Review: That One Should Disdain Hardships

Musonius Rufus, Gaius. That One Should Disdain Hardships: The Teachings of a Roman Stoic. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2020. (Link to publisher)

Here is a thought experiment to amuse you in quarantine. How long would you stay inside for a million dollars? 

Could you last two weeks? A month? 

Now, how long would you stay inside to save a life? 

If the answer is that you would spend less time indoors to save a life than you would be willing to spend indoors for money, the first century Roman philosopher Musonius Rufus would like a word. “When we see acrobats face without concern their difficult tasks and risk their very lives in performing them,” he asked listeners, as reported in this reissue of a classic translation, “turning somersaults over upturned swords or walking ropes… all of which they do for a miserably small recompense, shall we not be ready to endure hardship for the sake of complete happiness?” If people are willing to go to endless trouble for money, notoriety, or sex, the philosopher wondered, why not for virtue? 

Maybe you will argue that saving another’s life is a lesser source of happiness than receiving a large sum of money. If that is the case, you can stop now. This book is not for you. It is probably the case that there are no books for you and you should just go shopping instead of reading this. If you agree that sacrifice for the greater good of another is worth more than sacrifice for your own fleeting pleasures, you’re already a long way to understanding what Musonius wanted his students to know. This book is for you.

It feels strange to indulge in the reading of stoic philosophy while so many of my peers, friends, and colleagues worry themselves to the core over the stock market and the novel coronavirus, but it is perhaps at times like these that the pursuit of the perfection of reason is most needed. Boethius, for example–that’s another philosopher, who lived much later than Musonius and found himself on the wrong side of a political feud in Theodoric’s court–found strength against certain, terrible death in the consolation of philosophy. Captured and brought low, weeping alone in his cell, Boaethius was surprised to see philosophy enter the room, personified as a woman. After his “nurse” Philosophy wiped away Boaethius’ tears, “I drank in the clear air of heaven,” he exclaimed, and the two conversed until the philosopher-politician’s long night of the soul was over and he could face his Ostrogothic executioner with courage. 

Our times are not as brutal as Boethius’ times, but these are the strangest days I have ever known. Most of us alive today in the United States were born in a time of extreme cynicism, and most of our institutions glorify the modern meaning of the term–that individuals are motivated primarily by self-interest, and that this is good. We were born as well under the shadow of a strange inversion of ancient cynicism. We were born in the time of greedy dogs. 

Ancient cynics argued that the pursuit of eudaimonia was the chief end of philosophy. Actually, they thought it was the primary goal of humanity. Eudaimonia is one of those complicated words that doesn’t quite have a match in English. The closest we can come to it is happiness, but eudaimonia is not just any kind of happiness. Eudaimonia is the kind of happiness that comes from living the good life, a life of virtue. To get there, ancient philosophers argued, one needed to live the right way–a philosophical life, of course–but what a philosophical life was supposed to be like changed over time. 

Before the stoics, there were the cynics. We don’t have a great match for eudaimonia in English, but we do for cynic. The word comes from the Greek term κυνικός, or kynikos, which means “dog-like.” The cynics believed that one should live free of attachments and, as a result, free of shame. One of the most famous cynics, Diogenes, lived in the market like a dog. He slept in a big jar, is supposed to have defecated wherever he pleased, and masturbated in public. He wandered around carrying a lamp in the middle of the day looking for an “honest man.” We know his type well, I think. Diogenes was a troll. Unlike our trolls, though, Diogenes would choose life over money. Our dogs are greedy. 

Diogenes and the other dogs in the market. Diogenes Sitting in his Tub by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1860)

The stoics shared Diogenes’ belief that virtue was better expressed through action than theory, but held that ethics, rather than asceticism, paved the path to virtue. This book brings together 53 lectures and fragments from one of stoicism’s lesser lights, but Cora Lutz’s 1947 translation still sparkles. Stoic ethics are on fine display here.

Modern readers are likely to find Musonius a bit conservative on one hand, but may be surprised by the topics this man of the first century CE lectured upon. He argued for the sanctity of marriage, railed against abortion, and one even finds–if read in a certain key–echoes of our contemporary debate over children’s vaccines:

“If a father who is not a physician and not experienced in matters of health or sickness should prescribe for his invalid son something which was harmful and injurious, and the son was aware of that fact, surely in not following his father’s prescription he is not disobeying and is not disobedient, is he?” 

“Must One Obey One’s Parents Under All Circumstances?”

On the other hand, Musonius argued that women should be trained in philosophy as well as men. He lectured kings on their philosophical duty. He advocated for a simple, pastoral life. He offered opinions on haircuts, beards, furniture. Philosophy in the ancient world was an all-encompassing domain, a pursuit that Musonius and his counterparts placed on a level above skilled professions, like practicing medicine or piloting a ship.

“men who enter the other professions have not had their souls corrupted beforehand and have not learned the opposite of what they are going to be taught, but the ones who start out to study philosophy have been born and reared in an environment filled with corruption and evil, and therefore turn to virtue in such a state that they need a longer and more thorough training.”

“On Training”

Ultimately, Musonius was concerned with embracing the “true good,” and it is this pursuit which resonates most clearly with me in this plague year. The groaning multitudes on Twitter, on television, on facebook, pull a rhetorical rope back and forth across an ideological divide, twisting every event, every shade of meaning, into tools to aid their political struggle. Who among them is right? I know how I would answer, but the voice of the stoic calls not so fast! “[T]ake the common man,” Musonius inveighs. “[W]hen asked whether he is stupid or intelligent, not one will confess to being stupid; or again, when asked whether he is just or unjust, not one will say that he is unjust.” He continues,

“In the same way, if one asks him whether he is temperate or intemperate, he replies at once that he is temperate; and finally, if one asks whether he is good or bad, he would say that he is good, even though he can name no teacher of virtue or mention any study or practice of virtue he has ever made. Of what, then, is this evidence if not of the existence of an innate inclination of the human soul toward goodness and nobleness, and of the presence of the seeds of virtue in each one of us?”  

“That Man is Born with an Inclination toward Virtue”

Musonius argued, two thousand years ago, that the perfection of reason was the means by which one could water and fertilize these seeds. This slim volume of lectures and fragments may not be the fertilizer you need, but it is a valuable contribution to any philosophical library.