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

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