How to Think Like Musonius Rufus (And Memorize His Lectures) by Kevin Vost

“Remember…” – Epictetus[1]

“And now for something completely different…” – Monty Python

From Ready at Hand to Ever in Mind

Arrian compiled the condensed Enchiridion (Manual or Handbook) from Epictetus’s Discourses so that readers could have easy access to many of Epictetus’s fundamental Stoic insights, keeping them always ready at hand when needed them (indeed, in the size of a book that would easily fit in one’s hand, or within a modern-day pocket).  In the short 10th chapter of that Handbook Epictetus explains that whatever difficult life situations we face we need to ask ourselves what capacities we have developed to deal with them, calling into play our self-control when confronted with a beautiful body, our endurance to deal with hardship, or our patience if someone insults or abuses us.  The lessons of that very Handbook,  if studied, mastered, and internalized, can help us develop and display those and a host of other capacities or virtues.

In that same chapter, Epictetus instructs us to remember to turn to ourselves to activate these capacities and to habituate ourselves, to get used to doing this.  Indeed, by my count, Epictetus uses words translated into English as “remember,” or “keep in mind,” at least a dozen times in the 53 brief chapters of the Handbook.   In his Discourses, Epictetus reminds his students that sheep don’t vomit up grass to show their shepherds how much they have eaten, but they chew and digest that grass and then produce wool and milk of their own.  It is through remembering fundamental Stoic principles, and becoming habituated to using them in our own daily lives that we will produce the wool and milk of lives lived well, with a good flow, fulfilling through virtuous thoughts and deeds our capacities as rational human beings.

In this article, I will propose the use of a simple and effective memory method that can help us follow Epictetus’s advice to “remember” essential Stoic principles. Epictetus certainly remembered the principles he learned from his great teacher Musonius Rufus, and here we will apply the memory method to recall the gist of one fundamental lesson of each of Rufus’s lectures, a workable task, since only 21 lectures are extant, as presented in Stobaeus’s 5th century AD Anthology. We will examine and actually employ a technique that can keep Stoic principles not only ready at hand, but ever in mind.

Something Different: Memory Training as Spiritual Exercise (and a Part of Prudence)

Mental or spiritual exercises have long been essential to Stoicism, to not merely understand it as a philosophical system, but to employ it as an art of living. Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations have been a prime example of Stoic spiritual exercises practiced through writing notes to oneself.  Many of Aurelius’s exercises involve powerfully focused use of one’s memory and imagination, from seeing things from a historical perspective and recalling how emperors from the distant past and all who lived in their time are no more, to mentally viewing the whole of the earth from a perspective of one high above it.

Now, the memory method I will describe is also heavily dependent upon the power of imagination, and in ancient texts, it is called an “inner writing.”  This method is certainly nothing new, usually being attributed, as it was by Cicero, to a discovery and invention by Simonides of Ceos (c. 556 – 468 BC).  Many readers have probably encountered it as the “method of loci” or “memory palace” technique, and some may see it as a gimmick of sorts to produce ostensibly impressive memory feats of questionable utility. (Some experts, for example, have used the method to recall the digits of pi, with a current world record of 100,000 digits!)

As to the “completely different” aspect of this ages-old method, I don’t ever recall seeing it suggested or applied as a form of Stoic spiritual exercise, whereby one can take Epictetus’s advice quite literally and train oneself to systematically remember key Stoic principles, not merely to echo them back like a parrot, but to hold them in mind so as to digest them like a lamb and eventually produce some grade A milk and wool!

We will soon apply the method to the gist of some lessons from Musonius Rufus. Readers who know him will certainly recall his emphasis on the four cardinal virtues of sophrosyne, andreia, phronesis, and diakaiosyne  (or temperance, courage, prudence, and justice).  Interestingly, thinkers including Cicero in the first century BC, and Saints Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century AD, have argued that memory itself is an essential “part” of the virtue of phronesis or prudence, the practical wisdom we use to make the best choices in the acts of our daily lives. 

How so? Cicero described three essential “parts” or allied capacities of prudence as memory, understanding, and foresight, for to conceive of and achieve virtuous goals in the future (requiring foresight), we must act in the present (applying our powers of  understanding to current situations), guided by the lessons we have learned in the past (retained through memory).

Further, Cicero and St. Albert considered memory the most important part of prudence. Why? Per St. Albert: “When we say that of all those things that point toward ethical wisdom, the most necessary is a trained memory, because from past events we are guided in the present and the future, and not from the converse.”[2]  Note too that Albert refers to a “trained” memory, and he also states elsewhere that the method described by “Tully,” (Cicero) is the best. This is the age-old method of loci or locations that involves the use of visual imagery in a systematic order.

The oldest extant book on the subject, the Rhetorica ad Herennium, dates from the mid- 80s BC and was long attributed to Cicero. Though modern scholars do not believe Cicero wrote it, its method is also discussed in Cicero’s authentic De Inventione, which includes the fascinating story of how  Simonides of Ceos (c. 556-468 BC) came by to invent it. Though a few different versions of have come down to us, here is the gist of the story.

A wealthy man named Scopas invited Simonides to give an oration at a banquet one evening.  Simonides acknowledged his thanks to Scopas and during the recitation of a poem honoring a boxer he also expressed thanks to the twin gods Castor and Pollux who were popularly considered as patrons of athletes. Well, during a break, the ungracious Scopas told Simonides that since he thanked him and Castor and Pollux as well, he would pay him only half his fee and he could collect the other half from Castor and Pollux!

A short while later, Simonides was told that two young men had come to a door and said he was needed for an emergency.  As Simonides left the building, he saw the young men far down the street and ran after them.  He never could catch them and eventually returned to the building, after what amount to an extended wild goose chase. While he was away, however, the roof of the building had collapsed. So complete was the destruction that the bodies of the diners were crushed beyond recognition. Simonides discovered, to his surprise, that from his perspective as orator he could recall the visual image of where every person reclined and could identify them all. As the story goes, who were those two young men? Precisely. Castor and Pollux! And they paid him not only by saving his life but by leading to his invention of the methods of “artificial memory.”

Simonides discovered through this incident the power of visual impressions and of orderly arrangement as aids to the natural memory. Further, he soon came to realize that we do not need to see orderly arrangements of visual information to enhance our memory powers. Indeed, we need merely imagine them. This systematic use of visual images and a series of locations became the gist of “artificial memory,” or “the art of memory,” which employs our powers of imaginative visualization, reason, and language capacities to perfect our natural, non-strategic memory capacities. Indeed, viewed from a Stoic perspective, such memory methods could entail a revised impression of our own memory capacities, moving them from what we might have considered outside of our control to something within our control, for some to a surprising extent.

Over 1,700 years later, Thomas Aquinas summarized the gist of this method into four essential elements, which are the use of

1) visual images,

2) a system of orderly arrangement,

3) focused concentration, and

4) rehearsal or repetition.[3]

We already know the power of the 3rd and 4th elements since they are essential to most tasks employing natural memory, and they continue to play an important role when employing the art of memory. Thomas also explained (borrowing much of his cognitive psychology from Aristotle) that visual images should be used because all of our knowledge begins with information that comes in from our senses and visual images tend to be most powerful and memorable for most people. Further, he pointed out that even abstract or “spiritual” information is best held in memory when it is represented by a concrete, “corporeal” image that is easily pictured in the minds’ eye. Indeed, he also noted that we should make such memory images strange and unusual since we encounter so much information every day that we tend to forget what is mundane or routine.

As for orderly arrangement, among the possible ordered location systems mentioned in the ancient Ad Herennium itself, our most ancient book on the art of memory, the first one mentioned is that of a house. So, at last, I welcome you now to a modern house of memory! Note well, that for dramatic effect we will first memorize a series of locations and their associated images and then I’ll explain what they mean. So, please set your powers of imagination and concentration on high and I’ll guide you through the rest.

Memorize the Lectures of Musonius Rufus

Imagine, if you will, that you’ve just arrived at someone’s house for the first time. (It’s a sprawling ranch home in an older neighborhood surrounded by mature maples and oaks.) You ring the bell, the front door opens (location 1), and to your dismay, an ancient philosopher greets you, points a giant needle at your chest, and asks, “Do you get my point?” (You surmise he’s a philosopher by his cloak and beard. Further, the cloak’s monogram “M.R.” leads you to suspect it is Musonius Rufus himself!)

Alright, he invites you inside and you carefully step on an open spot in a doormat (location 2) that is otherwise covered with seeds that quickly sprout plants shaped into V’s.  

Next, you glance out through a glass panel next to the front door (location 3), and there you see in the front yard Socrates conducting a dialogue with a group of women.

Upon the wall on the other side of the front door you see a portrait of your own parents (location 4), but upon closer inspection your parents’ image fades away and you see a schoolroom filled with young girls.

On the adjacent wall, oddly enough, you spy a gun rack[4] (location 5), and balancing precariously on top of it is an old-fashioned scale with a “P” in one saucer and a “T” in the other. You notice the scales tips down on the side of the “P.”

Okay, do you have those five locations and images down pat now?  If not, take a look at this simple summary chart, and test yourself further by seeing if you can repeat the sequence backwards, from the scales with the P and T at the fifth location, the portrait of the parents that fades into a classroom of girls at the fourth, Socrates and the women seen through the glass panel at the third location, the doormat with seeds sprouting V-shape plants at the second location, and that crusty old philosopher, perhaps Rufus himself, asking if we get his point at the front door.

1.  Front doorRufus with giant needle
2.  Door matSeeds grow with V’s
3.  Glass panelSocrates talking with women
4.  PortraitSchoolroom full of girls
5.  Gun rackScales: P outweighs T

Got them? Good.  Let’s progress a little further before we examine what all this means.

 Moving along to the center of the foyer at location 6, you spy the oddest sight so far, for a large human biceps and a human brain are both (somehow) lifting weights.

Looking overhead at the chandelier (location 7) you see and hear an unfamiliar man crying “Ouch!” 

Glancing across the foyer at a mirror on the wall (location 8), you see not your own reflection, but that of a crowned king.

Under the mirror sits a small cushioned bench (location 9), and you see sitting upon it a smiling man perched on a rock surrounded by water

Finally, built into the cushioned bench are a couple of drawers (location 10). You open a drawer, and to your dismay out pops a lawyer saying that you’re being sued.   Got those? If not, please mentally rehearse the scene a time or two, and feel free to look at this summary chart and at the foyer illustration as well.

6.  Center of FoyerBiceps and brain lifting
7.  Chandelier“Ouch!”
8.  MirrorKing
9.  BenchSmiling man on rock
10. DrawersLawyer pops out at you

Now, assuming you’ve got them, let’s see what you’ve got.  At the front door (location 1), we imagined Rufus with the needle asking if you got his point. This silly and hopefully memorable image appeared at location 1 as a simple reminder of the theme of Rufus’s lecture 1: “the lecture showing that one does not need to use many arguments to prove one point”[5]

The seeds upon the door mat (location 2), will help us recall a central theme from Rufus’s second lecture: “the seed of virtue exists in each one of us.” The “V” shape of the plants was our simple reminder of virtue.  Most of these images and the themes they represent are pretty straightforward, with perhaps the exception of our scales at location 5. The “P” and the “T” were used to represent Practice and Theory.  Per Musonius, both are needed, but practice outweighs theory.

So then, if you have recalled our first ten images, you have also memorized one key theme from each of Rufus first ten lectures, in their exact order. (They are spelled out in a summary chart near the end of this article.)  To borrow some metaphors from Rufus’s first two lectures, merely one image can be sufficient not to prove, but to recall one important lesson. And more to the point, these little mnemonic images are like the little seeds that can, with habituation through additional practice and study, grow into richer retention and comprehension of each lecture that they summarize. 

For example, we pictured Socrates with women in our third location because in his third lecture Rufus argues, contrary to many thinkers of his time, that women should indeed study philosophy. It is in this lesson that he first spells out the four cardinal virtues of prudence, self-control, courage, and justice. If you do not have them memorized already, you could simply add to that scene something along the lines of the images of a persnickety old woman named Prudence (perhaps with three faces to gaze at the future, present, and past), a woman with a remote control that moves her own limbs, the cowardly lion from the Wizard of Oz, and a Supreme Court Justice to represent those four cardinal virtues. 

If you would care to memorize some of Rufus’ own examples of these virtues as lived out in the lives of women, picture Prudence managing a household, the remote control making the woman remove herself from an improper sexual temptation, the cowardly lion as a female lioness working up her courage to protect her children from attack, and the Supreme Court Justice refusing to do anything wrong.

Further, if you should read and study Rufus’s lessons repeatedly over time, you will find that even the one simple image provided for each lecture will trigger in your mind additional content from each lecture through natural memory processes, serving somewhat like a key that will open the lectures to you. This will also allow you, when you have time on your hands but nothing to do or read (e.g., waiting at doctor’s offices, airports, etc.), to call to mind your memory tour and see how much of the detail from each lecture your images can call to mind.

 Please note that the images I have provided are merely suggestions, somewhat arbitrary mnemonic reminders based on the first associations that pop into my head as I read Rufus’ lectures. Images you create for yourself can be even more powerful, since they resonate more directly with your own knowledge base and experiences. And indeed, the same applies to systems of locations. What house do you know better than your own? Please feel free to construct you own personalized “memory mansion” if you prefer.

Note well too that the location system itself is like an internal notepad or word processing template.  Once you have mastered a set of locations through repeated practice, you can mentally “write” anything you’d like on the same locations and use them over and over again ad infinitum crafting new images as the “ink” to write down in your mind completely new sets of materials. You could use it for something as mundane as your grocery list, having perhaps a giant banana greet you at the front door, tripping over a sack of potatoes on the door mat, and so forth. 

But you have a different list each week? No problem. Recall that repetition is essential to these methods. If you do not rehearse your lists, they will fade away.  Information that is important enough to maintain, like the lessons of Rufus, are worth the time to repeat and contemplate as Stoic exercises, and the more often they are repeated, the more firmly they will be stored in your long-term memory.    

 I should also note that from its earliest days in the Greece of Simonides and the Rome of Cicero, this method was used primarily by pubic speakers to deliver their orations without any kind of text or notes.  They would not memorize their talks word-for-word, a very demanding and tedious process that could easily be derailed during delivery.  Rather, they would use locations to memorize the kind the key points of their orations in their exact order, leaving them free to speak spontaneously and never lose track of where they are.

In fact, as the author of books on memory, I pretty much feel obligated to use this method myself for every public talk I give, usually using the same house supplied in this article (with its six rooms of 60 locations in total.) In a talk of an hour’s length, I might have 40 or more key points I want to make. Using this method, after outlining the points on paper or on a screen, I visualize them in their proper places in the house. After a few minutes of study and rehearsal, I could literally give my talks backwards, from conclusion to introduction, though I’ve yet to find a proper occasion to do that!

Knowing that I could deliver them backwards makes every talk an enjoyable challenge, and is by far, my method of choice. (In fact, this very article idea came to me as I began to memorize these lectures myself for an upcoming Practical Stoicism podcast on Musonius Rufus.)  I should note too that different sets of information stored in memory houses tend to “hang together” well due to the natural power of association. Indeed, at times I have given two different talks in the same day using the same locations to literally house two completely separate sets of information.

 So, if you would care to dig deeper into the memory method, and deeper into the lessons of the lectures of Musonius Rufus, I have suggested below some possible images for all of the 21 lectures, along with some additional memory room illustrations that have appeared in some of my memory books. Note too that the effort and practice required to use this method can provide nice side benefits of its, enhancing one’s powers of mental discipline, concentration, and increased freedom from extraneous distractions.

I hope that if you give the method a try you will find some of Rufus’s fundamental Stoic lessons always at hand, ever in mind, and read to put into practice, again, and again, and again.

Musonius Lectures Mnemonic Summary

LocationMnemonic ImageLecture Theme
1.  Front doorRufus with giant needleUse few, effective arguments to get points across.
2.  Door matSeeds grow with V’sAll of us possess the seeds of virtue.
3.  Glass panelSocrates talking with womenWomen should also study philosophy.
4.  PortraitSchoolroom full of girlsDaughters should be educated like sons.
5.  Gun rackScales: P outweighs TPractice outweighs theory.
6.  Center of FoyerBiceps and brain liftingTrain both body and mind.
7.  Chandelier“Ouch!”What to make of pain.
8.  MirrorKingEven kings need philosophy.
9.  BenchSmiling man on rockExile is not evil.
10. DrawersLawyer pops out at youDon’t sue over for personal insults.
11.  Center of living roomFarmer hoes your floorFarming as good occupation for a philosopher
12.  Back yardXXX red light districtAppropriate  and inappropriate sexual behaviors
13.  CouchWedding ceremonyThe chief purposes of marriage
14.  Coffee tableXanthippe soaks SocratesWhy marriage is proper for philosophers
15.   TelevisionBabies grow fast on screenAll babies born should be raised.
16.   FireplaceYour father lectures youHow we honor and obey our parents
17.  Doorway out living roomWorld’s oldest manThe best thing for old age (philosophy)
18.  Doorway in dining roomFeast laid out on floorVirtue and the exercise of self-control in eating.
19.  ChairFavorite shoes and clothesHow should a philosopher dress?
20.  Center of tableModel of your houseHow should a philosopher furnish his house?
21.  Wall thermometerLong beard hanging down from its bottomTo shave or not to shave? (And why is that important?)

Illustrations by Ted Schluenderfritz.

[1] Epictetus, The Handbook (The Encheiridion), Nicholas P. White, trans. (Hackett: Indianapolis, IN, 1983), Handbook chapters 1, 2, 3,10, 15, 17, 20, 32, 33, 36, 42, 46.

[2] From De Bono (On the Good), cited in Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 275.

[3] Summa Theologica, II-II, 49, 1 “Whether Memory is a Part of Prudence?”

[4] I first used this memory foyer to show how to memorize the 10 Commandments.  A padlocked gun rack was our reminder of the 5th Commandment (in the Catholic rendering), which you might guess is “Thou shalt not kill.” That portrait of the parents served a similar purpose, the fourth commandment being to “Honor your father and mother.” The other locations had less explicit connections, but for the 7th: the chandelier was said to be made of steel to remind us “Though shalt not steal.” I’ll explain in the text how the same locations can be used ad infinitum for completely new sets of material.

[5] Cynthia King, Musonius Rufus: Lectures and Sayings, (William B. Irvine, Pub:, 2011), 23.

Kevin Vost is the author of twenty-one books including Memorize the Faith! and The Porch and the Cross. He is currently working on a new book – How to Think Like Epictetus (And Memorize His Handbook!) that will employ and flesh out this method.

6 thoughts on How to Think Like Musonius Rufus (And Memorize His Lectures) by Kevin Vost

  1. Goodlifeguy says:

    Really enjoyed this. Let me practice now. Thanks

  2. Alison says:

    Huge thanks Kevin. I’m so intrigued with your use of remembering as a form of Stoic spiritual/mental practice. I’m really going to enjoy having a go at applying it this week. A lovely reason to keep looking on the bright side of life. Best wishes.

  3. Eric 'Siggy' Scott says:

    Oh, this is delightful—thanks for writing this up, Kevin. Glad to see that another memory enthusiast has set their sites on Stoicism!
    I’m an avid Anki user myself (i.e. spaced repetition)—it’s an incredible tool and has changed my entire relationship with learning—but I’ve been frustrated in the past by how difficult it is to learn outlines of complex books via flash card. I once tried to start learning an outline of the Meditations, but gave up because the cards were just too tedious to review.
    The method of the loci turned out to be the solution. I’ve worked my way through a the first half of book II at a low level now, and it’s been working nicely:
    But since I’m used to using spaced repetition to easily maintain lots of knowledge with minimal effort (I use Anki daily for hobbies, languages, and professionally), having an effortless way to maintain and repeat palaces is important to me. I’ve recently started breaking my Meditations palace out into Anki cards, and so far it’s been delightfully easy. Pretty soon I’ll only have to review each locus once a year or so to keep it in memory:

    • Kevin Vost says:

      Thank you “Siggy” (if I may) for your delightful comment. I’m sorry to say that I had not seen it until today, right after I sent out my proposal for the Epictetus memory book. I will check out your links and see what kind of memory work you’ve been up to. All the best, Kevin.

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