Skip to Main Content

About The Book

At one time, this nation held a profound and simple faith in the power of words. Today we have become so engulfed in public cynicism that the whole notion of "words to live by" seems to us impossibly naive.

Brian Burrell's splendid collection shows that many of the phrases we once lived by can still have resonance today. A comprehensive, fascinating treasure trove of American common sense and whimsy, The Words We Live By presents a sentimental rediscovery of a lost era in American history. From fraternal loyalty oaths to marriage vows, corporate mottoes to monument inscriptions, Ben Franklin to Henry Ford, Americans for generations have committed their most cherished ideals to print, often in charming and plain-spoken language that perfectly represents our provincial, pragmatic, and romantic national character.

Burrell's work was inspired by his father, an obsessive collector of words and a chronic nostalgia buff who traveled widely with his family, introducing them to the landmarks, monuments, and other symbols of America's past. Throughout his life, he clipped or wrote down memorable phrases, quotes, mottoes, and quips, both the silly and the profound, the playful and the maudlin. Burrell has lovingly compiled his father's collection of scrapbooks, complementing them with extraordinary research into the origins of America's civic ethics, to produce a truly memorable and inspirational work of historical reference. More than just a compendium of classic American wit and wisdom, The Words We Live By brings this material to life with poignantly told stories, forgotten anecdotes, and deeply considered meditations on the meaning of the words that have shaped the American nation.


Chapter 1



Whatever happened to the Golden Rule? It seems only yesterday it was a figure of everyday speech, an idea so familiar and unassailable that it could confidently be invoked by name alone. In the booming 1920s the Western Implement Dealers Association made "Obey the Golden Rule!" the very first precept of its code of ethics. The Concatenated Order of Hoo-Hoo (also known as the Fraternal Order of Lumbermen) endorsed it as nothing less than "the basic principle of peace and prosperity for the world." Roger Ward Babson, investment wizard and the founder of Babson College, went so far as to claim that "the Golden Rule is founded on the same law of Action and Reaction about which Sir Isaac Newton wrote the Principia."

From today's perspective these breathless endorsements seem quaintly naive, if not disingenuous. We still refer to the Golden Rule, but much more tentatively. It seems to have lost its glister, tarnished to no small degree by the cataclysmic events of the twentieth century. Yet even at the height of its popularity it was something of an enigma. It was never entirely clear, even to its staunchest supporters, what was so golden about it.

To many Americans, the very name still sums up the essence of Christian ethics. The Golden Rule epitomizes the Christian virtue of charity in thought and action, which is both an extraordinary reduction and a compelling one. It naturally leads to such questions as: How can anyone be a Christian and a racist at the same time? That is, how can one embrace the Golden Rule and yet hate one's fellow man? The answer, not only for Christians but for people of all faiths (because every religion has its own version of the same golden principle), is that it's impossible -- in theory. Yet it is all too common in practice. And this is where the promise held out by the name is not fulfilled.

The Golden Rule, after all, is not a binding law but merely a figure of speech. Its strength lies in its ability to compress all of ethics into one sentence. It principal weakness, not surprisingly, is its generality. How could anything so simple serve as a rule for all men for all time? Yet the fact remains that it has done just that, and apparently continues to do so..Just as the heavens revolve around the polestar, the course of human events seems to swirl around the Golden Rule. But like the polestar, its constancy can only be appreciated through the lens of time -- through a consideration of its past. Without some sense of its history, the rule remains unavailable to us.

Is It Just?

In American culture, what goes by the name of the Golden Rule seems on the surface to be a simple proposition: Do as you would be done by. But is it really all that simple? From its apparent beginnings as a Victorian platitude promoted by children's primers, catechisms, and embroidered samplers, this modest proposition somehow acquired the status of a self-evident truth -- one of the pillars of the American way of life. When the great Civil War-era statesman Charles Sumner died, the poet John Greenleaf Whittier could write with no irony, "His statecraft was the Golden Rule/ His right of vote a sacred trust/ Clear, over threat and ridicule/ All heard his challenge: 'Is it just?'" Whittier's contemporary, William Dean Howells, in his 1884 novel The Rise of Silas Lapham, has one character reprimand another by saying, "In our dealings with each other we should be guided by the Golden Rule."

What Whittier seems to imply is that Sumner always did unto others as he wished to be done unto. But the poet was hardly in a position to know. It seems more likely that Whittier is using the term Golden Rule in a more general way. Charles Sumner apparently lived up to a standard of conduct which clearly distinguished right from wrong. We just don't know what that standard was, and neither did Whittier.

In Silas Lapham, on the other hand, Howells's down-on-his-luck character seems to be getting at something else entirely. What he wants, alas, is a handout -- a misreading of the rule which hints at another fundamental weakness: that the Golden Rule can be construed as a demand to do for others what you would wish for yourself if you were in the same pitiful plight. In both instances the rule is invoked in earnest, yet with no apparent insight. It is not at all clear what it means.

Back then it hardly mattered. In Whittier's time, as compared to today, Americans were less self-conscious, and more apt to speak and believe in platitudes. To "go by" the Golden Rule or any one of hundreds of old saws meant to draw from a common fount of received ideas which were not to be taken too literally. A populace schooled in proverbial wisdom understood in what sense "golden" meant fitting and proper, and they accepted it. But now, with our sense of disbelief not so easily suspended, we are less inclined to take things at face value. As a result, we are often left without a clue as to how some of our culture's most common axioms work. This is one of the central paradoxes of the words invoked by this book's title: we have come to accept, and even embrace, a host of expressions we barely understand. The Golden Rule is perhaps the most glaring case in point.

Like almost all aphoristic wisdom, the Golden Rule was neither new or unique to America. It was part of our inheritance. Long before even Benjamin Franklin came along someone had already pointed out that time is money, that people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones, and that God helps those that help themselves. Franklin's unique talent was to be able to recast these nuggets of age-old wisdom in a distinctly American voice. Although not one of Poor Richard's concoctions, the Golden Rule was also reinvented in American culture as a paragon of equity and fairness -- a rule so simple that anyone could learn it and profit by it. Naturally, almost everyone accepted it. But that was part of its problem. What started out as the gospel truth soon turned into a deceptively solemn piece of high-minded yet dissembling rhetoric -- a symbol of good faith instead of the real thing. By the 1920s the Golden Rule had become a throwaway gesture in pretentious codes of ethics, and by the 1950s an obligatory plank in every politician's political creed.

The Golden Rule's golden age (indeed the golden age of aphorisms) appears to have come and gone. Even politicians now shy away from using it. As soon as it became an artifact of popular culture, it became all too easy to write off. One of the Great Ideas that drifted into the mainstream, it has been buffeted about and cast upon the rocks of cynicism and doubt. Which naturally raises the question, is it worth rescuing?

If the name could be jettisoned, this would be a simpler matter. The problem with it, whether most people are aware of it or not (and for the most part they are not), is that it carries a wealth of historical, cultural, and religious associations that make it something more than a generic label. As a matter of historical fact, the name is a relatively recent development. The rule managed to circulate widely across all cultures for well over a thousand years without the benefit of a 10-karat name. Which is to say that what we so blithely call the Golden Rule turns out to be a complex idea with a long history -- one that lies behind every philosopher's and theologian's attempt to understand how we should relate to each other. Despite its critics (and there have been many), it still has something useful to say. It is one of those rare artifacts in which the real treasure seems to lie beneath the gliding.

The Law and the Prophets

What exactly is the Golden Rule? Most of us think we know, although the word "exactly" should give us pause, because it implies (correctly) that the question cannot possibly be as simple as it seems.

Properly speaking, the term Golden Rule -- capitalized -- refers to a passage from the Sermon on the Mount. Of the two versions given in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Matthew's is the most widely accepted. Its most canonical English translation is the King James Version of 1611, which reads:

Therefore whatsoever ye would that others should do to you, do ye even so unto them.

Luke is more succinct:

As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also unto them likewise.

But in common parlance the name has become generic, and when not capitalized it can represent any number of seemingly equivalent statements. Those who cannot quote chapter and verse typically resort to such accessible variants as the nonscriptural "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you," or the even more abbreviated "Do as you would be done by." In Victorian America, schoolchildren often learned the Golden Rule in verse. The New England Primer rendered it this way:

Deal with another as you'd have

Another deal with you;

What you're unwilling to receive

Be sure you'd never do.

Isaac Watts, the English hymn writer, set the idea to music with this lyric:

Be you to others kind and true,

As you'd have others be to you;

And neither do nor say to men

Whate'er you would not take again.

Although these variations on a theme manage to get the same basic idea across, they should not be considered perfectly interchangeable. This should dispel a common assumption. In searching for connections we often forget how context (or a lack of it) can alter meaning. In the case of the Golden Rule, each rephrasing repackages an old idea, and in some cases the packaging (if not the label) overshadows the content.

To set the record straight, Matthew does not single out any passage from the Sermon on the Mount by giving it a name. In fact nowhere in the Bible does anyone refer to a "golden" rule. Nor did any of the Church fathers, in their lengthy disquisitions and interpretations of Scripture, use such a name. Saints Paul, Augustine, and Aquinas recognized the importance of what we call the Golden Rule within the system of Christian morality. Each of them subjected it to an extended analysis because they knew it required interpretation, but they did not think of it as particularly golden, or as an idea that should stand alone.

In Matthew's account, the maxim comes with this tag-line -- "for this is the Law and the Prophets" -- which is critical. It establishes the rule as a summary of Old Testament codes given in the biblical books referred to as the Law and the Prophets. It is meant to be considered as part of a tradition of preexisting laws. When classical scholars refer to the Stoic Maxim, which is yet another version of the same rule stated in negative form ("Do not do to others what you do not wish them to do to you"), they invoke it within the context of Stoic philosophy as a whole. Which is to say that it can only be fully appreciated in context. This is one of the historical facts that the use of the term "golden rule" glosses over. When pious writers invoke the name, most have in mind the passage from Matthew or Luke, in many cases without being aware that the Law and the Prophets come with it, or that the Stoic philosophers promoted it, or that all of the great religions of antiquity acknowledged it, or that great thinkers of all cultures have long debated it. What the name did was to establish a virtual monopoly on the idea. Like a trademark, it legitimized Christianity's sole proprietorship over what would otherwise be in the public domain. The irony of the situation is that the term "golden rule" originally referred to something else entirely.

By the time Isaac Watts began referring to the Golden Rule in the mid-1700s, it was already an established figure of speech, although with two very different meanings. When it was first coined in the late 1500s, the term belonged properly to mathematics. It first shows up around the year 1575 to describe the Rule of Three, an algebraic procedure for solving proportions. A century would go by before anyone thought to use it to describe a type of reciprocity between people rather than numbers. When Watts and other devout writers got hold of it, they managed to wrest it away from mathematics, and solidify the usage that we have today.

Surprisingly, this usage did not take hold outside of the English-speaking world. The Germans, Italians, French, and Spanish have a term that is roughly equivalent to "golden rule," but in those cultures it has retained its primary sense of the mathematical Rule of Three. Only in Anglo-American culture does the name carry any cachet as a moral precept~ And while the name made the scriptural maxim easy to refer to, the use of the word golden had a curious effect: it both elevated and trivialized the idea it described.

How did the naming come about? No doubt the King James Bible had something to do with it. Although not the first English translation of the Scriptures, the King James was the first one authorized to be read in churches, and thus it circulated widely. Its influence was felt in all of English literature, to the extent that it "established the rhythms of spoken English" as the Encyclopaedia Britannica asserts. With the gospels made accessible in the common tongue, isolated passages -- many of them from the Sermon on the Mount -- became more and more common in everyday speech.

By the mid-1600s the Golden Rule had become a frequently used (although still not named) expression among the scripturally literate, who began to abbreviate it, paraphrase it, and sing its praises. They hailed it, along with its counterpart love thy neighbor as thyself, as a new commandment, one that should rightfully stand beside the Ten Commandments as the embodiment of Christian morality. It must have seemed natural to give it a suitably exalted name.

The spirit of the Enlightenment also made a golden rule of morality seem plausible. The Age of Reason raised the possibility of the perfectibility of mankind, and laws of ethics laid out by such thinkers as Spinoza and Hobbes unfolded in empirical fashion much like the axioms of geometry and algebra, with the Golden Rule serving as a fundamental theorem. In those days the leap from mathematics to ethics did not appear to be a particularly dangerous one. Although the comment may now appear to be farfetched, Roger Babson's comparison of the Golden Rule to Newton's law of actions and reactions was not an isolated crackpot idea, nor a particularly original one, In his Boyle lecture of 1705, the English metaphysician Samuel Clarke had said much the same thing: "Whatever I judge reasonable or unreasonable that another should do for me, that by the same judgment I declare reasonable or unreasonable that I in like case should do for him. And to deny this either in word or action is as if a man should contend that, though two and three are equal to five, yet three and two are not so."

But what is reasonable is not necessarily undeniable. Responding to this line of thinking in the Encyclopaedia Britannica almost two centuries later, the English philosopher Henry Sidgwick quipped, "Let us grant that there is as much intellectual absurdity in acting unjustly as in denying that two and two make four; still, if a man has to choose between absurdity and unhappiness, he will naturally prefer the former; and Clarke cannot maintain that such preference is irrational."

Business Is Business

Intellectual absurdity has always been the Golden Rule's Achilles heel. Promoted as an invincible moral law, it has one fatal flaw: it is not binding, and can be used for self-serving and deceitful purposes as easily as for good ones. It relies on a mutual desire to do good, and this is not always the case. Sidgwick makes this point as delicately as possible, but other writers have been far less subtle.

In Charles Dickens's Martin Chuzzlewit, the title character's sly and conniving son announces, "Do other men, for they would do you," calling this "the true business precept. All others are counterfeit." Dickens adds, "The father applauded the sentiment to the echo." The wily horse trader David Harum, of Edward Noyes Westcott's 1899 best-selling novel of that name, observed, "'Bus'nis is bus'nis' ain't part of the golden rule, I allow, but the way it gen'ally runs, fur's I've found out, is 'Do unto the other feller the way he'd like to do unto you, an' do it fust.'"

This was hardly a modern discovery. The difference between what is laudable and what is practical or even necessary has long been known. In the fables of Pilpay, which date from the third century B.C., the moral of the story "The King Who Would Be Just" is that "men are used as they use others."

This is one view of reality that the term "golden rule" could not shake as it gained widespread acceptance, and the self-promotion implied by the name prompted a rash of objections and ridicule. Henry David Thoreau, while boating down the Concord and Merrimack rivers, noted in his journal, "Absolutely speaking, Do unto others as you would that they should do unto you, is by no means a golden rule, but the best of current silver. It is golden not to have any rule at all in such a case." George Bernard Shaw (in what was probably a plea in his own behalf) cautioned, "Do not unto others as you would that they should do unto you; their tastes may not be the same." The English poet William Blake went so far as to say, "He has observed the Golden Rule 'til he's become a golden fool."

Most philosophers wisely chose to stay above this unseemly fray by avoiding any mention of the golden name. Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and other enlightened thinkers understood that the term "Golden Rule" referred to a divinely inspired principle and not to something that they could prove like a mathematical theorem. But because they were trying to bring philosophy out of the shadow of religion and establish a rational basis for ethics, they had to find a way to justify the ideal of moral reciprocity without making any reference to God or to gold. None of them could.

A capsule survey can hardly do justice to the depths of philosophical investigation plumbed by these writers, but to be blunt, they managed to bring up to the surface very little of practical use. Their efforts produced some new golden rules, and more questions than answers. The section that follows runs through the high points of their quest, and the impatient reader will lose nothing by skipping it. What it shows is that the Golden Rule sits at the epicenter of any discussion of morals, and justifying it is the key to establishing a coherent and convincing theory of ethics.

Categorical Imperatives

In Leviathan, his groundbreaking analysis of political society written in 1651, Thomas Hobbes set the stage for what is known as modern moral philosophy by justifying the scriptural golden maxim as a rule of necessity dictated by man's essential self-interest. Because the natural state of man is a condition of war, according to Hobbes, in which everyone has the right to every thing, civilized society is only possible when ali men mutually lay down their rights and claims. The Golden Rule of the Scriptures (which did not yet go by that name) was nothing more than an easy summation, "intelligible to even the meanest capacity," of the laws of nature which governed survival.

This was not, of course, what the Church wanted to hear. Nor did Hobbes's contemporaries. John Locke tried to claim that moral rules do not spring from political necessity, but instead from intuitive propositions as real and certain as those of mathematics. The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau sought the basis of the rule in feelings, not reason. He argued that justice comes from God, but it is not recognized equally by everyone, so that, while Hobbesian brutality exists in the world, it is offset by many examples of compassion. "It is this compassion that hurries us without reflection to the relief of those who are in distress," writes Rousseau. But why? Not because of the golden maxim of the Scriptures. A "less perfect, but perhaps more useful" rule, Rousseau admitted, would be: "Do good to yourself with as little evil as possible to others."

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant responded to Hobbes by reinventing the Golden Rule. In his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), he proposed that any action, if it is to be considered moral, must be done out of a sense of duty, and not for selfish reasons or religious scruples. He named his new principle the Categorical Imperative, and stated it this way: "Act as if the maxim of your actions were to become through your will a universal law of nature." In short, think over what you're doing or about to do, and ask yourself if you would want everyone to behave that way. In a corollary which he named the Practical Imperative, he declared that people should treat each other "not as means only, but as ends." The Stoic Maxim, which is how Kant referred to what we call the Golden Rule, is merely a consequence of his more comprehensive imperatives.

The Categorical Imperative has two things working against it as a ready-made opinion. Neither the name nor the rule is catchy enough to survive in the marketplace of popular ideas. Nor did it sway the critics. It advanced the discussion of ethics, and still stands as a milestone on the road to moral enlightenment, but it was not the last word. Kant had set out to establish "the supreme principle of morality," and given the immensity of the task he set himself, he naturally came up short.

After Kant, the Golden Rule still had its defenders among respected thinkers, but they were fighting a losing battle. Prince Kropotkin, the founder of anarchism, referred to it as the fundamental principle of anarchism. "How can anyone manage to believe himself an anarchist unless he practices it?" If this statement seems faintly amusing today it is because of the way anarchy has changed meanings. In its original and benign sense -- its forgotten sense -- it implies an ungoverned society ordered by free association and communitarian principles. Clearly such a society would need a golden rule if it were to avoid devolving into -- there's no other way of putting it -- total anarchy.

Another system of ethics that relied heavily upon community interest over self-interest was utilitarianism, which aimed at the greatest good for the greatest number. In presenting this theory, John Stuart Mill endorsed the Golden Rule as "the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality," a seemingly benign remark which merits our attention primarily because of the contempt it aroused in the volcanic Friedrich Nietzsche, who never met a golden rule he didn't despise.

Reading Nietzsche on the Golden Rule is like reading Spiro Agnew on the American press. Whether you agree with him or not, he gets your attention. To Nietzsche, "the rule" (as he calls it) is the very embodiment of the English mentality, and it allows him to set up John Stuart Mill (whom he refers to as "that blockhead") as a stand-in for John Bull. "I abhor his vulgarity, which says: 'What is right for one is fair for another'; 'what you would not, etc., do not unto others'; which wants to establish all human intercourse on the basis of mutual services, so that every action appears as a kind of payment for something done to us."

Nietzsche did not believe in the possibility of equivalence of actions or equality of rights. Reciprocity, he says, "is a piece of gross vulgarity." To him the Golden Rule serves only to insult the superior intellect and to coddle the inferior. Its only value is that it betrays a type of man -- "it is the instinct of the herd that finds its formula in this rule."

Kant and the Categorical Imperative came in for the same sort of treatment. "A virtue that is prompted solely by a feeling of respect for the concept of virtue, as Kant would have it, "is harmful." The struggle to maintain a slavish devotion to unworkable formulas, Nietzsche firmly believed, leads to moral exhaustion. And Kant was paving the way. "The fundamental laws of self-preservation and growth demand the opposite," Nietzsche fumed, "that everyone invent his own virtue, his own categorical imperative. A people perishes when it confuses its duty with duty in general."

Certainly Nietzsche was a difficult character. He rarely bothered to measure his words, many of which could and later did serve to justify the abominable acts of others (Hitler being the most notorious example). Because he tended to write in aphorisms, he is easy to quote out of context, and he left himself open to misinterpretation. Still, he is redeemed somewhat by what could be called a Nietzschean golden rule (although he would have bristled at the label), which demonstrates his sympathy with the ideal of reciprocity. "When the exceptional human being treats the mediocre more tenderly than himself and his peers," Nietzsche wrote, "this is not mere politeness of the heart -- it is simply his duty."

There Are No Golden Rules

Although the Golden Rule has survived in popular parlance, it is no longer taken very seriously. Most uses of the term could properly be classified as "babbittry" -- part of the cant of middle-class conformity and materialism. In American culture the name has retained a largely symbolic value. It conveys a vague notion of fairness and generosity, much like two other popular ideals with which it was once frequently linked.

A conscientious citizen, it could once confidently be said, should try to cio a Good Turn, offer a Square Deal, and live up to the Golden Rule whenever possible. As part of the Progressive-era rhetoric of the early twentieth century, these three principles derived most of their clout from strong institutional associations. The Good Turn (or Good Deed, as most Americans know it) grew out of the chivalric ethos of Scouting. The Golden Rule, of course, was lifted from the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke, while the Square Deal was the gospel according to Theodore Roosevelt. Like the Golden Rule, the Square Deal was driven by the sheer force of one dominating personality. The phrase seized the public's imagination during Roosevelt's presidency even though no one could say exactly what it meant. When he tried to recapture the nation's highest office in 1912 running on the Progressive Party ticket, his campaign slogan was: A Square Deal All Around.

Just what did it mean? According to the code of ethics of the Fraternal Order of Lumbermen, a Square Deal served "to elevate humanity by charity of action and thought and by justice to all men." They might have said the same of the Golden Rule. Both ideas were sufficiently vague as to appear indisputable -- at least while they were in vogue.

But by the late 1950s, when Jimmy Hoffa remarked to reporters (with what would prove to be a terminal sense of irony), "I do unto others what they do unto me, only worse," a new golden rule was born -- one that jibed with a more cynical national mood that showed little patience for platitudes. By the 1970s the Golden Rule had all but disappeared, leaving in its wake such piquant observations as: "He who has the gold makes the rules."

This would seem to confirm George Bernard Shaw's conclusion of a century ago that "The Golden Rule is that there are no golden rules." Perhaps what he meant was that there shouldn't be.


The apparent demise of the Golden Rule should not be taken too seriously. It has been around for at least twenty-five hundred years, and the events of the last hundred are not likely to kill it off. Despite all that is said against it -- the parodies and the tirades -- it embodies nothing more or less than the way civilized people treat each other. It is precisely what any patient parent tries to instill in a misbehaving child. Thoreau would have been correct in saying "better not to have a rule at all in such a case" if the rule were indeed so self-evident that it did not have to be taught. But it does need to be taught, and in this one respect it is not unlike the laws of mathematics or physics.

Putting it into words, of course, is where problems arise. No one is quite content with any one statement of it. Scholars bicker at each other over whose version is best, and there are countless versions to choose from. With a little digging, the inquiring reader can connect the Sermon on the Mount to a vast body of preexisting literature in which the rule we thought Jesus invented turns up seemingly everywhere. In the fifth century B.C., in what may have been a retelling of an even older story, a young disciple asks the venerable Confucius whether there is one word which might serve as a rule of practice for all one's life. "Is not reciprocity such a word?" the Master replies. "What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others."

A diligent reader will have the satisfaction of encountering this rule again several times in the Analects of Confucius and other Confucian texts, and there are similar satisfactions to be found in the Buddhist Dhammappada, the texts of Taoism, the Hindu Mahabharata, the Jaina Sutras, the Jewish Talmud, and the Koran. Even Aristotle gets into the act, at least according to the sometimes reliable biographer Diogenes Laertes, who quotes him as saying, "We should behave to our friends as we wish our friends should behave to us."

Taking all of these golden rules together, one might be led to think of reciprocity, as a rule for all men for all time. The reality is somewhat different: it was not originally meant for all men, and certainly not for women. Throughout antiquity the "others" one should "do unto" hailed from a select group. Aristotle extends the courtesy only to friends -- a reading of the rule that allows one to be a Christian, a Stoic, or even an Aristotelian, and yet still be a racist. Confucius simply conceded that social inequality was a fact of life, and broke his rule down into cases: "What a man dislikes in his superiors, let him not display in his treatment of his inferiors." Seneca, the Stoic philosopher and statesman, says much the same thing in addressing the issue of slavery: "As often as you reflect how much power you have over a slave, remember that your master has just as much power over you."

It is here that the Christian Golden Rule gets high marks from some commentators as a more ethical proposal than its predecessors, on two counts in particular. The first is that it is a positive rule -- "Do unto others," as opposed to "Do not do unto others." The second is that it is a rule for all men (and presumably women). This is the point that Paul, finding the Sermon on the Mount to be too vague, decided to spell out in his letter to the Ephesians. Because everyone stands in the same relation to each other with respect to God, he argues, the good that we do is not to be reciprocated in kind, but in spirit. Whether coming from a servant or a master, "whatsoever good thing any man shall do," Paul wrote, "the same shall he receive from the Lord." This is because "there is no respect of persons with him."

What may seem at first to be an obscure theological point goes a long way to explaining the eventual popularity of the Golden Rule in America. Long before the Golden Rule was golden, it was recognized as a useful expression of what now seems obvious: we should measure our actions by imagining how we would deal with their consequences, not only in this world but in the next. But this idea has not always been so obvious. The assumption that lies behind reciprocity, in its purest sense, is that there is an equality between persons, that the consideration each human being is entitled to is roughly equal. If anything, this is a modern idea, and a distinctively American one. It is a rule that assumes, following Saint Paul and Thomas Jefferson, that all men are equal, not only in the eyes of God but in the eyes of the state. In American culture the Golden Rule became the proof of this -- a political tenet of faith.

It is easy to see why. Its strength, aside from its rich scriptural and pan-cultural history, lies in its simplicity. It places every person in a moral relationship to all other people. It demands and at the same time acknowledges everyone's capacity for wisdom, compassion, and good judgment. In one sentence it conveys the ability and the responsibility to do the right thing, and the confidence that one will.

At times this confidence may seem to be misplaced. And yet the golden rule (here uncapitalized to represent a principle that transcends all faiths) can enlighten us if we are willing to wrestle with it. As Confucius said, "A man can enlarge the principles which he follows; those principles do not enlarge the man."

In So Many Words

There are an uncountable number of ways of expressing the ideal of reciprocity, and since the time of Confucius many people became convinced that they had found its perfect expression. But Confucius himself acknowledged that the ideal of doing unto others could not be adequately expressed in mere words or with simple deeds. What he had written, he conceded, was as unequal to virtue as himself. "To set the example in behaving to a friend as I would require him to behave to me," the Master confessed, "I am not yet able."

Yet the Golden Rule is still an ideal that many try to live up to. Although its name is mired in the past (along with the Square Deal), the rule itself has never really gone away. It continues to show up in a variety of guises that invoke the ideal of reciprocity in ways that people fed comfortable with.

In small-town newspaper profiles and man-on-the-street interviews, when asked to state their personal philosophy, a surprising number of people answer by saying, "To do unto others as I would have them do unto me." This reflects how those of us who have attained a certain level of moral awareness in our day-to-day activities feel when given a chance to reflect on the consequences of our actions. We may not always use the term "golden rule" to describe this awareness. Often, we unconsciously act on a concept that since childhood we have found to be easy to grasp and simple to apply.

And the idea is still a viable one; it continues to reveal itself here and there in ways that manage to strike a resonant chord without sounding heavy-handed. In Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, Scout Finch, the narrator, stands on the front porch of her next door neighbor, a reclusive man who has just saved her life. In this final scene, she has an epiphany, and finally understands something her father once told her. "Atticus was right," she says. "One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them." This, in so many words, is the golden rule.

Copyright © 1997 by Brian Burrell

About The Author

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (August 9, 2011)
  • Length: 384 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781451664379

Browse Related Books

Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images