BMCR 2020.09.54

Musonius Rufus. That one should disdain hardships: the teachings of a Roman Stoic

, , Musonius Rufus. That one should disdain hardships: the teachings of a Roman Stoic. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020. xxix, 124 p. ISBN 9780300226034 $22.00.

At hand is a book in small form that offers a slice of something much greater. The edition by Yale University Press imparts its ratio essendi not only through its compact, pleasing format, but also through a series of subtle claims on the dustjacket. First is the subtitle: here are collected “the Teachings of a Roman Stoic.” Clearly, the book addresses those for whom the name Musonius Rufus is either completely opaque or sufficiently vague to merit such placement, the indefinite article underlining the obscurity of the author. The motivation for engaging with such an author is offered on the inside of the dustjacket and confirmed by the endorsements on its back. On the one hand, “an explosion of interest in Stoicism from many quarters” in Kurt Lampe’s appraisal, makes the availability of this source-material imperative. On the other, the collection warrants attention precisely insofar as it exemplifies the impetus of this “explosion”, by offering “guidance today,” according to John Sellars; or, in Liz Gloyn’s words, “a guide to living meaningfully.”

A new edition of his work is thus undeniably welcome. Cora E. Lutz published the first and, until recently, only translation of Musonius into English in 1947; it was accompanied by her introductory study Musonius Rufus “The Roman Socrates.” At the time, this introduction and translation found themselves forming, along with two other essays, vol. 10 of Yale Classical Studies. This did not succeed in putting Musonius on the map. Only in 2011 did the name Musonius Rufus appear for the first time on the cover of an English edition of his works, translated by Cynthia King and edited by William B. Irvine. But, published by CreateSpace, this edition could never reach the audience of a Yale offering. Now, for the first time, an edition of the collected “remains” of Musonius’ teachings addresses an audience beyond that of scholars of Stoicism and indeed beyond that of scholars altogether.

Interestingly, Lutz’s 1947 translation is reissued, along with a moving Note which underlines her significance in Musonius studies (p. xxix). The surprising decision to approach a wider contemporary audience with a 73-year-old rendering of the original text, is surely commendable. Lutz’s prose flows effortlessly, sustaining a very engaging cadence in the rendering of the discourses, while showcasing the sharp terseness of the aphoristic fragments. However, the omission of the original Greek, which in the 1947 edition faced the translation, precludes the reader from tracing various key terms and passages in the Greek. Even interspersing such terms through the text, although it might have seemed arbitrary or disruptive, would have significantly helped those who might turn to the book not only for guidance, but with a keen, if less than professional interest in the history of Stoicism or Greco-Roman philosophy.

Guidance is, however, the avowed aim and perceived merit of the book. In line with this, a new introduction has been written by Gretchen Reydams-Schils, which undertakes to present and situate Musonius’ thought in a more directly thematic manner than Lutz’s aforementioned Musonius Rufus “The Roman Socrates”¾even though the latter, a restrained marvel of scholarship, is acclaimed at the opening of the suggestions for further reading that append this new edition as “one of the best introductions” to Musonius. What the new introduction aims to establish is the contemporary relevance of Musonius. It is accordingly divided into the sections “Musonius Rufus as a Stoic,” “On Women, Marriage and Sociability,” and “Musonius in Action,” along with a general opening section.

This opening section sketches the outline of Musonius’ life and impact (p. viii), emphasising the significance of the biographical for the appreciation of the surviving work (p. ix). Importantly, a explanation is given of the title for this new edition. The title of the seventh out of the twenty-one discourses that together with the thirty-two untitled fragments comprise the slender surviving “corpus” of Musonius, is chosen as a synecdoche for the collection. “That one should disdain hardships” compares the wager of philosophy to that of acrobatics: a false step in the case of the latter means death, yet acrobats accept the risk “for a miserably small recompense”; there is then no excuse for disdaining any hardship when the prize of philosophical practice is “complete happiness” (30). The minor premise necessary to drive the syllogism home is that “in our daily lives we ourselves have actually become acrobats” (p. viii). Even if this is only a “suspicion,” our quotidian predicament is asserted as sufficiently similar to the cut-throat intriguing of Nero’s court to warrant attentiveness to Musonius’ teachings.

The remaining three sections attempt to cement Musonius’ relevance, but no further parallels are drawn to the present. Beginning with “Musonius Rufus as a Stoic,” the philosopher is cast as an exemplar practitioner of the “ethics in action” characteristic of imperial Roman Stoicism (p. ix). Musonius’ idiomatic Stoicism is affirmed as indebted to both Socrates and the Cynics (p. ix), deriving from both an understanding of philosophy as the reasoned search for what is right and the practice of its actualisation (p. x, 71). Even if Musonius recognises the value of logic (p. xi), it must always remain subservient to ethical practice. Plausible as it may be that Musonius taught on physical, metaphysical or epistemological topics, no such teachings survive, and it is doubtful whether they were ever recorded. Musonius is through and through an ethical thinker, offering both a very intense focus on what must count as life’s absolute priorities, yet providing limited theoretic or systematic support for this focus.

This limitation is felt on numerous occasions. One of the most pivotal and perhaps most fascinating theoretical deficits in the extant corpus is the web of instances where “nature,” its cognates and synonyms appear, without ever being theorised. For example, living from the earth is said to be in accord with nature, yet earth, called “mother” and “nurse,” is not directly equated to nature (54). At the same time, the “downward” fall of a stone is attributed to its nature, in direct analogy to the attractive force that will, at the face of any hindrance, lead the nature of the “superior man” to philosophy (113). This web of connotations is deeply entrenched in Greek philosophical vocabulary, yet its loose operation in the extant corpus would be profoundly elucidated by a Musonian treatise on nature, precisely because “nature” is commonly the stratum where most lines of explanation terminate. As it is, a reconstruction of the concept across the corpus is all that can be hoped for.

Indicating all the instances at which the theoretical deficit of the Musonian fragments destabilises the unity of the edifice and undermines its contemporary relevance would require a detailed engagement with the totality of the corpus. My review will remain instead with the two remaining areas covered by the introduction. The third section, “On Women, Marriage and Sociability,” raises the topical questions of gender, cohabitation and procreation. Since the aim of the introduction is to help the reader appreciate the guidance Musonius can offer, Martha Nussbaum’s reservations on Musonius’ “incomplete feminism” are relegated to the suggestions for further reading (123). Instead of such a frontal engagement, deemed perhaps too technical for a popular edition, the introduction marshals a staunch vindication of the principal positions and tactical arguments of Musonius.

Since most of the Stoic treatises on gender and sexuality whose titles we know have not survived, it is hard to assess the originality of Musonius’ pronouncements. There is however little doubt as to how radical they are, something that Michel Foucault already noted in 1984, in the third volume of his History of Sexuality. Radical however as equality in education and an equal claim to virtue, happiness and ability (18) may have been in the Roman world, they are now unassailable principles of liberal democracies, even if they often amount to little more than principles. It is accordingly difficult to mollify the multiple affronts condensed in an admonition such as: “a woman must be a good housekeeper; that is, a careful accountant of all that pertains to the welfare of her house and capable of directing the household slaves” (12). For even if one is prepared to indulge Reydams-Schils’ tenuous argument that the appearance of a “weak form of ‘essentialism’” (xvi) that seems to naturalise and separate the sexes, is nothing more than a pedagogic ruse on Musonius’ behalf, a ruse that “starts from his audience’s common assumptions only to turn these on their head” (p. xvii), it is hard to see what a contemporary audience stands to gain from this double affirmation of subjugation.

It is indicative that even though the above passage is unequivocally invoked in the introduction (p. xvi), the topic of slavery is evaded, a topic of paramount importance for Stoicism, but also for Musonius, whose finest pupil, Epictetus, was a slave. There is also no mention of homosexuality, which Musonius deplores as “a monstrous thing and contrary to nature” (59), worse than the “unlawfulness” of adultery or of any sexual pleasure, whether inside or outside matrimony, that doesn’t aim at procreation (59). As the epistemological charge of something more calcified than a “weak form of ‘essentialism’” (p. xvi) grows increasingly inescapable, one’s trust in Musonius’ ethical guidance may begin to falter.

So it is that, in turning finally to “Musonius in Action,” the concluding section of the introduction, the political question at large appears. For someone like Musonius, the question is theoretical as much as it is practical and indeed biographical. Again, however, when looking for guidance in Musonius’ life and writings, leads are rather unforthcoming. The comedic debacle reported by Tacitus, in which Musonius narrowly escapes being lynched by the soldiers to whom he is preaching the benefits of peace over war (p. xxvi), may be suspected for affirming somewhat too neatly the cliché that accompanies philosophy ever since the stargazing Thales was mocked by the Thracian maid for falling into a ditch; nonetheless, a Musonian political theory is grasping at straws.

In the provocatively titled, “Exile is Not an Evil,” Musonius makes the case for the irrelevance of being cut off from one’s political community. His argument reaches its apex as he turns to his own fate as an exile. Although he was associated with the Pisonian conspiracy of the year 65 and exiled by Nero to Gyaros (Nussbaum spells the name of the island correctly; Reydams-Schils following Lutz gives Gyara), it is unclear whether and how Musonius may have been involved in the attempted coup. The impression is that Musonius’ exile constitutes precisely an afflictive fate; a fate in the face of which the sage is able to preserve equanimity and continue practicing philosophy. Perhaps those who were exiled to Gyaros in the years 1948-1974 could draw strength from this stance. Perhaps however they would be better served by Charles de Gaulle or Dalai Lama. As for today, it is doubtful that, faced with exile, one should turn to Musonius rather than Edward Snowden, or Aung San Suu Kyi.

In sum, the question of what kind of instruction a reader can hope to discover in the text, whether in exceptional or mundane circumstances, remains unanswered. The perennial charge of socio-political acquiescence levelled against Stoicism informs ineluctably all that is pernicious in Musonius; and yet, should acquiescence be cast as equanimity, its effects may be salutary. If, as Mark Fisher diagnosed, “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism,” one may indeed draw solace and strength from Musonius. The suspicion that an impotent longing for the implosion of late capitalism constitutes a major force behind the current explosion of interest in Stoicism is hard to shake. If one seeks guidance in Musonius, much can be found. One will however need a guide to parse such guidance, or one will have to become a guide unto oneself. If Musonius offers answers where Socrates offers questions, one must start by questioning all answers.