Some notes on Musonius Rufus

C. Musonius Rufus (c. 30-100 AD) was a Stoic philosopher of the reign of Vespasian.[1]  He belongs to the group of four Roman Stoics which comprises Seneca, Epictetus (who was a pupil of Musonius Rufus), and Marcus Aurelius.[2]  He has been referred to as “the Roman Socrates”.[3] Naturally he spent time in gaol under Nero, and was exiled under Vespasian.

It is not clear whether he actually composed any works of his own, and none have come down to us directly.  Philostratus tells us that a biography existed, of doubtful quality.[4]

However a collection of lectures, written down by his pupil Lucius (as we learn from Lecture 5), certainly existed.  For in the Anthology of Stobaeus – itself not perfectly preserved, but attested in a number of manuscripts – we find long extracts, some twenty-one lectures, given under the name of Musonius Rufus, in books 2, 3 and 4.  This material was first gathered only in 1822 by the Dutch scholar, I. V. Peerlkamp.  An English translation can be found partially online at Archive.org here.

In addition some thirty-two sayings, anecdotes and precepts is preserved in Stobaeus, Epictetus, Aulus Gellius, and Aelius Aristides.  Some of this material may come from a collection of reminiscences of Musonius Rufus, listed in the Suda under the name of the Augustan writer Asinus Pollio (and so wrong; but perhaps his contemporary Annius Pollio, or the Hadrianic Valerius Pollio was the original name).  An example:

On the assassination of Galba someone said to Rufus, “Can you now hold that the world is ruled by divine Providence?” To which he replied, “Did I ever for a moment build my argument, that the world is ruled by a divine Providence, upon Galba?”

There is also an exchange of letters, quoted by Philostratus, which does not seem to be authentic; and a letter to Pancratides, first translated by Cynthia King, which may be a writing exercise.  I noticee that it takes a different line to the Lectures on the question of whether to have many children.

How accurately the ideas of Musonius Rufus are transmitted we cannot know.  Since the Lectures appear only in extracts in an anthology from Christian times, it is entirely possible that only the more Christian ideas appear.  After all, any sensible author, however keen on the writer he is quoting, would naturally omit ideas that were entirely offensive to the reader unless he proposed to combat them as such.  So we must read these extracts with caution.

I came to read about Musonius Rufus after discovering online a short article by professional atheist Dr Richard Carrier on the subject here, and to whom I am grateful for causing me to look into the matter.

Of course he has his constituency to address.  Thus he asserts that Musonius Rufus was, in his opinion, the moral superior of Jesus Christ.  It does not seem to have attracted much attention from his intended audience, probably because, although one sees occasional attempts, the ploy of claiming superior morality to Christians is not much in vogue in an age so dedicated to vice and debauchery as our own.  But let people think what they will: if it causes even one person to read so obscure an author as Musonius Rufus, then that is a good thing.

He begins as follows:

Since this man deserves far more publicity than he has ever gotten in the modern age, I have written this short essay. He exemplifies the sort of man who should have been venerated and made the founder of a world religion, but was not, yet he was the moral superior in my opinion to Jesus–not perfect, but admirable within the context of his own day.

The article seems fair enough as a guide to Musonius.  As a specimen of anti-Christian writing, however, it is not very good.  It is one of the “finger-print” characteristics of hate-writing that those attacked must have no redeeming quality whatever.  They must be all black, all vile.  And this is somewhere at the bottom of the attitudes expressed by Dr. C., for the article is designed to attack the idea of “Jesus the moral leader”.  The ploy of promoting some nobody as the rival of a well-known figure, purely in order to diminish the latter, is an old trick of polemic as we all know, and need not detain us.  We need not suppose that Dr C. actually intends to follow the precepts of Musonius Rufus himself!

But since Dr C. does not in fact take Musonius Rufus as his guide in life, whatever his claims for him, he has no scruple in writing the following passage:

Although many of his views are remarkably progressive for his time, being for example a strong advocate for the education and extension of equal rights to women (Discourses 3 and 4), he regarded homosexuality as unnatural and monstrous, and all forms of recreational sex of any kind as immoral (Discourse 12), and opposed abortion (Discourse 15).

Quite so.  Musonius is “morally superior” to Jesus; but how inferior, how sadly inferior, morally, to the campaigners of the Selfish Generation with their advocacy of fornication, unnatural vice and infanticide!  What value, then, does Dr C. place on Musonius Rufus and his supposed moral superiority?  Sadly not much, it would seem.

Yet Musonius Rufus could have told Dr C. a few things about morality to which he would have been well-advised to listen.  So could Jesus of Nazareth.  So, indeed, could very many of the ancient philosophers.  Few of them would have had much time for the values and ideas of our day, and the worthless people who advocate them.  But the core of Christian teaching is not in its moral precepts.  It is merely that, in our age, it is only the Christians who uphold morality when the influential open their mouths against it.

It is also a little surprising that Dr C. does not seem to know that the moral teachings of Jesus are not unique, and may be found among many authors who lived before the latter walked the earth.  Those who read about the Natural Law tell us that morality is not something invented, but something which is known to all men, in every age, even if they consistently fall short of it.  Cicero On Duties makes fine reading.  Of course carrying the advice out is rather more difficult.

Never mind.  From my own point of view, it was nice to discover another ancient writer.  Let’s have some more examples of what he has to say:

” Musonius,” Herodes said, “ordered a thousand sesterces to be given to a beggar of this sort who was pretending to be a philosopher, and when several people told him that the rascal was a bad and vicious fellow, deserving of nothing good, Musonius, they say, answered with a smile, ‘Well then he deserves money!'”

Anyone who has read Diogenes Laertius will recognise that philosophy was beset with charlatanry.

In this category belongs the man who has relations with his own slave-maid, a thing which some people consider quite without blame, since every master is held to have it in his power to use his slave as he wishes. In reply to this I have just one thing to say: if it seems neither shameful nor out of place for a master to have relations with his own slave, particularly if she happens to be unmarried, let him consider how he would like it if his wife had relations with a male slave. Would it not seem completely intolerable not only if the woman who had a lawful husband had relations with a slave, but even if a woman without a husband should have? And yet surely one will not expect men to be less moral than women, nor less capable of disciplining their desires, thereby revealing the stronger in judgment inferior to the weaker, the rulers to the ruled. In fact, it behooves men to be much better if they expect to be superior to women, for surely if they appear to be less self~controlled they will also be baser characters. What need is there to say that it is an act of licentiousness and nothing less for a master to have relations with a slave? Everyone knows that.

This would be an unusual opinion in antiquity, and the practice of abusing slaves was only criminalised with Constantine.  Indeed even freed slaves were generally thought to owe their masters such “services”, even if the unfortunate Quintus Haterius managed to overstate the case.

He said that he himself would never prosecute anyone for personal injury nor recommend it to anyone else who claimed to be a philosopher. For actually none of the things which people fancy they suffer as personal injuries are an injury or a disgrace to those who experience them, such as being reviled or struck or spit upon. Of these the hardest to bear are blows.

This too has much common sense.  Let me commend, then, the reading of Musonius Rufus.

  1. [1]Text edited by Hense, Teubner, 1905, online at Archive.org here.  English translation by Cora E. Lutz, Musonius Rufus: “The Roman Socrates”, Yale Classical Studies 10, 1947.  Partially online at Archive.org here.  New English translation by Cynthia King, Musonius Rufus: Lectures & Sayings, Createspace 2011.
  2. [2]I owe this information to the BMCR review of Cynthia King’s translation, online here.
  3. [3]R. Hirzel, Der Dialog, Leipzig 1895, II, p.239; via Cora E. Lutz, p.4.
  4. [4]Apollonius of Tyana, V. 19.