How “Trivial” is the Golden Rule in Patristic Ethics?

Its Contexts, Meanings and Functions from the New Testament to Augustine

In: Danish Yearbook of Philosophy

In patristic ethics there are many differing formulations of the Golden Rule (“do unto others…”), the greatest difference being perhaps that between the negative and the positive version. The Golden Rule was typically considered a matter of natural law, but it is rarely considered the exclusive principle to be applied in practice. Often it was considered an instrument for recognizing generally true principles, such as those of the second table of the Decalogue, or, in Augustine, to direct attention to a “law of the heart.” While Chrysostom saw it solely as a regulative principle for horizontal relationships between human beings, Augustine believed it to regulate the believer’s relationship with God as well. The rule was not, in patristic ethics, an abstract philosophical principle, but something that structured not only particular actions or types of actions, but practices in a more contextual sense. For these reasons the Golden Rule should, in patristic ethics, always be understood against the background of a broader context of values. Though the Golden Rule may seem to express a universal ethics, its meanings and functions depend on the larger moral-philosophical framework.

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