Musonius Rufus — Lecture XV: Should every child that is born (or conceived) be raised?
Sometimes the ancient Stoic may seem hopelessly out of touch with modernity. And yet, it’s complicated…
Ever since I got interested in practicing Greco-Roman philosophy, and especially one form or another of Stoicism, I’ve had to face the inevitable fact that sometimes the ancients seem so hopelessly out of touch that one wonders whether the whole enterprise is actually worth it.
Stoicism, of course, is not the only philosophy of life to incur in this problem. Confucianism is often, rightly, accused of being too patriarchal. And of course there are countless ethical anachronisms marring all three Abrahamic religions, just to mention a few cases.
And yet, we don’t throw away Christianity, or Buddhism, or other traditions on those grounds alone. That’s because of three reasons: (i) we recognize the value of the general framework of a philosophy or religion, regardless of specific things they might get wrong by modern standards; (ii) we understand that philosophical schools and religious sects evolve over time and adapt to new cultural conditions; and (iii) we acknowledge that there is a difference between what any particular teacher says at any given time and what is logically entailed (or excluded) by the philosophy embraced by that teacher.
Musonius Rufus’s fifteenth lecture is a particularly intriguing example, well worth a bit of discussion. Musonius, remember, was the most prominent Stoic philosopher in first century Rome, as well as the teacher of Epictetus. Some of his ideas, as we’ve seen, were far ahead of his time. But on the topic of abortion and child raising he is as backwards as some of the most egregious conservatives of today — who, however, don’t even have the excuse of living in Ancient Rome.
For instance, at the beginning of Lecture XV Musonius explains the attitude of lawgivers on the matter at hand:
“And when the citizens had few or no children did they not regard it as a loss, but when they had children, yes, plenty of them, did they not regard it as a gain? So it was for this reason that they forbade women to suffer abortions…