grief, and become stronger than any emotion that seizes her. Any person, man or woman, who has studied and practiced philosophy, will display such a beautiful character. A woman who studies philosophy will become just as well. A female philosopher would be a just and blameless spouse, co-worker, and mother, thinking it worse to commit a wrong than to suffer one, who would rather suffer with less than be greedy for more, who would love her children more than life itself.  It is appropriate as well for a woman to obtain the courage that training in philosophy brings. She will not bow down to the powerful and mighty, but will nurse and protect the children she brings forth, stand firm by her husband, and will not, due to haughtiness, shrink from work others might say is befit for only slaves.

Some said the study of philosophy might lead women to become haughty, quarrelsome, and frivolous, abandoning their proper duties, seeking out arguments or dissecting syllogisms in the marketplace, when they should be sitting at home spinning wool. Musonius said such actions are unworthy in men as well. True philosophical discussion is conducted for the sake of practical application. Women should do this just as men should and neither should abandon their duties to do it.  

Here Musonius comes to the quotation we used to start this very chapter: “Just as there is no use in medical study unless it leads to the health of the human body, so there is no use to philosophical doctrine unless it leads to the virtue of the human soul.” Philosophy is powerful medicine for the soul, good for what ails both men and women. So, Yes! Women should study philosophy. Musonius concludes: “The doctrine of the philosophers encourages a woman to be happy and to rely on herself.”

Lecture 4: Should Daughters Be Educated Like Sons?

Perhaps you have guessed from the lecture above where Musonius is going with this.  Contrary to the common Greco-Roman wisdom of his day, Musonius answers with another yes.

Trainers of dogs and horses don’t make distinctions in their training of males and females for the tasks they are to do, and neither should educators make distinctions in training human boys and girls in their main task of life, the acquisition of virtues. There is no one set of virtues for men and a different set for women. Both must be sensible and just. Lack of self-control from eating or drinking too much will be as shameful in a woman as it is in a man. Women need to be brave as well, and would not want to be inferior even to hens and other female birds that fearlessly do battle with any larger animal that threatens their chicks. Remember also the armed Amazon warriors. If some women lack courage, it’s not from their lack of natural endowment, but from their lack of practice.  

Philosophy provides such practice for courage and for all the virtues, so as far as the virtues are concerned, sons and daughters should have the same education. Some will then ask if men should spin wool with the women and women should pursue the same gymnastics as men. Musonius does not advise it. He notes that some tasks, because of innate differences in the builds and the bodily strength of men and women, tend to be better-suited to each sex, which is why people have traditionally spoken of “men’s work” and “women’s work,” but even here there may be exceptions. He is talking about equal education for both sexes in the things that matter the most – like learning what is helpful and what is harmful, what should be done, and what should not, how to endure hardships, to overcome fear of death, to discern what is honorable and what is base and shameful. No man is properly educated without philosophy — and no woman is either. Women, like men, should develop good character and practice noble behavior, “since indeed philosophy is nothing but the practice of noble behavior.”

Lecture 5: Is Practice More Important Than Theory in The Pursuit of the Good Life?

We come to a point of the greatest importance to all four of our Greco-Roman Stoic moralists. To put it in a nutshell (well, three actually), Musonius poses three questions:

  • If you were ill, who would you choose between a doctor who can speak brilliantly about the art of medicine, but who has not treated sick people, or a doctor who cannot speak very well about medicine, but who is experienced in healing according to proper medical theory?
  • Who would you hire as your captain, a man who has never piloted a boat, but can speak authoritatively on naval theory, or a man who can hardly put two words together, but who has successfully sailed many ships?
  • Who would you hire to perform, a musician learned in musical theory who cannot play an instrument, or one who knows no theory, but plays a mean cithara or lyre?

Musonius assumes your answer in each case would be the person who has actual experience, the one who can clearly effectively practice, regardless of his capacity to preach. He applies this as well to philosophy, asking if it clearly isn’t better to be self-controlled and prudent than to be able to discourse about theories of temperance and prudence. Practice wins out over theory in philosophy because while understanding the theory behind virtuous actions enables one to speak about them, it is the practice of virtue that enables one to act virtuously. Theory is not without value, however, when it teaches one how to act and logically informs and comes before practice. Practical application should be in harmony with theory, but practice is more effective in leading people to action.

Lecture 6: How Does One Practice Philosophy?

It is one thing to know what the virtues of self-control, justice, courage, and wisdom are, and quite another thing live them. Anyone who claims to seek wisdom through philosophy must practice more fervently than one pursuing the art of medicine or any other specialized skill, because philosophy is of greater importance and difficulty than any other pursuit. Philosophy is the very art of living. How then does one practice and train?  

We must train according to the nature of what we are. Humans are a composite of body and soul, and both of them must be trained. Most attention should be directed to the higher part of the soul, but some care should also be given to the body, lest one will be lacking in his full humanity.  The philosopher must train his body in the capacity for virtuous work. The body is virtue’s instrument or tool. We train both body and soul when we discipline ourselves to withstand cold, heat, thirst, hunger, small portions of food, hard beds, to avoid pleasure and endure pain with patience.

The first step in training the soul is to make sure that the proofs of what things are truly good and evil are always ready at hand, and to accustom oneself to always distinguish truly good things from things that may appear good, but are not. The next step is to walk one’s thought, so to speak, never to run from what appears evil, but is truly good, nor to seek out what only appears to be good, while avoiding true evils and seeking true goods. All in all, a person practicing philosophy will seek to master himself, to overcome both pleasure and pain, to avoid clinging to life at all costs from a fear of death, and, in the case of goods or money, will not value receiving over giving.

A Bit of Commentary on Lectures 3 – 6

In his lectures endorsing female students of philosophy and the same fundamental moral training for males and females, we see Musonius’s clear declaration that men and women are endowed by the gods with the same gifts of reason and moral judgment.  Note as well, that Musonius’s lecture 4 espousing equal moral training of children of both sexes does not speak of the education of “girls,” and “boys,” but rather of “daughters” and “sons.” Recall the Stoics’ goal of living in accordance with nature, which requires the understanding of the nature of things, including human beings. Musonius does not speak of merely “girls” and “boys”, but of “daughters” and “sons,” because even here, in this lecture on education, he remembers human nature. He does not speak of abstract groupings of “gender,” nor of young male and female citizens, as if owned by some state, but first and foremost of the fact that every girl and every boy is someone’s “daughter” or “son.”

In this regard, Rufus echoes Aristotle, who called humans both “rational animals” and “political animals,” but wrote that “man is naturally inclined to form couples – even more than to form cities, inasmuch as the household is earlier and more necessary than the city…” Who more than a parent should care that their children are raised up in a way that will cultivate the seeds of virtue within them, and who is more ultimately responsible? Time and again Rufus’s “family values” ring loud and clear through his lectures, and the way to best protect and promote family life per Musonius is through the pursuit of the cardinal virtues and the wisdom that embodied Stoic philosophy.  

Lectures 5 and 6 make clear the value Musonius made of the practice of philosophy, valuing it so much higher than merely knowledge of it. The proof of a philosophy is in the pudding of actual virtuous lives lived out in accordance with reason and nature, bringing peace to the soul of the student of philosophy and benevolent deeds enhancing the lives of all of those around him or her. Still, Musonius does not by any means totally discount the role of knowledge and theory in living a life of virtue. We will better know what is truly good by a thoughtful search for the truth. But once a moral truth is found, it is far more important that is lived and not just learned.

I invite readers to ponder Musonius’ lectures as summarized above, or ideally as they are presented in full, to see what stands out as important to you, and I wonder what kinds of comments might you make and how Musonius’ wisdom might impact you this summer?

Recommend Reading for Your Stoic Summer

My own book that treats of Musonius Rufus in three chapters on his life, lectures, and his  philosophical legacy across time is The Porch and the Cross: Ancient Stoic Wisdom for Modern Christian Living (Angelico Press, 2016).  I must note as well that Rufus is of enduring value and well worth the reading for Christians and non-Christians alike. My own resources on Rufus at the time of writing were the excellent Cora Lutz and Cynthia King translations of Rufus’s extant works cited in the footnotes of this article. The Lutz translation was originally published in 1947, and the edition I cited has the benefit of the original Greek and English translations on facing pages. The more recent King book provides a more modern preface and introduction, and also includes other sayings attributed to Rufus from additional secondary sources (including, foremost, Epictetus).  I also found J. T. Dillon’s Musonius Rufus and Education in the Good Life: A Model of Teaching and Living Virtue (University Press of America, 2004) a valuable resource on Rufus’s life and lessons.  Just this year, I have discovered and enjoyed Chuck Chakrapani’s Stoic Lessons: Musonius Rufus Complete Works (The Stoic Gym Publications, 2018).   

To conclude, I highly recommended that the next time you head for a chair on a hot sunny beach (or even for a recliner in an air-conditioned study), whether you are a woman or a man, young or old, religious or secularist, consider inviting Musonius Rufus to join you for a couple of well-spent hours heeding a voice of unusual clarity and sanity in a world that could certainly use some.  You can be sure he will not hog the beach umbrella or ask you to turn up the air.

Kevin Vost is the author of twenty books on psychology, philosophy, theology, and physical fitness, has taught psychology and gerontology at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee and the University of Illinois at Springfield.

7 thoughts on A Stoic for All Seasons Series: A Day at the Beach with Musonius Rufus by Kevin Vost

  1. Dorothy Kahn says:

    to seek shade as little as possible. –Musonius Rufus, Lecture 19. Since the very name of the Stoic school refers to a shady place, this statement of Musonius puzzles me.

    • Kevin Vost says:

      Interesting observation. Though Zeno of Citium did teach Stoicism from the beautiful Stoa Poikile (Painted Porch) in Athens, I’m not sure if we know where Rufus usually taught in Rome. Of course, both expected their students to take the lessons they learned with them into the world to be lived out in the course their daily lives. In arguing in Lecture 21 that farming was the ideal occupation for a philosopher Rufus declared (in the Lutz translation): “Who will say that it is more fitting to live out of doors than to shun the open air and the heat of the sun,” (and in the King translation): “Isn’t living outside more healthy than being secluded in the shade?” It was part of a lecture extolling living close to nature in the country instead of constant exposure to city life, of being self-sufficient, and steeling oneself to the rigors of hard work and physical discomfort. Still, in the same lecture Rufus talked about the necessity of not working all the time, but of taking breaks for periods of rest (perhaps, at times even under a shaded porch.)

  2. Thanks, Prof. Vost, for an engaging essay on our often-overlooked sage, Musonius Rufus. I have the 2011 edition, translated by Cynthia King, and I particularly like the teaching found in Lecture 10 (p. 51):
    “It is characteristic of a civilized and humane temperament not to respond to wrongs as a beast would, and not to be implacable towards those who offend, but to provide them with a model of decent behavior.”
    I have found that maxim especially useful when dealing with carping and vituperative comments posted on line. I imagine that Rufus would have
    dealt with the “trolls” of his day in exemplary fashion!
    Best regards,
    Ron Pies
    Author, Everything Has Two Handles

    • Kevin Vost says:

      Thank you for the comment, Dr. Pies. I think it’s wonderful how such ancient ideas can be so helpful in our world of modern technology. All the best, Kevin.

  3. Spyros says:

    My dear friend I would like very kindly mention that Epíktētos was Greek as many other great philosophers. You can find a piece of his biography and work in Wikipedia.
    “Epictetus (/ˌɛpɪkˈtiːtəs/;[1] Greek: Ἐπίκτητος, Epíktētos; c. 55 – 135 AD) was a Greek Stoic philosopher. He was born a slave at Hierapolis, Phrygia (present day Pamukkale, Turkey) and lived in Rome until his banishment, when he went to Nicopolis in northwestern Greece for the rest of his life. His teachings were written down and published by his pupil Arrian in his Discourses and Enchiridion”.
    Thank you for the consideration

    • Kevin Vost says:

      Thank you for that clarification, Spyros. Epictetus certainly was Greek and taught in Nicopolis. I used the description “Roman Stoics” too loosely to indicate that all four lived in the Roman imperial era and lived at least for a time in Rome. Further, but for Seneca’s Latin writings, the teachings of these Stoics, even Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, have also come down to us in the Greek language. All the best, Kevin.

  4. Daudi says:

    So interested teaching, Iam very inspired with this article it make me to change my mind as well as to fade bad thought..

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