The Golden Rule Explored
The Golden Rule.
In this one phrase we are supposed to get the basis for our moral treatment of each other. In fact, it is a basis for human rights. It’s a powerful message. But most Christians believe it is something said originally by Jesus. This is not the case. Every religion in the world has a similar rule, and we will take a look at some of them.
In the case of Jesus, he would have likely been borrowing from the Talmud, Shabbat 31a. : “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. This is the law.” Or perhaps from Leviticus 19:18 “thoushalt love thy neighbour as thyself”
I like the Leviticus version because it can be taken a couple of ways. It can mean to love your neighbour as you love yourself, which is how most people tell me they see it. Or it can simply mean what it says. Love your neighbour as yourself. Love is making another a part of you. If you include others into the circle of what you identify as self, then you empathise with them. To me that empathy is love. So I think the Leviticus version is giving us a mechanism by which to follow the ideal of the golden rule itself: “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man.” Or the common Christian version: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
You could confuse the two as the same thing but they aren’t. How do you not do what is hateful to you, to others? The answer is: By embracing your fellow man as part of “self”.
I like that idea though I’m not sure the writer of Leviticus had the above in mind.
Of course Christianity has several versions of it: Matthew 7:12 "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets."
Notice what Matthew says: “for this is the law.” Same words the Talmud, Shabbat 31a says.
Then there is: ." Luke 6:31 : "And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise."
And of course: The Gospel of Thomas. 6: "And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise, and don't do what you hate. “ Obviously a reference to the original Jewish version again.
As I said, the Golden rule was around long before Christianity, and long before Judaism. We have records of it in Babylonian. The Zoroastrians have a version. The ancient Egyptians had a golden rule from before 2000 BCE : "Do for one who may do for you, that you may cause him thus to do." From: The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant.
This one may sound a bit self serving, it may be the translation, or it may be because of its placement in the context of this ancient story, but it has the same effect. It is saying: Do for others, who will in turn do for you. And that is what we expect from this rule. The idea is that if everyone does good toward others, they will in turn be treated with good intentions.
Hinduism and Brahmanism have this to say: “This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.” Hinduism is a little more explicit. Don’t do anything to cause pain to others. Judaism hinted at the same thing: Don’t do things to others you consider hateful if done to you.
Islam has this to say on the subject: "None of you truly believes, until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself." From: - Forty Hadiths. By Imam Al-Nawawi's. What it is saying is that when you truly believe in god, this will happen to you. You will wish for your brother what you wish for yourself. It is almost the same as do unto others, but not as explicit. It does not say who to consider your brothers, so it could have a limiting interpretation or a broad one depending on the individual reading it. But in Islam, part of the law is belief, so this version is also a directive, as are others that refer to it being the law of god.
Then there are the far Eastern religions:
Jainismsays the same thing Leviticus says, but it is telling us to include all living things as part of self: "In happiness and suffering, in joy and grief, we should regard all creatures as we regard our own self." - Lord Mahavira, 24th Tirthankara
The wording here is interesting. It is like a Western style marriage to all living things: (in sickness and in health.) In happiness and suffering, in joy and grief, we shall regard all creatures as we regard our own self. Very explicitly telling us to include all life in to our selves, not just other humans.
In Baha’i it is: "And if thine eyes be turned towards justice, choose thou for thy neighbour that which thou choosest for thyself." From - Epistle to the Son of the Wolf.
This one is talking about justice. If you want to be just, want for your neighbour what you expect for yourself. It can be taken to be talking about the issue explicitly from a human rights perspective, but really all of these religions are talking about human rights in their own way. It is interesting though, to see where different cultures chose to put the emphasis of their message. And I’ll talk a little more about that after the last three religions I have examples for.
No list would be complete without these last three religions.
Buddhism says: “A state that is not pleasing or delightful to me, how could I inflict that upon another?" From - Samyutta NIkaya v. 353
It seems to me that this Buddhist version, and I’m sure there are others, is coming from yet another direction. If it isn’t good for me, how can I justify it being good for another? How can I justify inflicting pain when I do not want it inflicted on me? Though stated in a completely different way, it can be interpreted as being the same message. Do unto others.
Confucianism tells us: "Tse-kung asked, 'Is there one word that can serve as a principle of conduct for life?' Confucius replied, 'It is the word 'shu' -- reciprocity. Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.'" Doctrine of the Mean 13.3
Again we have another angle to the story: imposition. Do not impose on others what you do not want imposed on you. If there is one word that sums up the gold rule, it is definitely reciprocity.
Another quote from Confucianism is: "Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself, and you will find that this is the shortest way to benevolence." Mencius VII.A.4 Yet another reason for reciprocity. What do you do if you want to be a good person? Reciprocity.
Zen is one of my favourite religions, only partly because it is atheistic like Confucianism and some other forms of Buddhism and Taoism, in that that they worship no gods. But also because they have a great moral outlook even without gods.
Zen tells stories, and so you get very few small quotes to illustrate a point. But in this one story you will see that Zen too holds the Golden Rule dear. This is a story about a Zen Master named Ryokan. He lived in abject poverty as a hermit in Japan around, I think, 1000 AD.
“One evening a thief crawled through the window though the door, as always, was unlocked. But this was unbeknownst to the robber. When he got in he discovered that there was absolutely nothing to steal in the hut. At this point Ryokan returned from his walk and caught the thief searching the room.
He approached the thief and warmly shook his hand. The thief was surprised. Ryokan said: "You must have come a long way to visit me, and you shouldn't leave without being the better for it." He looked around the empty room, but he couldn't find anything to give him. So he took off his only robe and handed it to the theif. "Please, take this as a gift," Ryokan said.
The thief was too astonished to say anything. But he took the robe and ran away into the night, no doubt thinking, “What a fool.”
Ryokan sat naked and gazed at the full moon through the window. "Poor fellow," he thought, "I wish I could have given him this beautiful moon."
Of course what Ryokan meant was that he wished he could have given the robber his serenity of mind. Do unto others.
Like Tse-kung from our story about Confucius, we are looking for a one word or one phrase way to describe how to be moral human beings. Every culture has one and every culture seems to come to it from a slightly different perspective. There are difficulties with all of them being the ultimate Golden rule. Each has a piece of the puzzle but each has to be interpreted beyond the scope of their texts to get the full meaning.
As an example of the problems I am talking about: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you is great, if you both want the same thing. If the other person doesn’t like how you would like to be treated, then you could be in trouble.
If you try to do to others what they would like you to do to them... well you can see that might not work out all the time either. Give someone a yard and they often want a mile. But still, The Dalai Lama gave us a golden rule in a rather different way. He said: “My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.”
Mahatma Gandhi said it this way: “You must be the change you want to see in the world.”
So we have many elements to this idea of the golden rule. We have it coming from the angle of love, benevolence, change, kindness, imposition, cruelty, justice, theft, and pain. All give us the “ethic of reciprocity.”
All of the elements in our list boil down to one category. Harm. If you do not want harm done to you, don’t harm others. As Gandhi said: “You must be the change.”
Albert Einstein said: “Make everything as simple as possible, but not
simpler.” It seems to me that one word answers are a little too simple.
Which brings me to the one Golden Rule that almost says it all in the simplest of terms: The Pagan version of the Golden Rule. It simply states: Do no harm. Pretty much the same as what doctors say when taking the Hippocratic Oath: What could be simpler and yet harder to follow? What could more exactly encompass all the golden rules from all over the word?
Yet... how can one ensure one does no harm? It is said: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” What we think is benevolent may turn out not to be for some unforeseen reason, But still, intent is all we have. Evil is an act of intent, not of accident. And it is intent that all of the Golden Rules of the world are all about.
So my only addition to the Pagan version of the Golden Rule is intent. Let it be hereby proposed that the universal Golden Rule for everyone, from all religions, and all beliefs or lack thereof be: Do no intentional harm.
The question is: Why does everyone have a
golden rule? Some believe in god. Some believe in gods. Some have no gods
giving them directives at all. Albert Einstein
“Without deep reflection one knows from daily life that one exists for other
The reason from my perspective is simple. We are all people with the same needs and desires. We all want to love and to be loved. We all want to be included in the lives of others and include them in our life. We are all connected as the human race, and through evolution to all living creatures. Not to mention, through energy/matter to everything in the universe.
Evolution taught us safety in numbers. But philosophy and human observation taught us that including the feared strangers as friends, made them suddenly no longer feared and no longer strangers. Today the world is getting smaller as countries include more and more strangers and make them friends. There are cultural clashes, naturally. But as Sting said in one of his songs: “The Russians love their children too.” We are not different in our basic needs or our desires.
So why is it still so hard for all religions to follow this rule? The answer is a mixed bag of fear and greed. But fear not. 5000 years is a drop in the bucket for evolution, and mankind has only just moved out of the trees. Our golden rules have been an invaluable aid in bringing us this far. Gain optimism from the fact that all humans, be they theist or atheist will not allow that moral compass to pass from us. (or should it be a moral GPS now?) It’s part of what it is to be human.
As Einstein said:“I consider ethics to be an exclusively human concern, with no superhuman authority behind it.”
So as Pagans would say: Love each other. And above all, do no intentional harm.