Classic Wisdom: The Golden and Silver Rules

Everyone knows the Golden Rule — often stated as, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you — and many people have also heard of what is sometimes called the Silver Rule — Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you.

Adherents of Christianity know the Golden Rule from Jesus’s statements:

Matthew 7:12 Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.

Luke 6:31 And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.

That has to be some of the best advice ever, so it’s not surprising it’s been around for a very long time. Although the term Golden Rule has only been used since 1670, the idea of ethical reciprocity has long been employed by cultures and religions around the world.

The Old Testament, or Torah, states the Rule pre-Jesus.

Leviticus 19:18 Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD.

The Egyptian story The Eloquent Peasant takes a stab at the Rule circa 2000 BCE:

Now this is the command: Do to the doer to cause that he do thus to you.

That reminds me of my friend who always thought that if she helped other people, they would help her when she needed it. Not necessarily so! Numerous interpretations of the Golden Rule — the ethic of reciprocity — make it clear that you are supposed to treat people right whether they treat you right or not.

By circa 300 BCE, Egyptian papyri clearly stated the Silver Rule:

That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another.

In the 5th century BCE, in the scriptures called Tripitaka, Buddha said:

Udanavarga 5:18 Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.

In the Analects, circa 500 BCE, Confucius say:

XV.24 Zi gong (a disciple of Confucius) asked: “Is there any one word that could guide a person throughout life?”
The Master replied: “How about ‘shu’ [reciprocity]: never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself?” —translated by David Hinton

One of the prophet Muhammad’s hadiths, or sayings, was:

That which you want for yourself, seek for mankind.

The Jainist text Suman Suttam, a modern-day rendering of ancient texts, says:

Verse 150 Just as pain is not agreeable to you, it is so with others. Knowing this principle of equality treat others with respect and compassion.

Numerous philosophers have objected to the Golden Rule, saying that since you can’t know what the other person wants, you may be being unkind instead of kind by treating him the way you’d want to be treated. Other philosophers say that — since you wouldn’t want someone treating you the way they thought you wanted to be treated if it wasn’t how you wanted to be treated — the Golden Rule tends to be “self-correcting” and work out pretty well.

It all comes down to empathy. I might not know what food to buy you to make you happy (I like Voodoo Doughnuts and you really don’t), but we are all human — and we all need forgiveness and understanding and patience and respect and love. Even after thousands of years, kindness is still the highest truth.

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