Feb 17, 2017

The Practice and the Training

Two Lectures by Musonius,
The Stoic Sage of Ancient Rome

Musonius Rufus

An Editorial Note:

Musonius Rufus, the Stoic, was one of the great philosophers of ancient Rome and belongs in the personal library of every earnest theosophist. He concentrated his attention on ethics, or “right living”, which is an enduring foundation for any real knowledge of esoteric philosophy.

The following transcriptions of two of his talks - numbers V and VI - are available online.[1] Other versions of the same transcriptions are available in a little known book. [2] The original titles of the translations and transcriptions are given below.

(Carlos Cardoso Aveline)

1. Which is More Effective, Theory or Practice?

(....) The problem arose among us whether for the acquisition of virtue practice or theory is more effective, understanding that theory teaches what is right conduct,  while practice represents the habit of those accustomed to act in accordance with such theory. To Musonius, practice seemed to be more effective, and speaking in support of his opinion, he asked one of those present the following question:

“Suppose that there are two physicians, one able to discourse very brilliantly about the art of medicine but having no experience in taking care of the sick, and the other quite incapable of speaking but experienced in treating his patients according to correct medical theory. Which one,” he asked, “would you choose to attend you if you were ill?” He replied that he would choose the doctor who had experience in healing.

Musonius then continued, “Well, then, let us take another example of two men. One has sailed a great deal and served as pilot on many boats, the other one has sailed very little and has never acted as pilot. If the one who had never piloted a ship should speak most ably on the methods of navigation, and the other very poorly and ineffectively, which one would you employ as pilot if you were going on a voyage?” The man said he would take the experienced pilot.

Again Musonius said, “Take the case of two musicians. One knows the theory of music and discourses on it most convincingly but is unable to sing or play the harp or the lyre; the other is inferior in theory but is proficient in playing the harp and the lyre and in singing as well. To which one would you give a position as musician, or which one would you like to have as teacher for a child who does not know music?” The man answered that he would choose the one who was skilled in practice.

“Well, then,” said Musonius, “that being the case, in the matter of temperance and self-control, is it not much better to be self-controlled and temperate in all one’s actions than to be able to say what one ought to do?” Here too the young man agreed that it is of less significance and importance to speak well about self-control than to practice self-control.

Thereupon Musonius, drawing together what had been said, asked, “How, now, in view of these conclusions, could knowledge of the theory of anything be better than becoming accustomed to act according to the principles of the theory, if we understand that application enables one to act, but theory makes one capable of speaking about it? Theory which teaches how one should act is related to application, and comes first, since 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.”

2. On Training

[…Musonius] was always earnestly urging those who were associated with him to make practical application of his teachings, using some such arguments as the following. Virtue, he said, is not simply theoretical knowledge, but it is practical application as well, just like the arts of medicine and music. Therefore, as the physician and the musician not only must master the theoretical side of their respective arts but must also train themselves to act according to their principles, so a man who wishes to become good not only must be thoroughly familiar with the precepts which are conducive to virtue but must also be earnest and zealous in applying these principles.

How, indeed, could a person immediately become temperate if he only knew that one must not be overcome by pleasures, but was quite unpracticed in withstanding pleasures? How could one become just when he had learned that one must love fairness but had never exercised himself in avoidance of selfishness and greed? How could we acquire courage if we had merely learned that the things which seem dreadful to the average person are not to be feared, but had no experience in showing courage in the face of such things? How could we become prudent if we had come to recognize what things are truly good and what evil, but had never had practice in despising things which only seem good?

Therefore upon the learning of the lessons appropriate to each and every excellence, practical training must follow invariably, if indeed from the lessons we have learned we hope to derive any benefit. And moreover such practical exercise is the more important for the student of philosophy than for the student of medicine or any similar art, the more philosophy claims to be a greater and more difficult discipline than any other study. The reason for this is that 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. 

How, then, and in what manner should they receive such training? Since it so happens that the human being is not soul alone, nor body alone, but a kind of synthesis of the two, the person in training must take care of both, the better part, the soul, more zealously, as is fitting, but also of the other, if he shall not be found lacking in any part that constitutes man. For obviously the philosopher’s body should be well prepared for physical activity, because often the virtues make use of this as a necessary instrument for the affairs of life.

Now there are two kinds of training, one which is appropriate for the soul alone, and the other which is common to both soul and body. We use the training common to both when we discipline ourselves to cold, heat, thirst, hunger, meager rations, hard beds, avoidance of pleasures, and patience under suffering. For by these things and others like them the body is strengthened and becomes capable of enduring hardship, sturdy and ready for any task; the soul too is strengthened since it is trained for courage by patience under hardship and for self-control by abstinence from pleasures.

Training which is peculiar to the soul consists first of all in seeing that the proofs pertaining to apparent goods as not being real goods are always ready at hand and likewise those pertaining to apparent evils as not being real evils, and in learning to recognize the things which are truly good and in becoming accustomed to distinguish them from what are not truly good. In the next place it consists of practice in not avoiding any of the things which only seem evil, and in not pursuing any of the things which only seem good; in shunning by every means those which are truly evil and in pursuing by every means those which are truly good.

In summary, then, I have tried to tell what the nature of each type of training is. I shall not, however, endeavor to discuss how the training should be carried out in detail, by analyzing and distinguishing what is appropriate for the soul and the body in common and what is appropriate for the soul alone, but by presenting without fixed order what is proper for each. It is true that all of us who have participated in philosophic discussion have heard and apprehended that neither pain nor death nor poverty nor anything else which is free from wrong is an evil, and again that wealth, life, pleasure, or anything else which does not partake of virtue is not a good. And yet, in spite of understanding this, because of the depravity which has become implanted in us straight from childhood and because of evil habits engendered by this depravity, when hardship comes we think an evil has come upon us, and when pleasure comes our way we think that a good has befallen us; we dread death as the most extreme misfortune; we cling to life as the greatest blessing, and when we give away money we grieve as if we were injured, but upon receiving it we rejoice as if a benefit had been conferred.

Similarly with the majority of other things, we do not meet circumstances in accordance with right principles, but rather we follow wretched habit. Since all this is the case, the person who is in training [to be a philosopher] must strive to habituate himself not to love pleasure, not to avoid hardship, not to be infatuated with living, not to fear death, and in the case of goods or money not to place receiving  above giving.


[2] “Musonius Rufus”, translated by Cynthia King, with a preface by William B. Ervine , CreateSpace, Lexington, KY, USA, 2011, copyright 2010, 101 pp., see pp. 38-39. Another significant book is “Musonius Rufus and Education in the Good Life”, J. T. Dillon, University Press of America, Dallas, Lanham, Boulder, New York, Oxford, 2004, 101 pp. (CCA)


The above text is reproduced from “The Aquarian Theosophist”, December 2012 edition.


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