Golden rule: Do unto others according to the “pagans”

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (attributed to Jesus in Matthew 7:12 [NRSV]; cf. Luke 6:31).

As you may know, rabbi Jesus was not alone among those in antiquity in advocating that ethics and treatment of others should be based on how one would like (or not like) to be treated. Thus, for instance, in a story involving another first century rabbi, rabbi Hillel, like Jesus, summarizes the ethical basis of the Torah in speaking to a Gentile convert:

What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow neighbor. That is the whole Torah, while the rest is an elaborate commentary on it; go and learn” (Shabbat 31a; trans. by Moshe Gold, “Ethical Practice in Critical Discourse: Conversions and Disruptions in Legal, Religious Narratives,” Representations 64 [1998], 21).

And the book of Tobit in the apocrypha preserves a similar concept (Tobit 4:15). This was by no means a solely Jewish (or, later, Christian) way of thinking, however.

Despite what you may have heard about the “pagan” Greeks or Romans (a friend of mine — perhaps representative — thought they were all about wild orgies), “pagans” too were very concerned with proper behaviour as they defined it, and sometimes they defined it in similar ways. Educated philosophers, in particular, focussed their attention on questions of what behaviours were most fitting, desirable, or appropriate in particular circumstances. Such philosophers were often very concerned with “family values”, and so they spent considerable time thinking about what were the appropriate relationships among members of the household: husband-wife; parent-child; sibling-sibling; master-slave (the so called household codes which also appear in variant forms in Christian writings such as Colossians 3:18-4:1 and 1 Peter 2:18-3:7).

Among these “pagan” philosophers is Hierocles, who wrote a handbook in the second century that incorporated many ethical ideas from Stoicism (partially preserved in the works of Stobaeus). In the midst of discussing proper relations among members of the family and in society generally, Hierocles has this to say:

The first bit of advice, therefore, is very clear, easily obtained, and common to all people. For it is a sound word which everyone will recognize as clear: Treat anybody whatsoever as though you supposed that he were you and you he. For someone would treat even a servant well if he pondered how he would want to be treated if the slave were the master and he the slave. Something similar can also be said of parents with respect to their children, of children with respect to their parents, and, in short, of all people with respect to others” (Hierocles, On Duties 4.27.20; translated by Abraham J. Malherbe, Moral Exhortation: A Greco-Roman Sourcebook [Library of Early Christianity; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986], 93-94. ).

Think of that bit of Greco-Roman wisdom the next time you’re watching some modern film or show depicting those supposedly wild Roman “pagans” with their orgies and gladiatorial slaughter.

Want more on “pagan” ethics and family values?:¬† See my earlier post on Paul and Philemon, in which I discussed the views of Galen and Seneca, both philosophers, on the proper treatment of slaves.¬† Also see my articles on the use of familial language including¬† “brothers” and “mothers or fathers”, within associations.

6 thoughts on “Golden rule: Do unto others according to the “pagans”

  1. Loren Rosson III

    Historically speaking, this is all fine, and I agree with you. But I’m not so sure you’re giving the pagans good press. The Golden Rule is flawed in principle, because it presumes that everyone wants to be treated the same way. The modern Platinum Rule is better: treat others how they want to be treated.

  2. Phil H

    Hello Loren,

    In reality, I wasn’t trying to give anyone credit, but rather to avoid modern people dismissing the pagans (giving them undue discredit, if you will). My final couple of sentences about “wisdom” may have hinted at the “good press” you are indicating (take it as rhetorical, if you like). If I were to engage fully in moralizing or establishing the basis of moralizing myself (rather than doing my quasi-academic stuff here), I’m not sure that I would fully agree with the views you previously expressed on your blog on this issue. However, in real life I am certainly not against the Platinum rule either (which clearly takes the Golden rule as its basis or evolutionary predecessor)! Gold card . . . platinum card . . . is there really a difference? The real question is does the card have airmiles too;)

    Thanks. Phil

  3. Phil H

    Hello again Loren,

    I just realized that Hierocles comes a bit closer to your Platinum rule: “Treat anybody whatsoever as though you supposed that he were you and you he.” The interchangeability factor here may fit better with the idea that you need to anticipate how the other person wants to be treated (empathy), rather than just assuming that someone else is the same as you and doing what you want (as you are interpreting Jesus’ golden rule). Not to put down Jesus or anything!


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  6. Delphine du Toit

    Yes, I take from the ‘golden rule’ firstly that Jesus didn’t have it as an original thought – he was a rabbi and he learnt from studying the Torah. I’m also a strong believer in the convergence of ideas – as many philosophers and religious folk in the region were contemplating similar issues, talking and listening to each other, the thought probably found expression in more places than just the ones quoted here, being reinforced through further meditation and conversation. It persists in being an excellent universal rule – and I agree that it isn’t about ‘equality’ it is about ‘equity’ in treatment. Respectfully, I’d want to be treated in a way I want to be treated, and so I should treat you in the way you want to be treated. (I see the ‘platinum rule’ as a way of monetising something fundamental. It is unnecessary.)

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