Plato and Aristotle on the Golden Rule
On Wednesday night Peter, Stu and I attended Mrs. Javid's fireside, and the speaker was Terry Spratt. Stu, our non-Baha'i friend, attested that Terry was one of the best speakers he has ever heard. The chosen subject was the nature of the Manifestations, though the body of his talk was a run-through of the Baha'i principles, including the international language. Terry must have had some extra coffees that day, as I have never heard him speak so quickly and cram so much data into a short time. The slightest disturbance or distraction and I would miss a major point. At the end I asked my standard question at a presentation on the Manifestations of God,
"If these Manifestations are such great teachers, how is it that they are always rejected by almost all of mankind? Is that not like a teacher whose class walks out on him? How can you say such a teacher, speaking to an empty room, is good or bad?"
In the answer I always look for a mention of the word "testing," which of course is the essence of the explanation given in the Kitab-i-Iqan. Terry, two sentences later, did mention that word, and in addition got a bonus mark for bringing in Plato's cave.
Unfortunately, somebody then asked about the international language. Terry mentioned the disadvantages of English, which some experts consider one of the most difficult second languages in the world. But soon things went downhill and I was forced to listen to the usual hogwash about English, De Facto world language, which implies that the Master was wrong in favoring Esperanto. Coincidentally, my Esperantist friends in
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Rick Garlikov attempted to reply to the "comment" facility of the Badi' Blog, but his feedback was lost, unfortunately. At least one other person tried that, and their comment never got to me either. So, dear Badi' list readers, please reply to me direct, at email@example.com, and do not attempt to use blogspot, or indeed any other older email address you may have for me. Some people still are writing me at 295.ca, but the only other valid, permanent email address is:
"I had written a fairly short reply, basically that Yes, there are better principles than the Golden Rule. Moreover, what I had originally written was not that the Golden Rule gave the wrong results, but that it did not necessarily (or likely) give the right results; but that either way, you could not tell from using the rule itself whether you had the right or wrong results. Moreover, I contend that whenever any act the Golden Rule gives as the right result, it is not because it fits the Rule, but because it has particular properties that meet the criteria of other and better principles. The Golden Rule is a rule of good intentions, not necessarily right actions."
I agree almost completely with you on this, Rick. The GR is about improving our intentions, it does not tell us how to carry them out. We have finely attuned minds designed for carrying out pragmatic actions in complex situations; I cannot imagine any general maxim -- no matter how meaningful -- helping much with the details of practical matters. Still, I would be interested in hearing what these "better principles" are. As I understand it, there are rules of reciprocity and rules of love, and whether one applies or the other depends upon how much contact you have with the other party in question -- though it is true that the parable of the Good Samaritan implies that it is possible and desirable to apply the rule of love to strangers and even enemies.
In the selections from Xenophon that I cited yesterday, I believe that Socrates was applying the Golden Rule in its "classic" sense, as a sort of compass for mapping out personal relationships. That is where it is most useful. If I apply the Golden Rule in my personal relationships I am very likely to become a better friend, brother, husband, father and son; I am not necessarily a better worker or consultant. Once you attempt to carry the GR to collective matters, to apply it as a matter of public policy, it gets problematic. Not that philosophers have not tried. Notable modern examples of attempts to broaden the GR into this realm are Kant's Categorical Imperative, the Utilitarian "greatest happiness for the greatest number," and so-called "contractarian" approaches to justice. I cannot discuss these in detail because I am not qualified, though I am working on it. The "classic" Golden Rule is powerful, effective, and, sadly, not very well known. An entire generation of youth are growing up who have never even heard of the GR, much less considered whether to apply it or not. As it is, the classic GR is more than enough to fill this blog for years to come.
It would be absurd to talk of the GR in philosophy without mentioning Socrates' brightest student, Plato. He is often quoted as citing the Golden Rule in this form, which resembles a prayer as much as a maxim: "May I do to others as I would that they should do to me." This morning I succeeded in locating this quote in the last and IMHO the greatest of his writings, the Laws. The Laws is Plato's crowning masterpiece. Currently most readers of Plato prefer the Republic and think of the Laws as a dark, authoritarian vision of an embittered old man. This reflects on the bias and ignorance of modern times, not on Plato's genius itself. Anyway, here is the full quote, the opening paragraph of the eleventh book of the Laws,
"In the next place, dealings between man and man require to be suitably regulated. The principle of them is very simple: Thou shalt not, if thou canst help, touch that which is mine, or remove the least thing which belongs to me without my consent; and may I be of a sound mind, and do to others as I would that they should do to me."
This is how the public domain electronic text puts it, but A.E. Taylor's translation in the Collected Writings reads, "If I am a man of sense I must treat the property of others in the same way." (913a, p. 1466) This, I must say, is an aspect of the GR that had not occurred to me. Indeed, it is at the heart of our concept of property and ownership. The property Silver Rule, then, would be: "I do not like it when my stuff is stolen, so I refrain from taking your stuff." The property Golden Rule is, "I like my possessions respected and augmented by others, so I will do the same for others."
Plato goes on to say that we should not even desire or pray for others' possessions to fall into our hands. Recall earlier in this discussion of the Golden rule when I said that some issues, like stealing, are not considered moral dilemmas because the law backs them up. No matter how much property laws are backed up by legal sanctions, however, they will never cover our inner desires and intentions in the way that Plato's property GR attempts to do. If most people do not desire or pray for more property, then we can assume that there would be far less lawlessness than now. I need not say that commercialism constantly pushes our noses up against the shop window, ever slavering after further acquisition of property.
Finally, for today, we have Aristotle. He has been quoted as saying, "We should behave to our friends as we would wish our friends to behave toward us." This indicates that he was following what we highlighted last time, Socrates "classic" understanding that the GR is the ground rule for being a good friend and a weapon for "conquering" the hearts of those we would love. In the Nichomachean Ethics Aristotle introduces the all-important concept of goodwill. Just as it is hard to use a hammer without knowledge of carpentry, it would be impossible to wield the tools of reciprocity without understanding goodwill. Aristotle writes,
"For no one loves if he has not first been delighted by the form of the beloved, but he who delights in the form of another does not, for all that, love him, but only does so when he also longs for him when absent and craves for his presence; so too it is not possible for people to be friends if they have not come to feel goodwill for each other, but those who feel goodwill are not for all that friends; for they only wish well to those for whom they feel goodwill, and would not do anything with them nor take trouble for them. And so one might by an extension of the term friendship say that goodwill is inactive friendship..."
The Golden Rule, then, is a directive meant to take us from the passive, "inactive friendship" of goodwill, merely wishing others well, to the next stage of positive action for their good. It is true that it does not give us the gumption to act or any detailed guidance as to what to do. It only offers what I feel and desire as an indicator of what you might like.
So, we can conclude: The more similar I am to you the more likely it is that I will guess correctly what you would like to have done to you. If we are both preoccupied with material issues these guesses will be very likely to be wrong. The GR will be useless. On the other hand, the more dedicated we both are to spirit, to eternal realities, the more similar our desires will be and the more likely it is that the GR will be a reliable tool. In my researches this morning I came across the following statement that Abdu'l-Baha made in
"I hope that you will be under the protection of God, will succeed in rendering service to humanity and will always be a source of happiness to every heart. The best person is he who wins all hearts and is not the cause of grief to anyone. The worst of souls is he who causes hearts to be agitated and who becomes the cause of sadness. Always endeavor to make people happy and their hearts joyful so that you may become the cause of guidance to mankind. Proclaim the Word of God and diffuse the divine fragrances." (Mahmud's Diary; Thursday, September 26, 1912)