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 Prokopton.com: 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.
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.
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.