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The Ethics of Diet - A Catena
by Howard Williams M.A., 1883

C. RUFUS MUSONIUS (1st Century A.D.)
(text from the 2nd edition, 1896, scanned by )

A STOIC writer, of great repute with his contemporaries, son of a Roman Eques, was born at Volsinii (Bolsena), in Etruria, at the end of the reign of Augustus. He was banished by Nero, who especially hated the professor of the Porch, on the pretext of his association in the conspiracy of Piso—the charge on which Seneca was condemned to death. But by Vespasian he was held in extraordinary honour, when the rest of the philosophers were expelled from Rome. The time of his death is uncertain. He was the author of various philosophical works characterised by Suïdas as "distinguished writings of a highly philosophic nature," who also attributes to him (but on uncertain evidence) letters to Apollonius of Tyana. We are indebted for knowledge of his opinions to a work (of unknown authorship) entitled Memoirs of Musonius the Philosopher. It is from this work that Stobæus (Anthologion), Aulus Gellius, Arrian, and others seem to have borrowed in quoting the dicta of the great Stoic teacher. The fragments, as has been said by one of his critics, are, "full of pure morality and wisdom."

Although his great merits, for the most part, have been almost wholly overlooked by modern critics, this admirable writer of the better Stoic school, claims a place second only to Seneca in the literature of the Porch. While the Encheiridion ("Hand-Book") of his celebrated pupil, the ex-slave Epiktêtus, always has been the object of unbounded eulogy of every critic, the yet more meritorious—because more objective and practical—philosophy of the Master seems to have been regarded with comparative indifference. Yet no Latin writer, the author of the De Clenzentiâ and the De Vitâ Beatâ excepted, had clearer or profounder conceptions of some of the leading principles of the higher morality than Musonius Rufus.

A younger contemporary of Seneca, among his friends he numbered Thrasea Pætus and Soranus, who live in the pages of Tacitus. Sent into exile by Nero, to the island of Gyarus in the Ægean sea, he attracted to that barren rock many hearers by the fame of his superior discourses. Recalled from banishment at the fall of the tyrant, he acted as mediator between the opposing pretenders to the empire during that terrible period when Rome, ravaged by the alternate victors, seemed to be on the point of perishing in the universal conflagration, a period of sturm und drang which inspired that most terrific production in all literature—the Johannine Apokalypsis. Under Vespasian and his son Titus, Musonius enjoyed honour and respect and held some official post. He died, probably, in the early part of the reign of Trajan, at the beginning of the second century.

In the 1st edition, 1883, Musonius is given a place in the Appendix S.V. The above text is slightly expanded from the original 1883 text:-

All the extant fragments of his writings are carefully collected by Peerlkamp (Haarlem 1822). (See also Herr Ed. Baltzer's valuable monograph, Musonius: Charakterbild aus Der Romischen Kaiserzeit. Nordhausen 1871) :-

"On diet he used to speak often and very earnestly, as of a matter important in itself and in its effects. For he thought that continuence in meats and drinks is the beginning and groundwork of temperance. Once, forsaking his usual line of argument, he spoke as follows :-

" 'As we should prefer cheap fare to costly, and that which is easy to that which which is hard to procure, so also, that which is akin to man to that which is not so. Akin to us is that from plants, grains, and such other vegetable products as nourish him well; also what is derived from (other) animals - not slaughtered, but otherwise serviceable. Of these foods the most suitable are such as we may use at once without fire, for such are readiest to hand. Such are fruits in season, and some herbs, milk, cheese and honeycombs. Moreover such as need fire, and belong to the classes of grains or herbs, are not unsuitable, but are all, without exception, akin to man.'

"Eating of flesh-meat he declared to be brutal, and adapted to savage animals. It is heavier, he said, and hindering thought and intelligence; the vapour arising from it is turbid and darkens the soul, so that they who partake of it abundantly are seen to be slower of apprehension. As man is [at his best] most nearly related to the Gods of all beings on earth, so, also, his food should be most like that of the Gods. They, he said, are content with the steams that rise from earth and waters, and we shall take the food most like to theirs, if we take that which is lightest and purest.

"So our soul will also be pure and clear, and, being so, will be best and wisest, as Heracleitus judges when he says the clear soul is wisest and best. As it is, said Musonius, we are fed far worse than the irrational beings; for they, though they are driven fiercely by appetite as by a scourge, and pounce upon their food, still are devoid of cunning and contrivance in regard to their fare - being satisfied with what comes in their way, seeking only to be filled and nothing further. But we invent manifold arts and devices the more to sweeten the pleasure of food and to deceive the gullet. Nay to such a pitch of daintiness and greediness have we come, that some have composed treatises, as of music and medicine, so also of cookery, which greatly increase the pleasure in the gullet, but ruin the health. At any rate, you may see that those who are fastidious in the choice of foods are far more sickly in body - some even, like craving women, loathing customary foods, and having their stomachs ruined. Hence, as good-for-nothing steel continually needs sharpening, so their stomachs at table need the continual whet of some strong tasting food. . . . Hence too, it is our duty to eat for life, not for pleasure (only), at least if we are to follow the excellent saying of Socrates, that, while most men lived to eat, he ate to live. For, surely, no one, who aspires to the character of a virtuous man, will deign to resemble the many, and live for eating's sake as they do, hunting from every quarter the pleasure which comes from food.

"Moreover, that God, who made mankind, provided them with meats and drinks for preservation, not for pleasure, will appear from this. When food is most especially performing its proper function in digestion and assimilation, then it gives no pleasure to the man at all - yet we are then fed by it and strengthened. Then we have no sensation of pleasure, and yet this time is longer than that in which we are eating. But if it were for pleasure that God contrived our food, we ought to derive pleasure from it throughout this longer time, and not merely at the passing moment of consumption. Yet, nevertheless, for that brief moment of enjoyment we make provision of ten thousand dainties ; we sail the sea to its furthest bounds; cooks are more sought after than husbandmen. Some lavish on dinners the price of estates, and that though their bodies derive no benefit from the costliness of the viands.

"Quite the contrary; it is those who use the cheapest food who are the strongest. For example, you may, for the most part, see slaves more sturdy than masters, country-folk than town-folk,poor than rich - more able to labour, sinking less at their work, seldomer ailing more easily enduring frost, heat, sleeplessness, and the like. Even if cheap food and dear strengthens the body alike, still we ought to choose the cheap; for this is more sober and more suited to a virtuous man; inasmuch as what is easy to procure is, for good men, more proper for food than what is hard - what is free from trouble than what gives trouble - what is ready than what is not ready. To sum up in a word the whole use of diet, I say that we ought to make its aim health and strength, for these are the only ends for which we should eat, and they require no large outlay.' " (1)



  1. Florilegium of Stobæus - (17-48 and 18-88), quoted by Professor Mayor in Dietetic Reformer, July, 1881. In the erudite and exhaustive edition of Juvenal, by Professor Mayor (Macmillan, Cambridge), will be found a large number of quotations from Greek and Latin writers, and a great deal of interesting matter upon frugal living.

Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet - index