Open Thinkering


Living a good life is not a theoretical exercise

At another time the problem rose among us whether for the acquisition of virtue practice or theory is more effective, understanding that theory teaches what is right conduct, while practice represents the habit of those accustomed to act in accordance with such theory.

Musonius Rufus, ‘That One Should Disdain Hardships’

My go-to reading on Stoicism is Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, probably in that order. I hadn’t read Musonius Rufus before, despite seeing him referenced in Ryan Holiday’s The Daily Stoic.

Picking up a copy of That One Should Disdain Hardships, I found that Musonius Rufus was a reasonably progressive thinker for his time on, for example, whether women should study philosophy. Like Epictetus and Socrates, it’s actually his students writing down what they’ve learned.

In one of the early chapters, Musonius Rufus explains that practice is more important than theory when it comes to virtue. He uses three examples to illustrate his points: physicians, sailors, and musicians. In each case he pits someone who knows the theory and can speak well about the subject against one who is practically skilled — but cannot speak well on the subject, and perhaps doesn’t know the theory. His interlocutors agree in each case that practical skill is better than theoretical knowledge and rhetorical ability.

How, now, in view of these conclusions, could knowledge of the theory of anything be better than becoming accustomed to act according to the principles of the theory, if we understand that application enables one to act, but theory makes one capable of speaking about it?

Musonius Rufus, ‘That One Should Disdain Hardships’

I have spent much of my adult life studying Philosophy, either formally at university or informally through reading and discussing. But living a good life is not a theoretical exercise, and that is why my Mastodon bio simply quotes Epictetus in saying:

Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.


This post is Day 17 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at

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