On Musonius Rufus: A Brief Essay (1999)

Richard Carrier

 

Since this man deserves far more publicity than he has ever gotten in the modern age, I have written this short essay. He exemplifies the sort of man who should have been venerated and made the founder of a world religion, but was not, yet he was the moral superior in my opinion to Jesus--not perfect, but admirable within the context of his own day.

Bio

Gaius Musonius Rufus was a Roman knight of Italian (Etruscan) birth, but dedicated his life to Stoicism and to preaching moral lectures in Greek and teaching all over the Empire, as well as involving himself in moral causes even at peril of his life. He lived between 30 and 100 A.D. and his fame in antiquity was far greater than modern ignorance of him suggests. He is now most famous for being the tutor of the slave-philosopher Epictetus, who in turn was much admired by Marcus Aurelius. He was banished to an island by Nero and later Vespasian for, among other things, declaring that it was right and proper to disobey an immoral command from a superior (e.g. Discourse 16). Ironically, when Vespasian earlier banished all philosophers from Rome, he made a special exception for Musonius because he was held in such high esteem [1]. Musonius was also renowned for risking death in trying to stop the civil war of 69 A.D. by preaching peace to the armies that were about to meet on the battlefield [2]. But in antiquity he was most famous as a courageous moral reformer with a sense of humor and an unshakable spirit. According to the Christian scholar Origen, popular sentiment held that the very best men in history were two in number: Socrates and Musonius. This was indeed a common sentiment, and his fame and reputation were astonishing [3]. There are uncertain tales of his endurance of jail and torture. But what makes him so admirably human is his sense of humor, a classic case of which, an example that in my opinion sets him above Jesus as a more human and interesting teacher, I will produce here:

"Musonius," Herodes said, "ordered a thousand sesterces [brass coins] to be given to a beggar of the sort who was pretending to be a philosopher, and when several people told him that the rascal was a bad and vicious fellow, deserving of nothing good, Musonius, they say, answered with a smile, 'Well then he deserves money'." (Fragment 50)

Teachings

Only sayings and lectures survive, published posthumusly by his students, and numerous anecdotes by many other authors [4]. At least one major collection of his sayings existed that is now lost, along with at least one biography, and there are hints that he may have written books, but no titles survive. Lutz summarizes his doctrine best: "The primary concern of philosophy is the care of the soul in order that the qualities of prudence, temperence, justice, and courage may be perfected in it. This education should begin in infancy and continue throughout life, for every member of human society" (p. 27). His program included logic and debating skills, for the purpose of building the ability to reason through ethical decisions competently. Although many of his views are remarkably progressive for his time, being for example a strong advocate for the education and extension of equal rights to women (Discourses 3 and 4), he regarded homosexuality as unnatural and monstrous, and all forms of recreational sex of any kind as immoral (Discourse 12), and opposed abortion (Discourse 15). He was also not secular, but preached a divine rational order, and occasionally appealed to the wishes of God (principally Zeus the Savior, but other gods as well) in support of his arguments. It is notable, for instance, that his attitude toward homosexuality was based on his belief in God. But his religion was liberal and humanistic, and his arguments were always based on reason and open debate, not revelation or authority. Indeed, in contrast with Jesus who called even those who think of adultery to cut out their eyes (Matthew 5:27-30, Mark 9:43-9), Musonius said "freedom of speech means not suppressing whatever one chances to think" (Discourse 9).

Charity, Forgiveness, Love, and Virtue

Like Jesus, Musonius preached charity (Discourse 19), declaring that "to help many people" is "much more commendable than living a life of luxury." But unlike Jesus, he also emphasized the importance of civic duty as well (Discourse 14). Again like Jesus, Musonius preached a concept of pacifism and forgiveness (Discourse 10):

For to scheme how to bite back the biter and to return evil for evil is the act not of a human being but of a wild beast, which is incapable of reasoning that the majority of wrongs are done to men through ignorance and misunderstanding, from which man will cease as soon as he has been taught,

And his student, Epictetus, relates this example of a parable used by Musonius which exhibits this concept of forgiveness, which is in my opinion wiser and more sophisticated than that of Jesus:

When [Lycurgus of Sparta] had been blinded in one eye by one of his fellow-citizens and had received the young man at the hands of the people to punish as he saw fit, he did not choose to do this, but trained him instead and made a good man of him, and afterward escorted him to the public theatre. And when the [Spartans] regarded him with amazement, he said: "This man I received from you an insolent and violent creature; I return him to you a reasonable man and a good citizen." (Fragment 39)

This story was matched by a dictum (Fragment 41), "We say that the despicable man is recognized among other things by his inability to harm his enemies, but actually he is much more easily recognized by his inability to help them." All of this stemmed from the fact that Musonius also taught love for one's neighbor (Discourse 14), since "evil consists in injustice and cruelty and indifference to a neighbor's trouble, while virtue is brotherly love and goodness and justice and beneficence and concern for the welfare of one's neighbor."

Stoic or Hellenic Influences on Jesus

All of the above ideals, and others advocated by Musonius, were all natural developments of Stoic philosophy--or indeed of philosophy in general, which had been growing more and more humanitarian since the century of Socrates, and it is reasonable to see perhaps that these influenced Jesus or Paul and all subsequent Christian doctrine. In fact, the analogy of the "birds who do not sow or reap" (Matt. 6.26) is found also in Musonius, and one wonders whether this was a popular idiom, or if the Gospels were infected by the sayings of other men, placing them in the mouth of Jesus. The Musonius version appears in the context of Discourse 15, where he argues, almost alone among Romans, that "every child born should be raised," attacking the common practice of exposure, i.e. killing or sending into slavery children a family cannot support. To the objection that the poor must do this because they cannot afford to feed the child, Musonius says:

Whence do the little birds, which are much poorer than you, feed their young, the swallows and nightingales and larks and blackbirds? Homer speaks of them in these words, "Even as a bird carries to her unfledged young whatever morsels she happens to come upon, though she fares badly herself" [Iliad 9.323]. Do these creatures surpass man in intelligence? You certainly would not say that. In strength and endurance, then? No, still less in that respect. Well, then, do they put away food and store it up? Not at all, and yet they rear their young and find sustenance for all that are born to them. The plea of poverty, therefore, is unjustified.

It is remotely possible that Musonius heard such an analogy from Jewish or Christian speakers, but this does not explain three unique aspects of the Musonius version, which are typical of all similar parallels: it is related more usefully and clearly, in a context which makes the analogy sensible (the Gospel version seems snatched out of context and is not clear in its meaning); it is derived from an analogy in Homer (Iliad 9.323ff.), in support of an argument built on Stoic notions of the intrinsic value of individuals and the benefit of the state; and it appears to be based on independent reasoning, whereas the Gospel version appears incomplete or the logic of the analogy unclear--one immediately notes that humans starve if they do not reap or sow, so surely something is missing, which is provided by Musonius. So it seems more likely that the Christian saying is a less competent borrowing from Musonius, or from a much older idiom circulating among the people. Whatever the case, whereas the Christians associate the analogy with a guarantee that "God will take care of you" (a claim we know from long experience to be false--he who does not work, does not eat), Musonius associates it with exactly the opposite notion: that humans can and ought to work for their keep and the welfare of their children. Hands that help are better than lips that pray.

Slavery

Agitating for the freeing of slaves was universally regarded as an incitement to slave rebellion, and that was tantamount to suicide--Tacitus relates the case of one such man and his rapid demise (Titus Curtisius, 24 A.D.; cf. Annals 4.27). Thus, if anyone held the sentiment that slavery was wrong, he had to exhibit it with more caution. And in this respect Musonius went farther than any other in antiquity in building a point of view which certainly implied that slaves were and ought to be treated as equal to free men, though he fell short of outright calling for the demise of the slave system. Apart from the obvious egalitarian nature of Musonius' belief that all human beings are citizens of the city of God (Discourse 9), another major doctrine repeated many times by Musonius was that "one should endure hardships, and suffer the pains of labor with his own body, rather than depend upon another for sustenance" (Discourse 11), which entails that we should not live from the labor of slaves. And though it was legal for a man to force sex with his slavegirl, Musonius regards this as shameful, comparing the slavegirl to a free woman (Discourse 12), a rather amazing thing to think about slaves. He also taught that all human beings without exception have the same natural capacity for goodness, which directly challenged the prevailing view that slaves were morally inferior to the free (Discourse 2). But most remarkable of all, in his lecture about nonviolent disobedience (Discourse 16), the idea he develops is that it is right to disobey an unlawful command from any superior--father, magistrate, or master (despotês [5])--because one who refuses to do wrong ought always to be praised, and all owe allegiance first and foremost to the father of all, Zeus, who commands that we do right. No one in antiquity--neither pagan nor Christian--came so near to an abolitionist sentiment as this.

Conclusion

This has been a brief survey. Too much of Musonius is lost to us, and that is a shame. But from what we have, what strikes me is that I would much rather have him in my company than Jesus. Jesus is never recorded as smiling or laughing or telling a joke, and a man with no sense of humor is no kin of mine. Indeed, such a man is disturbing and inhuman. Musonius, like Socrates and Epicurus and even Confucius and Lao Tzu, has more in common with us, is more down to earth. Jesus is also not very sophisticated or clear in his discourses [6], his parables are often brutish [7], his lessons simplistic [8], whereas Musonius is a superior speaker and reasoner, and his ideals are more human-centered and practical, and ultimately more developed and defensible. Whereas Jesus employs violence and arrogance to remove the sellers of sacrificial animals (and those changing money, no doubt to aid in paying the temple tax) from the temple [9], Musonius uses only peaceful persuasion to get gladiatorial games removed from the sacred area of Dionysus, even though this was a far more deplorable sight [10]. He also defends freethought, free speech, and the value and importance of universal education and the perfection and use of logic and reason for moral improvement and decision-making. Musonius, finally, had far more to say for the benefit of women than Jesus ever did. If a mortal can be better-spoken and advocate better ideals than Jesus, then Jesus can be neither a God nor the greatest moral teacher. We would do better to look to others.

See "Was Musonius Better than Jesus?" (2006) for Dr. Carrier's response to Amy Sayers' critique of this essay.


[1] Cassius Dio, (epitome) 66.13.

[2] Tacitus, Histories 3.81; Cassius Dio, (epitome) 65.18-9.

[3] Origen, Contra Celsum 3.66; others, Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana, 4.46; "Letter to the high-priest Theodorus" (16) and "Letter to Themistius" (20-22), written by the emperor Julian; Pliny, Letters 3.11; Dio of Prusa, Orations 31.122.

[4] There used to be only one English translation of all his works in existence (Cora Lutz, Musonius Rufus: The Roman Socrates, Yale, 1942), which is out of print (but might be purchasable through University Microfilms International at 300 Zeeb Road, Ann Arbor, MI 48106 USA; Tel. 313-761-4700). But recently a new translation has become available: Cynthia King, Musonius Rufus: Lectures and Sayings. Details about Musonius' thought and life are found in Lutz and in Five Men by Charlesworth.

[5] Lutz translates this word as "tyrant" but that is far too strict. The Liddell-Scott-Jones Lexicon of Classical Greek entry for despotês shows that the basic, common meaning of the word (I.1 and II.1) is "master" as in "owner" of a slave, and that tyrant or emperor are only meant by derogatory analogy. From experience I know this to be the standard Greek word for a slave's master (no other word rivals it), and the tone and sweeping generality of Musonius' argument certainly intends this, and the connection is nearly explicit when as an example he gives a boy sold by his father into slavery for prostitution, and defends the boy's right to refuse to go. Musonius is clearly treading on dangerous ground here, and carefully.

[6] E.g. Matthew 5-7; Luke 12:49-53, 14:25-7, 17:1-6, 17:7-10, etc.

[7] E.g. Matthew 22:8-14, 25:14-30, Luke 16:19-31, etc.

[8] E.g. Luke 16:16-8, John 8:42-7, Matthew 19:3-12, etc.

[9] John 2:13-17; also, Matthew 21:12ff., Mark 11:15-7, Luke 19.45ff.

[10] Dio Chrysostom, Orationes 31.122; this story eventually became falsely attributed to Apollonius of Tyana (cf. Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana, 4.22, with Lutz's analysis, footnote 60, p. 17). The Cynic philosopher Demonax, a pupil of Musonius' student Epictetus, went even further, opposing the games altogether, insisting that if the Athenians introduced them then they should tear down the Altar of Mercy (Lucian, Demonax 57).



HUMANITATE MAGIS QUAM RELIGIONE NOBIS OPUS EST
"We need humanity more than religion"


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