The Roman Golden Rule

The famous “Equestrian Statue” of Marcus Aurelius was originally covered in gold.

The Golden Rule is fantastic.  All the world’s major literary cultures—Christians, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, ancient Egyptians, and, especially, Confucians—have at some point recognized that, if you had to choose just one short proverb to live your life by, “treat others the way we want to be treated” is pretty much the best you can do.

The Golden Rule is powerful because it is universal: it captures most of morality in just a single sentence.

I think that a good piece of philosophy, however, has to be more than broad-reaching.  A good proverb has to jump out at you with specifics.  It needs to immediately suggest to you the ways that you can take action to improve your adherence to virtue—not just in some hypothetical scenario in the distance future, but right now.


In its common, general form, the Golden Rule doesn’t really meet this criterion.  For the Golden Rule to be useful as a philosophy—as a self-monitoring tool, as a meditation practice, as a way of life—it needs to be operationalized.

This is why I love the post that Rob Thompson wrote this weekend over at Why Stoics should Love the Golden Rule.  Rob collects no less than 7 variations of the Golden Rule from ancient Stoic literature—and the interesting thing about them is that they are all situation-specific.

Marcus’s golden statue is also featured on this half-euro coin.

Seneca gives us versions of the Golden Rule for anger and for bestowing gifts upon others.  Epictetus illustrates his negative version of the Rule by referencing slavery.  Marcus tells us to love others with all our hearts, and again reminds us not to be angry.

Each of these invocations goes beyond a nice platitude, and instead makes clear that if we are to be virtuous, then we must take our specific duties toward others seriously!

“Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your betters,” says Seneca.

These instantiations of the Golden Rule suggest a potentially powerful Stoic meditation practice: in the same way that we use the Circles of Hierocles to analyze our love for humanity into incremental, practical steps, we can analyze the Golden Rule, asking ourselves about specific ways we can put it into practice today.

The Stoic philosopher Hierocles famously advised us to view the human family as concentric circles—and to imagine ourselves drawing each circle into the center.

A Chinese Flair to Stoic Ethics

At this point, we could easily take our canonical Stoic material as a jumping-off point to develop a meditation practice—a sort of blend of Hierocles and the Golden Rule.

But there is another tradition that was way on top of this Golden Rule thing long before Zeno flipped his boat on the shores of Attica.


I happen to have come to Stoic practice shortly after a long period of casually exploring the Chinese classics—specifically, the works of the early Confucians.

While Stoicism is often compared to Taoism or Buddhism, it is really Confucianism that has the closest affinity to Stoicism’s moral core: like Stoicism, Confucianism is a humanistic system of virtue ethics, it sees theory as meaningless without earnest daily practice, it calls us to “cultivate” our character in imitation of the ideal Sage (the “gentleman”), it prizes benevolence and justice (仁, “ren,” “humaneness”) as the epitome of virtue, and it places a heavy emphasis on our duties toward others, as naturally social animals.

And the absolute central axis of Confucian ethics is the Golden Rule, which appears several times in the Analects alone:

Tzu Kung asked: “Is there any one maxim which ought to be acted upon throughout one’s whole life?”

The Master replied: “Surely the maxim of charity is such: ‘Do not unto others what you would not they should do unto you.'”

The Analects of Confucius


A far more specific and striking version of the Rule, however, appears in The Doctrine of the Mean—an important text in the Confucian canon, attributed to Confucius’ grandson Zisi.

This text is virtually the mirror image of the Circles of Hierocles, and I think it offers some profound fodder for Stoic meditation on benevolence and the cosmopolis:

What you do not want to have done to yourself, do not do to others. The way of the noble person involves four things, and as yet I have ben incapable of even one of them. I have been unable to serve my father as I would have my son serve me; I have been unable to serve my ruler as I would have a minister serve me; I have been unable to serve my elder brother as I would have my younger brother serve me; I have been unable to be first in treating my friend as I would have the friend treat me. If in his practice of these ordinary virtues and in his care in ordinary speech there is anything deficient, he [the noble person] dare not fail to exert himself.

This is the rare kind of philosophy that I can see value in memorizing and repeating to yourself each morning as a motivating meditation.

We all like the Golden Rule, at least as a general heuristic.  But are you really serving the people in your life the way you would like to be served?  That is a question worth asking every day!

Seneca would certainly agree:

Teach me this: how to love my country, my wife, my father.  Teach me to reach this honorable destination, though I be shipwrecked along the way.

Letters to Lucilius, 88.7.


8 thoughts on “The Roman Golden Rule”

    1. Stoicism is communitarian by modern Western standards—but next to Confucianism, it can seem quite individualistic! Stoicism goes into a lot more detail on managing your inner judgments, emotions, and character.

      Confucian ethics are expressed largely in ritual codes of conduct, and they talk more about your duties and roles in society. Confucian texts also tend to be targeted at kings and government officials, not so much the common man. They believe that the virtuous leaders could inspire their subordinates to follow them in good behavior.

      The best summary of Confucian ethics I’ve found is in this Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article: Chinese Ethics: Confucian Ethics Both of them emphasize daily practice, but in my amateur reading, at least, the canonical Confucian texts seems more vague in how one is supposed to go about “self-cultivation” (the Chinese counterpart to “askesis”).


    1. Kind of you to ping me! I’m still here. Just took a hiatus to plan and execute my wedding! ;).

      You’ll notice that my new post was directly triggered by your post on asceticism. We seem to be thinking about the same things these days!

      PS: Yes, my wife and I will both be at Stoicon!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. As I’ve mentioned to you before, I also studied ancient Chinese philosophy for a long time before discovering Stoicism. I’ve had the great fortune to have began this study in China, in the original language, communing with the ancient writers in a most intimate way. I could go on about the merits of the Ru school at length, including its repudiation of superstition, emphasis on the importance of ritual and culture to social cohesion, and strong advocacy of personal responsibility. Ultimately, there are a number of aspects of it that I find less than ideal, thus my dedication to the Stoa. But I’m a real sucker for material I can memorize and recite. And fortunately Chinese is a much more concise language than English. Also, older texts tended to be written with something akin to poetic rhythm. So I just found the original of the passage you cited above. I’ll share it here, just for fun, in case you were interested. Get a Chinese person nearby to read it for you, if you can (assuming you don’t speak Chinese yourself). It’s actually very pleasant to listen to and/or recite.


    If you have an eye for patterns, you’ll notice the 5 – 4 – 3 character structure of most of the above passage, as well as the repetitive phrasing [i.e. 未能也 “(I) wasn’t even able”] and symmetrical composition [i.e. 言顾行,行顾言 “that one’s speech accords with one’s behavior, and one’s behavior with one’s speech”]. It certainly does lend itself to memorization! Please pardon this brief linguistic nerd out, but I thought you might find it interesting. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very cool, Xiren! Thanks for sharing—I rely on “linguistic nerd outs” to enhance my appreciation for such things!

      While I’ve got you: I’ve been thinking about getting Robert Neville’s book *Boston Confucianism.* Are you familiar with it? And, if so, do you have any thoughts about that effort to transfer the Ru into a Western context?


      1. I’m not, actually. To be fair, I’m not certain I’ve ever read any book on Chinese philosophy in English. Though I think it would be a good idea, as it would likely enhance my comprehension of the material as well as give me a perspective on how Westerners have traditionally understood philosophies outside of their cultural milieu. I do think there’s room in the highly individualistic West for more of the Ru philosophy. I’m not certain how to approach it, but I suspect that art will be required. 😀


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