On Wisdom: Practice: The Golden Rule

Music: Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor.
By J.S. Bach. Sequenced by George Pollen.

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Copyright by
Nicholas Gordon

1. The Golden Rule can be stated either positively or negatively: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," or "Do not do to another what you would not want done to you." It is another form of the commandment, "Love thy neighbor as thyself."

2. The basis for the rule is our need for harmony and symmetry, which leads us to a desire for justice, and a sense that all are equally entitled to dignity and respect. For there is no symmetry in having one rule for ourselves and another for others.

3. The rule requires not what someone else would want you to do, which would enslave you to another's whim, but what you yourself would want done to you if you and another switched places. Thus if you found a wallet full of cash on the street, the rule requires you to imagine yourself the owner of the wallet and to act as you would want someone who found your wallet to act.

4. The rule does not require that you necessarily please others, since there are times when you, if put in someone else's place, would prefer a painful truth to a pleasant lie. For example, if you did not return someone's love, and you put yourself in the other's place, you would prefer to know the truth as soon as possible, even if it wasn't pleasant, to being led on by someone reluctant to disappoint you.

5. Since you are applying your own experience and standards to each circumstance, albeit from another's point of view, what the rule will require of you will always be in your judgment reasonable and fair. Often it may not be in your immediate self-interest, but following the rule is always in your ultimate interest.

6. The Golden Rule is one means by which the power of self-love is turned outward, becoming the force that makes society cohere. And society is the means by which we all survive. The more universally the rule is applied, the more peaceful and stable society will be.

7. There is in everyone, to a greater or lesser degree, a desire to please others, since when we are children we are entirely dependent on parental love. This desire to please, and the often anxious pleasure that pleasing brings, should not be confused with the reward for following the Golden Rule, which is entirely the result of pleasing ourselves. For there is no firm foundation for happiness in dependence on the pleasure of others. We do justice to others not because we want to please them but because we want to live harmoniously, insofar as that is possible.

8. There is a romantic notion that society is evil, and that the individual, once freed from society, is naturally good. This belief led to an overthrow of wisdom and its replacement with philosophies of will, in which moderation and consideration for others were socially implanted restraints that kept an individual from living authentically. Society is undoubtedly a tool of oppression, but the revolutions that destroyed the old societies often set up new ones that were even more oppressive. This is because we are social animals, and the individual has no possibility of either identity or survival outside of society. Thus each individual ought to strive to create a peaceful, stable, orderly, and just society, since within such a society individual happiness is most easily attained.

9. Taken together, the Golden Mean and the Golden Rule reveal the good both for ourselves and in our relations with others. To know the good in general, therefore, is not difficult, though to know it in any given circumstance, and actually to do it, remains very difficult.

Next: The Practice of Wisdom: Habit
Previous: The Practice of Wisdom: The Golden Mean

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