10 Life Lessons From Musonius Rufus

Original image by Nick Thompson
Original image by Nick Thompson

In the sect of “Stoic” philosophy, Musonius Rufus gave practical, day-to-day living advice:

Below are some lessons that he has taught me:

1. On how to become a philosopher:

“The person who is practicing to become a philosopher must seek to overcome himself so that he won’t welcome pleasure and avoid pain, so that he won’t love living and fear death, and so that, in the case of money, he won’t honor receiving over giving.” – Musonius Rufus

In life, we seek pleasure, and avoid pain. We fear death, and love living. And when it comes to money, we prefer receiving money, not giving money.

What if we switched this formula upside-down?

What if we avoided pleasure? What if we didn’t avoid pain?

What if we didn’t fear death, nor love living?

What if we would prefer to give money, not receive money?

Takeaway point:

No matter what in life, we will always encounter pain. Emotional pain, physical pain, and spiritual pain.

But let us not be afraid of pain. Let us build the strength to encounter it.

Pleasure is wholesome when it is spent doing work that we love, spending time with those we care about, and by doing meaningful things in our life. However we should avoid ‘pleasure for pleasures sake’ — or else our minds and bodies will become weak.

Of course living is preferable to dying. But if we get too attached to life, then we never learn how to be grateful for it — and we never learn how to die gracefully.

Lastly, I feel the truly wealthy are the ones who prefer giving over receiving. We can’t give when we are broke, and can barely pay our rent. Yet you don’t have to just give money— give your soul, give your advice, and give your times to those who you can help. Be a person of value who prefers giving over receiving, and you will never run out of wealth.

2. On withstanding abuse from others:

“I could name many other men who were targets of abuse, some verbally attacked and others injured by physical attacks. They appear neither to have defended themselves against their attackers nor to have sought revenge. Instead, they very calmly bore the wrong committed by their attackers. Indeed, plotting how to bite back someone who bites and to return evil against the one who first did evil is characteristic of a beast, not a man. A beast is not able to comprehend that many of the wrongs done to people are done out of ignorance and a lack of understanding. A person who gains this comprehension immediately stops doing wrong.” – Musonius Rufus

What do we do when others try to abuse us, either verbally or physically? The wise sages from the past didn’t even try to defend themselves, nor to seek revenge. They rather “calmly bore the wrong” — because they knew they were stronger than their attackers. Only someone who is stronger than you can harm you.

Trying to seek revenge and biting back is more characteristic of a beast or an animal, not a rational man. This is because a lot of others try to harm us, because they are ignorant. Once you realize that others are just like untamed dogs, you will no longer feel anger towards them.

Takeaway point:

Don’t defend yourself, simply bear the wrongs. Do you get angry at a dog for barking at you? Similarly, you shouldn’t be angry at ignorant people who also “bark” at you.

3. On working and living with others:

“You will agree that human nature is very much like that of bees. A bee is not able to live alone: it perishes when isolated. Indeed, it is intent on performing the common task of members of its species– to work and act together with other bees.” – Musonius Rufus

We are born for one another. No man is his own island. We die or go crazy when we are isolated or alone.

Our task as human beings is to help one another. To improve the lives of others, and society as a whole.

Takeaway point:

Know that your purpose as a human is to help others — how can you best create value for others? Because the more you give to others, the more you receive. And the more you receive, the more you can give others.

4. On eating:

“Practice choosing food not for pleasure but for nourishment, not to please his palate but to strengthen his body. The throat was created as a passageway for food, not as an organ for pleasure. Plants take nourishment for the sake of their survival rather than for pleasure, and for humans as well, food is the medicine of life. Therefore, the goal of our eating should be staying alive rather than having pleasure– at least if we wish to follow the sound advice of Socrates, who said that many men live to eat, but that he ate to live.” – Musonius Rufus

I love food. I love talking about food, eating it, and sharing a wonderful meal with close friends and family.

Yet my biggest problem was when I became a “foodie” — I would always want more interesting foods, more unique foods, to give me more variety, and excitement.

Yet the problem of becoming a foodie is that nothing satisfies you anymore. You start spending more time looking for new places to eat, and more money on these fancy meals (that don’t even fill you up). I also find that the more complicated the dishes are, the worse my digestion.

Do you live to eat? Or eat to live?

Were you put on this earth to please your stomach? Or were you put on earth to do something greater?

Always be careful what you eat — because what you eat is the life and vigor you will have. When in doubt, choose simple foods, that aren’t expensive, that give you energy.

Takeaway point:

Eat to live, don’t live to eat.

5. On clothing:

“One should seek protection for the body that is modest, not expensive and excessive. One should use clothing and footwear in the same way as one uses armor: to defend the body, not to show off. The strongest weapons and those most able to keep their user safe are the best, not those that attract attention because of their sheen. Likewise, the clothing and footwear that provide the most protection for the body, not those that can attract the gaze of foolish people, are best.” – Musonius Rufus

We need clothes, shoes, and garments to protect us from the sun, rain, and the cold. Why do we need our clothes and outfits to look fancy, to have luxury brands, and to show off?

Obama owns just two suits. Steve Jobs wore the same outfit everyday. The less complications we have with our clothes, the more mental energy we have to do creative work.

Takeaway point:

Use clothing and shoes like armor — to defend the body, not to show off.

6. On bearing the weather

“It is a mistake to bundle up the body in a lot of clothes or envelope it in shawls or wrap up hands and feet in felt or heavy cloth– unless, that is, one is ill It is a mistake for people to dress so that they never experience cold and heat. To the contrary, they should be somewhat cold in winter, get out in the sun in summer, and stay in the shade very little. – Musonius Rufus

Nowadays we are weak. We are never warm enough, or never cool enough. With modern air conditioning and heating, we have made our bodies weak. We can no longer withstand the cold, nor deal with the heat.

Takeaway point:

Experience cold and heat. Be a little cold in the winter, and put yourself out in the sun during the summer.

During the winter, wear a slightly lighter jacket than you’re used to. And during the summer, don’t always subject yourself to air conditioning. Toughen your body — it is good for your health and soul.

7. On homes:

“Since we build houses to protect ourselves from the elements, these houses, too, I think should be built to provide only what is needed: to keep out cold and excessive heat, and to protect those who needed to be protected from the wind. Our dwelling, in other words, should provide us the protection we could expect from a cave– one big enough for ourselves and our stores of food.” – Musonius Rufus

What is the purpose of a home? To keep out the cold and excessive heat. Do we really need all this fancy furniture and decorations? This was a huge problem during Roman times, which were full of decadence (kind of like in today’s modern world). Musonius Rufus continues:

“Why are there courtyards surrounded by colonnades? Why are there paints of different colors? Why are there gilded ceilings? Why the great outlays for stones, some used to pave the earth, some laid into walls, and some brought from very far away at very great expense? Aren’t all these things excessive and unnecessary? One can, after all, not only live but flourish without them. Doesn’t acquiring them involve both a lot of trouble and the expenditure of a lot of money– money, one should add, that could be used to help many people both publicly and privately?” – Musonius Rufus

The problem of trying to decorate our houses all fancy-like is because it adds additional stress, complication, and cost to our lives. It is nice to decorate our homes a bit to add character. But we need to avoid excess decoration.

And at the end of the day, why is having a fancy home so important? Isn’t it more important to have a lot of friends, than a big home? Musonius Rufus continues:

“Isn’t it more praiseworthy to help a lot of people than to live expensively? Isn’t spending money on people much more notable than spending it on wood and stones? Isn’t it much more worthwhile to have a lot of friends (as a result of doing good deeds cheerfully) than to have a big house? What benefits from having a big and beautiful house could match those that could be derived from using one’s possession to help one’s city and its citizens?” – Musonius Rufus

Takeaway point:

Avoid excessive and unnecessary things in our home. Trying to decorate our homes is expensive, a lot of trouble, and stressful.

Decorate your home until you find a point that it satisfies you. Then stop. Don’t keep remodeling and decorating your home for the rest of your life, then you will always be distracted, and never be at peace at home.

8. On living in luxury:

“I myself would choose to be sick rather than to live in luxury. Being sick harms the body only; living in luxury harms both soul and body, by making the body weak and powerless and the soul undisciplined and cowardly. Surely luxurious living fosters injustice because it also fosters greed. A person who lives extravagantly cannot help but spend a lot and therefore cannot want to spend little. Furthermore, because he wants many things, he can’t refrain from trying to acquire them, and when he sets out to acquire them, he can’t help grabbing for too much and being unjust. No one can acquire many things without being unjust.” – Musonius Rufus

In Roman times (and nowadays) we are obsessed with luxury. Luxury homes, luxury cars, luxury devices, luxury cameras, and luxury clothes.

Not only that, but the more luxury we have in our lives, the more we want. The more covetous we become of things we don’t have.

Even if we owned all of the best luxury goods, we would never be satisfied.

Takeaway point:

The solution to luxury? Prefer what is simple and basic. Know that luxury comes with hidden traps.

When we have luxurious goods, we become more stressed out — because we are worried that people might steal our stuff, damage our stuff, or try to one-up us. When we live a life of luxury, we build a fake facade. And to keep up that facade is not only expensive, but stressful.

Despise luxury. Prefer simplicity.

9. On living well:

“It is not possible to live well today unless you treat it as your last day.” – Musonius Rufus

We always delay our happiness. We always think that the happiness is in the future.

Yet today is the happiest day possible. Imagine living today as if it were your last. What would you not do in your daily life, and what would you avoid?

Takeaway point:

As an assignment, for a week, treat everyday like it were your last. How much more focused would you be? How less distracted would you be? How much more grateful would you be for the things you have in your life, rather than wanting what you don’t have?

Happiness is now, and today.

10. On wealth:

“We will hold that one man and one man only is truly wealthy–he who learns to want nothing in every circumstance.” – Musonius Rufus

True wealth is wanting nothing in every circumstance. True wealth is having peace of mind, that you have everything that you need.

Even though you’re a millionaire, you can still be poor. Because you still want more.

Takeaway point:

Appreciate everything in your life. Rather than wanting things you don’t have, train yourself to desire what you already own. Make the best of what you have, rather than wanting what is outside.

True wealth is gratitude, counting your blessings, and inner-serenity. It isn’t how many 0’s you have in your bank account. You already have everything you need.


Musonius Rufus has taught me a lot of these practical lessons in life. Primarily, how to live everyday like it were my last, to not be upset at others who are ignorant, to live simply and humbly.

Musonius Rufus gave all this advice from a few thousand years ago — I am still surprised how much weight it carries today. Human nature doesn’t change much — so let us learn from the masters on how to live a good life.

Let us have more gratitude in our hearts, because that is where true wealth lies.

Learn from all the Stoic Philosophers >