September V marked the beginning of the most important Roman Festival of the year, Ludi Romani, in which games and plays were held in honor of the god Jupiter. It’s fitting to commemorate Musonius Rufus (c. 30–102 CE) on this day who was known as the “Roman Socrates.”
For the occasion, I strongly recommend reading one of Musonius’ lectures and using it to think more critically about contemporary issues. A public domain version can be found on The Stoic Life website (https://sites.google.com/site/thestoiclife/the_teachers/musonius-rufus/lectures).
Despite their apparent simplicity in presentation, I think the collected lectures are wonderful to spark conversation and debate. Musonius seems concerned about concrete practical issues facing his students and his readers among the Roman elite—a refreshing alternative to more theory-centered treatises that provide general (and often ambiguous) advice.
In this blog post, I’ll just demonstrate how I personally may struggle with Musonius. He’s not as popular with modern Stoics as his student, Epictetus, but I think that’s because he’s a mixed bag. So let’s stick our hand in and see what we pull out …
Here’s the opening line from his lecture, “Why women also should study philosophy”. This demonstrates why he is often considered a “proto-feminist”—especially compared to his peers:
When someone asked him if women also should study philosophy, he began to teach, along lines like the following, how they should do it. For one thing, he said, women have received from the gods the same reasoning power as men—the power which we employ with each other and according to which we consider whether each action is good or bad, and honorable or shameful. . . . In addition, a desire for virtue and an affinity for it belong by nature not only to men but also to women: no less than men are they disposed by nature to be pleased by noble and just deeds and to censure things opposite these. Since this is so, why would it be appropriate for men but not women to seek to live honorably and consider how to do so, which is what/studying philosophy is? Is it appropriate for men to be good, but not women?Lectures & Sayings 3.1-2 (trans. Cynthia King)
Musonius also has a lecture titled “Whether daughters should get the same education and sons”—Musonius says “of course”— along with lectures about whether kings should study philosophy, whether you should obey your parents about everything, when and when you shouldn’t file a suit against someone else, what food you should and shouldn’t eat, what to do as you enter old age, how you should furnish your house, and how you should cut your hair. Despite what little we have of his words, you can understand how Epictetus was inspired by a man with such forceful opinions.
He also has a couple lectures that I’ve seen modern readers struggle with, especially those with more progressive sentiments. In his lecture titled “What is the chief end of marriage?” Musonius answers the question right away:
He said that the chief end of marriage is uniting to live together and have children. Husband and wife should come together for the following reasons: to live with each other, to have children, and to consider all things as common possessions and nothing as private not even the body itself.Lectures & Sayings 13A.1
This often reminds me of the debates I’d enter around same-sex marriage in the early 2000s. Some say that marriage must be between a man and a woman for the sake of procreation and maintaining a healthy environment for the upbringing of children.
I would disagree with Musonius if he made that argument today. But despite that, I suspect that it has some more force when placed in the context of early Imperial Rome (1st Century CE). Though the city of Rome itself was always crowded, the number of Roman citizens in the Italian peninsula was low (especially in relation to the number of slaves and immigrants), lifespans were relatively low, and child death were high. The barrage of existential crises would have framed legal marriage as a means to foster stability and growth for the state.
Here’s a passage from the lecture titled “On whether all children who are born must be raised” that demonstrates the importance of historical context.
The lawgivers—whose job it was to research and consider what is good for a city and what is bad, what benefits the common good and what harms it—didn’t they all consider it most beneficial for cities that citizens’ households be increased and most harmful for cities that these households be diminished? Didn’t they think it unprofitable for citizens to have few or no children, and didn’t they think it profitable for them to have children and even, by Zeus, to have a lot of them? Because they thought this, they forbade women from inducing miscarriages and established punishment for those who disobeyed, they forbade women from agreeing to be childless and from preventing conception, they honored married couples who had a lot of children, and they punished those who were childless. Wouldn’t we therefore be doing unjust and unlawful things if we acted contrary to the intention of the lawgivers—men who were godlike and beloved by the gods, and whom we must consider it right and advantageous to follow?Lectures & Sayings 15A.1-2
Yes, there are some communities that find it important to have many children and grow for the sake of the community (here is one of the most egregious and morally-suspect instance of it today: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quiverfull), but Musonius Rufus continues his lecture with a slightly different argument. More children and more siblings are good for the individuals, who benefit from establishing such a strong support system. He shifts from an appeal to legal and divine authority (in the passage above) to a virtue ethics argument: yes, the lawgivers condone child-rearing and condemn contraception, but in addition to helping the state prosper, having children (and siblings) will help the individuals prosper. It’s subtle (and perhaps not as explicit as modern readers would like), but Musonius’ main concern as a Stoic must be the individual and individual virtue. He makes this point more clearly with marriage:
The birth of the child which this union will bring about is important. But this cannot be the only motive for marriage since procreation could result from sexual relations apart from marriage, just as when animals mate. In marriage there must be, above all, companionship and care of husband and wife for each other, both in sickness and in health and on every occasion. Each party entering into a marriage desires this, after all, just as they desire children. When this mutual care is complete and those who live together provide it to each other completely, each competes to surpass the other in giving such care. Such a marriage is admirable and deserves emulation; such a partnership is beautiful.Lectures & Sayings 13A.2 (my emphasis)
So marriage is for the purpose of procreation but, above all, to foster companionship and help the individuals nurture the virtues corresponding with healthy social relations. And I would argue that this is the case with having children as well. Childbearing and child-rearing is for the purpose of growing the state and making it stronger but, above all, for the purpose of helping the parents and the would-be siblings. Here’s the last lines of the extant lecture on bearing children:
I myself think that the man who lives with many loyal brothers is most worthy of emulation, and I think that the man who enjoys these blessings is most beloved by the gods. Therefore I think that we should try to leave our children brothers rather than possessions, in order to give them greater chances for blessings.Lectures & Sayings 15B.3
Musonius insists that parents give their children many siblings to save the first-born from inheriting many possessions. Having many possessions will invite jealous “plotters” and may cause more trouble for the individual who has them.
Again, Musonius’ main concern is the individual rather than the state. It’s important to make this distinction because it may help us discuss the option of having children today. If the aim of the individual is in accordance with the aim of the state, there are no issues (this was the case in Musonius’ time). But if there are no longer issues with low populations, short lifespans, and high child deaths, the concern shifts to the individual and their ability to flourish with children. Will having children undermine the parents’ ability to foster and maintain good character? For Stoics, that’s really the only question to ask. But it needs to be answered, ultimately, by the individual.
My analysis isn’t the final analysis obviously, but I hope it invites you, the reader, to think more critically about the ostensibly straightforward lectures that we have from Musonius. There’s certainly more insights to be mined for those who are willing to work for it. You can post below if you have an account, post on our Discord server, or just email me if you want to chat (email@example.com).
– Justin K.