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

Philosophy as a Way of Life
5 min readFeb 18, 2021
[image: bronze statuette of a girl reading (1st century), Wikipedia]

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:

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Philosophy as a Way of Life

by Massimo Pigliucci. Practical philosophy, science, pseudoscience & good reasoning. Complete index of articles at https://massimopigliucci.org/essays/