Modern thoughts of an ancient Philosopher - Gaius Musonius Rufus - Part II

'The study of philosophy is more essential to a king than to common people’, says Musonius. He explains this to one of the kings of Syria who came to him. His idea that a king should study philosophy seems to have its origin in Plato’s concept of philosopher-kings. (Rajarshis). Musonius says that it is the job of the philosopher to diagnoise good and evil, useful and useless, helpful and harmful. A king must study philosophy, otherwise, it will not be clear that he knows justice and what a just decision is. Moreover, “it is more shameful for a man who is a king to be ignorant of justice, than it is to a private citizen. A king must be self-controlled and must control his subjects and rule with self-control. There should not be laziness either on the part of the king, or on the part of the private citizen. According to Musonius, a king  can attain this and the quality of courage by pursuing the study of philosophy. Even to have command over speech, a king must study philosophy, for simple orators are exposed, being weaker in words before a philosopher” These words of Musonius are worth pondering “I myself think that a good king is from the start a philosopher, out of necessity and that a philosopher is from the start is also a kingly person. A fine equation, indeed! He approves Socrates “In my opinion, this is why Socrates goes so far as to call philosophy the knowledge appropriate for a citizen and a king; because the person who takes it up is thereupon a proper citizen”. These words are tributes to a philosopher by Musonius “Even though he lacks subjects who obey him, the philosopher is still kingly.” We may quote Plato’s words that only a philosopher-king is fit to guide a nation.” Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and wisdom and political leadership meet in the same man, cities will never cease from ill. (The Republic) Although exiled three or more times from his native land, Musonious neither complains nor is upset. He does not feel uncomfortable in exile. His words about the experience of exile evince his formidable character, stoic acceptance of any situation that shows up (or strikes as the blow of lightning) in life. This is his advice to an exiled person - ‘Exile certainly does not deprive us of water, earth, air, sun and other stars, nor indeed does it deprive us of human companionship.” [It seems that the emperors of that age, though tyrants were not more tyrannous than the modern ones.] Musonious remembers “Is it the world, the common fatherland of all human beings as Socrates thought?” Socrates practised the true essence of philosophy and lived it. To such a person, while world is a family, as it is stated in sanatana dharma “Vasudhaiva Kutumbhakam”. Such persons feel “Svadesho bhuvanatrayam” [ All the three worlds are native land]. An exiled person should think that he is only deprived of a certain city. Musonius remembers the words of Euripides “the eagle can fly through all the air and a noble man has all the earth as his fatherland”. Plus points of exile according to Musonius are – Exile never deprives anyone from learning what one wants nor does it prevent one from what he needs to do and from acting accordingly. He believes exile gives enough leisure and solitude for introspection. Sometimes, exile becomes advantageous to persons like Diogenes, who was transformed from an ordinary person to a philosopher while in exile. He spent his time in exile in Greece and in practise of virtue, excelled other philosophers. Musonius opines that exile helps people who are unhealthy owing to soft and luxurious living. Exile strengthens and makes them wholesome. He gives example of one Spartiatikos who was cured from his weak chest. Some people were cured of gout and such other diseases and restored to health while in exile. He gives examples of Odysseus, Themistocles and many others from Greek literature and proves his theory that exile itself does not create difficulty to the person exiled. We need not think that to be exiled is to get bad reputation for, as Musonius says, everyone knows that many cases are judged wrongly, many people are thrown out of their fatherland unjustly, many men who are good are driven out by  their fellow citizens. He gives the examples of Amistades and Hermodorous. He is not a bit bothered by exiles; he celebrates it as a chance for introspection and to gain health, strength and to digest the real essence of philosophy.
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Should a philosopher file a law-suit against someone for assault? ‘No’, is the firm answer of Musonius. He says that he would never file a law-suit against anyone for assault. Study of philosophy is not worthwhile to file such law-suits. When do people think they are hurt or injured? When do they experience such things? Musonius says “These things include being jeered at, beaten, spat upon and with assaults being the worst of these outrages,” Spartan boys, when they are whipped in public, make it clear that such things are neither shameful nor injurious. Musonius believes, “If a philosopher cannot scorn blows or jeering, he is useless; a philosopher must make it clear that he scorns even death” Such statement gives rise to many questions. To scorn or ignore the jeers and abuses is not like scorning death. To react to such things is like the reflex action of winking or closing of eyes when something comes near or touches the eyes. Whether a person is a common man or a philosopher, should he suffer all unjust injuries and assaults without any reaction or protest? How would it effect insensitive cruelty with evil intentions? It is just like non-violent resistance advocated by Gandhiji. In a way, this is what Jesus Christ preached also. It is quite right that a thoughtful and sensible person is disturbed by none of these things. But, such principles cannot be practised enmasse nor is it practicable in a society of rogues and rowdies. Musonius gives example of Socrates who refused to be upset when he was publicly ridiculed in the theatre by the playwright Aristophanes. Phoenicious, the good person did not even consider bringing charges against a person who insulted his wife. But, how many of us can be Socrates and Phoenicious? [ This is a question to ponder upon. Principle of non-violent resistance brings chaos in a society and increases unruly behaviour] However, it needs Herculean effort and patience to practise this principle. Musonius advocates: “Plotting how to bite back someone who bites and returns evil against the one who first did evil –this is characteristic of a beast and not a man” “It is the characteristic of a civilized person and of human temperament not to respond to wrongs as a beast would and not to be implacable towards those who offend, but to provide them with a model of decent behaviour … “ He declares that a philosopher who thinks it is right to forgive someone who offends him is better than one who thinks he must defend himself by filing law-suits. Agriculture that aids one to earn his livelihood is the most suitable occupation for a philosopher, according to Musonius. Even if a person does not own lands, he may work in someone else’s lands and earn his living. He praises the bountifulness and repaying power of earth and this endears people to love agriculture and have contact with nature. He says “The earth repays most beautifully and justly, those who care for her, giving back many times what she received. For someone willing to work, she supplies an abundance of all the things necessary for life and does so in a seemly and shame-free manner”. He opines that agricultural tasks provide abundant leisure for the soul to do deep thinking and to reflect on the nature of education. It leaves enough strength for the soul to contemplate on better things and gain wisdom. And this happens to be the goal of every philosopher. Moreover, it is in accordance with nature to be nourished from the earth which is our nurse and mother. It is more beneficial to live in a village for all true lovers of philosophy who love learning or teaching essential things. [Such an atmosphere will surely benefit a student also, as it was in ‘Gurukulas’ of ancient India] Farming, he says, will never get in the way of learning or teaching essential things. As such, farming will be the ideal occupation for a philosopher.  

Musonius’ views on Sex, marriage and family

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Musonius’ views on sex, marriage and family throw light on social life, especially sexual relationships prevalent at his time. It is a well known fact that homosexuality, especially between males – what we now call gay relationship- was rampant in his society. Even in Marcus Aurelius’ time (many years after the death of Musonius), we are informed by Marcus that he was strictly warned by his grandfather not to be lured by such relations. Musonius observes that “luxurious living” involves sexual behaviour because men who live luxuriously desire a variety of sexual experiences both legitimate and illegitimate, and both with men and women. Sometimes, they pursue one male as their beloved and sometimes another. When they are not satisfied with those males available, they go after the ones hard to seek. These words of the Roman philosopher mirrors the situation of the society of his time as well as the present day society. As a staunch follower of Stoicism, Musonius maintains that the sexual acts that occur in marriage carried out for the creation of children, no doubt are right and lawful, but when such acts chase after mere pleasure, even if they occur in marriage, are wrong and unlawful. He says that while the most illegitimate sexual relationship is adultery, the relationships between males are also not tolerable, for this outrage is contrary to nature. Unlawful relationship with women, though they do not involve adultery are shameful. Such relationships with a mistress, a free woman outside marriage or with his own female slave are disgraceful. All such acts are shameful according to him. He says “the man who delights himself in getting dirty as pigs do, lacks self-control”. He questions the prevalent attitude that a man may indulge in such illegal relationships and not women. It is neither shameful nor unnatural for a master to consort with his own female slave, why shouldn’t his wife consort with him as a slave? Men, he says, should have a much higher standard of behaviour, if they expect women to be upright and follow them. Setting up such high standards of value based life may no doubt help in bringing up a wholesome society. But, how to cope with or master over the lure of flesh and weakness of mind? Musonius’s concepts of the chief end of marriage and how should be the [partnership of married couple are quite relevant to present society. He simply says “the chief end of marriage is uniting to live together and have children” Besides advocating this, he states that the couple should consider all things as common possessions and nothing as private, not even the body itself. And this naturally welds the bond between a husband and wife and increases emotional companionship and attachment between them. Mutual care, according to him is important in marriage. Above all, companionship and care of husband and wife for each other, both in health and sickness is very essential in marriage. When such care is complete, and those who live together provide it for each other fully and each compete to surpass the other in giving care, such a partnership is beautiful. The philosopher offers quite a rosy picture, an utopian picture indeed. Yet, if young couple of our society heed to such words of ancient philosopher, the number of divorces and family strifes may decrease. He presents the picture of discord between husband and wife too. Sometimes, a spouse considers only his or her own interests and neglects the other’s concern – In such cases, even though the couple lives together, their union is bound to be destroyed and their affairs cannot help, but go poorly. They either break apart completely from each other or they have a relationship that is worse than solitude. He advises young men not be attracted by the wealth and beautiful body of young women and plan to find such partner for life (simply from wealthy family). Finally, he says, “Souls that are naturally disposed towards self-control and justice – in a word towards virtue – are obviously most suitable for marriage. Without this, marriage cannot be either harmonious or noble” Marriage will never be a hindrance for the study of philosophy, believes Musonius. He gives examples of great philosophers like Pythogoras, Socrates and Crates and says each one of them lived with a wife and no one can name better philosophers than these. Crates had no home, property or money, still he married and passed his days and nights with his wife in the public stoas of Athens. Yet, this did not stop him from the study of philosophy. He states “Marriage is obviously in according with nature” and explains how nature has created human kind, has cut our species into two and made two sets of genitals – one female and one male. Along with this, it has implanted in each a strong desire for companionship and union with the other and a strong longing for the other. He reveals the mystery and purpose of the creation of male and female – that is to perpetuate the human race through procreation, so that human species may be ever-lasting. [So to say, this is the mystery behind the creation of all species – the governing principle is creation]. To achieve this end in a lawful and harmonious manner, gradually, the concepts of marriage, mutual trust and family seem to have been evolved in societies. Musonius compares human nature of that of bees “A bee is not able to live alone; it perishes when isolated. It is intent on performing the common task of its species. The concept of a family helps in expanding the self in a person and in a way help in snubbing the ego in him. Man who marries, expands his self and reaches out to his wife. When the couple beget children, their self is expanded. Thus, mother, father, brother, sister and many such bonds are formed and marriage paves way for such bonds. Such expansions of self may happen without the accepted norm of marriage also, but without the main purpose of perpetuating the species. It cannot be denied that marriages are the main source of perpetuating the human race. Musonius puts forth logically that humans will cease to exist if there would be no procreation and if there would be no marriage, there would be no procreation- that is, just and lawful procreation. In modern world, we may speak of IVFs and test tube babies, but these cannot be as easy, natural or abundant as natural procreation by the union of male and female. Maybe, for such reason, Musonius extols the companionship and togetherness of a husband and a wife more than any other relationship. “One could not find a union more necessary or agreeable than the union of man and woman” He asks “who is missed so much when absent as a husband is by his wife or a wife by her husband. Whose mutual presence could do more to lessen grief, increase joy or alleviate misfortune?’ [Sometimes, it may happen vice versa] As Gods themselves ‘govern’ the marriages, they are important. When humans care about them, as it is in accordance with nature, why shouldn’t they be the concern of philosophers too? This is his argument and he repeats that marriage should never be a hindrance to the study of philosophy. Should parents raise all children they beget? Musonius’ thoughts reveal the norms prevalent in the society of his time. The thoughts presented here resemble that of those in our society. He says that the law gives of that time after research considered it most beneficial for cities that citizens’ households should be increased and thought it most harmful for cities if those households are diminished. They thought it unprofitable for cities to have a few or no citizens.  According to Musonius, the law givers forbade women from inducing miscarriages. A woman could not agree to be childless nor could she prevent conception. Married couple with many children were honoured in the society. Should we now think that the ancient law givers were wrong? Musonius states that a man with many children was respected and earned honour from his neighbours. It was so in our country too in ancient times before birth control had to be practised to check the growth of population. We read in our epics that the kings even had thousands of children. “The man who has a lot of children is much more powerful than the man who has a few or none” – these thoughts must be examined from the point of modern day social structure where family planning, use of contraceptives and abortions are legalised to control the birthrate – increase in population that leads to poverty, unemployment and other problems. Contrary to his, another aspect of modern day problem is evinced in single-child syndrome (if we may call it so), which results in selfishness, loneliness and depression in children, which were either rare or not seen in societies of the past. However, Musonius maintains that it is the duty of parents to raise all the children they beget. We may question, how can a poor man raise all his children giving them comforts of life? Musonius too cites example from nature. While birds like swallows, nightingales, larks and blackbirds with far fewer resources than men raise their nestlings, what hinders man? He quotes from, Homer “As a bird carries to her nestlings, which cannot fly, a morsel whenever she gets it and she gets very little” (Iliad) . However, it is parents’ duty to bring up their children. Musonius criticizes the mentality of parents who refuse to get second or third child in order to provide every sort of luxury and comfort to the first born. He regrets that such parents deprive the earlier born of brothers and sisters. Such parents fail to understand that to have brothers and sisters is more valuable and laudable than having possession of more property or money. We have seen how China has reverses its rule of one child and encouraging to have more than one child. In a world which always styands on the threshold of wars, mass killing has become easy and faster. Killing without reason is the mantra of the day. Huge number of deaths are occurring due to human and man-made disasters. Wouldn’t the world need more children? – the question arises.  

What does Musonius say about food?

Musonius firmly believed “food was not an insignificant topic and what one eats has significant consequences” and mastering one’s appetite for food and drink was the beginning of self-control. If Musonius’ advice regarding food is followed, modern malady of extravagance and hankering for varieties of food may be cured. According to him, one should choose inexpensive food over expensive one and it should be easy to obtain and suitable for a human being. If so, what is suitable for us? Food from things which the earth produces, that is, “various grains and other plants can nourish human beings. Also nourishing is food from domestic animals, which we don’t slaughter” Seasonal fruits and some food that we can eat without cooling also are suitable for us. He opines that “meat based diet is too crude for humans and more suitable for wild beasts. It is too heavy and impedes mental activity.” He comments on human tendency regarding food. When it comes to food, “We are worse than brute animals –we think up all sorts of devices and tricks to embellish the presentation of our food and to better amuse our palate”. He observes that we humans have become so greedy and particular about cuisine that just as there are books on music and medicine, people have written books on cooking that will increase our gastronomic pleasure”. That means,  even two thousand years ago, books were being written on cooking to cater to the taste of eaters. Musonius’ observations mirror the situation of our own time and societies where innumerable books on cooking are being written and every TV channel has many demos on cooking of various types. This philosopher makes fun of men who eat too much of rich food and resemble pregnant women who carve for strange food. Gluttony and carving for gourmet food is most shameful according to him. Further, he is aware that it is difficult for humans to resist the temptation and the allurement of delicious food. He says. although there are many pleasures which persuade human beings to do wrong and compel them to act against their own interest, the pleasure connected with food is undoubtedly the most difficult of all pleasures to combat.''[Yes that is why it is called sinless pleasure] But, we must remember that more often we are tempted by it, the greater the danger it presents. After much discussion, he quotes Socrates’ sound advice – “many men love to eat, but that he ate to live,'' Musonius’ views regarding protection from elements, furnishing house, cutting hair are also worth noting. He says that one should seek protection for the body from the elements using the things that are not expensive and excessive. One should wear modest clothing and footwear - one uses these like an armour to defend the body but not to show off. Our houses built to protect us from the elements should be built as to provide what is needed. Musonius questions the appropriateness of extravagant use of money used for gilded ceilings colonnades and many of sorts of interior and exterior decorations. His question is pertinent: "is it not more praise-worthy to help a lot of people than to live expensively?" Even in furnishing houses, he holds the same opinion and advises to use readily available and inexpensive furnishings rather than seeking rare and expensive ones. He feels no one can acquire such expensive things without being unjust. As such, luxurious living must be completely avoided His views about cutting hair may seem trivial to us. Men should cut their hair the way vines are pruned by removing what is useless. The beard should not be shaved, for it is a protection provided for providence and is the emblem of manhood as a cock's crest and a lion’s mane. Sometimes, men trim and arrange their hair to attract women and boys whose praise they seek. Musonius says that such people are broken by luxurious living and are completely emasculated. They don't mind looking androgynous, and women who like real men will not tolerate this. Hair is more a burden for men than feathers for birds,, [surely then all men may present themselves as ancient rishis!] Though this seems comical, it presents the norm of this day. Musonius’ views on getting old gracefully are worth pondering upon. What holds in youth is good in old age also, is his belief. We must first understand that old age is not a burden, a curse or a very difficult stage in man's life. Experience and intelligence of a life-time makes the stage worthy of much respect. He points out that the human beings do not come in existence for pleasure. We must realize that a human being does not live in accordance with nature when he lives for pleasure, but he does so when he lives for virtue. If a person has a proper education while still young and has learnt and practiced those lessons in old age also, he will use these lessons to live according to nature. He then endures without regret or deprivations of pleasure connected with youth. He won't complain about the increasing weakness of his body. He won't get upset by neglect of friends and relatives. He would have prepared by now an effective antidote against all these in himself, in his own intelligence and education he possessed. More than anything, he calmly accepts all that happens and he is free from fear of death," if one should learn in one's old age to accept death boldly and fearlessly, it is an important step towards living without regret and according to nature. This can be acquired by associating with the real philosophers. One must realize “Wealth is cannot be a good defence in old age" are true statements by the philosopher Musonius and such views endears and enlighten us even to today:  

Some sayings of  Musonius Rufus 

  • Life is not possible to live well today unless you treat it has your last day.
  • Why do we criticize tyrants, when in fact we are much worst than they are? We have the same inclinations as they do; we just lack opportunities to act on them.
  • He used to say that it was the height of the shamelessness to think how weak our bodies  are when enduring pain, but to forget how weak they are when experiencing pleasure.
  • Speak of shameful things, and you will lose your reluctance to do them.
  • You will deserve respect from everyone if you will start by respecting yourself.
  • Choose to die well while you can; wait too long it, might become impossible to do  so
  • Don't expect to tell others what they should do when they know that you do what  you shouldn't.
  • Given that all must die, it is better to die with distinction than to live long.
  • Majesty is the characteristic of a king who inspires awe; cruelty, of one who inspires fear.
  • The power of the reason should be compared to nutritious food rather than drugs.
  • Admiration can give raise to great praise, but the greatest admiration gives rise not to words but to silence.
  • If you accomplish something good with hard work, the labour passes quickly but the good endures; if you do something shameful in pursuit of pleasure, the pleasure passes quickly and the shame endures.

Many sayings of Musonius may be found in the 'discourses of Epictetus'

  • It is the function of nature to make for choice for action harmonize with the correct perception of the appropriate and beneficial.
  • If you have enough time to praise me, then I know what I am saying is worthless.
  • Believing that we will be scorned by others unless we destroy every enemy we        meet is characteristic of extremely ignoble and mindless men.
  • In the words of Herodes - Musonius ordered a thousand sentences to be given to a charlatan who was posing himself as a philosopher. When several people said that this good-for-nothing was a bad and devious man, worthy of nothing good, Musonius smiled and said, "Then money is what he deserves"
Thanks to Venkata Sai Rahul for his help in typing this article



Prof. Shantakumari is a teacher, writer, translator and literary critic. Her seminal work ‘Yugasaakshi’ is a critical and definitive study of S. L. Bhyrappa’s Kannada novels. ‘Chaitanyada Chilume’ and ‘Nenapu gari bicchidaaga’ are her autobiographical works. ‘Satyapathika-Socrates’ and ‘Kaggada-Kaanike’ are some of her major works. She has co-translated many of Bhyrappa's novels into English and parts of Will Durant's 'Story of Civilization' into Kannada.

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इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।


इदं खण्डकाव्यमान्तं मालिनीछन्दसोपनिबद्धं विलसति। मेनकाविश्वामित्रयोः समागमः, तत्फलतया शकुन्तलाया जननम्, मातापितृभ्यां त्यक्तस्य शिशोः कण्वमहर्षिणा परिपालनं चेति काव्यस्यास्येतिवृत्तसङ्क्षेपः।


इयं रचना दशसु रूपकेष्वन्यतमस्य भाणस्य निदर्शनतामुपैति। एकाङ्करूपकेऽस्मिन् शेखरकनामा चित्रोद्यमलेखकः केनापि हेतुना वियोगम् अनुभवतोश्चित्रलेखामिलिन्दकयोः समागमं सिसाधयिषुः कथामाकाशभाषणरूपेण निर्वहति।


अस्मिन् स्तोत्रकाव्ये भगवन्तं शिवं कविरभिष्टौति। वसन्ततिलकयोपनिबद्धस्य काव्यस्यास्य कविकृतम् उल्लाघनाभिधं व्याख्यानं च वर्तते।

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the third volume, some character sketches of great literary savants responsible for Kannada renaissance during the first half of the twentieth century. These remarkable...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the second volume, episodes from the lives of remarkable exponents of classical music and dance, traditional storytellers, thespians, and connoisseurs; as well as his...

Karnataka’s celebrated polymath, D V Gundappa brings together in the first volume, episodes from the lives of great writers, poets, literary aficionados, exemplars of public life, literary scholars, noble-hearted common folk, advocates...

Evolution of Mahabharata and Other Writings on the Epic is the English translation of S R Ramaswamy's 1972 Kannada classic 'Mahabharatada Belavanige' along with seven of his essays on the great epic. It tells the riveting...

Shiva-Rama-Krishna is an English adaptation of Śatāvadhāni Dr. R Ganesh's popular lecture series on the three great...


ಮಹಾಮಾಹೇಶ್ವರ ಅಭಿನವಗುಪ್ತ ಜಗತ್ತಿನ ವಿದ್ಯಾವಲಯದಲ್ಲಿ ಮರೆಯಲಾಗದ ಹೆಸರು. ಮುಖ್ಯವಾಗಿ ಶೈವದರ್ಶನ ಮತ್ತು ಸೌಂದರ್ಯಮೀಮಾಂಸೆಗಳ ಪರಮಾಚಾರ್ಯನಾಗಿ  ಸಾವಿರ ವರ್ಷಗಳಿಂದ ಇವನು ಜ್ಞಾನಪ್ರಪಂಚವನ್ನು ಪ್ರಭಾವಿಸುತ್ತಲೇ ಇದ್ದಾನೆ. ಭರತಮುನಿಯ ನಾಟ್ಯಶಾಸ್ತ್ರವನ್ನು ಅರ್ಥಮಾಡಿಕೊಳ್ಳಲು ಇವನೊಬ್ಬನೇ ನಮಗಿರುವ ಆಲಂಬನ. ಇದೇ ರೀತಿ ರಸಧ್ವನಿಸಿದ್ಧಾಂತವನ್ನು...


“वागर्थविस्मयास्वादः” प्रमुखतया साहित्यशास्त्रतत्त्वानि विमृशति । अत्र सौन्दर्यर्यशास्त्रीयमूलतत्त्वानि यथा रस-ध्वनि-वक्रता-औचित्यादीनि सुनिपुणं परामृष्टानि प्रतिनवे चिकित्सकप्रज्ञाप्रकाशे। तदन्तर एव संस्कृतवाङ्मयस्य सामर्थ्यसमाविष्कारोऽपि विहितः। क्वचिदिव च्छन्दोमीमांसा च...

The Best of Hiriyanna

The Best of Hiriyanna is a collection of forty-eight essays by Prof. M. Hiriyanna that sheds new light on Sanskrit Literature, Indian...

Stories Behind Verses

Stories Behind Verses is a remarkable collection of over a hundred anecdotes, each of which captures a story behind the composition of a Sanskrit verse. Collected over several years from...