Book Review – The Teachings of a Roman Stoic by Musonius Rufus

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That One Should Disdain Hardships by Musonius Rufus

If anyone thinks that wealth is the greatest consolation of old age, and that to acquire it is to live without sorrow, he is quite mistaken; wealth is able to procure for man the pleasures of eating and drinking and other sensual pleasures, but he can never afford cheerfulness of spirit nor freedom from sorrow….

Musonius Rufus, Lesson 17

Today’s review is on a classic text that’s hard to avoid when we talk about Stoicism. To be honest, Musonius isn’t on many people’s list of their top 3 Stoics. That’s an honor usually saved for Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus. However, he was an incredibly influential teacher who unfortunately didn’t leave his own writing behind for us to explore. Instead, history has given us the chance to review a written piece by an unnamed student as well as several fragments attributed to Musonius.

I think it’s important to remember that Musonius didn’t write this collection. That means we lose the ability to discern how accurate these notes are to the teacher’s intent, but I do think they show us a fairly decent insight into how the Romans viewed the role of philosophy in the first century. Philosophy existed as system to reinforce order in Roman society. Purpose was derived from how your actions benefited the greater good—which really means the Empire. Keep this in mind as you read.

The author relies heavily on the use of logical proofs to demonstrate the validity of his viewpoint. That means that we see some errors as modern readers that may not have been so obvious 2000 years ago. Namely, today we can see the flaw in drawing conclusions based on how we feel the universe should operate. We are less likely—I hope—to justify our actions and beliefs by claiming we’re following the “will of the gods” or some humanized concept of Nature.

We look for truth and let facts challenge our understanding of how the world works. We recognize that our perspective and beliefs significantly influence our reasoning. We also acknowledge that historically we have attempted to create systems and cultures that reinforced our understanding of how we wanted the world to work. It is against those systems of ingrained thinking that we now fight to overcome ancestral bias. Patriarchal cultures tend to create systems that enforce male authority. Theocratic cultures tend to create systems that reinforce religious autonomy. If we’re not aware of our cultural influences, how can we ensure we are not unjustly influenced by them?

This collection responds to 21 practical questions from students on how we can live our best lives in ancient Rome. The goal of each lesson was not to present perfect and logical deconstructions of life, but to present a basic and very high level validation on why we should live our lives in the Stoic manner. In many ways, the ultimate justification relied on the presupposition that 1. the gods exist (a definite belief in the Roman era) and 2. that you can decipher their will by observing Nature.

Although there are some great lessons on the value of living in accord with Stoic principles in this text—many, many, many assumptions are flawed due to the historical beliefs of the period. Some very hot topics from millennia ago are bound to still wrinkle noses today. All I can say is that I clearly disagree with Musonius’ arguments on sexuality, vegetarianism, marriage and reproductive rights. I’m sure I’m forgetting a few more issues that didn’t get my support as well, but you get my point.

For Musonius, the aim of life is not only to live in accordance with Stoic virtues (principles) that were established by the gods but also to reproduce and continue the legacy of Rome. Both of those foundational tenants are inconsequential to me. I don’t need gods to define what principles I should value. I don’t need to have children to fulfill a responsibility to either the gods or the state.

At least I can take comfort in the fact that Musonius challenges his students to be on their guard against accepting false arguments. Maybe he knew he was limited by the willingness of his audience to hear his message. In the end, though I recommend any Stoic read this seminal work, I’m going to suggest everyone else pass on it.

As for the pupil, it is his duty to attend diligently to what is said and to be on his guard lest he accept unwittingly something false.

Musonius Rufus, Lesson 1

Book Review – The Secret of the Ages (1975 Revised Edition)

It is Mind that rules the world. —R. Collier

This is one of the historic self-help texts you actually want to love before you even start to read it. Unfortunately, the truth is the anticipation in this case was better than the actual experience. It’s funny how often that’s true in life.

You open the book and end up struggling through it—and no matter the ending—you know you’re going to be disappointed. However, my theory this time isn’t to fault the work itself. I’m placing the blame on the revisions in the 1975 edition and not the original 1926 text.

I’ve heard amazing things about the original work, and I can clearly see how this one has started arguments that it was the source material for Napoleon Hill’s classic Think and Grow Rich. I’m not going to contribute to that argument here however. What I can say is that I’ve listened to the original text on Audible and compared it to the 1975 edition I read. There’s clearly a difference which favors the original text. Next, I’ll find a copy of the 1926 edition and write another review on its value as a standalone piece.

Here’s what I can see that really highlights the value this text played in the psychology of positive thinking movement. Collier’s original contribution set the stage for our modern re-obsession with the Law of Attraction mentality. What I appreciate most is the author’s enthusiastic approach to truly driving his formula for success into the mind of the reader.

For Collier, the only limitations men face are the ones they inflict upon themselves through their mental attitudes. Your thoughts then become the gateway to your physical and emotional success in the newly industrialized world of 1926.

Bottom line—avoid this edition and wait for my review on the original text. If you’re a fan of Positive Thinking or the Law of Attraction add this one to your shopping list.

Every Decision Matters

One day of neglect is the beginning of a lifetime of failure.

Joshua Best

We need to be consistently mindful of the choices we make. I’m not talking about the big decisions you’ll make in life. Believe it or not, we can usually muddle through those trials fairly well with the aid of our close friends and family. We tend to make good choices for those momentous occasions in our life.

The real risk lies in the mundane and incessantly boring decisions we are asked to make every day. It’s really all about the daily decisions we mess up that determine how everything else falls into place—quite frankly, it’s the daily screwups and shortcuts we take that will ultimately define us. What we don’t do will have a larger impact on our future than what we accomplish.

When we give in to the desire for comfort and convenience we are making a definitive choice to neglect responsibility. The greatest rewards in life require dedication and hard labor. There are no exceptions. We can’t put off making a decision and expect the world to wait for us. The world moves on whether we’re ready or not, and our poor choices and inaction will quickly overwhelm us if we give them the chance. The danger when we neglect our responsibilities lies in the law of consequential returns. When we make the decision to not live up to the highest standards—even if only for a single day—we begin to build a life based on convenience rather than purpose.

Each decision we make in this life is like tending a garden. When we make responsible decisions to build our success—like exercising, eating healthily and preparing for that meeting—it’s like we’re caring for this garden. You mow the lawn, pull the weeds and trim the hedges. In short, your daily decisions have the power to keep everything in your life well-tended, easily accessible and in its best shape so you can thrive. It’s a great position and destined to make your life more productive.

Now, let’s say you decide to skip this weekend on mowing the lawn. Then, you’re called out of town for a meeting, maybe it rains the following week, or perhaps you catch a cold. Before you know it, you have a field of weeds where a garden once stood. The benches are now hidden in the grass. The rose bushes spread into the hedges, and the flowerbeds are no where to be seen. Your life has gotten more difficult. What would have taken you an hour to mow, will now take you an entire weekend to cleanup. Some will just give up on the garden at this point. Your life, when disorganized and overrun with distractions, is no different than this garden.

That’s the risk you take when you choose convenience. You set the expectation that at some point success is not worth pursuing. Don’t give up. Put in the effort to be your best each day. Don’t procrastinate. Choose to accomplish as much as you can each day. That’s the path to success.