The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students
Asked whether women as well as men should study philosophy, the distinguished Roman Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus, teacher of Epictetus, replied as follows:
Women have received from the god the same rational faculty as men, the faculty that we use in communicating with one another and in reasoning about each matter, as to whether it is a good thing or a bad. Similarly, the female has the same faculties of sense perception as the male: seeing, hearing, smelling, and the rest. Similarly, they both have the same number of bodily parts, and neither has any more parts than the other. Furthermore, desire and natural orientation towards excellence belong not only to men, but also to women; for not less than men they are naturally pleased by fine and just deeds and repelled by the contrary. Since things are this way, why on earth should it be fitting for men to examine and inquire into how one should live well—which is what it is to do philosophy—and for women not?1
This passage states a conception of “higher education,” and the place of philosophy in that education, that can be found not only in Stoic texts but in the writings of many of the greatest philosophers of the Greek and Roman world. This conception of philosophy has three elements, closely connected, and all traced by Stoics to Socrates, their model and hero:
1) Philosophical education is practical. It is the rational search for the best human life. Its subject is, above all, the study of moral and social conceptions, and its purpose (as Musonius later makes plain) is, through reflection, the amelioration both of the individual student’s life and, through the choices of educated individuals, of the surrounding society.
2) In philosophical education the pupil is active. It is not the passive reception of external truths, but the following out of paths of rational and critical argument—indeed, the enlivening and developing of the pupil’s rational soul. (For this reason, Musonius later stresses, it must be closely tailored, in each case, to the needs of the particular student, like the prescriptions of a good doctor.)
3) Philosophical education should be broadly distributed. It is appropriate to all who are by nature rational beings, that is, beings capable of practical and ethical reasoning. (Epictetus was a slave when he attended Musonius’ lectures. Later he became a free man and a distinguished philosopher.)
These three elements are connected. It is because philosophy’s practical content is so important for human life, both individual and communal, that making it widely available is so important—fulfills, indeed, a basic human need. And it is central to Stoicism’s conception of philosophy’s practical purpose and of the reasons for its broad distribution to insist that philosophical education is not abstruse contemplation but the development of each human being’s capacities for active practical reasoning.
This picture of philosophy opposes itself, on…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.