Musonius Rufus*: “On Practicing Philosophy”


‘He gave lectures like this to his companions as he vigorously trained them in their practice of philosophy: virtue, he said, is not just theoretical knowledge, it is also practical, like both medical and musical. The doctor and the musician must each not only learn the principles of his own skill but be trained to act accordingly to those principles. Likewise, the man who wants to be good must not only learn the lessons which pertain to virtue but train himself to follow them eagerly and rigorously.

Could someone acquire instant self-control by merely knowing that he must not be conquered by pleasures but without training to resist them? Could someone become just by learning that he must love moderation but without practicing the avoidance of excess? Could we acquire courage by realizing that things which seem terrible to most people are not to be feared but without practicing being fearless towards them? Could we become wise by recognizing what things are truly good and what things are bad without having been trained to look down on things which seem to be good?

Therefore, practicing each virtue always must follow learning the lessons appropriate to it, or it is pointless for us to learn about it. The person who claims to be studying philosophy must practice it even more diligently than the person who aspires to the art of medicine or some similar skill, inasmuch as philosophy is more important and harder to grasp than any other pursuit. People who study skills other than philosophy have not been previously corrupted in their souls by learning things contrary to what they are about to learn, but people who attempt to study philosophy, since they have been already in the midst of much corruption and are filled with evil, pursue virtue in such a condition that they need even more practice in it.

How, then, and in what way must they be trained? Since a human being happens to be neither soul alone nor body alone, but a composite of these two things, someone in training must pay attention to both. He should, rightly, pay more attention to the better part, namely the soul, but he should also take care of the other part, or part of him will become defective. The philosopher’s body also must be prepared for work because often virtue use it as a necessary tool for the activities of life. One type of training would be appropriate only for the soul, and another would be appropriate for both soul and body. We will train both soul and body when we accustom ourselves to cold, heat, thirst, hunger, scarcity of food, hardness of bed, abstaining from pleasures, and enduring pains.

Through these methods and others like them, the body is strengthened, becomes inured to suffering, and strong and fit for every task; the soul is strengthened as it is trained for courage by enduring hardships and trained for self-control by abstaining from pleasures. The first step in the proper training of the soul is to keep handy the proofs showing that things which seem to be bad are not bad, and to become accustomed to recognizing things that are truly good and distinguishing them from things that are not. The next step is to be careful neither to flee from things that only seem to be bad nor to pursue things that only seem to be good, and then to avoid by all means things that are truly evil, and in every way to strive to attain things that are truly good.

To sum up, I have said enough about the character of each type of training, I will not attempt to explain in detail how each type should be done, and I will not distinguish or lay out which exercise are shared between soul and body and which apply to the soul alone. I will instead go through the exercises for each part in an unsystematic fashion. Indeed, those of us who have taken part in philosophical discussion obviously have heard and been exposed to the idea that pain, death, poverty, and other things which are free of wickedness are in no way evil and, in turn, that wealth, life, pleasure or other things that have no share in virtue are not good. Nevertheless, even though we have heard these ideas, because of the corruption which has been ingrained in us all the way from childhood and because of the wicked behavior caused by this corruption, we think it is a bad thing when pain comes on us, and we think it is a good thing when pleasure comes.

Likewise, we shudder at death as extreme misfortune, and we welcome life as the greatest good. When we give money away, we are distressed as if we are injured, and when we receive money, we rejoice as if we are helped. And in too many circumstances, we do not deal with our affairs in accordance with correct assumptions, but rather we follow thoughtless habit. Since I say that this is the case, the person who is practicing to become a philosopher must seek to overcome himself so that we won’t welcome pleasure and avoid pain, so that he won’t love living and fear death, and so that, in the case of money, he won’t honor receiving over giving.’

*Gaius Musonius Rufus – C. AD 30-100 – was one of the four great Roman Stoic Philosophers; the others being Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.

Source: Musonius Rufus, ‘Lectures & Sayings’, translated by Cynthia King, with a Preface by William B. Irvine. Creative Space_2011.Above Picture credit: The bronze Boxer at Rest, also known as the Terme Boxer or Boxer of the Quirinal, is a Hellenistic Greek sculpture of a sitting nude boxer at rest, still wearing his caestus, a type of leather hand-wrap. It has been given various dates within the period of about 330 to 50 BC. It was excavated in Rome in 1885, and is now in the collection of the National Museum of Rome, normally displayed in the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme.

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