Today Gaius Musonius Rufus is really the often overlooked middle child of the four great late period Roman Stoics. 1 Seneca has by far both the largest and most diverse corpus: a dozen philosophical essays, over a hundred letters, nine tragedies, a satire, and a lengthy meteorological essay. In contrast only a small collection of accounts of Musonius’s teachings have been preserved, so he is not nearly as well known today as his student Epictetus, whose lectures were preserved by his student Arrian as the Discourses, four books of which survive. Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations also run much longer than what we have of Musonius. Yet Musonius remains an important Roman Stoic. He enjoyed a considerable following in his own day, he was an influential teacher, and he was admired by both philosophers and theologians familiar with his teachings. Consequently, this book is warmly welcomed. Prior to it, the only complete English translation of Musonius was quite difficult to obtain,2 and Cynthia King here provides a commendably readable and accurate translation.
The book contains an editor’s preface of just over three pages by William B. Irvine,3 a six and a half page introduction by translator Cynthia King, two main parts, and two appendices. In Part One King places Musonius’s “Lectures,” twenty-one longer selections usually interpreted as the lecture notes of Musonius’s student Lucius (17). Part Two contains thirty-two very short selections, which King calls “Sayings.” King’s introduction is clear, concise, and informative. Particularly nice is her inclusion of a description of Musonius’s activities taken from Tacitus’s Histories. She provides a tidy little account of who Musonius was, the time in which he lived, and his written remains.
Irvine asserts in the preface that Musonius’s insights are indispensable not for understanding Stoicism as a philosophical theory but “to discover what it means to be a practicing Stoic” (9). This is true enough, and so it would have been helpful to a reader unfamiliar with the practice of Stoicism to explain what ἄσκησις was, what it involved, and how it evolved into “asceticism” in early Christianity. Irvine neglects to do this, observing instead that “The Cynics were the most ascetic of the post-Socratic philosophers” (9) and that the Stoics “abandoned the rigorous asceticism of the Cynics” (11). More worrisome is his misleading characterization of Stoic ethics. Irvine writes that “[a]ccording to the Stoics, the best way to have a good life is to pursue virtue, and the best way to pursue virtue is to… ‘live in accordance with nature’” (10). Rather, the Stoics maintained that the only way to have a good life was to pursue and attain virtue, and the only way to do this was to consistently live in accordance with nature. Irvine accurately reports that living in accordance with nature requires behaving in a rational manner and controlling our emotions. Yet he again distorts Stoic doctrine by softening and misrepresenting their position on the emotions, attributes to the Stoics the view that a person who is given to fits of anger, fear, envy, lust, or despair “is unlikely to have a good life” (10). Rather, anger, fear, envy, lust, and despair make a good life impossible for the person afflicted by any such pathological emotional states. For the Stoics, the virtuous life is the only good life, and the only virtuous emotional states are joy (χαρά), caution (εὐλάβεια), and rational wishing (βουλήσις). .
In the first “Lecture” of Part One Musonius argues that the philosophy teacher should not present many arguments but rather should offer only a few, clear, practical arguments oriented to his listener and couched in terms known to be persuasive to that listener. In the second lecture Musonius explains that though everyone is naturally disposed to live without error and has the capacity to be virtuous, someone who has not actually learned the skill of virtuous living cannot be expected to live without error any more than someone who is not a trained doctor, musician, or helmsman could be expected to practice those skills without error. In the third lecture Musonius contends that women should study philosophy because they need the same virtues as men. In lecture four he argues that daughters ought to get the same education as sons since there is only one type of human virtue. In the fifth lecture Musonius argues that practice is more important than theory because the former more effectively leads us to action than the latter. Lecture six contains his argument that since a human being is made of body and soul, he should train both, but the latter demands greater attention. In lecture seven Musonius argues that since we acquire all good things by pain, the person who refuses to endure pain all but condemns himself to being worthy of nothing good.
The eighth lecture recounts the advice Musonius offered to a visiting Syrian king. A king must possess self-control, frugality, modesty, courage, wisdom, magnanimity, the ability to prevail in speech over others, the ability to endure pain, and must be free of error. Philosophy, Musonius avers, is the only art that provides all such virtues. To show his gratitude the king offered Musonius anything he wanted, to which the Stoic teacher asked only that the king adhere to the principles set forth.
To a person complaining about his exile Musonius explains why exile is no evil. After all, a philosopher scorns even death! Then Musonius defends the position that farming is a suitable occupation for a philosopher and no obstacle to learning or teaching essential lessons.
A group of lectures are on sexual matters, marriage, and family. Musonius insists that only those sexual acts aimed at procreation within marriage are right. He argues that there must be companionship and mutual care of husband and wife in marriage since its chief end is to live together and have children. Spouses should share everything in common. Since marriage is obviously in accordance with nature, Musonius rejects the objection that being married gets in the way of studying philosophy. Indeed, he asserts that anyone who deprives people of marriage destroys family, city, and the entire human race. Having many children is beneficial and profitable for cities while having few or none is harmful. Poverty, Musonius scolds, is no excuse for raising many children. It is much better to have many siblings than to have many possessions.
The “Sayings” offer some further thoughts. To refuse to obey a shameful, blameworthy command of a parent is just and blameless. The best thing during old age is to live for virtue. Moreover, the good man lives without regret and according to nature by accepting death fearlessly and boldly in his old age. The Stoic diet is lacto-vegetarian since these foods are least expensive and most readily available: raw fruits in season, certain raw vegetables, milk, cheese, and honeycombs. He holds that culinary pleasure is undoubtedly the most difficult pleasure to combat. Luxurious living is unvarnished injustice.
The final text in this slender volume, the second appendix, is a long letter from Musonius to an addressee named Pankratides. This little-known letter contains an excellent summary of Musonius’s philosophy, thus making it a fine inclusion in, and conclusion to, this handy book.
1. An exception is J. T. Dillon, Musonius Rufus and education in the good life: A model of teaching and living virtue. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2004.
2. Cora Lutz, Musonius Rufus: “The Roman Socrates” Yale Classical Studies 10 (1947): 32–147. In addition, fragments #3, 5, 14, 15, and 38 appear in Brad Inwood and Lloyd P. Gerson eds., The Stoics Reader: Selected Writings and Testimonia. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2008: 177–185.
3. Author of A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Oxford University Press, 2009.