The third and fourth lectures by Musonius Rufus, the teacher of Epictetus, deal with the topic of how women should be educated. While, inevitably, Musonius makes some comments that would not pass muster with current ideas on gender issues, the Stoics in general, and Musonius in particular, were ahead of their time in this respect. It would, of course, be anachronistic to talk about ancient Stoic feminism. However, modern scholars have argued that feminism — understood simply as the notion that women are human beings like any other, and are therefore to be accorded the same dignity and rights of any other — is logically entailed by Stoic principles.
Lecture III, begins this way:
“Women as well as men, he said, have received from the gods the gift of reason, which we use in our dealings with one another and by which we judge whether a thing is good or bad, right or wrong. … Moreover, not men alone, but women too, have a natural inclination toward virtue and the capacity for acquiring it. … If this is true, by what reasoning would it ever be appropriate for men to search out and consider how they may lead good lives, which is exactly the study of philosophy, but inappropriate for women?”
Exactly. The argument takes the form of a conditional imperative: IF x THEN y. IF women have the same inclination toward virtue, and capacity to acquire it, as men, THEN if follows that it would be unjust not to provide women with the same education as men. Notice, of course, that “gods” here is a reference to the pantheistic Stoic conception of divinity, i.e., nature. And nature — it was clear then and it has been amply confirmed scientifically since — has endowed people of all gender with the same basic mental faculties, despite the well known (and biologically necessary!) existence of some anatomical differences.
In lecture IV Musonius focuses more specifically on the education of children, stating:
“That there is not one set of virtues for a man and another for a woman is easy to perceive. In the first place, a man must have understanding and so must a woman, for what pray would be the use of a foolish man or woman? Then it is essential for one no less than the other to live justly.”
Again, you would think that to be a no-brainer, and yet plenty of people seem to have a problem with such notion even in the allegedly enlightened times we currently live in. The faculty of understanding, or prohairesis, as Epictetus calls it, is fundamental to the practice of virtue, and needs therefore to be cultivated by men and women (and, we would add today, any other gender) in the same manner. Indeed, as Musonius puts it, who wants to have foolish human beings hanging around, men or women as they may be? Moreover, justice isn’t the only cardinal virtue that concerns Musonius, as he goes on to say:
“Gluttony, drunkenness, and other related vices, which are vices of excess and bring disgrace upon those guilty of them, show that self-control is most necessary for every human being, male and female alike; for the only way of escape from wantonness is through self-control; there is no other. Perhaps someone may say that courage is a virtue appropriate to men only. That is not so. For a woman too of the right sort must have courage and be wholly free of cowardice, so that she will be swayed neither by hardships nor by fear.”
So both men and women also need to exercise the virtue of temperance, as well as that of courage. Again, reason discerns no difference among genders for this sort of need. It again follows, then, that we should educate children in the same way, regardless of their gender:
“If it is necessary for both to be proficient in the virtue which is appropriate to a human being, that is, for both to be able to have understanding, and self-control, and courage, and justice, the one no less than the other, shall we not teach them both alike the art by which a human being becomes good?”
Musonius acknowledges that men and women are built differently from a physical perspective, so that it may be appropriate for some tasks — say, those requiring strength — to be carried out by men. This is certainly not along modern lines of thinking. Then again, Musonius immediately questions even that apparently incontrovertible (to his contemporaries) assumption, by reminding us that there have been plenty of instances of women who have behaved valiantly in battle, having nothing to envy to men. He goes on to say that, conversely, some men are not strong, and may be better suited for tasks that are traditionally not considered “manly.” The picture that emerges, then, is not one of gender discrimination, but simply of letting people do what they are good at. Indeed:
“For all human tasks, I am inclined to believe, are a common obligation and are common for men and women, and none is necessarily appointed for either one exclusively.”
What should we train our kids for? The answer might surprise the modern “helicopter” parent:
“Most of all the child who is trained properly, whether boy or girl, must be accustomed to endure hardship, not to fear death, not to be disheartened in the face of any misfortune; they must in short be accustomed to every situation which calls for courage. … To shun selfishness and to have high regard for fairness and, being a human, to wish to help and to be unwilling to harm one’s fellow human beings is the noblest lesson, and it makes those who learn it just. What reason is there why it is more appropriate for a man to learn this?”
Musonius was alive in the first century of the modern era. Two millennia later, some progress has been made, and yet millions of people the world over still reject the basic truth of the equality of all genders when it comes to rights, including, but not limited to, that of a proper education. It’s a good example of the difference between knowledge and wisdom: we have known the basic facts for millennia, yet many of us still cannot muster the wisdom to accept those facts and act accordingly.