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That One Should Disdain Hardships

The Teachings of a Roman Stoic

By Musonius Rufus
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That One Should Disdain Hardships by Musonius Rufus

That One Should Disdain Hardships (2020) is a collection of lectures delivered in imperial Rome in the first century CE by the Stoic Gaius Musonius Rufus. Heralded as the “Roman Socrates,” Musonius’s philosophy is anything but academic. Designed to help listeners lead the best possible lives, his lectures hone in on practical, everyday questions. The result? A doctrine that you really can live by.

Key idea 1 of 8

Stoicism is a practical lesson in living well.

What is the purpose of philosophy?

Virtually all philosophers, past and present, agree that it helps us understand the world.

The Roman Stoic Gaius Musonius Rufus was no exception, but he thought it could do more than that. Philosophy illuminates the world, he believed, but what really counts is what we do once we’ve seen things clearly.

The key message here is: Stoicism is a practical lesson in living well.

Stoics in the Roman imperial era didn’t spend much time debating the technical aspects of philosophy. What they were really interested in was ethics – the principles governing behavior.

As they saw it, activities like listening to philosophical lectures and learning to craft clever arguments had little intrinsic value. Theory had to be connected with practice, and doctrine with daily life.

Take one of the most famous tenets of Stoicism – the idea that reasoning correctly is the key to virtue and that this kind of virtue is the only real good in life.

Stoics begin with a theoretical claim. The world, they argue, is divided into things we can control and things we can’t. Almost everything we conventionally value – wealth, pleasure, and health, for instance – falls into the latter category of the uncontrollable. Fate, after all, is fickle. Pleasures are fleeting, fortunes can be wiped out in an instant, and even the healthiest body can be overtaken by crippling illness. Similarly, the apparent evils we seek to avoid – poverty, pain, and death – are also beyond our control.

But this fact shouldn’t cause us to despair. In Musonius’s words, the gods have given us power over the best thing of all – reason. Put differently, we can decide how we respond to uncontrollable events and what kind of judgments we form about them.

Of course, health is preferable to sickness, just as a full stomach is better than an empty stomach – but if we can’t be sure of avoiding hardships, the real question is how we deal with them. Will we add misery and self-pity to penury and illness, or will we face such challenges with serenity and cheerfulness? Will we mindlessly pursue wealth and live in fear of death, or will we spend our time cultivating virtue?

This, Musonius argues, is the choice that confronts every human. To choose philosophy is to choose the second path – the path that leads to true happiness.

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