The Power of Stoicism and The Golden Rule
Do you follow the Golden Rule? This is a moral maxim or principle of altruism found in many human cultures and religions. It goes something like: Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.
In this post I’ll outline why and how the Golden Rule fits into the Stoic ethical framework. A framework which suggests a natural moral law aligned with reason. As such this then requires us all to be considerate and fair towards all mankind.
The Golden Rule
I try not to make a lot of rules in life. But one of the ones which I try to follow is the Golden Rule. I appreciate its simplicity and power to make others and in turn myself happier. The Golden Rule doesn’t mean that you should treat someone else exactly as you’d want them to treat you. Rather it means that you should try to imagine how they want to be treated, and do that. When you put yourself in their shoes, ask yourself how you think they want to be treated. Ask yourself how you would want to be treated if you were in their situation. For example, it’s rare that people want to be controlled, and as a Stoic you’ll know that this is impossible anyway. It's just as well that with regular practise, Stoicism helps us to curb this natural controlling urge. The Golden Rule reminds us that we would want freedom and autonomy and trust. So, at the minimum we must give that to others.
Whilst I acknowledge that the Golden Rule isn’t perfect, and if analysed it starts to disintegrate, I don’t worry too much about that. I think about the Rule more as a guide, a way of checking my thoughts each day. Am I making the world a better place, am I making people happier, the community better, myself happier?
The Stoics had their own interpretations of the Rule. I’ll explore a few of these below, but I’m sure there are others. If you know of one, please consider leaving a comment.
Seneca gave us a few versions of the Golden Rule:
Let us put ourselves in the place of the man with whom we are angry; we are often unwilling to bear what we would have been willing to inflict.
Let us give in the way we would like to receive — willingly, quickly, and without hesitation
Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your betters.
In Seneca’s essay on the treatment of slaves he phrases the Golden Rule in a different way:
Treat your inferior as you would wish your superior to treat you.
Similarly, Epictetus writes:
What you shun enduring yourself, don’t impose on others. You shun slavery — beware of enslaving others!
Also Marcus Aurelius in Meditations states:
Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.
Do not be angry with others nor hate them; for being social animals we are made for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another is contrary to nature.
Putting The Golden Rule into Practise
Let everyone regulate his conduct… by the golden rule of doing to others as in similar circumstances we would have them do to us, and the path of duty will be clear before him — William Wilberforce
Let’s say that you apply the Golden Rule in all your interactions with other people. You help your friends, you treat your family with kindness. You go the extra mile for people who you work with, you help a stranger who is in need. Of course, these acts of kindness will be good for the people who receive them. But, also notice how your application of the Golden Rule affects the way others act towards you. After a while you’ll realise that people will slowly become kinder towards you.
Also, by treating people with compassion, respect, trust and empathy you’ll get a feeling of satisfaction. You’ll get a higher degree of belief in yourself as a good and virtuous person. This has to be a welcome change which makes you feel better about yourself. Are you happier? More secure? More willing to trust others, now that you trust yourself? These changes don’t come quickly and they happen in small increments, but if you pay attention, you’ll see them. And while each changes may be tiny, given enough time they’ll have a massive impact.
Here are a few of the simple ways that I use the Golden Rule; perhaps you can think of some more?
Make empathy and compassion a habit
Empathy is about trying to see things from the other person’s perspective. Recognising emotions in others, and being able to “put yourself in another person’s shoes”. Take time to understand what they are going through and why they are acting in the way that they are. What is their reality and perspective? Empathy is about thinking beyond yourself and what is important to you. When you are able to do this, compassion will follow.
Compassion is sometimes the fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too. — Frederick Buechner
When you become compassionate you’ll try to take even a small step to ease suffering in some way. Practice empathy and compassion enough and it’ll become a habit. Habits can be analysed in three parts: the cue, the behavior, and the reward.
The cue is the thing that causes the habit to come about, the trigger of the habitual behaviour. This could be anything that your mind associates with that habit and one will automatically let a habit come to the surface. The behaviour is the actual habit that you exhibit, and the reward, a positive feeling, thus continues the “habit loop”. A goal may initially trigger a habit to start, but over time that goal becomes less necessary and the habit becomes more automatic.
Be helpful and friendly
Be friendly towards others within the bounds of appropriateness. Remember that it’s more important to listen that to talk. Take the time to actually hear what the another person is saying, rather than just wait your turn to talk. It’ll also go a long way to helping you understand others. Who doesn’t like to be listened to, to feel welcome and to be wanted? And by listening you begin to understand the needs, problems and troubles of others. Don’t wait for the other person to ask for help, help even before you’re asked.
No retaliation and no criticism
We have a tendency to retaliate when we perceive that we’ve been treated poorly. This is natural and it’s difficult to resist this desire. But try to bring to mind the Golden Rule and you’ll realise that it’s not about striking back. It’s about treating others well, despite how they treat you. Use assertiveness techniques. For example, find some limited truth to agree with in what an antagonist is saying. More specifically, ask can agree in part or agree in principle? Request further, more specific criticism perhaps with “I-statements”. Use these to voice your feelings and wishes from a personal position without expressing a judgment about the other person or blaming your feelings on them.
Also, remember that humans have an inbuilt tendency to focus on the negative and to criticise others. This is true whether it’s people we know or celebrities we see on-screen. If you were in that person’s situation would you like to be criticised? If the answer is “no” then don’t do it. Pick a more positive way to interact with others, or don’t say anything at all.
We have to become the change we want to see in the world. These changes can start small. All the seemingly inconsequential interactions between people. Ask, do you want others to treat each other with more compassion and kindness? If so, then this change begins with you and what you choose to do. Even if the world doesn’t change, at least you have. Stoicism requires a realisation that no lasting satisfaction comes from trying to control the events which you can’t. By turning the focus inwardly towards our own thoughts, embracing an acceptance of all things external, appreciating nature and the awesomeness of the universe you understand that:
You have power over your mind, not outside events — Marcus Aurelius
Do you live by the Golden Rule? If so, how?