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 – Letters from a Stoic by Seneca

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Letters from a Stoic by Lucius Annaeus Seneca

One has to accept life on the same terms as the…crowds, or travel. Things will get thrown at you and things will hit you. Life’s no soft affair. It’s a long road you’ve started on: you can’t but expect to have slips and knocks and falls….

Seneca, Letter CVII

Seneca’s letters are some of the most diverse and well written essays on the development of character that I’ve come across. I admit that I may be a little biased on this point as I’m coming from the perspective of an English Major, MBA graduate and a philosophy enthusiast—AKA nerd. However, at their core, the Stoic theme of self restraint and reliance are undying principles that have the power to enrich our lives in any century. This is the one book that never grows old and always has something powerful to say about the way we live.

I’m not saying that the material isn’t dated and that you won’t come across cultural norms and taboos that aren’t appropriate in the 21st century. This is a period piece and we need to be cognizant of that reality when we look to the author for ancient Roman insights. The lessons are just as applicable today even if the examples are no longer valid. Seneca lived in a different time, and we have to keep that in mind. We should ask ourselves if Seneca were with us today how would his advice and insights be utilized? What new examples would he come up with to share with us?

What I love about Seneca is that his writings can be envisioned as a personal discussion with you about life and the hardships we face. He’s always a firm voice of reason and gives us a new perspective on the ordinary. He really does have something to say on just about everything, and his letters cover a wide range of topics, but here are some highlights.

  • Aging and Mortality
  • Drunkenness and Overindulgence
  • Illness
  • Keeping up with the Joneses
  • Knowledge vs. Wisdom
  • Luxury and Vanity
  • Overcoming Difficulty
  • Planning for the Unexpected

Really, the best feature of Seneca’s letters are that you can read a new one each night and get a pocket sized dose of daily inspiration to help you live your best life. Every letter is only a few pages long and allows you to access new insights daily. Occasionally, he may begin to ramble, but often that can make you laugh as he catches himself in the letter and apologizes for his loss of precision. It’s as close as you can get to talking with a Roman or a Stoic. Bottomline—Add this one to your shelf and keep it handy for some light reading when life looks a little dreary.

Book Review – Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to a More Meaningful Life

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Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to a More Meaningful Life by Massimo Pigliucci

Science provides us with a perspective on the world, not with a God’s-eye view of things. It gives us an irreducibly human, and therefore to some extent subjective—yet certainly not arbitrary—view of the universe.

Massimo Pigliucci

I enjoyed Pigliucci’s piece on “how science and philosophy lead us to a more meaningful life” as a welcome counterattack against the rampant abuse of the psychology of positive thinking we find in the self-help books and guides of today.

If you approach the text with an open mind, I think you will be pleasantly surprised at the new perspective you can gain from his secular, science-based and arguably atheistic interpretation on the meaning of life. You may not agree with Massimo, but that’s okay. What he offers you is an acceptable, logic-based approach to defining the human condition and its search for ethical and moral reason as an innately human endeavor.

Overall, it’s worth the trouble you’ll tackle with some Greek language, semantic reclassifications and academic word choice that always leaves me a little exhausted. It’s still a keeper for my bookshelf.

Full disclosure—if you don’t care for religious criticism you’re not going to like the final chapters. My suggestion is to read this, like you should any book, as a means to learn more about those who don’t share your same views.

Finally, if you’re a fan of philosophy, logic, Stoicism and science as honorable pursuits in the development of character and purpose, add this to your reading list.