Musonius Rufus on How to Live
© 2012 Ben White
Virtus isn’t just for the men any more. Musonius Rufus is the forgotten Stoic, a man hailed alongside Socrates as nigh-saintly by Origen, but now almost forgotten. More’s the pity, because Rufus didn’t offer just another collection of admonishments to keep in mind what you can control and what you can’t. What works remain of his are simply known as Lectures and Sayings, recorded not by him but by a student. They apply the lessons of philosophy across the entire experience of human existence, giving modern readers a taste for how broad the day to day lessons of the Stoics actually ran — from the meaning of life to proper beard grooming.
The most extraordinary aspect of Rufus’ teaching for the modern reader is that he maintained that philosophy was fit for women as well as men. The pursuit of virtue and the pursuit of manliness, for the Greco-Roman mind, were one in the same; virtue was manliness. Not one to be limited by etymology, Rufus argues that women can profit just as well by philosophy as men. They carry the same inner spark, and the fruits of a philosophically-tamed soul are just as salutatory for a woman as man. Does a woman not need courage to defend her young against those who would harm them? Does she not need clear thinking to balance the household accounts, and does she not need self control to maintain peace in the home, and to protect herself against the same foibles of humanity as her husband?
Rufus does not merely maintain that women can be philosophers, too; given that men and women share the same divine gift, Reason, they can perceive and are thus subject to the same natural law. The same rules apply to everyone, and from them there is no escape. Rufus admonishes men and women alike to practice sex only within the bounds of marriage, and only with one another. Rufus is not a prude; in regards to pleasure, he is consistent across the board. Don’t wear more clothes than you need; excessive protection from the elements only creates a soft, fragile body, and a frail constitution. Rich foods? Nonsense. Fruit, cheese, and vegetables — a simple diet is best. Why build a mansion? You only need shelter from the elements, no need of luxurious colonnades and precious gems. To fill a home with silver is to fill it with worry; no thief would take off with wooden cups and earthenware plates.
Another singular aspect of Rufus is his perception of man as a political animal. While Marcus Aurelius often alluded to man being a social creature, his Meditations are largely counsel to himself; Epictetus’ works are the equivalent of philosophical boot camp, focused on the individual steeling himself for life. Seneca, in his letters counseling friends, is convivial, but he is surpassed by Rufus. There are numerous sections in this book which focus on humans in relationship with one another, with the most important bond being marriage. For Rufus, the family is the cell upon which society is based: marriage not only renews human life, creating new generations, but it provides its members one of the vital lessons of life: we are made for one another. Marriage should be engaged not for looks or money, but to be a companion to another — to love, not merely with passion but with will, with duty. Philosophy is the art of life, and to practice it means to discern man’s duty to his creator, to himself, to his fellows with whom he is made to work alongside.
Although I still plan to read a formal translation of Rufus (Lectures and Sayings, Cynthia King) to make sure that Ben White’s adaptation here is faithful, I thoroughly enjoyed this little book by Rufus. His commitment to a simple, authentic life on all fronts is admirable, more detailed than Epictetus and carrying with it an integrity that Seneca can’t quite muster. Rufus didn’t just write pretty words about how exile was nothing; he practiced it. Like Epictetus, he makes Stoicism and philosophy matter of day to day life, but these lectures here cover more of the practicalities of human existence than Epictetus’ boot camp does. Rufus is both challenging and bracing!
- A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, William Irvine. The definitive Stoic intro.
- Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations, Jules Evans; Plato’s Podcasts, Mark Evans
- The Porch and the Cross, Kevin Vost. Good recap of Rufus, and the reason I was reminded to seek him out.
The other Stoics: