Musonius Rufus — III & IV: On the education of women

[image: bronze statuette of a girl reading (1st century), Wikipedia; this is essay #274 in the Figs in Winter series]

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?”

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.”

“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.”

“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?”

“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.”

“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?”

by Massimo Pigliucci. Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store