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From Vol. 2, Issue 2, February 2020

The Golden Rule in Stoicism


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The Golden Rule 

The Golden Rule, “Treat others as you would like to be treated by them” is one of the simplest and most influential of all ethical principles. Although the Golden Rule is most commonly associated with Christianity, it was arguably also implicit in many traditions, including Stoicism. 

The Golden Rule in Stoicism 

The Stoic philosopher Hierocles says. 

The first admonition, therefore, is very clear, easily obtained, and is common to all men. For it is a sane assertion, which every man will consider as evident. And it is this: Act by everyone, in the same manner as if you supposed yourself to be him, and him to be you. 

Hierocles, Fragments (Stobaeus) 

Hierocles goes on to illustrate this point by reference to the master-slave relationship: 

For he will use a servant well who considers with himself, how he would think it proper to be used by him, if he indeed was the master, and himself the servant. 

In discussing the master-slave relationship, the Stoic philosopher Seneca like-wise wrote: 

But this is the kernel of my advice: Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your betters. 

Seneca, Letters, 47 

Seneca has this to say on anger: 

No one says to himself, “I myself have done or might have done this very thing which I am angry with another for doing” … Let us put ourselves in the place of him with whom we are angry: at present. An over-weening conceit of our own importance makes us prone to anger, and we are quite willing to do to others what we cannot endure should be done to ourselves 

Seneca, On Anger, 3.12 

In one of the fragments sometimes attributed to Epictetus, he writes: 

What you avoid suffering yourself, seek not to impose on others. 

Epictetus, Fragments 

Marcus Aurelius nowhere states the Golden Rule as explicitly as either Hierocles or Seneca. The closest he comes is in the following passage: 

See that you never feel towards misanthropes as such people feel towards the human race. 

Meditations, 7.65 

However, throughout The Meditations, he does adopt the related assumption that we should treat all others as our “kinsmen” and fellow citizens. For instance, in perhaps one of the book’s most famous passages he writes: 

Nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him, for we are made for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away. 

Meditations, 2.1 


Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. For Socrates, treating friends otherwise was a moral contradiction, a double standard, and therefore irrational. A few generations later, the Stoics took his ethical philosophy and developed it into more of a system. Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, had said, like Aristotle before him, that a friend is “another me” (alter ego est amicus). However, we are to strive to make all men (and women) our friends. 

The Golden Rule gradually became more explicit and took on its familiar form in authors such as Seneca when he admonishes us for being “quite willing to do to others what we cannot endure should be done to ourselves”. 

Finally, in Marcus Aurelius, the last famous Stoic of antiquity, we find a systematic emphasis on the ethics of brotherly love, which the Stoics called philostorgia (“natural affection”.) We’re to regard ourselves and others as brothers and sisters, even as limbs of the same organism. From this vision of the unity of humankind, it follows naturally that we should apply the same moral standard to others that we apply to ourselves. This is probably one aspect of what the Stoics meant when they described the supreme goal of life according to their philosophy as living consistently. 

Donald Robertson is an author and Cognitive Behavior Therapist. His latest book is How to Think Like a Roman Emperor (