Musonius Rufus — II: That people are born with an inclination toward virtue
“All of us, he used to say, are so fashioned by nature that we can live our lives free from error and nobly; not that one can and another cannot, but all.”
So begins Musonius Rufus’ second lecture, in which he defends the Stoic proposition that we are all capable of virtue, and that moreover this capacity is innate, it comes as part of the biological equipment of being a member of the species Homo sapiens.
By “virtue” the Stoics meant something very different from the Christians. They were not talking about purity, chastity, and things of that sort. They were talking about arête, the Greek word that indicates excellence. A virtuous human being, then, is the best human being there ca be. But “best” according to what criteria?
Consider an analogy with other living organisms, a lion, say. What makes one lion better than another, according to lion-specific criteria? A number of things, including his speed and strength, for instance, which will secure him food and a mate, and therefore offspring, the real currency of the biological world. Similarly, a good human being is one that lives by taking seriously its own nature as a biological species. And what is the nature of Homo sapiens? To be able to solve problems (and survive) by the application of reason, and to live in a highly social manner. That’s why “living according to nature” for the Stoics means that we should cultivate reason and apply it to make human society better. That’s how we strive toward arête.
What Musonius is telling us is that, just as in the case of the lion, the inclination and capacity for arête is built into our very nature, though of course he couldn’t couch this in evolutionary terms, two millennia before Darwin.
Musonius says that our inclination for virtue is different from other skills that are entirely acquired, like being a physician, or playing the lyre, or piloting a ship. These other things don’t come to us naturally, and only some of us perfect them during our lifetime. Accordingly, few people go around telling others that they are good physicians, or good lyre players, or good ship pilots. By contrast:
“Take the common person; when asked whether they are stupid or intelligent, not one will confess to being stupid; or again, when asked whether they are just or unjust, not one will say that they are unjust.”
Why not? Because we take it for granted that intelligence and a sense of justice are natural endowments of human beings. We all have them, including ourselves. Musonius continues:
“If one asks them whether they are temperate or intemperate, they reply at once that they are temperate; and finally, if one asks whether they are good or bad, they would say that they are good, even though they can name no teacher of virtue or mention any study or practice of virtue they have ever made.”
Modern science backs up this Stoic intuitions. As Frans de Waal and a number of comparative primatologists have argued, human beings are indeed naturally highly intelligent and highly prosocial. In fact, a number of other species, like the bonobo chimpanzees, are too, though by far not to the degree of human beings.
This is not a pollyannaish view of humanity. Neither Musonius nor de Waal are suggesting that we are always reasonable, or always prosocial (i.e., virtuous). But they are both saying that when we function, biologically, at our best, we use reason and we engage in prosocial behavior. When we don’t, we are like a lion who doesn’t run fast enough, or who doesn’t have a lot of strength. And we pay the consequences.
The Stoics famously arrived at a developmental theory of moral cognition, their concept of oikeiôsis, or graduate appropriation of other people’s concerns. We begin life by being instinctively concerned with ourselves and with our caretakers. But as we develop the ability to reason about things, we can see that we ought to extend such concern to other people and, ideally, to the entirety of the human cosmopolis. This means that we are naturally inclined to virtue and don’t need anyone to teach us the rudiments, but also that we achieve proficiency at being prosocial by learning. And such learning is the result of both experience and the teaching of others.
Which is where philosophy, conceived not as a technical field of inquiry, but as the art of living, comes in. Consider again an analogy. Some of us are born with more muscle power than others, because of the ever present genetic lottery (and, of course, the environments in which we grow up). But no matter how strong, or not, you are, you can become stronger if you go to the gym and follow a rigorous program of exercises laid out for you by someone who knows what they are doing, a trainer.
Similarly with living a good human life. All of us are capable of doing it. But if we take the time to critically reflect on our experiences (Socrates’ famous “examined life”) and we are willing to learn from people like Musonius Rufus, we get better at it. And why would anyone not want to live the best life they can live?