While reading and researching Musonius Rufus for this post, I came across an interesting article by Richard Valantasis entitled “Musonius Rufus and Roman Ascetical Theory.” Valantasis is a scholar and Episcopal priest who has also written The Making of the Self: Ancient and Modern Asceticism and appears to be one of the most prominent living writers on ascetical studies. He focuses on Musonius Rufus’ “ascetical theory” and asks why scholars have downplayed this aspect of Musonius’ thought: “Although Musonius provides the earliest extant ascetical theory, few scholars have noticed, explored, or explained his theory in relationship to his philosophy.” [1] Is there a difference between the Stoic practices that Musonius propounded and asceticism? It’s hard to argue there is no connection when the root of asceticism, askesis, is the word for the “exercises,” or practical enactment of ethical principles, that Musonius urges his followers to undertake on their path to virtue.

In his sixth Discourse, usually translated “On Training” but which Valantasis refers to as “On Asceticism” (which certainly bolsters his thesis), Musonius writes that philosophy, although a discipline and skill like the practice of medicine, is actually more difficult that other areas of study because those

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.

Musonius believed humans’ depravity was not innate, but learned through socialization. As Valantasis puts it, “Negative socialization hardens into bad habits that impede philosophical progress by habitually interpreting hardship as evil, pleasure as good, death as misfortune, life as a blessing, monetary benefaction as loss, and monetary gifts as gain.” [2]

Musonius argues that the philosopher in training must therefore 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.”

As Valantasis writes, the “contrary ascetical discipline . . . establishes the values of the true philosopher.” [3] Musonius’ virtue is the product of philosophical theory strengthened by practice; neither theory nor practice is sufficient on its own.

How does one fully understand and embody justice, courage, prudence, and wisdom? The same way you get to Carnegie Hall. Valantasis again: “The practices associated with a particular virtue give the virtue substance and authenticity.” [4] To be just, practice not being selfish or greedy; to be courageous, practice confronting fearful situations head-on, and so on.

According to Valantasis, it is more appropriate to identify Musonius, as well as Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, with their asceticism than with their philosophical schools: “Musonius Rufus leads the way in this movement, providing both a complete ascetical system central to his philosophy, and a set of applications of these principles in the daily life of his followers.” [5]

But why haven’t others picked up on this characterization of his work that seems obvious? John Sellars in his Stoicism does not mention the word asceticism, although he does discuss askesis, Musonius’ Discourse 6, and his assertion that philosophers have to try harder than anyone else at their art because they have been surrounded by corruption their whole lives–the opposite of virtue. [6]

Is it a question of the secularization of modern-day Stoicism? I associate asceticism with religion; although religion is not a necessary element, my impression is that the ascetic renounces earthly desires to achieve a state of nearness to his God. This is from a website focusing on modern issues in Christianity: “Ascetics renounce worldly pleasures that distract from spiritual growth and enlightenment and live a life of abstinence, austerity and extreme self-denial.” 

Modern Stoicism, or at least the strain that is more prevalent nowadays, is not focused on God but instead on mortal concerns. Stoicism is seen as a way not to rise above or diminish quotidian events, but to strengthen one’s spirit to face them. I see Musonius’ exercises as a way to fortify myself and develop willpower, courage, and so on as if they were muscles in my body.

I see the ascetic’s renunciation almost as a denial of the reality of this world in favor of the imminent perfection of the afterlife. Yet according to the website referenced above, “In many cases, the ascetic practices self-denial in order to earn God’s favor or somehow purge himself from sin. This shows a misunderstanding of grace; no amount of austerity can earn salvation or merit God’s love (Ephesians 2:8-9).” 

As an atheist I am not focused on an afterlife; I need tools–virtue muscles–to face the difficulties of this life. I think it is telling that Musonius believes that humans are born with the capacity for nobility and virtue, but that we have been corrupted by society starting from when we were children. It would seem that an ascetic, on the other hand, is renouncing the fact of human-ness as a whole by acting as though ignoring or suppressing innate human desires, instead of developing tools to manage them, is the only path to virtue.


[1] Richard Valantasis, “Musonius Rufus and Roman Ascetical Theory,” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 40 (1999), 207-31 at 210.

[2] Ibid. at 216.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. at 217.

[5] Ibid. at 230.

[6] See John Sellars, Stoicism (University of California Press 2006) at 33, 45-6.

5 thoughts on “Musonius Rufus and Asceticism

  1. I enjoyed this post very much. Though I still have quite a bit to learn about the technical aspects of stoic theory, I have been wondering to myself what stoic practice looks like – I know how works for me, but not necessarily how it works for others. At least where I stand today, I see myself as a person who uses Stoicism as a tool to help me live a better life, not as a stoic who happens to be a person. In other words, I don’t see how asceticism (in terms of withdrawal from society) can be a part of what the practicing stoic does. The philosophy is about living a natural life well, which requires us, as social animals (think Marcus and his constant assertion that we live for one another) to be involved in whatever a social life is. I don’t see a practice that involves practicing Stoicism for Stoicism’s sake as being stoic at all and I don’t think it’s a competition about being the most stoic person in the room. Besides, as an individual, my progress and practice will be different from yours and different from others’ due to our very different experiences.

    I may be way off on this, but this is where I am coming from, at least for today.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good Day Rowesicky,

      I’m not sure that Musonius is advocating withdraw from society. We moderns tends to associate asceticism with monastic withdraw as is common in the Eastern traditions, but this is not true of the Stoics, who believed in civic involvement.

      Musonius was married and he taught about the virtue of marriage and of having many children. He educated pupils and did not shy away from criticizing the Emperor Nero, for which he was banished. He was most certainly involved in public life and was closer to what would be considered a householder than a monk, if we were to compare him to Hindu and Buddhist counterparts.

      In my view, Musonius’ asceticism derives from his belief in plain living, based on the Stoic virtues of courage and moderation. Musonius, like other Stoics, believed in a very plain standards of dress and food. This might be viewed as ascetic, but compared to the minimalism advocated by the Cynic school (which Zeno was originally influenced by) the Stoics were less so.

      The virtue Andreia is often rendered is into English as courage, but I prefer determination because it involves confidence, love of work, bearing hardships, and perseverance in things that we would like to avoid.


    2. Sorry I think initially misread your comments. I’m now reading it to mean that you also disagree with Valantasis characterizing Stoicism as ascetic. Please ignore the first part of my prior post.


      1. No, that’s fine. I understand your point and agree with your comment. I think if one was to consider stoics as ascetics then there must be some wiggle room in the interpretation of what ascetic means. There must also, then, be the understanding that there while all stoic ascetics are stoic, not all stoics are ascetics. I don’t believe the two must go together, nor that either is the right or wrong approach.


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