Review of Musonius Rufus: Lectures and Sayings, translated by Cynthia King. Available for purchase here.
By Shmuel Ben-Gad
Is it time for Stoicism to make a comeback? In my humble opinion, this new translation, by an emerita classics professor, of all the extant words of the first century Roman Stoic sage Caius Musonius Rufus is the publishing event of the year.
Stoicism, one of the four major ancient Greek philosophical schools, has had a great influence upon Western civilization, though mostly indirectly since the West became Christian. Stoicism was a major presence in the Roman Empire at the time Christianity arose, and some of the Church fathers were influenced by it. It was through their writings, in fact, that Stoicism’s approach to moral issues became quite influential in Christendom.
Fortunately, we are not limited to secondhand accounts of Stoicism—we have writings or lecture notes of four Roman stoic philosophers. Undoubtedly the best known is the Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. It is a great book by a noble man. Still, the emperor is addressing himself rather than others, and this may be one reason for the book’s somewhat labored –even, at times, melancholy—quality.
The letters and essays of the politically prominent Seneca are perhaps the next best known. According to some accounts, Seneca’s life sometimes diverged rather widely from the Stoic doctrine he preached.
Another prominent Stoic, the freed slave Epictetus, was a student of Rufus. Four of the eight volumes of Epictetus’s discourses transcribed by his student Arrian survive, and the Enchiirdion (“handbook”), a compilation of extracts from his talks, offers a concise, systematic summary of Stoic morality. Unfortunately, the ardent personality of Epictetus is completely absent from the book.
For some reason I cannot fathom, Musonius Rufus seems to be the least known these days, at least in the English-speaking world. English translations of him are few and far between. Why this should be, as I say, is a mystery to me. His words that have come down to us are less repetitive than Epictetus’ discourses, though this may well be due to the fact that fewer of his lectures survive and that those that do might well be nothing but excerpts. Rufus, however, is an attractive figure and more inspiring than Seneca.
Rufus is modest without being uncertain and earnest without being ponderous. He was no stranger to suffering, having been sent into exile thrice. I think he must have been an excellent father and teacher, simultaneously demanding and encouraging. “Each and every one of us is disposed by nature to live without error and honorably,” is how his opens second lecture opens. Yet he does not expect the mass of people to live excellently, and he knows that virtue requires constant effort.
In other words, he is neither morose nor mawkish when contemplating human nature and its possibilities. Like the other three major Roman Stoic figures, Rufus’ concern seems mainly to be morality rather than metaphysics or logic. His lectures are very practical and deal with some subjects a modern does not necessarily expect from a moralist, such as diet and cutting one’s hair.
Although this collection is not a systematic introduction to Stoic morality, the main themes are all there: the importance of realizing that the only good is virtue and the only evil is vice and that other supposed goods (such as wealth) and evils (e.g., illness) are actually mere pleasantness and unpleasantness; the importance of reason and restraint in making personal choices; that virtue is the only path to human happiness; and the importance of self-reliance.
For Rufus, “philosophy is nothing but the practice of noble behavior”—a sentiment from which contemporary American society could benefit greatly, and one that accords with Christian and Jewish moral thinking.
Stoicism provides, in my view, a sound moral discipline. For those interested in learning more about this philosophy, I would suggest beginning with this volume, because it shows what a fully-lived Stoic life was (and is) like. One should then turn to the Enchiiridion of Epictetus for a more systematic summary.