International Women’s Day and Musonius Rufus



Today is International Women’s Day, and I thought I would take the time to discuss Musonius Rufus, the role of women in Stoic Philosophy, and the examples we have of them.  Many ancient and modern philosophers discount and discredit the role of women in intellectual pursuits.  For whatever reason, it was often assumed they were less suited to the task, or simply by nature interested in other things.

Musonius, however, takes a different tact.  In Lecture III, he notes that for all of the operative issues regarding philosophy and virtue, men and women have the same foundation on which to build.  For Musonius, both men and women are given by God the gifts of reason.  Their senses, bodies, and minds all work in a similar fashion for everything on which philosophy hinges.  More importantly, both men and women have predisposition for goodness, for virtue.

Keeping in mind, Musonius is speaking in the first century CE, and his arguments are couched in the language and thinking of that time.  He is trying to convince his mostly male audience that the women in their lives would benefit from studying philosophy, for growing in virtue.  He does this by playing to their own biases.

A virtuous person (in this case a female person), would be better suited to all roles and tasks a human being can do.  In the same way that it would make one a better husband, it would make one a better wife.  As it would make better sons, it makes better daughters.  In what conditions would justice, fortitude, wisdom, or courage be a hindrance to a woman?  None!  It’s surely just as valuable in her as anyone else.

Musonius takes this a step further in Lecture IV.  Not only are women capable of virtue, but they should be trained (read: educated) in it.  Not only should they receive education, but the very same education as males.  There is no good reason for Musonius that we should educate boys and girls differently.  This is a fairly radical proposition for the 1st century CE.  The equal access to education was not even a common western value 100 years ago; yet nearly 2000 years ago, Musonius argued for just that very point.  Quite forward thinking in this regard.

His opinions differ, however, when we get to a common crux of human relations:  sexuality.  In Lecture XII, Musonius argues for what seems a very socially conservative view of human sexuality.  Specifically, that it’s appropriate only within marriage, and only for the purposes of procreation.  The reason I mention this, is that he unequivocally states that the prescription is the same for men and women.  While the standard is very strict, it is at least fair.

One of the issues which bears pointing out, which many moderns may take umbrage with, is that Musonius argues from a position in which the souls of men and women are the same, but that does not mean that men and women are in all ways equal.  He does note a reasonable division of labor and social roles, however.  One of his interlocutors asks about “women’s work” and how that gets addressed in Lecture IV, lines 16-21.  Musonius argues that when such things are conformable to the general physical nature, it’s appropriate.  The general trend of men’s and women’s build might predispose them to one type of work over another.  For example, he says it’s reasonable that men would do more hard labor outside, and women might work indoors.  In this, the issue is specifically the spinning of yarn.  He does not, however, state this does means that one shouldn’t learn or be able to do the work of the other.

In fact, in specific circumstance, the opposite roles may be more reasonable.  A man might work inside due to his constitution or other mitigating circumstance, and the woman outside and more physically.  Either way, he would not compel one or the other in a specific way.  While general trends exist, the specific applications vary.  A quite liberal approach, I think (not in the political sense of Anglo-American politics, mind you).

Within Stoicism, we either look towards the latter part of the era to the daughter of Cato, or back to the Cynics for specific examples of female philosophers which have come down to us through history.  The first and earlier Hipparchia, the wife of Crates the Cynic and philosopher in her own right, and the second and latter Portia Catonis.

Hipparchia left a life of comfortable wealth, and rigid social mores to marry Crates, the homeless and shameless Cynic.  She discarded everything her society valued and instead sought virtue and freedom, albeit in very unconventional ways.

“I, Hipparchia chose not the tasks of the rich-robed woman, but the manly life of the Cynic. Brooch-clasped tunics, well-clad shoes, and perfumed headscarves pleased me not; But with wallet and fellow staff, together with coarse cloak and bed of hard ground, My name shall be greater than Atalanta: for wisdom is better than mountain running.”

— Hipparchia, Greek Anthology, 7.413

I could not find the original Greek version of the Anthology online to check this, however it is worth noting that the word which is often translated as ‘courage’ can also be translated as “manliness,’ ἀνδρεία (andreia).  This is pure speculation, but I would not be surprised to find that it is this word which is in the original text of the above quote.

Portia may have even been involved in the assassination plot of Caesar, and was at least aware of it.  The recordings of her show a women of firm character, strong beliefs, and the courage of her convictions, even unto her own death by suicide.

“You, my husband, though you trusted my spirit that it would not betray you, nevertheless were distrustful of my body, and your feeling was but human. But I found that my body also can keep silence… Therefore fear not, but tell me all you are concealing from me, for neither fire, nor lashes, nor goads will force me to divulge a word; I was not born to that extent a woman. Hence, if you still distrust me, it is better for me to die than to live; otherwise let no one think me longer the daughter of Cato or your wife.”

— Portia Catonis, Cassius Dio, 44.13.4

The universality of Stoic philosophy is one of its highest selling points, I think.  It calls to the egalitarian nature in the modern westerner, and shows that it has maintained that perspective for a very long time.  Whether it’s simply the vicissitudes of history, or some other reason such as explicit bias, we have few examples of female philosophers and particularly of female Stoics from the classical period.  Nevertheless, the message of Musonius is a hopeful one, offering the fruits of philosophical practice to all rational creatures who embrace her.

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