In response to:

Tune Out & Lean In from the March 11, 2021 issue

To the Editors:

In his “Tune Out & Lean In” [NYR, March 11], Gregory Hays discusses recent translations and introductions that aim to make later Stoics such as Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius available to broader audiences. The review also covers Yale’s 2020 reissue of Cora Lutz’s 1947 translation of Musonius Rufus, Epictetus’s teacher, for which I provided a new introduction. Hays asks if we should take Stoicism to task, for instance, for its alleged narrow focus on the individual and its related failure to address structural and systematic exclusion and oppression. The Stoics, after all, did not propose that slavery be abolished. But in his critique of what he sees as ancient Stoicism’s potential complicity with problematic, right-wing aspects of its current revival, Hays gets Musonius Rufus (and the other later Stoics of the Roman imperial era) fundamentally wrong—which is decidedly odd coming from a classics scholar who himself translated Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations.

For a start, Musonius is not the equivalent of an “evangelical youth pastor.” Apart from his sly wit, his lectures (even the one on having children) do not represent family values in the contemporary American sense. His argument for limiting sex to procreation, for instance, arises not from Christian preoccupations with sin and purity but from a concern common in antiquity about controlling passions that are seen as deeply debilitating and conducive to unhappiness. Even if contemporary readers do not share his views on sexuality, contraception, and abortion—or cringe at his notion of the “happy poor”—perhaps we can concede that Musonius has a point in rejecting practices of the exposure of newborns and infanticide by the wealthy Roman elite (“not to rear later-born offspring”).

A legitimate concern, not raised by Hays, is that Musonius’s view of human sexuality is explicitly heteronormative, yet Musonius’s observation that relationships between women and men, and not just friendship (or eros) between men, can be a vehicle of the “good life” as defined by ancient philosophy is significant and revolutionary. Antiquity was often “homonormative,” in the etymological sense of privileging rapports among men, and Musonius Rufus decisively breaks with that pattern. And, yes, he focuses on marriage, but I think his point of view can be extended to other types of relationships between women and men. While Hays dismisses Musonius’s apparent proto-feminism as a mere rhetorical ploy to challenge socially accepted patterns of promiscuity in the sexual behavior of men, Musonius in fact does the exact opposite; he uses the traditional claim of men’s superiority over women, which he himself does not accept, as a rhetorical device to critique double standards: “It behooves men to be much better if they expect to be superior to women.”

Finally, how much violence does one need to do to Roman Stoic accounts in order to reduce them to “self-help manuals” (why don’t we reduce Kant’s notion of moral autonomy too, while we are at it?), or to claim that they make one care only about oneself? For one, the Stoic notion of “self” is very different from our notion of the individual; the Stoics saw people as always embedded both in the larger natural order of the universe and in a web of social relations. Moreover, even the later Stoics rely on a very sophisticated system of thought, and Stoicism is the only current of philosophy in antiquity to posit that sociability, in the so-called cosmopolis or community of gods and men, is intrinsic to rationality, human and divine. I have had students read accounts of Stoic cosmopolitanism paired with some of James Baldwin’s essays (“The Discovery of What It Means to Be an American” and others). Baldwin’s perspective is indeed radically different, but both together worked wonders to make students reassess critically certain unreflective conservative forms of American chauvinism—the kind, precisely, that disenfranchises entire segments of American society.

Judging also by Hays’s review, classics appears to be going through a wave of self-destruction. It seems to me that one of the most important tasks of the humanities in the current US context is to teach how to read texts carefully, paying attention to the complexities, nuances, and rhetorical strategies, and, yes, shortcomings and flaws. But not the latter without the former. How we read texts matters, as Simon Goldhill too has argued recently in Bryn Mawr Classical Review. We should always be negotiating a delicate balance between assimilation and letting the differences, the unfamiliar otherness, stand; between drawing inspiration from such accounts and questioning assumptions. Hays himself might have done better by paying at least some attention to what I, as an expert in Stoicism in my own right, actually have written about Musonius Rufus. This feminist, who would push back in no uncertain terms against ultra-conservative appropriations of Stoicism by groups such as the so-called Red Pillers, finds herself curiously silenced. In that sense, Hays’s contribution is not a review at all, nor is it, I would argue, about the Stoics.

Gretchen Reydams-Schils
Professor, Program of Liberal Studies, with concurrent appointments in the Departments of Classics, Philosophy, and Theology
Fellow, Medieval Institute
Director, Workshop on Ancient Philosophy
University of Notre Dame
Notre Dame, Indiana

Gregory Hays replies:

One of the hallmarks of the classics is their continuing ability to provoke strong disagreement, even after two millennia. I think Professor Reydams-Schils and I are looking at the same Musonius from different angles. She is struck by the degree to which he transcended his time, I by the degree to which he didn’t. I’d encourage interested readers to explore the fragments (and her introduction) for themselves. They might also enjoy Guy Davenport’s story “C. Musonius Rufus,” in his 1979 collection Da Vinci’s Bicycle. There they’ll find yet another Musonius, along with the disembodied shade of the third-century Roman emperor Balbinus, and Mussolini paying a visit to Ezra Pound.