It was reading Confucius that made me think of it.
I wrote that sentence mostly for fun recognising its name-dropping, pseudo- casual air of intellectual competence. It is, after all what most of us do with those odd moments when we’re not working on our next novel: we read Confucius.
Sadly, however, I do read him, indeed I’ve re-read him a number of times, always getting something more than I got the last time. On this occasion I was struck afresh by his version of the golden rule: “Do not impose on others what you would not wish to be imposed on yourself.”
There it is, written or maybe, spoken, around 500 BCE. It is probably earlier than the finished version of Leviticus in the Hebrew Bible, where it takes the form of the commandment: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself; I am the Lord,” which may have been formulated well before the book in which it appears. The earliest evidence for the rule may be in an Egyptian novel of the 13th century BCE, The Eloquent Peasant, who advocated treating others decently so that they would return the favour; but the rule appears in one form and another in Buddhist, Hindu, Zoroastrian and Islamic texts, as well as Greek and Roman philosophies. Jainism is notable for extending the reciprocity to all creatures. The version attributed to Jesus by Matthew and Luke is notable because it is positive: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Scots is notable for having one of the shortest forms: “Dae as ye wad be done tae.”
Confucius uses his version of the rule to illustrate the fundamental principle of morality and justice, which he designates as “shu” meaning reciprocity, the recognition that others are as open to harm or help as yourself. The Jewish tradition emphasises that we are all Adam, one humanity, and that the other is always part of ourself. Jesus astonishingly refused to admit any exception to the rule, by including even enemies within it. Mahayana Buddhism argues that when the false dualities of ego and other are shown to be unreal we can live interdependently with all sentient beings.
It is evident that the worst inhumanities have been committed by persons and societies who refused to recognise this reciprocity for reasons of power, wealth, race, sex, politics or religion. Colonial extermination of native people, the slave trade, the mass killings by Stalin, Hitler, Pol Poy, Mao, Daesh, as well as the persistent privilege of men over women, all began with an assumption of superiority or an assertion of inferiority so obvious to the possessor of power that they did not even require argument.
One of my heroes, the American agronomist Wendell Berry has argued for many years that the econmomic and cultural environment in which we live should promote a recognition of reciprocity amongst human beings and between humans and other living creatures. This fundamental relationship, which is absent in global capitalism, is,he believes, essential for the welfare, and probably the survival of humanity. Many people would want to disagree with Berry’s insistence that only an economy based on snall-scale farming can provide this nurture, but the direction of his argument seems fruitful to me. If we agree with best wisdom of humanity, expressed across cultural, racial and geographical difference, in the golden rule, then we should commit ourselves to forms of nurture which help people to practice it.
Global capitalism expresses its fundamental brutality in many ways including its treatment of old people as surplus to economic requirements, and therefore better brought tidily to death in residential homes. It denies any significant reciprocity between them and their children. The brothers Grimm have a tale which applies the golden rule to this problem:
Once upon a time there lived a farmer Hans and his wife Eva. They had a small son, Martin, and Eva’s old father Magnus, who lived with them, in the farmhouse. In his old age, Magnus had become a problem to them, because at table, he dribbled food out of his mouth, scattered crumbs everywhere and often dropped their pretty earthenware plates on to stone floor where they were smashed.
Disgusted by his ineptitude and worried about the bad example given to Martin, they solved the problem by constructing a wooden tub, fixed to the wall at which the old man was placed, to eat his food at a distance from the family table. At first he used to weep but after a while he ate in silence. Hans and Eva felt the move was a success.
One day they found Hans playing in the yard with a large block of wood, and a blunt chisel which had been left there. They were pleased to see him so industrious.
“Ach, good boy,” Eva called, “What are you making?”
“i am making a big wooden tub,” the child replied,”where you and father can eat, when you are old.”
Confucius is one of my favourite philosphers, not least because he taught that the virtue of shu, reciprocity, should be very strictly practiced by younger people in their treatment of older people, like me.