[Books I’ve read that I think may be of general interest. See also my book club entries under essays.]
Stoicism is rather popular these days. This is, perhaps, not surprising, given that we live in turbulent and unpredictable times, precisely the sort of climate that triggered a flourishing of practical life philosophies during the Hellenistic period during which Stoicism emerged as one of the dominant traditions. That one should disdain hardships: the teachings of a Roman Stoic is a reissue of a translation by Cora E. Lutz of the lectures and sayings of the Roman Stoic Musonius Rufus, which was originally published in 1947 in the Yale Classical Studies series and is now accompanied by a new, very useful introduction by Gretchen Reydams-Schils. It ought to be in the library not only of classics scholars and philosophers but also of anyone seriously interested in the study and practice of Stoicism.
Musonius was born around 20–30 CE in Volsinii, in Etruria, and he died as late as 101 CE. Although he was one of the most influential teachers of Stoicism during the first century, he is nowadays known mostly because of one of his students, Epictetus, the slave-turned-teacher who famously said, “It isn’t death, pain, exile or anything else you care to mention that accounts for the way we act, only our opinion about death, pain and the rest” (Discourses I, 11.33). You can very clearly see Musonius’ influence on Epictetus throughout the collected 21 lectures and assorted fragments. Like Epictetus, Musonius touches on a bewildering variety of topics, often surprisingly practical ones. He discourses not only about training oneself in philosophy, how to tackle exile, and how to educate women, but also about what we should eat, what sort of house we should keep, and even how we should cut our hair!
We are told, for instance, that the philosopher should prefer inexpensive, nutritious food that is easy to find and to prepare. No gourmet meals for the Stoic! Why should that be? Because every time we sit at the table, we have a chance to practice one of the cardinal virtues: temperance (with the other three being practical wisdom, courage, and justice). Temperance is crucial, because intemperate people can hardly be virtuous. Think about that the next time you go grocery shopping!
Arguably, among the most interesting of Musonius’ lectures are the two concerned with the education of women. He is very clear that women possess the same intellectual abilities as men and that moreover a good life for a woman requires the practice of virtue just as in men’s lives. This is remarkably forward- looking for the time, although other Stoics – from the founder of the sect, Zeno of Citium, to the Roman senator Seneca – readily agreed! This does not mean that we can read Musonius, or the Stoics more generally, as feminists in anything like the modern sense of the word. After all, the Roman Stoics in particular (as distinct from their Greek colleagues) thought that sex was reserved strictly for procreation and that it had to be consummated within a marriage. Then again, the point of studying the ancients is not that they got everything right, but rather that they articulated the notion of philosophical inquiry as the art of living, a notion that we are very much in need of still today.
[Get the book here. This review was originally published in The Historian.]