Ancient Quotations: the golden rule in positive form

I’d heard that Jesus was the first to phrase the golden rule in its positive form, so I decided to look into it. There are, of course, many statements of the Golden Rule in its negative form. Some religions, like Buddhism, state it pretty much exclusively in negative form.

I am limiting myself to the more blatant expressions of the principle in antiquity. Undoubtedly, one can get a similar tenor if one looks at some passage as a whole. But what I wanted was an explicit recognition of the principle, specifically in its positive form. There are many pages on the internet that list different statements of the golden rule, but are unsatisfactory (to me) for the following reasons: 1) They don’t distinguish between negative and positive forms, 2) they include quotes from all time periods (who really cares if modern pagans or 15th century Sufi’s have the golden rule?) – I am interested in quotes that are pre-Christian or around the same time; and 3) they are often not sourced at all, or just plain made up.

Mo Tzu (5th – 4th cent. B.C. (From Mozi – Book 15 – ‘Love’ III):

“…the fa (model) of inclusively caring for each other and in interaction benefiting each other is to regard others’ states as though regarding one’s state, regard others’ families as though regarding one’s family, and regard other persons as though regarding one’s person .”

The Mahabharata Anusasana Parva 113.8 [~ 3rd cent. BC – 3rd cent. AD]

“Do not to others what you do not wish done to yourself; and wish for others too what you desire and long for yourself–this is the whole of Dharma; heed it well.”

Bhagavad Gita (6.32)

By comparison with himself, in all (beings)
Whoso sees the same, Arjuna,
Whether it be pleasure or pain,
He is deemed the supreme disciplined man.

[Buddhism & Hinduism are somewhat odd in regards to this issue, in terms of the ego being an illusion, and therefore the distinction between oneself and others also an illusion. Later, this would lead Mahayana Buddhism to put more emphasis on a more ‘positive’ form of action.]

Jesus (Mathew 7:12)

“Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.”


So, it was at least not very common in the ancient world.


Quotations that didn’t make cut:

Leviticus 19:18 (5th century B.C.): “You shall love your neighbour as yourself,” because it is immediately preceded by statement specifying “among your people.” Aristotle‘s “we should conduct ourselves toward others as we would have them act toward us,”  didn’t make it because he is referring to friends. Plato (The Laws, 11) didn’t make  it because, despite some translations, ie. Jowett’s, making it sound like a straightforward statement of the golden rule in the positive form, newer translations tend to be more like this: “In the next place our business transactions one with another will require proper regulation. The following will serve for a comprehensive rule:—as far as possible, no one shall touch my goods nor move them in the slightest degree, if he has in no wise at all got my consent; and I must act in like manner regarding the goods of all other men, keeping prudent mind.” This latter translation is both more narrowly defined, and not even in the positive form. [jhappolati has confirmed that this is the better translation].

Various other ancients are credited with giving the golden rule in positive form, but I have not been able to find any sources backing up those claims, and suspect they are not real: Zoroaster (628 – 551 B.C. – or perhaps as early as 11th or so B.C.) supposedly says: “That which is good for all and any one, for whomsoever – that is good for me… what I hold good for self, I should for all.” (Gathas, 43.1) – However, in the translation I looked at, there is no such line. Similarly Isocrates (b. 436 BC), Aristippus of Cyrene (b. 435 BC) are credited with stating the positive form of the golden rule, but I can find no evidence to support that. (Although, Isocrates does seem to employ the golden rule in a practical way: “Deal with weaker states as you would expect stronger states to deal with you”; “Conduct yourself toward your parents as you would have your children conduct themselves toward you”; “…give a just verdict, and prove yourselves to be for me such judges as you would want to have for yourselves,” etc.)

Once again, many stressed the negative golden rule, and for example Confucians often talked about the ethic of reciprocity, however as initially defined by Confucius at least, it was in negative form.

4 thoughts on “Ancient Quotations: the golden rule in positive form

  1. Pingback: And I Call this a Blog | Happolati's Miscellany

  2. Well, I can help on Laws XI: I took a look at the Greek and the recent translation is very accurate. I don’t know what Jowett was thinking, but his translations are famously full of howlers.

    So it seems that both the Mahabharata quotes are kind of on the bubble, given the weird ontology at play—which would leave just Mo Tzu and Jesus. If the practical upshot is the same, maybe it doesn’t really matter. Though I get the sense that both passages are less directly about behaviour and more directly about how to understand reality. The upshot of the whole thing with Arjuna, after all, is “so just slaughter them already.”

  3. Yeah, generally I haven’t been editorializing on the quotations, but I also had to make a note on the irony of placing Hindu quotes in the ‘equality’ section.

  4. Pingback: Father Knows Best: Holy Week Edition « Patriactionary

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