8 Timeless Life Lessons From Musonius Rufus

There is profound wisdom to be found in philosophy. Little tricks and tips for adjusting to uncertainty and adapting to the highs and lows of life. The ancient Stoics were centuries ahead of their time in shining a light on the human condition and Musonius Rufus is a great example.

While not as well known as his student Epictetus or his contemporary Seneca, Musonius has plenty of wisdom to share across the centuries. There are several timeless lessons from him you can put into practice in your own life. 

Who was Musonius Rufus? 

Known as the ‘Roman Socrates,’ Musonius Rufus was a Stoic philosopher and one of the most influential teachers of his era. He was the teacher of Epictetus and a progressive who saw the value of men and women being able to learn philosophy.

Born into a member of the eques (knight) Roman class in 30 C.E, Musonius could have had an advantageous start to life. This is due to the knight class being second only to the senator rank in Rome’s aristocracy.

Yet Musonius had no use for riches or fame. He lived an opposite lifestyle to the Roman elite, dressing humbly and championing moderation. 

As Ryan Holiday writes in Lives Of The Stoics:

“He believed that praise and applause were wastes of time – for both the audience and philosopher. 

“When a philosopher,” he said, “is exhorting, persuading, rebuking, or discussing some aspects of philosophy, if the audience pours forth trite and commonplace words of praise in their enthusiasm and unrestraint, if they even shout, if they gesticulate, if they are moved and aroused, and swayed by the charm of his words, by the rhythm of his phrases, and by certain rhetorical repetitions, then you may know that both the speaker and his audience are wasting their time, and that they are not hearing a philosopher speaking but a flute player performing.”

All of what we know of Musonius comes from lectures and sayings recorded by others. In That One Should Disdain Hardships: The Teachings Of A Roman Stoic, Gretchen Reydams-Schils explains:

“The sources come in two broad categories: first, in the form of a series of lectures (sometimes abridged) recorded allegedly by a certain Lucius, and second, as fragments and sayings as preserved in the works of other authors, among which the fragments attributed to Epictetus are especially valuable because he is a Stoic too.”

It’s in these fragments that Musonius speaks across the ages and here are eight of his most important life lessons:

1. Practice is better than theory

“Theory which teaches how one should act is related to application, and comes first, it is not possible to do anything really well unless its practical execution be in harmony with theory. In effectiveness, however, practice takes precedence over theory as being more influential in leading men to action.”

Musonius was a firm believer in practice over theory. In a lecture that deals with these subjects Musonius tells the story of two physicians. One has the ability to speak beautifully about the art of medicine but has no experience in taking care of the sick.

The other physician isn’t a great speaker but he has the experience to help a sick person. Musonius then asks his interlocutor who would be chosen to attend the ill. The response is the doctor with experience would be chosen. 

This lesson can be applied to being compassionate in the modern day. You can talk about being compassionate but if you don’t actively work to show it in your daily life can you really be considered compassionate?

For example, a business owner might notice a staff member feeling upset and tries to understand the problem. How the employee reacts isn’t in the business owner’s control, but in the act of attempting to make a connection, they are using practice over theory.

2. Treat everyone equally

“Not men alone but women too have a natural inclination towards virtue and the capacity for acquiring it, and it is the nature of women no less than men to be pleased by good and just acts and to reject the opposite of these.

If this is true, by what reasoning would it ever be appropriate for men to search out and consider how they may lead good lives which is exactly the study of philosophy but inappropriate for women?”

Musonius stood out from his contemporaries as wanting to extend the teaching of philosophy beyond men. From this attitude, we can take the idea that everyone is equal and that we must try to empathise with all genders and creeds in the pursuit of virtue. 

Musonius also took a positive view of marriage. In his lecture ‘What Is The Chief End Of Marriage?’ he proposes a good marriage is built on being good to each other instead of being a relationship motivated by beauty, status and wealth.

The philosopher’s conclusion is that a strong marriage is an expression of the highest form of virtue. 

3. Knockbacks will make you stronger 

“Why should anyone who was not devoid of understanding be oppressed by exile? It does not in any way deprive us of water, earth, air or the sun and the other planets, or indeed even the society of men for everywhere and in every way there is opportunity for association with them.”

Musonius was no stranger to knockbacks. He was exiled from Rome and left to rot three times by the emperors Nero and Vespasian and he continued to find ways to thrive and live his philosophy.

A famous example is Musonius’ banishment to the island of Gyara by Nero. Gyara was a harsh, desolate place where the Roman Socrates seized the chance to practice what he preached by being of use to fellow exiles and the people around him.

One source claims that he discovered an underground spring on the island and decided to dig a canal for the benefit of Greece. While the accuracy of these stories is suspect, the wisdom is not. 

Perhaps you’ve lost a client or a relationship has crumbled and it feels like the end of the world. It’s in these moments that you can find ways to be more forgiving with yourself and use it as fuel for building a better character.

4. Suffer towards virtue 

Suffering has negative connotations and Musonius viewed the concept in Stoic terms:

“Acrobats face without concern their difficult tasks and risk their very lives in performing them, turning somersaults over upturned swords or walking ropes set at a great height or flying through the air like birds, where one misstep means death, all of which they do for a miserably small recompense.”

In this analogy, Musonius is stating that an acrobat is ready to endure hardship for the sake of true happiness. This perspective can be interpreted in many ways.

It’s accepting a little bit of pain in the moment to set up a better future for yourself. It’s a willingness to take some knocks and learn how to be a better person. It’s being able to adapt and overcome in a way that is appropriate to the situation.

5. Great leaders are always learning 

Another core element of Musonius’ teachings was that leaders should take up philosophy or dedicate themselves to lifelong learning. 

In an exchange between himself and a Syrian king, Musonius spoke of leaders having self-control, discipline and a natural inclination towards doing good for their people. 

When the king asked what he could give the philosopher in exchange for his advice, Musonius said, “the only favour I ask of you is to remain faithful to this teaching since you find it commendable, for in this way and no other will you best please me and benefit yourself.”

6. Live in accordance with nature at all times 

Once, an old man asked Musonius what the best cure for old age was. Musonius said the best thing for people of all ages is to live in accordance with nature. This concept is at the core of Stoicism and means that we should strive to live in harmony with ourselves, the environment and the universe.

To illustrate his point, Musonius compared human nature to animal nature. For example, we wouldn’t see a dog as having reached its full potential if all it does is indulge in pleasure and doesn’t do the things that are thought to be good by a dog. 

In Musonius’ words, “nothing would be said to be living according to nature but what by its actions manifests the excellence peculiar to its own nature.” 

Musonius concludes that the nature of human beings is to live for virtue and the doing of good acts. 

7. Place value in your inner resources 

Musonius didn’t see wealth in money, fine clothes or fine food. He was even known to mock those who were corrupted by physical riches.

There’s a story of the man awarding a thousand sesterces to a con artist posing as a philosopher. When someone stepped in to say the guy was a liar and unworthy of such a gift, Musonius smiled and said, “money is exactly what he deserves.”

The moral of this story is that wealth can be found within us. It’s a richness of character, of standing by our principles. A surplus of goodwill in other people and recognising that we can control how we react to opinion. 

8. Be willing to pay for your beliefs 

“A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you something.”

This quote comes from the creative art director William Bernbach. It’s a perspective Musonius would approve of.

A proud Stoic, Musonius never gave up his beliefs despite all the hardship he faced. His first exile came about through supporting his friend Gaius Rubellius Plautus, a man who was the target of Nero’s wrath. 

Rather than play it safe or abandon his friend, Musonius accompanied Plautus into his exile in Syria. Years later, he endured exile at the hands of Vespasian. Still, he was unbreakable.

The takeaway is that if you truly believe in something then it doesn’t matter what the cost is. You may lose money. You may lose people who you thought were friends. In the end, it was right for you and that is a priceless lesson.

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