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  • The “Golden Rule”: The “Best Rule”
  • Leonard Swidler

I. Background

The “Golden Rule”—“Love your neighbor as yourself”—is doubtless the most widely known and affirmed ethical principle worldwide. At the same time, it has its serious, quasi-serious, and jocund critics. There are also variations of the Golden Rule, such as the so-called “Silver Rule” (the negative articulation: “You should not do to your neighbor what you do not want done to yourself”) and the extrapolated “Platinum Rule” version1 (“You should treat your neighbor as she or he wishes to be treated”). It is worthwhile to spend some energy on each of these “variations” and critics, but most of all I would like to reflect on the meaning, implications, and applications of the Golden Rule for the twenty-first century.

Let me deal with the jocund first to get it out of the way. Question: What does the sadist say to the masochist when the latter says, “Beat me!”? Answer: “No!” This (per)version of the Golden Rule might be good for a party joke, but it—and its variations, including some of its allegedly “serious” critiques—are good for nothing more.

II. Early Versions of the “Golden Rule”

Perhaps the earliest recorded “predecessor” to the Golden Rule was expressed in ancient Egypt in the story of “The Eloquent Peasant,” recorded sometime between 2040 and 1650 b.c.e.: “Do to the doer to make him do.” [End Page 279] This is a version of the later Roman principle, do ut des, “I give so that you will give”—a principle of reciprocity, quid pro quo.

The earliest versions of the Golden Rule all appeared at roughly the same time, in the sixth century b.c.e., and all save one were really the so-called “Silver Rule,” that is, negative versions of the Golden Rule. These three Silver Rule versions were by Zarathustra in Persia (“Whatever is disagreeable to yourself do not do unto others,” Shayast-na-Shayast 13:29); Confucius in China (“What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others,” Analects XV.24); and Thales in Greece (“Avoid doing what you would blame others for doing”; since none of his writings have survived, what we know of him comes from later writers). The fourth sixth-century b.c.e. articulation was truly the Golden Rule, that is, the positive version, as recorded in the Bible (“Love your neighbor as yourself. I am Yahweh!” Lev. 19:18).

It is interesting to note that these four most ancient articulations of the Golden or Silver Rule all appeared in the “Axial Age” (eighth to second century b.c.e.), so named by the German philosopher Karl Jaspers.2 He noted that in the four most ancient civilizations—Mesopotamia, Greece, Indus River Valley, Yellow River Valley—there occurred a fundamental paradigm shift from one’s human identity experienced primarily as a member of the tribe to that of a unique person. For example, according to Socrates, “Only the [personally] examined life is worth living!” Hence, one was to aid not only fellow tribe members who were in distress but all persons.

It is also interesting to note that the Israelite/Judaic tradition of the ancient Axial Age not only is the sole ancient source that states the true (positive) version of the Golden Rule, but it also articulates the negative Silver Rule version. For example, see the third-century biblical book Tobit: “Do to no one what you yourself dislike” (Tob. 4:15). Also see the famous story about the teacher of Rabbi Yeshua ha Notzri (that is, Rabbi Jesus of Nazareth), Rabbi Hillel, who, when asked by a gentile whether he could summarize the whole of ethics while standing on one foot (Rabbi Shammai, Hillel’s conservative “competitor” was previously asked the same thing, but boxed the gentile’s ears and sent him away), said, “What is [End Page 280] hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is explanation; go and learn” (Btal. Shabbath folio:31a).

However, as noted above, already centuries earlier the positive version, the true Golden Rule, was first articulated in the...


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