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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
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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.

Abstract

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.

Introduction

The Golden Rule is widely recognized as the most widespread ethical norm in religious, as well as philosophical ethics.1 For proponents of religious universalism and pluralism, the ubiquity of the rule in world religions, or its status as “moralisches Weltkulturerbe,” often makes it a preferred principle or ideal for a global ethics.2 In modern philosophical discussions the rule is often treated in abstract, ahistorical terms. Such decontextualization tends to lead to unsatisfactory results, making some modern ethicists consider the rule insufficient. This was the case when Immanuel Kant characterized the rule as “das triviale,” which could be used for justifying more or less any kind of behavior.3 The following discussion of the Golden Rule in patristic ethics aims at suggesting a contextualized understanding when working with patristic ethics, by pointing at how the Golden Rule was often understood in relation to a broader moral philosophical framework.

In its origins, the rule may be considered a matter of reciprocity, and a counterpart to the lex talionis (the principle of retaliation) or the principle “Do ut des” (“I give in order that you may give”).4 Seneca understood the rule as a positive principle of putting oneself in the place of the other and to “give in the way in which we ourselves should like to receive,” while the Rabbi Hillel the Elder is quoted for a saying that “[w]hat is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor (ḥaber): that is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary; go and learn it.”5 In the New Testament the rule is known from Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain (Luk 6:31) and the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 7:12).

In his unpublished dissertation on the Golden Rule from 1966 Bruce Alton argued that “[…]evidence for the correct analysis of it solely on the basis of its New Testament context is as inconclusive as evidence on the basis of the form of its occurrence there.”6 But Alton’s historical interest is in “the Golden Rule’s typical linguistic structure and function in ethics” and his analysis is, as he says, first of all conceptual.7 Alton’s approach is characteristic for discussions of the Golden Rule in contemporary ethics. But while internal linguistic details are important aspects of understanding the rule, the meaning of such a principle as the Golden Rule can hardly be adequately understood independently of a broader conceptual background, as Alton also acknowledges.

The most comprehensive study of the history of the Golden Rule so far is perhaps Olivier du Roy’s “La Règle d’or — Histoire d’une maxime morale universelle” from 2012.8 Roy notes that “all the Greek, Syriac, and Latin Fathers accept and teach this doctrine of the Golden Rule as being the content of natural law.”9 While this is a credible claim, the characterization of the Golden Rule as natural law does not in itself settle its meaning. It would, perhaps, be more precise to argue that these authors saw the Golden Rule as the form of natural law, whereas the actual contents depend on further contextual factors.

Ricoeur has argued that for a law (an ethical principle) to be intelligible, there must be a narrative, as law makes instructions out of narratives. In its New Testament setting, says Ricoeur, the Golden Rule conveys a notion of ethical reciprocity that transcends ordinary reciprocity by substituting moral norms with an economy of the gift in the light of Jesus’ supraethical demand to love others.10 Ricoeur points to the necessity of understanding the Golden Rule in a broader context.

The meaning of the Golden Rule is flexible and depends on tradition, context, setting, and function. As Jeffrey Wattles has argued, the Golden Rule is not the sole principle or an axiom in a deductive system of ethics produced by the extension of an abstract principle. The Golden Rule is, says Wattles, a searchlight rather than a map, which is why the Golden Rule “cannot operate in a value vacuum,” but requires a fuller philosophy of moral living.11

The following introduces an overview of how the Golden Rule was understood in early Christian (patristic) ethics from the New Testament until Augustine of Hippo (354–430), but does not (for obvious reasons) attempt to reconstruct the philosophies of “moral living” (Wattles) for all the examples in which the Golden Rule appears in patristic ethics. The aim is the more moderate one of outlining some of the complexities of the main themes which should be considered when engaging with the Golden Rule in patristic ethics, and thereby pointing to the need for contextual analysis.

Its Different Versions

The perhaps best known formulations of the Golden Rule can be found in the gospels of Luke and Matthew, “as ye wish that men may do to you, do ye also to them in like manner” (καθὼς θέλετε ἵνα ποιῶσιν ὑμῖν οἱ ἄνθρωποι, ποιεῖτε αὐτοῖς ὁμοίως) (Luk 6:13), and “[a]ll things, therefore, whatever ye may will that men may be doing to you, so also do to them” (Πάντα οὖν ὅσα ἐὰν θέλητε ἵνα ποιῶσιν ὑμῖν οἱ ἄνθρωποι, οὕτως καὶ ὑμεῖς ποιεῖτε αὐτοῖς) (Matt 7:12). The “therefore” (οὖν) in Matt 7:12 suggests that the Golden Rule is a conclusion on Jesus’ moral teachings, while the “all things” in Matthew suggests a reciprocal relationship involving specific acts. The “as” in Luke suggests a reciprocity of general behavior, being an indicator of a type of behavior rather than a class of acts, as Alton puts it.12

As the Golden Rule is said to be “the law and the prophets” in Matt 7:13 it is often considered identical to the commandments to “love the Lord your God” (Matt. 22:37) and “your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39), as “the Law and the Prophets” are said to “hang” on these (Matt. 22:40). It is far from clear, however, how the Golden Rule is identical to both commandments in Matt 22:40, and how it sums up the whole law and the prophets.

Though the Golden Rule is often considered central for biblical ethics, it is treated relatively infrequently in patristic exegesis and moral philosophy.13 Often it is the negative version that is quoted, which suggests that it was taken not from Matt 7:12 and Luke 6:31, but from other sources. Though it may not be possible to establish a clear link, sources could include, e.g., Tob. 4:15 or Hillel’s famous saying.14 At any rate, the negative version of the Golden Rule does not appear in the New testament, though according to Reiner the Golden Rule is implied in Rom 2:1 as Paul says that “In passing judgment upon another you condemn yourself,” and according to King, in Paul’s understanding of the law in Rom 13:10.15

From early on the negative version was listed among precepts to love others, e.g. in the Didache (first or early 2nd century): “love your neighbor as yourself, and do not do to another what you would not want done to you (πάντα δὲ ὅσα ἐὰν θελήσῃς μὴ γίνεσθαί σοι, καὶ σὺ ἄλλῳ μὴ ποίει).”16 Notice that this formulation does not mention the actions of others but the rather impersonal “should not occur (γίνεσθαί) to thee,” as it could be translated.17 To this is added: “But love those who hate you, and you shall not have an enemy,” which suggests a somewhat pragmatic or teleological understanding of the Golden Rule.18

Justin Martyr (c. 100–165) interpreted the demand to love others as oneself in accordance with the ethical reciprocity demanded by the negative and positive versions of the Golden Rule: “[…]the man who loves his neighbor as himself will wish for him the same good things that he wishes for himself, and no man will wish evil things for himself.”19 To love one’s neighbor, says Justin, means praying and laboring that he may be possessed of the same benefits as oneself. Justin adds that “neighbor” means “that similarly-affectioned and reasonable being—man.”

In the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies, the “love of the righteous man” for his neighbor (enemies included) is summed up in the Golden Rule, as a matter of wishing good for others: “In one word, what he wishes for himself, he wishes also for his neighbor. For this is the law of God and of the prophets this is the doctrine of truth.”20 Wishing and doing is linked in the demand to “let each man be minded to do to his neighbor those good things he wishes for himself.”21 Almost the whole rule of our action is summoned up, says the author of the Recognitiones Clementi, as “what we are unwilling to suffer we should not do to others.”22

As in the Rec. Clem. the negative version of the Golden Rule is often mentioned as a precept together with prohibitions against idolatry and similar. For example, the apology of Aristides (2nd century) describes Christians as refraining from idolatry, to which is added that “whatsoever they would not that others should do unto them, they do not to others,”23 while Theophilus of Antioch (d. 181) notes that the Father and Creator of the universe gave a law and sent prophets to teach the whole race “that there is one God,” and to abstain from idolatry, adultery, murder, fornication, theft, etc., “and that whatever a man would not wish to be done to himself, he should not do to another.”24 Irenaeus (d. c. 202) quotes a Western version of Acts 15:29 in which keeping the Golden Rule in its negative version is among the “necessary things” which should be kept: “[…]abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from fornication; and whatsoever you do not wish to be done to you do not to others (et quecunque non vultis fieri vobis, aliis ne faciatis).25

A more systematic identification of the Golden Rule as a summation of the law and the prophets (as implied by Matt. 7:13) seems only to have been taken up later. Origen (182–254) argues that the law written on the hearts of the Gentiles is equal “according to the spirit” to the second table of the Decalogue and the negative version of the Golden Rule, “that those things men do not want done to themselves, they should not do to others.”26 Lactantius (240–320) identifies the rule as he argues that the root of justice (radix iustitiae) and the foundation of equity (fundamentum aequitatis) is “that you should not do that which you would be unwilling to suffer”27 and “that you do not do to another that which you not want to suffer from another (ut non facias alteri, quidquid ipse ab altero pati nolis).”28 The first step of justice is not to injure, while the next is to be of service.29 Thus, Lactantius suggests a distinction between the negative and the positive versions of the rule.

Before Lactantius, the first Christian writer to clearly distinguish between the negative and the positive versions seems to have been Tertullian (160–220), who took the negative to be implicit in the positive version in Luke 6:31.30 The Syrian Gnostic Bardaisan (154–222) distinguished the two, as he held that the negative version demands “that we shall never serve any evil upon anyone, from that which we would not will to befall to ourselves,” while the positive version demands “that we should do that which is good, what is pleasant to us and what we desire to have done to ourselves.”31 Both, says Bardaisan, “fit beautifully and decorously with liberty.”

Juvencus formulated the Golden Rule as “What goods you desire to come from your fellow man, the same you should give all your favor. For this is the highest law, this is the justice of the prophets. (Quae cupitis uobis hominum benefacta uenire, Haec eadem uestro cunctis praestare fauore, Haec legis summe est, hoc ius dixere profetae).”32

Basil of Caesarea (330–379) quotes the rule in its positive and negative versions, as principles of goodness and evil, respectively: “Do you know what good you ought to do your neighbor? The good that you expect from him yourself. Do you know what is evil? That which you would not wish another to do to you.”33 John Chrysostom (349–407) likewise distinguishes between the negative and the positive formulations, as the negative (“Do not to another what thou hatest”) is meant to “induce to a departure from iniquity,” while the positive induces “to the exercise of virtue.”34

Augustine of Hippo (354–430) understood the negative version much like Lactantius. In De Libero Arbitrio, Augustine has Evodius saying that “[a]nyone who does to another what he does not want done to himself does evil.”35 When applied to the love of one’s neighbor, says Augustine, the precept puts an end to all crimes, as “no one wishes an injury to be done him by another; he himself, therefore, ought not to do injury to another.”36

Alton suggests that the widespread use of the negative version in early Christian literature indicates that it might have been taken “to be equivalent to the positive form.”37 Ricoeur, following King, has argued that the positive version is implied in the negative.38 While this could explain the frequency of examples of negative formulations of the Golden Rule in patristic literature by authors who may be expected to have been aware of the positive formulation in Matt 7:12 and Luk 6:31, there are many cases where the positive formulation is taken to imply the negative formulation (e.g. Tertullian), but not vice versa. 39

The range of formulations of the Golden Rule does not necessarily reflect differences in the conception of its meaning and role in ethical reasoning and action. Such differences exist, as we will see below, but they do not depend much on the internal linguistics of the principle. Though the distinction between the negative and the positive versions of the rule is significant, not even this distinction can always be taken to convey a distinction of meaning, as the above indicates. This suggests that we need to broaden our approach to assert what meaning is carried by a particular formulation in a particular context.

The Epistemology of the Golden Rule

The next thing to be considered is the epistemology of the Golden Rule: How do we learn the Golden Rule? In many cases the Golden Rule was seen as the principle behind the second table of the Decalogue, and thus as God’s revealed law to Moses. For example, Theophilus of Antioch (d. 181) believed the Golden Rule in the negative formulation to be a part of the law revealed by God through the prophets.40 While it was a common view that Greek philosophy was borrowed from Moses, an equally common view of the Golden Rule was that it was knowable not only by particular revelation, but also as natural law (or general revelation).41

The status of the Golden Rule as natural law was important in the polemics against Gnosticism in its various forms, which claimed that Jesus’ moral teachings were something new and distinct from the old law and nature.42 Tertullian attacks Marcion for denying the universal knowledge of the Golden Rule, but acknowledges that God did not include strangers when commanding Israel to love its neighbors.43 This does not mean, however, that Christ’s precept of loving strangers (which Tertullian identifies with the Golden Rule), is different from the law of the creator, which was repeated in Christ. The same love which the creator prescribed in favor of a man’s brethren, Christ prescribes in favor of all men. If the precept was given by a new, formerly unknown god, it would not have been possible before to know “what i ought to wish for, or not to wish for, for myself, and so do for others what i wished to be done to me, and abstain from doing what i did not wish to be done to me,” says Tertullian.

This runs parallel to Tertullian’s notion of faith as recognition. On the one hand, the soul is naturally Christian, but on the other hand, “Christians are made, not born (fiunt, non nascuntur Christiani).”44 Faith is a matter of recognizing (recognoscere) God.45 The natural knowledge of God is the disposition (dispositio) for this recognition (agnitio).46 The same sequence of recognition applies to morality, as the first step of charity is towards one’s neighbors, while the second step in charity is towards strangers:47 The fact of good and evil is known by nature, though “God’s rule of conduct” is not. The creator in his course of dispensation first limited love to the Jews but then extended it to the whole race.48

Justin Martyr argued that God has set “before every race of mankind that which is always and universally just, as well as all righteousness.”49 This can be seen, says Justin, by the unwillingness to submit to what people impose on others. Hence, Justin arguably identifies “that which is always and universally just” with the negative formulation of the Golden Rule. The exceptions to this knowledge, says Justin, are the cases of those who are possessed and debased by education, wicked customs, and institutions by which their natural ideas have been lost or quenched. Hence, in Justin’s view, learning to act in accordance with the Golden Rule is not so much a matter of learning a new rule of conduct which corresponds to nature (as in Tertullian), as it is a matter of de-learning notions contrary to nature.

Clement of Alexandria (150–215) developed an idea of general revelation similar to Justin’s. The myths and philosophy of the Gentiles contains “a dream of the truth,” and an understanding which is sent by God (τὴν σύνεσιν θεόπεμπτον εἶναι), says Clement.50 Though God’s treasures are dispensed and disclosed in many ways, the oneness of God means that the Lord is the same instructor in all cases. Clement quotes the Golden Rule as formulated in Luke 6:31, and calls it a “comprehensive precept, and an exhortation of life, all-embracing.”51

Origen argued that natural law agrees with the law of Moses in spirit, though not in letter, and that it is inherent in men. The negative form of the Golden Rule is taught by the “natural moral senses,” says Origen, “[f]or what could be nearer to the natural moral senses than that those things men do not want done to themselves, they should not do to others?”52 The things which according to Paul are written in the hearts of the Gentiles (Rom. 2:15) agree with the evangelical laws, says Origen, where everything is ascribed to “natural justice.”53

Basil of Caesarea seems to ground the Golden Rule in a more general understanding of the laws of nature: God has created the world in such a way that it is more useful and appropriate for human beings to follow the Golden Rule, than not to. As animals know naturally by themselves without inquiry (“botanical researches or the experience of simples”) what is useful and appropriate for their nature, the Golden Rule is, in the negative and positive versions, an “untaught law of nature”: “Do you know what good you ought to do your neighbor? The good that you expect from him yourself. Do you know what is evil? That which you would not wish another to do to you.”54

John Chrysostom similarly claimed that a natural law of good and evil is seated within us, as knowledge of virtue has been implanted in our nature. Christ’s commandment in Matt. 7:12 was not “a strange law, or one which surpassed our nature,” but one “deposited beforehand in our conscience (προλαβὼν ἐγκατέθηκεν ἡμῶν τῷ συνειδότι),” by which we understand what vice and virtue is.55 Conscience suggests to the will what ought to be done, while the will contributes its own exertions for the accomplishment. By summing up all in this precept, Jesus signifies that “virtue is compendious, and easy, and readily known of all men (σύντομος ἡ ἀρετὴ, καὶ ῥᾳδία, καὶ πᾶσι γνώριμος).”56 That keeping the Golden Rule is easy, since “virtue is according to our nature (κατὰ φύσιν ἡμῖν ἡ ἀρετὴ),” which is why “we all, of ourselves, know our duties.” If we hold on to the negative and positive versions of the Golden Rule, says Chrysostom, we shall not need additional words, instruction, or teaching to know the moral value of virtue and vice, as “we are all self-taught in such judgments.”57 We applaud virtue though we do not follow it, and hate vice though we do.

Augustine attacked the claim that there is no such thing as “absolute right” or no such thing as right at all, since every nation has different customs. People who claim that there is no absolute right, says Augustine, do not perceive that the precept, “Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them,” cannot be altered by any diversity of national customs.58 No person is unaware of the Golden Rule, says Augustine, as “the hand of our Maker in our very hearts hath written this truth, ‘That which to thyself thou wouldest not have done, do not thou to another.’”59 People do not fail to keep the law because they do not have it written in their hearts, but because they will not read it, Augustine argues.

The above shows that there is some credibility to Roy’s claim that “all the Church Fathers adopted” the perspective of the Golden Rule as natural law.60 It is equally clear, however, that this perspective is conceived in quite different ways. As the following two chapters aim at showing, the common understanding of the Golden Rule as natural law is far from determining a common understanding of its meaning and function in ethical reasoning and practice.

The Function of the Golden Rule

The next question to be considered is: What do we learn from the Golden Rule, and what is its function? As with, e.g., Seneca, the Golden Rule was often considered a matter of judging one’s actions by considering oneself in the place of the other. The Golden Rule, says Lactantius, requires us to “consider ourselves in another’s place (Nos ipsos in altero cogitemus)” and to measure the feelings of another by your own (ut non facias quod pati nolis, sed alterius animum de tuo metiaris).61 This is done by transferring to “the person of another” that which we feel respecting ourselves, and, reciprocally to one’s own person that which we judge respecting others.62

In many cases the Golden Rule was considered not directly identical to the commandment to love others, but rather as demanding love insofar as everyone wishes love from others. Though he does not identify the Golden Rule directly with the commandment to love, Justin argues that the person who loves will also wish for others the same “good things that he wishes for himself,” while abstaining from wishing evil things.63 Like Justin, the Clementine Homilies identify wishing for one’s neighbor what one wishes for oneself with “perfect love.” This “perfect love” is, the writer adds, the male part of philanthropy, while the female part is compassion.64

In many cases, the Golden Rule seems to be taken as an instrument for judging types of actions (or virtues), rather than particular actions.65 Hence Justin argued that since everyone knows the negative version of the Golden Rule, all are aware that adultery, fornication, homicide, and similar things are sinful and unrighteous, even though people commit such practices.66 Tertullian suggests that the Golden Rule, in its positive and negative versions respectively, teaches “love, respect, consolation, protection, and benefits of that nature, and likewise to do also to another what i should wish another not to do to me, violence, insult, despite, deceit, and evils of that kind.”67

In a discourse on marriage, Clement of Alexandria takes the negative version of the Golden Rule to prohibit hypocrisy: “Those, then, will not escape the curse of yoking an ass with an ox, who, judging certain things not to suit them, command others to do them, or the reverse. This Scripture has briefly shown, when it says, ‘What thou hatest, thou shalt not do to another.’”68 As Tertullian, Clement seems to identify action in accordance with the Golden Rule with love, as he tends to equate the commandments in Luke 6:31 with those in Luke 10:27 – though he does not explain how exactly they relate, other than being “the law and the prophets.”69 Clement combines his idea of general revelation with Paul’s notion of the law as a “schoolmaster” to Christ (Gal 3:24). All moral teaching has the purpose of dissipating fear in order to emancipate free will and faith, and thus to lead to Christ. Having quoted Luke 6:31 and Luke 10:27, Clement argues that the Decalogue indicates by “an elementary principle, simple and of one kind” the designation of sins in a way conducive to salvation, says Clement.70

Clement’s notion was developed by Origen who identified the conscience (the natural moral sense) with the spirit, which functions “like a pedagogue to the soul, a guide and companion.”71 The function of the law is to point to Christ by negating unrighteousness, which dwells in all rational creatures. Since God is inaccessible and incomprehensible to us, the righteousness of God can only be known “as if from the opposition of opposites,” says Origen. Hence, if we want to know what is just we must first know what is unjust.72 Though the natural law teaches something about human righteousness, it does not (by itself) teach about “the law of faith” or the righteousness of God.73

Tertullian understood the Golden Rule as a matter of tying acts and wishes together in agreement, or of equating one’s actions with the law of one’s own will (“to equate my action with the law of my will,” i.e. the Golden Rule is not so much a question of putting oneself in the place of the other, as of universalizing one’s will).74 When the heathens do not follow the law, there is a “disagreement of their acts and their wishes,” says Tertullian.

Cyprian understood the Golden Rule in the context of the Sermon on the Mount to be a “compendium of His precepts, that the memory of the scholars might not be burdened.”75 When Jesus Christ, the Word of God, came unto all he gathered people of every learning, sex, and age, as he “condensed in His teaching all our prayer in one saving sentence,” consummating and shortening his word, says Cyprian, who then identifies Matt. 12:29–31 with Matt 7:12.

Something similar to Tertullian can be found in Chrysostom, who argues that the Golden Rule is a matter of basing the law on one’s own will: “Let thine own will be the law (τὸ θέλημά σου γενέσθω νόμος),” says Chrysostom who then presents a few examples of reasoning based on the Golden Rule, to which he adds: “Become thyself the judge, thyself the lawgiver of thine own life.”76 Chrysostom mentions such virtues as kindness, mercy, and love, etc. (“Dost thou wish to be beloved? Exercise love.”), which again suggests that the rule is not so much about particular actions as about types of behavior.

Like Cyprian, Chrysostom takes the Golden Rule to be the conclusion of Jesus’ moral exhortations in the Sermon on the Mount.77 Hence, Chrysostom’s understanding of the Golden Rule is based on a contextualized exegesis of Matt. 7:1–12. Chrysostom argues that having taught how to pray, Jesus turned back to his exhortation and concluded with the Golden Rule, which he introduced with a “therefore,” since in order to be heard when praying, one also has to practice virtue. Chrysostom most importantly adds that Jesus specifically talks of our relationship to our fellow servants, not God: “He did not say, whatsoever things you would to be done unto you of God, those do unto your neighbor; lest you should say, But how is it possible? He is God and I am man[…]”78 But following the Golden Rule is nevertheless a prerequisite for having a right relation to God: Only when one treats others in accordance with the Golden Rule will God listen to one’s prayers, says Chrysostom.79

Augustine notes in a (seemingly) similar vein that “[…]we can think of no surer step towards the love of God than the love of man to man,”80 which Augustine identifies with the Golden Rule in the positive version. From this precept, says Augustine, proceed the duties of human society, but at the same time the love of our neighbor is a sort of cradle of the love to God.81 Augustine argues that the written law was only given because men in their desires for “those things which are without” had become exiled from themselves, and thus wanted an external law. The external law is intended to bring back the awareness of the internal law, says Augustine: “because thou wast a deserter from thy heart, thou art seized by Him that is everywhere, and to thyself within art called back.”82 Hence the Golden Rule as an express, “outward” ethical principle has the function of pointing to an inward principle. In the same sermon Augustine exhorts the listener to “imagine yourself in the same situation.”83

The above listed opinions of Justin, Tertullian, Origen, Chrysostom, and Augustine, and others, are not per se or necessarily mutually exclusive, but their diversity shows that there were a variety of opinions on the exact meaning of the Golden Rule conceived as an expression of natural law. The clear differences between, especially John Chrysostom and Augustine, should become even clearer in the following.

Augustine on the Golden Rule and the Love for God

Augustine may be the first to systematically and explicitly question the plausibility of the Golden Rule as an adequate principle for morality: If anyone should wish something wicked to be done to him, and should first do this to the party by whom he wishes it to be done to himself, it would be ridiculous to imagine that he had fulfilled the law, says Augustine.84 In De Libero Arbitrio, Augustine asks Evodius why adultery is evil.85 Evodius’ first answer is that “[…]it is evil because i would not tolerate it if someone tried to commit adultery with my own wife. Anyone who does to another what he does not want done to himself does evil.”86 But, Augustine replies, “What if someone’s lust is so great that he offers his wife to another and willingly allows him to commit adultery with her, and is eager to enjoy the same freedom with the other man’s wife?”87

What makes adultery evil, says Augustine, is not that it breaks the Golden Rule, but that it results from lust or inordinate desire (libido) or cupidity (cupiditas).88 The eternal law is “the law according to which it is just that all things be perfectly ordered,”89 and those who are happy on account of their love for eternal things live under the eternal law.90 Adultery is not evil because the law forbids it; the law forbids adultery because it is evil, Augustine has Evodius saying. By separating right and good in this way Augustine makes it possible to understand the Golden Rule as just one aspect of morality.

Augustine’s point is, contrary to Chrysostom (“He did not say, whatsoever things you would to be done unto you of God[…],” etc.),91 that the Golden Rule cannot be separated from the demand to love God. Augustine presents various (sometimes incompatible) arguments for this claim. In De doctrina Christiana, he argues that the Golden Rule does not only regulate the relations between human beings (putting an end to all crimes if applied), but also the relation to God (destroying all vices): “For no one is willing to defile his own dwelling; he ought not, therefore, to defile the dwelling of God, that is, himself.”92

In De Trinitate, Augustine discusses how the precept “all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” can be the whole of the law and the prophets. The fact that many passages in scripture seem to demand only neighborly love, but not love for God or perfection, has to do with the nature of love, since he who loves his neighbor must also love above all else love itself. Since God is love, love of neighbor presupposes love of God, Augustine argues.93

A similar strategy is to focus on the nature of the will. The formulation “Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them,” seems to imply, says Augustine, that “evil or shameful things may be the object of desire, but not of will.”94 The word “good,” says Augustine, is implicit in the word “would” (in distinction from the word “desire”), which is why it does not occur in Greek.95 In Latin it has been added to the formulation of the Golden Rule to prevent anyone from wishing other men to provide him with shameful gratifications “on the supposition that if he returned the like to them he would be fulfilling this precept” (the Golden Rule).96 Augustine makes the same point in his sermons on Matthew, as he takes Matt 7:12 to be the conclusion of Christ’s teachings on the “purification and singleness of heart” in the Sermon on the Mount: “For the expression used, “whatsoever ye would,” ought to be understood as used not in a customary and random, but in a strict sense. For there is no will except in the good: for in the case of bad and wicked deeds, desire is strictly spoken of, not will.”97

Hence, Augustine’s interpretation expresses his important distinction between will and cupidity. Augustine adds to this argument that the precept (the Golden Rule) seems to refer only to the love of our neighbor, not to the love of God (in distinction from his interpretation in On Christian Doctrine), as it expressly mentions other human beings (“whatsoever ye would that men should do to you”). The precept is identical only to the commandment “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” When Jesus in Matt 7:12 says that “this is the law and the prophets,” he does not mean to say that it is all the law and the prophets (as in Matt 22:40).98

The clear difference between Augustine’s claims that the Golden Rule either implies or cannot be separated from the demand to love God, on the one hand, and John Chrysostom’s claim that the Golden Rule is solely a matter of a horizontal relationship between human beings, shows that a more general ethical framework influences the understanding of the Golden Rule. Augustine’s notions of the will and God as the highest good results in a different conception of the meaning of the Golden Rule than does John Chrysostom’s contextualized exegesis.

From Principle to Practice

As a matter of actual practice the Golden Rule in many cases seems to have been considered not only a principle of judging types of behavior (or virtues), rather than particular actions, but also a principle of building and upholding community, not least as centered around the Christian faith. Though the plural of the “as you want” (“θέλετε” and “θέλητε”) in the New Testament formulations of the Golden Rule is often overlooked, in many cases the Golden Rule is understood to generate community in one way or another. This is not least the case where the rule is seen to require persons to consider themselves in the place of others or to partake in the conditions of others.99

In the second so-called doubtful epistles of Sulpicius Severus (because of the lack of proof of their genuity), Sulpicius discusses Paul’s exhortation to “weep with them that weep” (Rom 12:15). But how can we weep with others if we do not share in their necessities, and afford no help, asks Sulpicius, who then goes on to argue that fulfilling the Golden Rule is not merely a matter of empathy, but also of sharing the situation of others: “God does not call for the fruitless moisture of our tears; but, because tears are an indication of grief, he wishes you to feel the distresses of another as if they were your own.”100 Just as you would wish aid when in tribulation, so you should help others in accordance with the Golden Rule, says Sulpicius, whose point seems to be that feelings of pity or empathy are not enough, that practical deeds are required. A similar point is made during the discussion of the Golden Rule in the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies: “[…]having devoted himself to love his neighbor as himself, he is not afraid of poverty, but becomes poor by sharing his possessions with those who have none.”101

For Tertullian, the universalization of love is a part of a particular historical narrative, as he argues that to Israel the Golden Rule was given a particular expression (love for neighbors), while to Christians it was given a universal expression (love for neighbors and strangers).102 Christ, says Tertullian, refers to all men (not just his disciples) as he says to his disciples that “[a]s ye would that men should do to you, do ye likewise so to them.”103 As the heathens learn God’s rule of conduct, “at length agreement between will and action comes into operation as a result of faith, as under the fear of God.”104 Hence it is as part of God’s history with mankind that the love practiced joins Christians to the Pagans by “the law of nature, our common mother (hire naturae matris unius),” as Tertullian says.105 The law of nature is universal, but only realized as community is generated in a particular history.

Clement of Alexandria’s claim that the Golden Rule is an all-embracing exhortation of life, should be seen in light of his Pauline conception of the law as a schoolmaster to Christ. To this should be added that not only does the law lead the “true Gnostic” to imitate God’s unity and oneness, but also to a “Christlike beneficence (κυριακῇ τελειωθεὶς εὐποιίᾳ)” as he helps others to enter the unity of the Church.106 Love, says Clement, is not desire on the part of “him who loves (τοῦ ἀγαπῶντος),” but a relation of affection (στερκτικὴ δὲ οἰκείωσις), as the nature of love is to communicate (κοινωνική).107 A similar principle of unity can be found in Origen, as he argues that the Golden Rule in the positive version (“Do unto others the same things you wish men to do unto you”) describes the love that the community of Christians are to show, as Paul exhorts to be of “one mind to one another.”108

Augustine makes it clear that love of God and love of fellow human beings cannot be separated, as human beings are created in the likeness of God.109 Loving others means helping others to love the true good, which is God: “For you do not love him as yourself, unless you try to draw him to that good which you are yourself pursuing.”110 The Golden Rule, properly understood, implies helping others to love God, which was what led Paul to evangelize to the Jews, says Augustine: “[…]he desired so to deliver them from that error as if he saw not them, but himself, entangled in it; thus truly loving his neighbor as himself, and doing to others as he would have others do to him if he required their help.”111 For Augustine this and similar concerns seems to have relativized other principles generated by the Golden Rule, such as not using force. As Forbes notes, Augustine’s reluctant decision to use force against heretics was probably “very honestly an attempt to fulfill the Golden Rule,” as force was applied in order “to bring others to a knowledge of God.”112

The above suggests that while the Golden Rule for many, if not most or all patristic authors, was a principle of natural law (at least in the negative version), its meaning for action in a particular context cannot be adequately understood independently of the historical narrative in which God’s relation to the world through the church plays a central role. We should at least be ready to consider this a meaningful perspective as we investigate the understanding of the Golden Rule in patristic ethics.

Conclusion

Though King, Alton, and Ricoeur may be right that there need not be any clear difference between the negative and positive versions of the Golden Rule, it would be more precise to say that while on the one hand there is some awareness that different formulations of the Golden Rule have different implications for the meaning of the rule, there is also a widespread sense that this only has minor ramifications in a wider context. Rather, what is important are the philosophical underpinnings which structure the general framework in which the rule is formulated and applied. It is not the formulation but the context of values that determines the meaning and function of the Golden Rule.

Conceptions of the Golden Rule as natural or common law (Origen), a law of the heart (Augustine), untaught law of nature (Basil), or something which can be known without “word” and “instruction” (Chrysostom), all suggest that for these thinkers not the rule as such, but what it signifies, is central. But just as important is the manner in which the rule signifies – in the case of Clement and Origen, the rule works as schoolmaster to Christ, while in Augustine, it is a means of pointing to the “law of the heart” through external means.

The function of the Golden Rule was rarely seen as that of an instrument for judging particular actions. Rather, it was seen as designating the moral character of types of behavior, or virtues. Thus, what is central is not so much the Golden Rule as the whole framework of moral reflection in which it is embedded. As especially the examples from Augustine show, understanding the broader context is crucial for understanding what it means, for example, to “do” something to someone, or what it means to “want,” “wish,” or “will” something. The Golden Rule cannot be understood separately from a particular conception of the will, action, and purpose in general. But neither can it be understood without a concrete, narrative notion of practice and virtue. Being a universal principle, the Golden Rule is a form that must be given a particular content. As Ricoeur rightly argues, it is only in the light of the economy of the gift expressed in Jesus’ supraethical demand to love others and his own example that the Golden Rule becomes a conveyor of a notion of ethical reciprocity transcending ordinary moral norms.113

As MacIntyre puts it, actions are only moments in a possible or actual history, which is why ethical reasoning cannot be abstracted from its tradition of thought and moral reflection.114 Moral reflection cannot be abstracted from a broader context; it must be understood in relation to the complex conceptual frameworks of tradition, understood as what MacIntyre calls an “argument extended through time.”115 If this is true for ethics in general, it is also true for patristic ethics in particular. Practical applications of the Golden Rule were framed in value contexts, from which the meaning and function of the rule can hardly be abstracted. In other words, the Golden Rule is far from being “das triviale” (Kant). Further studies on the role of the Golden Rule in patristic ethics, as well as modern contexts, need to consider these aspects.

1

The term “the Golden Rule” is a modern one (17th century), not used by patristic authors. In contemporary ethics the Golden Rule is often taken to be, e.g., a positive substitute for the lex talionis, a demand that persons should see themselves in “the other” (Erikson), an instrument of moral education (Singer), or a principle of universalizability (Hare) or consistency (Gensler). E.H. Erikson, “The golden rule in the light of the new insight” in Insight and Responsibility (New York, W. W. Norton: 1963); M.G. Singer, The Ideal of a Rational Morality: Philosophical Compositions (Oxford: 2003); Hare, R.M.: Freedom and Reason (Oxford, Clarendon Press: 1963); Harry Gensler, Formal Ethics (Routledge: 1996). For a brief history see Jeffrey Wattles, The Golden Rule (Oxford: 1996), p. 78.

2

Martin Bauschke, Die Goldene Regel: Staunen, Verstehen, Handeln (ebverlag: Berlin 2010); see also Harry Gensler, Ethics and the Golden Rule (Routledge: 2013).

3

Kant rejected the Golden Rule (“quod tibi non vis fieri, etc.”) in a footnote, while William James believed the rule to be against human nature. Immanuel Kant, Grundlegung zur Methaphysik der Sitten (1785), iv.430; William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (Lect. 11) (1901/1985). See also S. Anderson, “The Golden Rule: Not So Golden Anymore” in Philosophy Now (2009).

4

R.G. Apresian, “Talion and the Golden Rule” in Russian Studies in Philosophy, vol. 41, no. 1 (M.E. Sharpe Inc. 2002), pp. 46–64.

5

E.g. Seneca, De Ira, iii, 12.3; De Benef., ii.1.1; Hillel, Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31A.

6

Bruce Alton, An examination of the golden rule (unpublished PhD-thesis available on microfilm) (Stanford University: 1966), pp. 32–33.

7

Alton 1966, pp. 8–9.

8

Olivier du Roy, La Règle d’or — Histoire d’une maxime morale universelle, 1+2 (Cerf: Paris 2012).

9

Olivier du Roy, “The Golden Rule as the Law of Nature, from Origen to Martin Luther” in Neusner & Chilton (ed.), The Golden Rule: The Ethics of Reciprocity in World Religions (Continuum: London 2008), p. 97.

10

Paul Ricoeur, “Ethical and Theological Considerations on the Golden Rule” in Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative and Imagination (Fortress Press: 1995), pp. 293–302.

11

Wattles 1996, pp. 165–166.

12

Alton 1966, p. 25; p. 45.

13

The following list is based on references to Matt 7:12 and Luk 6:31 according to J. Allenbach (ed.), Biblia Patristica, Index des citations et allusions bibliques dans la littérature patristique, I-V (Paris: 1975–1995). Didache, 1.2.1.7; Sext. 89.22.14; 179.32.16; 210.36.7; Ep.Ap. 18.135.39; Athenag. Ath., Sup. 32.43.10; Clem. Alex., Paed. 3.88.1.284.20; Str. 2.91.2.161.24; Clem. Rom., Cor. 13.2.42.10; Tert., Scorp. 10.3.1087.19; Marc. 4.16.13.584.2; Marc. 4.16.16.585.5; Theoph. Ant. Autol., 2.34..186.12; Act. Thom., 83.199.22; Can. Ap., 5.227.1; Bard ?, Lib.Leg. 11.550.17; Ps-Clement Hom., 11.4.4.155.16; Hom. 12.32.4.191.4; Hom. 18.16.3.248.30; Rec. 5.23.7.178.17; Rec. 8.56.7.253.6; Cypr. C. Orat., 28..108.533; Ps-Cypr., 42.86.340; Lact., Epit. 55.3.737.13; Epit. 59.3.744.5; Pont. Diac. Vit. Cyp. 9.4.24.12; Or., Com. in Cant. 1 (94,9; 96,22; 97,11; 98,3; 111,24); Com. in Cant. 2 (161,15); Frag. Mat. 142 (72,1); Frag. Mat. 143 (72,1); Num. Hom. 13,2 (109,16); Com. in Rom. A 9,16,1 (1222,A15); In Rom. 10.7.3; Bas. Caes., Hex. 9.3 (496,4), ? Enar. Es. (552,C 8; 657,B 5), ? Fr.E. (273,32); Greg. Naz., Car. Th. 2,33 (940,174+), Or.C. 4,123 (290,1); Greg. Nys., Quat. (126,14).

14

Connolly noted that “[…]precisely the same negative form of the Golden Rule which the saying contains was current among Christian writers in the sister dialect of Syriac.” R.H. Connolly, “A Negative Form of the Golden Rule in the Diatessaron?” in Journal of Theological Studies, xxxv (1934), pp. 351–57.

15

The negative version appears in the Codex Bezae (Western type) version of Acts 15:29, and in the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas (early 2nd century): “Jesus said, ‘Do not lie, and do not do what you hate, because all things are revealed before heaven.’” Gospel of St. Thomas, Logia 6. In the apocryphal Epistula Apostolorum (2nd century), the negative version of the Golden Rule is situated in Jesus’ commandment of love among the disciples, and for enemies: “Love your enemies, and what you do not want done to you, that do to no one else.” Epistula Apostolorum, Ron Cameron, ed. The Other Gospels, 142, 18 Duensing version. Reiner 1951, pp. 178–292; Reiner 1954; Reiner 1964, pp. 186–195; G.B. King: “The ‘Negative’ Golden Rule” in The Journal of Religion, 8.2, pp. 268–279 (Chicago 1928), p. 272. The widespread use of positive formulations of the Golden Rule in both Jewish and Hellenistic literature may account for why the rule was put into positive form in the New Testament. Alton 1966, p. 31.

16

Did. I 2.

17

Alton 1966, p. 39.

18

Did. I.

19

Dial. Tryph. 93.

20

Ps-clem. Hom. 12, 32.

21

Ps-clem. Hom. 7, 4.

22

Rec. Clem. viii, 56.

23

Ap. 15 (D.M. Kay).

24

Ad Autolyc. ii 34.

25

Adv. haer. iii 12.14.

26

In Rom. 2.9.9.

27

Ep. div. Inst. 55 (60).

28

Inst. Div. vi 23.

29

Ep. div. Inst. 55 (60).

30

Adv. Marc. iv 16. Alton argues that “[i]n Tertullian, then, we have the first clear evidence of the felt identity of the positive and negative forms.”

31

Lib. Leg. Reg. 11.

32

Eu. lib., i, 676–678.

33

In Hex. 9.3.

34

Ad pop. Ant. xiii (pg 49.139–40).

35

De Lib. Arb. 1.3.

36

De doc. Chr. iii 14/§23.

37

Alton 1966, p. 32.

38

King 1928. King notes that (agreeing with Edel and Abrahams) in Hillel, “the command to love one’s neighbor has as a basis a negative command” (King 1928, p. 275), and that the positive and negative versions are basically the same in ideas as in origin (King 1928, p. 277).

39

Alton 1966, p. 50; Adv. Marc. 4.16.

40

Ad Autolyc. ii 34.

41

According to one tradition, God revealed the law to all nations, but only the Jews accepted it. Sifre Deut. 343. See Richard H. Bell, No One Seeks for God (Mohr Siebeck 1998), pp. 164–69.

42

In the (somewhat Gnostic) Clementine Homilies the Golden Rule is identified with “what is reasonable,” but against nature – while it is natural to all to love those who love them, only the righteous man also loves his enemies. Hom. 12, §32.

43

Adv. Marc. 4.16.

44

Ap. 17.6; 18.4.

45

Adv. Marc. 1.18; 3.2.4; 4.1; Ap. 17.3; 20.3; 39.3; Praescr. 27.6; Jud. 9; etc.

46

Adv. Marc. 3.2.4.

47

See Eric Osborn, Tertullian, First Theologian of the West (Cambridge 2003), p. 83.

48

Adv. Marc. 4.16.

49

Dial. Tryph. §93.

50

Protr. 5; Str. 6.862.4.

51

Paed. 3.10.52.1.

52

In Rom. 2.9.9 (tr. Scheck 2001).

53

Hence, though he does at times distinguish between natural law and the law of faith, Origen, unlike certain exegetical traditions, does not seem to understand “Gentiles” in Rom 2,13–16 to mean Gentile Christians, who have the works of the Law written in their hearts, as opposed to non-converted Jews and Gentiles. For more on the exegesis of Rom. 2:13–16 see Gathercole, “Law unto Themselves, The Gentiles in Romans 2.14–15 Revisited” in Journal for the Study of the New Testament 85 (2002), pp. 27–49.

54

In Hex. 9.3.

55

Ad pop. Ant. xiii (pg 49.140). See also Com. in Job 31,6.

56

In Matt. xxiii (pg 57.314).

57

Ad pop. Ant. xiii.

58

De doc. Chr. iii 14/§23.

59

Sermon on Psalm lviii.

60

Roy 2008, p. 88.

61

Inst. Div. vi 23.

62

Ep. div. Inst. 55 (60).

63

Dial. Tryph. §93.

64

Hom. 12, §32.

65

This affirms Alton’s claims about Luke 6:31.

66

Dial. Tryph. §93.

67

Adv. Marc. 4.16.

68

Str. 2.22.139.1–2.

69

Paed. 3.10.52.1.

70

Paed. 3.10.52.1. Though Clement acknowledges the centrality of the Golden Rule, he interprets the whole Decalogue (including the second table) allegorically as a prohibition against idolatry. Str. 2.18.87.2.

71

In Rom. 2.9.3.

72

In Rom. 3.1.7.

73

This might explain why Origen seems to have believed that only the negative version of the Golden Rule is knowable to all as natural law. In Rom. 2.9.9.

74

Adv. Marc. 4.16.

75

De dom. or. 6.28.

76

Ad pop. Ant. xiii (pg 49.140).

77

In Matt. 23.6.

78

In Matt. 23.6.

79

Compare with Gregory of Nyssa’s sermons on the Lord’s Prayer.

80

De Mor. §48.

81

De Mor. §50.

82

Enarr. in Psalm. 57, 1.

83

Enarr. in Psalm. 57, 1.

84

De serm. Dom. in mont. ii 22,74.

85

De Lib. Arb. 1.3.

86

De Lib. Arb. 1.3.

87

De Lib. Arb. 1.3.

88

De Lib. Arb. 1.3.

89

De Lib. Arb. 1.6.

90

De Lib. Arb. 1.15.

91

In Matt. 23.6.

92

De doc. Chr. iii 14/§23. Compare with Chrysostom’s claim that the Golden Rule only applies to one’s neighbors, not God.

93

De Trin. vii 7/10.

94

De Civ. Dei xiv 8.

95

See also De serm. Dom. in mont. ii 22, 74.

96

De Civ. Dei xiv 8. Notice that Justin Martyr also talks of wishing “good things.” Dial. Tryph. §93.

97

De serm. Dom. in mont. ii 22, 74.

98

De serm. Dom. in mont. ii 22, 75.

99

E.g. in Lactantius, Inst. Div. vi 23.

100

The Doubtful Letters of Sulpicius Severus, Second epistle §6.

101

Hom. 12 §32.

102

Adv. Marc. 4.16.

103

Scorp. §10.

104

Adv. Marc. 4.16.

105

Ap. 39.See also Osborn 2003, p. 68.

106

Str. 4.6.29.2.

107

Str. 6.9.73.3; Str. 2.18.87.2.

108

In Rom. 9.16.

109

De Mor. §49.

110

De Mor. §49.

111

Ep. 82 (to Jerome).

112

Robert Pierce Forbes, “Augustine and the Question of Grace” retrieved 24 October 2016 from https://www.academia.edu/5380884/Augustine_and_the_Question_of_Grace; Forbes discusses the Donatist controversy with reference to Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (University of California Press 1969), p. 235.

113

Paul Ricoeur, “Ethical and Theological Considerations on the Golden Rule” in Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative and Imagination (Fortress Press: 1995), pp. 293–302.

114

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (University of Notre Dame Press: 2007 (1981)), p. 214.

115

Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (University of Notre Dame Press: 1988), p. 12.

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