The Golden Rule in Stoicism

How Stoic Philosophy Teaches us to Treat Others

Donald J. Robertson
Dec 19, 2019 · 10 min read

All things therefore whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them. — Matthew, 7.12

Treat others as you would like to be treated by them. The “Golden Rule”, as it’s known, is one of the simplest and most influential of all ethical principles. In this article, we’ll begin by looking at what it is before exploring some examples found in the writings of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and other Stoic philosophers.

The Golden Rule is a remarkably simple guide to ethical behaviour, which anyone can understand and try to follow. It’s found in both positive and negative forms:

  • Do what you would praise others for doing
  • Avoid doing what you would criticize others for doing

Indeed many people today take it for granted that applying a different standard to other’s actions than we do to our own would be a form of moral hypocrisy.

I explored the ways Stoicism can be used as a guide to modern life in my recent book, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, but this article will focus on a very simple principle that Stoics used as a guide to ethical action. People often say they find Stoic ethics confusing and want a very clear and simple example of practical advice, well here it is…

Judaism and Christianity

Versions of the Golden Rule have been identified in many different philosophical and religious traditions, throughout history and across different cultures. For instance the Talmud quotes the Hebrew sage Hillel the Elder as teaching:

What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.

This is one of the the Golden Rule’s most famous expressions, alongside several instances found in the New Testament. For example, in addition to the quote from the Gospel of Matthew at the start of this article, there’s also:

And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. — Luke, 6.31

However, the Golden Rule is also clearly a theme in Greek and Roman philosophy, especially for the followers of Socrates and later the Stoics. The New Testament actually claims that St. Paul addressed a group of Stoic and Epicurean philosophers on the Areopagus, at foot of the Athenian Acropolis, quoting a couple of lines to them from the Stoic philosopher-poet Aratus (Acts, 17.16).

Paul and other early Christians are therefore known to have been familiar with Stoic philosophy. Indeed, Stoicism is believed by many modern scholars to have been one of the key philosophical influences upon early Christian ethics. Whether or not early Christians actually derived the Golden Rule from Stoic philosophy, they must have realized that the Stoics had already been teaching very similar ideas. It’s the ethics of the Socratic and Stoic tradition that we’re going to focus on therefore in the rest of this article.

Socrates and the Golden Rule

Although, the Golden Rule is most commonly associated with Christianity, it was arguably also implicit, centuries earlier, in the Socratic Method or elenchus. Socrates taught that we should cross-examine ourselves regarding our moral convictions. The word he uses for his method, elenchus, refers to questioning a witness in court in order to expose contradictions in their testimony. In the Socratic dialogues written by both Plato and Xenophon that sometimes takes the form of Socrates drawing attention to someone applying a double standard morally by praising or criticizing qualities in others but not in themselves. Socrates described his use of “Socratic Questioning” as a sort of therapy that aims to cure people of their conceit regarding the most important things in life, especially contradictory assumptions about the nature of good and evil, virtue and vice. It’s a cure, in other words, for moral hypocrisy and inconsistency.

For instance, in one of Xenophon’s dialogues, Socrates asks a young man called Critobulus to describe the qualities he’s seeking in a friend (Memorabilia, 2.6). They agree that the ideal friend would have positive qualities such as moral virtue, self-discipline, and kindness. However, Socrates suddenly turns the question around by asking Critobulus how many of these qualities he embodies himself. He’s ashamed to admit that he possesses very few of them. He was judging others by a standard, for being a good friend, that he neglected to apply to himself. Socrates makes him realize that because he finds it fairly easy to describe what behaviour he would praise in others that can potentially serve as a reliable guide when it comes to judging his own character and actions.

In another dialogue, Socrates’ friend Chaerecrates is complaining about his older brother’s behaviour. He wants his brother to treat him with more respect but claims he doesn’t know how to achieve this.

‘I assure you,’ said Socrates, ‘so far as I can see, you needn’t employ any subtle or novel method on him: I think you could prevail on him to have a high regard for you by using means which you understand yourself.’ — Xenophon, Memorabilia, 2.3

It’s not rocket science, in other words. Chaerecrates, though, insists he’s not aware of any magic formula for winning other people’s respect.

‘Tell me, then,’ said Socrates, ‘if you wanted to prevail upon one of your acquaintances to invite you to dinner whenever he was holding a celebration, what would you do?’

Chaerecrates admits that, of course, he’d begin by taking the initiative and inviting the other person to dinner first. Socrates therefore asks what he’d do if he wanted someone to take care of his property while he’s travelling. Charecrates says he’d offer to do the same for them first. What, asks Socrates, if you wanted a foreigner to invite you to their home as a guest when visiting their country? Once again, Charecrates admits that “obviously I should first have to do the same for him.” Socrates, with typical irony, concludes:

‘So you know all the magic spells that influence human conduct, and have kept your knowledge dark all this time! Why do you hesitate to begin? Are you afraid that you will look bad if you treat your brother well before he treats you well?

Of course, our moral values need to be sound in the first place but Socrates quite rightly pointed out that much progress can be achieved toward rationality simply by resolving inconsistencies in our ethical thinking.

The only difference here is that Socrates limits this advice to treating our friends as we wish to be treated by them in return. However, in other dialogues he appears to argue that the wise man seeks to help both friends and enemies. Nevertheless, these examples and others clearly show there’s plenty of “Golden Rule” type thinking to be found in the Socratic dialogues. Indeed, in Plato’s Laws, although it’s not attributed to Socrates, the Golden Rule is stated quite explicitly in relation to property rights:

The principle of them is very simple: Thou shalt not, if thou canst help, touch that which is mine, or remove the least thing which belongs to me without my consent; and may I be of a sound mind, and do to others as I would that they should do to me. — Plato, Laws, 11.913

The Golden Rule in Stoicism

The Stoics reputedly considered themselves to be a Socratic school of philosophy and they drew a great deal of inspiration from Socrates. In their writings, we therefore find the Golden Rule developed into something much closer to its more familiar form, as found in the Christian tradition.

In the fragments from the Stoic Hierocles preserved by Stobaeus, for instance, we find a very clear expression of the Golden Rule:

The first admonition, therefore, is very clear, easily obtained, and is common to all men. For it is a sane assertion, which every man will consider as evident. And it is this: Act by everyone, in the same manner as if you supposed yourself to be him, and him to be you. — Hierocles, Fragments

Hierocles goes on to illustrate this point by reference to the master-slave relationship:

For he will use a servant well who considers with himself, how he would think it proper to be used by him, if he indeed was the master, and himself the servant. The same thing also must be said of parents with respect to children, and of children with respect to parents; and, in short, of all men with respect to all. — Hierocles, Fragments

In discussing the master-slave relationship, the Stoic philosopher Seneca likewise wrote:

But this is the kernel of my advice: Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your betters. — Seneca, Letters, 47

In On Anger, Seneca explains that when growing angry with another person over some perceived transgression, Stoics should remind themselves that they are capable of doing the same or similar things.

No one says to himself, “I myself have done or might have done this very thing which I am angry with another for doing.” — Seneca, On Anger, 3.12

A few sentences later, he expands upon this by also applying a version of the Golden Rule to the problem of anger:

Let us put ourselves in the place of him with whom we are angry: at present an overweening conceit of our own importance makes us prone to anger, and we are quite willing to do to others what we cannot endure should be done to ourselves.— Seneca, On Anger, 3.12

Elsewhere, Seneca applies this wisdom to the question of how best to bestow gifts or favours on others:

Let us consider… in what way a benefit should be bestowed. I think that I can point out the shortest way to this; let us give in the way in which we ourselves should like to receive. — Seneca, On Benefits, 2.1

In one of the fragments sometimes attributed to Epictetus, he writes:

What you avoid suffering yourself, seek not to impose on others. — Epictetus, Fragments

Epictetus, himself a freed slave, continues as follows:

You avoid slavery, for instance; take care not to enslave. For if you can bear to
exact slavery from others, you appear to have been yourself a slave. For vice has nothing in common with virtue, nor freedom with slavery. As a person in health would not wish to be attended by the sick nor to have those who live with him in a state of sickness ; so neither would a person who is free bear to be served by slaves, nor to have those who live with him in a state of slavery. — Epictetus, Fragments

Marcus Aurelius nowhere states the Golden Rule as explicitly as either Hierocles or Seneca. The closest he comes is in the following passage:

See that you never feel towards misanthropes as such people feel towards the human race. — Meditations, 7.65

However, throughout The Meditations he does adopt the related assumption that we should treat all others as our “kinsmen” and fellow citizens. For instance, in perhaps one of the book’s most famous passages he writes:

Nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him, for we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away. — Meditations, 2.1

Marcus elsewhere says that someone who is wise remembers “that every rational being is his kinsman, and that to care for all men is according to man’s nature” (Meditations, 3.4).

Regarding the actions of others he writes:

This is from one of the same stock, and a kinsman and partner, one who knows not however what is according to his nature. But I know; for this reason I behave towards him according to the natural law of fellowship with benevolence and justice. — Meditations, 3.11

In one of the most striking passages in The Meditations, he appears to echo the Christian notion of loving even one’s enemies:

It is peculiar to man to love even those who do wrong. And this happens, if when they do wrong it occurs to thee that they are kinsmen, and that they do wrong through ignorance and unintentionally... — Meditations, 7.22

Finally:

A branch cut off from the adjacent branch must of necessity be cut off from the whole tree also. So too a man when he is separated from another man has fallen off from the whole social community. Now as to a branch, another cuts it off; but a man by his own act separates himself from his neighbor when he hates him and turns away from him, and he does not know that he has at the same time cut himself off from the whole social system. Yet he has this privilege certainly from Zeus, who framed society, for it is in our power to grow again to that which is near to us, and again to become a part which helps to make up the whole. — Meditations, 11.8

Conclusion

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. For Socrates treating friends otherwise was a moral contradiction, a double standard, and therefore irrational. He even implies that we should show our enemies with the same regard. A few generations later, the Stoics took his ethical philosophy and developed it into more of a system. Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, had said, like Aristotle before him, that a friend is “another me” (alter ego est amicus). However, we are to strive to make all men (and women) our friends. The Golden Rule gradually become more explicit and took on its familiar form in authors such as Seneca when he admonishes us for being “quite willing to do to others what we cannot endure should be done to ourselves”.

Finally, in Marcus Aurelius, the last famous Stoic of antiquity, we find a systematic emphasis on the ethics of brotherly love, which the Stoics called philostorgia or “natural affection”. We’re to regard ourselves and others as brothers and sisters, even as limbs of the same organism. From this vision of the unity of humankind, it follows naturally that we should apply the same moral standard to others that we apply to ourselves. This is probably one aspect of what the Stoics meant when they described the supreme goal of life according to their philosophy as living consistently.

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Donald J. Robertson

Written by

Writer and cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist. Author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (2019)

Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life

Articles about Stoic Philosophy for modern living

Donald J. Robertson

Written by

Writer and cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist. Author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (2019)

Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life

Articles about Stoic Philosophy for modern living

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