The name Gaius Musonius Rufus may not sound familiar, but the work of “the foremost stoic of his day,” as Roman historian Tacitus prefers referring to him, will. Musonius’s influence in Stoicism was and is substantial. Equally so is the praise spoken in his name by those who were well familiar with it. Origen, himself called the greatest genius the early church ever produced, wrote in his defense of Christianity, Contra Celsum, that there were two men whose lives everyone else should model theirs – Socrates and Musonius. The Roman Emperor, nearly three centuries after Musonius lived, Julian, wrote in a Letter of unexplainable admiration of Theodorus, comparing his display of “a clear proof of the philosophic mind” amidst indisputably unfair treatment, to that of Musonius’s. And not to be outdone, in Gregory Hays’ introduction to his translation of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, makes an important rebuttal for criticism related to all the wealth the Roman Stoics enjoyed. That rebuttal was in the form of clarifying what was more common of a Stoic’s financial standing,
“Not all stoics were wealthy senators. There was another kind of Stoic exemplar as well: the outsider whose ascetic lifestyle won him the admiration of his wealthier contemporaries and enabled him to criticize the pretenses of upper-class society with real authority. An early example of the type is Gaius Musonius Rufus, a member of the Roman administrative class, the so-called knights (equites), who was banished by both Nero and Vespasian.” (xxiv)
Exiled three times in all, Musonius’s unbreakable devotion to his Stoic beliefs and his steady though unaccompanied opposition to the emperor Nero’s ruthless behavior, earned his undivided reverence. The man that refused to obey Nero, we’re equally indebted to his contrarian view of exile. In his time, death would have been favored — preferable to control your circumstances than surrender to the command of another, or so most perceived. Even Thrasea, Musonius’s sometimes anti-Nero ally, would say, “I would sooner be killed today than banished tomorrow,” in his moments of yielding to compliance. Musonius was perplexed but unpersuaded by such an opinion,
“If you choose death because it is the greater evil, what sense is there in that? Or if you choose it as the lesser-evil, remember who gave you the choice. Why not try coming to terms with what you have been given?”
Musonius stood firm in his belief that having everything taken from you just meant you were left with the only things you needed: your soul, your body, your mind. With those three things, exile is far from an evil; it’s an opportunity. An opportunity for one’s own cultivation. An opportunity to practice virtue, controlling what one can, maintaining indifferent of possessions, making a choice. His choice was to accept banishment as an opportunity to use what Stoicism taught him, to not talk in theory but display in action. And after the deaths of both Nero and Vespasian, Musonius returned to his native land, soon becoming a prominent teacher of Stoicism. His fundamental teaching: practice trumps theory.
Some of his lessons survive, thanks to two of his students, Lucius and Pollio, in Lectures and Fragments, where frequent he analogizes Stoicism to other learned skills. He relates it to the musician who can regurgitate any book on the topic but never stopped to actually play an instrument, versus the musician who never put down his instrument to pick up a book. Or the ship captain who has steered countless boats though can’t precisely recite the operator’s manual, while the other did memorize the manual though never piloted a ship. Or the physician who’s depth of medical knowledge in dialogue impresses but they’ve never tended to a patient, and the other who couldn’t lead discussion groups but heals the sick every day in accordance with the correct medical theories those groups might discuss. Musonius did teach stoic philosophy, but students gathered more because the lecturer, long before proclaiming the virtue in Stoicism, practiced it without deviating even when stripped of life and banished without good reason. His students listened with great intent because he spoke from great experience.
The name of at least one of those students will sound familiar. Epictetus, who along with Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, make up the Big Three of Stoic Philosophers. The biography written inside Epictetus’s Discourses, details how once enslaved, Epictetus became a widely regarded teacher. Musonius Rufus receives much of the credit. A slave granted infrequent, brief liberation, Epictetus spent whatever freedom afforded him attending Musonius’s lectures. The influence Musonius had on Epictetus is both explicitly stated and implicitly evident in his teaching. Both men concentrated on ethics without distracting in ethical theorizing, more focused on real-life application. And both, though having forgivable reasons to react in anger or with hatred, found strength from within when life was unjustly difficult.
“Musonius used to test me by saying, ‘Your master is going to afflict you with some hardship or other.’ And when I would answer, ‘such is life,’ he would say, ‘Should I still intercede with him when I can get the same things from you? For in fact it is silly and pointless to try to get from another person what one can get for oneself. Since I can get greatness of soul and nobility from myself, why should I look to get a farm, or money, or some office, from you? I will not be so insensible of what I already own.” – Epictetus
Musonius first outlasted banishment and the very tenets he so steadfastly employed later guided his student, Epictetus, and his response to and overcoming of enslavement. We, not just Epictetus, owe Musonius tremendous amounts of gratitude. Consider, if Musonius engaged the influences of popular opinion and precedent, he wouldn’t have withstood the manipulations of the tyrannical and deranged Nero, he would have rathered death than exile, or when exiled, he would not have returned to the place where he endured so much cruelty, violence, and political gridlock. Had Musonius yielded to Nero, chosen death, or opted to live out his years happily removed from Rome and its turbulences — any one of which historians still would pardon without hesitancy — his teaching career never happens. Where, then, would Epictetus have gone when his master allowed him momentary freedom? It’s Musonius we can thank for the work of Epictetus. Therefore, it is Musonius too we can thank for the work of Marcus Aurelius. In the first book of his Meditations, titled “Debts and Lessons,” Marcus thanks one of his philosophy teachers, Rusticus, “for introducing me to Epictetus’s lectures – and loaning me his own copy.”
Musonius Rufus set the standard for many core Stoic principles: Amor Fati, Premeditatio Malorum, Obstacles as Opportunity, training perception, controlling what you can control, while indifferent to everything else. These, at varying degrees, can all be traced to the kind of life Musonius lived then taught. Below are three themes recurring among any still discoverable text he’s mentioned:
On Practice and Theory
“When the problem arose for us [his students] whether habit or theory was better for getting virtue — if by theory is meant what teaches us correct conduct, and by habit we mean being accustomed to act according to this theory — Musonius thought habit to be more effective.” From Lectures.
The Roman Stoics, in hopes of making progress in the art of living, emphasized habitual behavior. “We are a product of our habits,” they’d say. Musonius was the forebearer of taking what you learned from books or admirers and putting it in practice – the only way a good habit can form. And in making habitual a virtue, he had this to say,
“Virtue is not simply theoretical knowledge, but it is practical application as well…So a man who wishes to become good not only must be thoroughly familiar with the precepts which are conducive to virtue but must also be earnest and zealous in applying these principles.” – Musonius Rufus, Lectures.
Courage can’t simply be something you read about, notes thoroughly kept, then suddenly what before seemed dreadful is no longer feared. No, courage is claimed only through diligent displays where proving unmoved in the face of danger. That goes the same for temperance, prudence, patience, any Stoic virtue hoped to be groomed into a habit.
On Money and Materials
“That God who made man provided him food and drink for the sake of preserving his life and not for giving him pleasure, one can see very well from this: when food is performing its real function, it does not produce pleasure for man, that is in the process of digestion and assimilation.” – Musonius Rufus
Musonius, if presented the choice, said he would rather be sick than to live luxuriously. Sickness only harms the body. Living in luxury harms the body and the soul. Ask, as he liked to, why am I spending money on this thing? To fulfill a need or for an outward display of extravagance? Society wants us to be fancy, to have expensive things, to one-up that coworker, keep up with the Joneses. Musonius would wave the Joneses on by and use his money to for what’s truly impressive, “How much better is it to be known for doing well by many than for living extravagantly? How much worthy than spending on sticks and stones is to spend on people?” (Lectures, 19.91.26-28). What do you want to be known for? Having nice things or doing good things?
On Having Everything You Need
“Indeed, how could exile be an obstacle to person’s own cultivation, or to attaining virtue when no one has ever been cut off from learning or practicing what is needed by exile?” – Musonius Rufus, Lectures, 9.37.30-31, 9.39.1
Epictetus often said some version of the following, “Philosophy does not claim to secure for us anything outside our control. Otherwise, it would be taking on matters that do not concern it. For as wood is the material of the carpenter, and marble that of the sculptor, so the subject matter of the art of life is the life of self.” Even a skim through his teacher’s Lectures makes obvious that Musonius’s model of always being content with one did have rather than mulling over what one could have, became a significant, shared belief of Epictetus.
Musonius’s practice of severe self-discipline and abstention from all forms of indulgence became a trait even the wealthy envied. Musonius wasn’t born to fabulous wealth nor did he seek to acquire fabulous wealth. There’s that fable of the fisherman returning to shore with his small rowboat filled with fish. He’s approached by a businessman with an offer that promises the fisherman great successes if they start a company, get a bigger boat, catch more fish, build a grand distribution facility. In a few short years, the businessman assures, he’ll have a mansion and not long after that, they’ll take the company public; the fisherman will be filthy rich, he’ll be able to finally retire and spend the rest of his years fishing. The fisherman is confused, “Isn’t that what I am doing now?” For the fisherman, like Musonius, seeking material pleasures only stole time from pursuing where life’s pleasures actually lived: the self.
The obscurity which has dimmed the name of Musonius Rufus is one of the great historical accidents. The testimonial of ancient writers lends to the realization that Musonius was indeed one of the most significant figures of his time. A wildly more captivating luminary than his surviving works enable us to be made aware, Musonius Rufus should here forward be a name mentioned among Great Stoics like Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus.
Gaius Musonius Rufus Quotes:
“If you accomplish something good with hard work, the labor passes quickly, but the good endures; if you do something shameful in pursuit of pleasure, the pleasure passes quickly, but the shame endures”
“We begin to lose our hesitation to do immoral things when we lose our hesitation to speak of them.”
“The human being is born with an inclination toward virtue.” Musonius Rufus
“What good are gilded rooms or precious stones-fitted on the floor, inlaid in the walls, carried from great distances at the greatest expense? These things are pointless and unnecessary-without them isn’t it possible to live healthy? Aren’t they the source of constant trouble? Don’t they cost vast sums of money that, through public and private charity, may have benefited many?”
“You will earn the respect of all if you begin by earning the respect of yourself. Don’t expect to encourage good deeds in people conscious of your own misdeeds.”
“For mankind, evil is injustice and cruelty and indifference to a neighbor’s trouble, while virtue is brotherly love and goodness and justice and beneficence and concern for the welfare of your neighbor.”
“For what does the man who accepts insult do that is wrong? It is the doer of wrong who puts themselves to shame-the sensible man wouldn’t go to the law, since he wouldn’t even consider that he had been insulted! Besides, to be annoyed or angered about such things would be petty-instead easily and silently bear what has happened, since this is appropriate for those whose purpose is to be noble-minded.”
“Wealth is able to buy the pleasures of eating, drinking and other sensual pursuits-yet can never afford a cheerful spirit or freedom from sorrow.”
“Just as there is no use in medical study unless it leads to the health of the human body, so there is no use to a philosophical doctrine unless it leads to the virtue of the human soul.”