Bear with me while I dust off my copy of Lives of the Eminent Philosophers and find the section on one of Stoicism’s greatest, yet lesser-known, Stoic philosophers, Gaius Musonius Rufus.

In the book mentioned above, I’ve only just seen that he’s nowhere to be found in the glossary, and he’s often overlooked in favor of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus.

This is probably because not much of his work has survived the passage of time relative to those three Stoics. However, I believe that Rufus has some of the most eloquent and practical Stoic philosophy of the time.

Who was Gaius Musonius Rufus?

The Roman Socrates:

Born somewhere between AD 20 and 30, Rufus was one of the most renown Stoic philosophers during the Imperial era of the Roman Empire and one of the most influential philosophers in the city of Rome at the time.

He was even considered by the Christian scholar Origen of Alexandria to be the ‘Roman Socrates’ and by the Roman historian Tacitus as the greatest Stoic of his time.

Although he did leave us with a lot of good work, he’s probably best known for teaching the well-known philosopher, Epictetus. Epictetus was a slave at the time and was granted permission to study under Rufus.

And if you’ve read a few articles here already, you’ll know how much I love Epictetus.

Exile and the Stoic Resistance:

Gaius Musonius Rufus taught philosophy during the reign of Emperor Nero.

Given Nero’s tyrannical nature and dislike of philosophers (he saw them as a threat to his rule), it was only a matter of time before Rufus found himself in exile in 65 AD.

It probably didn’t help that he was associated with the ‘Stoic Opposition’, a group of Stoic philosophers who opposed the rule of emperor’s who they believed were using their power unwisely.

Nero was a particularly targeted emperor, and he returned the favor by executing three of Rufus’ students who were also connected to the opposition. These three became known as the Stoic martyrs

Rufus only returned to Rome under the rule of Emperor Galba.

Galba’s reign lasted only seven months, ending in his assassination, brought on by his unpopular decisions, betrayals from those close to him, and his rise to power in an unstable time following Nero’s suicide.

Rufus was exiled again under the rule of Vespasian, returning again under the rule of Titus.

He died some time before 101-102 AD

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Gaius Musonius Rufus’ Philosophy:

Sadly, if Musonius did write anything, none of it survived. We do, however, have a collection of works transcribed by others, written originally in Greek.

He believed that philosophy, specifically Stoic philosophy, was the most useful thing a person could learn. Through philosophy, we learn that virtue is the only good and that vice is the only evil.

He said:

Why do we criticize tyrants, when in fact we are much worse than they are? We have the same inclinations as they do; we just lack opportunities to act on them.

We also learn that wealth, pleasure, status, and life itself are not inherently good, and death, poverty, and pain are not inherently evil. These things only amplify the good or evil we choose to display in our own behaviors. Or they corrupt us if we are not strong or wise enough to avoid their push or pull.

Virtue is the only good because it guides us down the path that leads to the benefit of others as well as the benefit of our own soul.

Here are some key takeaways from his philosophy:

  1. Philosophy as a Way of Life: Musonius believed that philosophy wasn’t just a subject to be studied but a way of life to be lived. For him, philosophical discussion that didn’t lead to practical application was pointless.

  2. Equality of the Sexes: here, Musonius’s was ahead of his time by a few thousand years. He argued that women were just as capable of practicing philosophy and achieving virtue as men. This was a pretty radical thing to say at the time.

  3. Education: He emphasized the importance of education for all, regardless of gender. He believed that both men and women should receive the same education, as it is beneficial for the soul.

  4. Practice Over Theory: Like other Stoics, Musonius valued practical wisdom. He was of the opinion that practicing virtue was more essential than just discussing it. Virtuous action, not just study, was the goal of the Stoic philosopher.

  5. Endurance of Hardships: Musonius believed in enduring hardships with grace. He saw value in facing difficulties and believed that facing challenges in life with resilience and patience was essential for developing one’s character.

  6. Role of Reason: As with other Stoics, Musonius believed that reason was the defining characteristic of humans. By living according to reason, he believed, one aligns with nature and achieves eudaimonia (a fulfilled life).


As we’ve seen, Musonius put a great deal of emphasis on the development of virtue, as many other philosophers did at the time.

To illustrate, in one of his lectures, he tells the story of the advice he gave to a visiting king from Syria.

Musonius explained that a king has a duty to his people; this duty is to protect and support his subjects in the best way he can.

However, in order to do this, a king must first know good from evil, fairness from unfairness, and helpful from harmful. Without knowing these things, it is impossible for the king to determine what is best for the people under his rule.

To develop this wisdom, it is necessary for one to become a philosopher.

Therefore, the king must become a philosopher. He must reflect the virtues that come to a person through the study of philosophy: self-control, frugality, modesty, humility, courage, justice, and wisdom.

He said:

For mankind, evil is injustice and cruelty and indifference to a neighbour’s trouble, while virtue is brotherly love and goodness and justice and beneficence and concern for the welfare of your neighbour. 

Diet and Temperance

The practical approach to philosophy meant that Musonius put a great deal of weight on daily habits and behaviors.

This extends to what we eat and even how we eat.

Musonius viewed our eating habits as an opportunity to lay the groundwork for self-control.

Our ability to eat modest foods instead of rich and lavish foods, as well as our ability to eat to nourish the body rather than for pleasure, is a core part of our ability to develop this virtue of self-control.

Musonius’ philosophy extends from food to modest clothing and housing. Explaining that clothing is to protect the body from the elements, not to project wealth.

He said the same for housing.

He also said that he would rather be sick than live to excess. A sickness only harms the body, he said, but excess and luxury harm both the body (by making it soft) and the soul (through the erosion of virtue).

He said:

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.

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Gaius Musonius Rufus, as we’ve seen, was one of the most prominent and respected philosophers of his time.

His work on virtue and strength of character shaped the philosophy of the great Stoic philosopher Epictetus and, by extension, the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.

Rufus taught that we should walk the path of the philosopher in all areas of life, letting it seep into our habits, routines, actions, and behaviors. Only then can we develop the virtues needed for a good and happy life.

To leave you with a bit of wisdom about putting in the work, he said:

If you accomplish something good with hard work, the labour passes quickly, but the good endures. If you do something shameful in pursuit of pleasure, the pleasure passes quickly, but the shame endures.

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