Musonius Rufus: Why Practice Beats Theory
Stoic teacher Musonius Rufus thought practice to be more effective than theory. In support of his own opinion, he asked the following:
“Suppose there are two men, one of whom has sailed many times and has already piloted many boats, and the other of who has sailed few times and has never been a pilot. Suppose the one who has never been a pilot can speak very fluently about the theory of navigation, and suppose the other speaks poorly and incoherently. Which would you hire as pilot if you were sailing?”
We’d all choose the experienced sailor.
The other might be a better salesman and can explain all things sailing. And he might not say that he’s never sailed a boat. Suddenly there is the danger that we actually choose the wrong man. Because the true pilot doesn’t say much and what he says doesn’t impress us.
But as soon as we know that one is an experienced sailor and the other a mere theorist, the choice becomes easy.
“How then would knowing the theory of a thing be better than practicing that theory and doing things in accordance with its guidelines?”
“Although understanding the theory behind the action enables one to speak, it is practice that enables one to act.”
Musonius is clear on what’s more important: “Practice is more important than theory because it more effectively leads humans to actions than theory does.”
When it comes to philosophy, this is even more important.
It is pointless to learn about the art of living if we don’t apply it in everyday life.
“The person who claims to be studying philosophy must practice it even more diligently than the person who aspires to the art of medicine or a similar skill, inasmuch as philosophy is more important and harder to grasp than any other pursuit.”
Another reason is that if you study skills other than philosophy, you have not learned much about it before and are less prejudiced. With philosophy it’s different. You’ve been living already for a couple of years at least, and have learned and done things opposite to what you think to be right today.
With philosophy, we must unlearn and override old & faulty behavior patterns. This takes more effort than learning a new skill from scratch.
How, then, should we practice philosophy?
“Since a human being happens to be neither soul alone nor body alone, but a composite of these two things, someone in training must pay attention to both.”
We should pay more attention to the soul, he says, but as the soul’s righteous actions are often accompanied with physical activities, we need a strong body, too.
“We will train both soul and body when we accustom ourselves to cold, heat, thirst, hunger, scarcity of food, hardness of bed, abstaining from pleasures, and enduring pains.”
Ever heard of voluntary discomfort?
“Through these methods and others like them, the body is strengthened, becomes inured to suffering, and strong and fit for every task; the soul is strengthened as it is trained for courage by enduring hardships and trained for self-control by abstaining from pleasures.”
Once again it becomes clear that acute hardships can actually be good for us. “We gain every good from toil,” as Musonius said.
We must be careful to recognize things which seem to be good are not always good, and things which seem to be bad are not always bad.
“Even though we have heard these ideas, because of the corruption which has been ingrained in us all the way from childhood and because of the wicked behavior caused by this corruption, we think it a bad thing when pain comes on us, and we think it a good thing when pleasure comes.”
“In too many circumstances, we do not deal with our affairs in accordance with correct assumptions, but rather we follow thoughtless habit.”
“Since I say this is the case, the person who is practicing to become a philosopher must seek to overcome himself so that he won’t welcome pleasure and avoid pain, so that he won’t love living and fear death.”
In that sense, let’s embrace hardships as training, for they teach us to do what’s hard to do and to resist doing what’s hard to resist.
Musonius Rufus: Lectures & Sayings, translated by Cynthia King.