"I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good." --Cymbeline, V.iv.209-210. An English teacher's log. Slow down: Check it once in a while.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Three Rules of Life

[October 1999]

I was asked to talk in chapel about how we at our school behave toward one another. I did so by examining three perhaps familiar rules of life.

If you have not yet entered the state of rebellion against all authority, or have got through it to the other side, you know that there is more to any good rule than the power of the strong over the weak. Every rule, even a school rule, also always implies a view of the meaning of things.

Our school uniform rules, for example, imply the belief that the growth of your inner life is of greater meaning than the impressiveness of your external image. Whether you prefer to exhibit more of your colorful boxers than of your blackwatch plaid, whether you prefer to wear your belt around your knees or around your armpits, the uniform says that it is who and what you are inside that really counts. Similarly, detentions for tardiness assert that what begins in the classroom when class starts is or ought to be valuable and important. Even the rule about not walking on the quad before noon exists not only to protect the grass but to protect our common appreciation for the beauty of our campus and the labor of our gardeners. [See my post called “Kant at the Corners of the Quad.”]

The three rules I want to discuss now are not particular to our school but universal, and whether we know it or not, all of us have been following one or more of them all our lives. I’ll call them the iron, the silver, and the golden rules. Iron, I remind you, is hard, dull, and worthless as currency, and wherever humans can live, iron will rust. Silver is softer, shinier, and more valuable as currency, though it will tarnish with time and the human touch. Gold is the softest of the three, the brightest, and the most precious. Hidden or visible, it is always incorruptible, in earth, water, air, and fire.

Each of the three universal rules I want to discuss, the iron, the silver, and the golden, not only sets a standard for human behavior but also implies something about the meaning of life. Specifically, each asserts something about the maker of the rule, something about the nature of human relationships, and something about the nature of the world.

The first, the iron rule, can be expressed in many ways: “Look out for number one,” “I have my rights,” “It’s not my problem,” “Follow your bliss,” “Who are you to tell me what to do?” Who is the maker of this rule? What relationships can we expect to prevail under it? And what is the nature of world in which it intends to operate?

Clearly, the maker of the rule “Look out for number one” is number one, the self. According to this rule, whatever my own self wants is right. If I want something, I should have it. As for relationships, they too exist for the sake of my self. There are other selves out there that think I exist for the sake of their selves, but that is irrelevant to me. So far as the rule is concerned, they exist merely as means to my self’s ends.

Under this iron rule, relationships of trust, loyalty, or justice are impossible because the desires of the self may overrule all other commitments at any moment. If my rule is “look out for number one,” then betraying number two or three or twelve will be O.K. if number one stands to benefit. Hence the world implied by the iron rule is that of Hobbes’ state of nature—the war (or at least the competition) of all against all. Meaning lies only in my grades, my college acceptance, my career, my feelings, my pleasures, my rights, my goals, my life, the key word being “my.”

You’ve all seen the iron rule in practice. It is the rule I am following when I take someone’s book from his locker or backpack because I need it, and the rule someone else is following when my book is the one taken. It is the rule I follow when a dented fender in the parking lot is only my business if it is my fender that has been dented. My self’s desires being paramount, how can I be faulted for ditching my date at the prom when between invitation and prom night I’ve fallen in love with someone else? That teachers and fellow students would feel betrayed if they knew I had plagiarized my term paper is too bad for them. My priority is to get my self ahead. That’s what life is about—looking out for number one.

To graduate from the iron rule to the silver rule is to take a significant moral step. The silver rule may be expressed by the now popular sentence “What goes around comes around.” Its author is the structure of the universe itself, whether called necessity or fate or the laws of nature.

Relationships under the silver rule will be characterized by calculation and fear and occasionally relief. And the world implied by it is a mechanism, one that enacts an unpredictable but inexorable justice. So-and-so took my book from the terrace and didn’t give it back in time for me to take it to class. Oh well, eventually he’ll be paid back: What goes around comes around. Last month So-and-so dented someone’s car and didn’t admit it; today someone dented her car: See? What goes around comes around.

The silver rule is not really one we choose to follow, though we can choose whether or not to admit we’ve dented someone’s car. As the rule implies, it is the universe itself that follows the rule. We follow it not by choice but by necessity. Nonetheless, to live in the universe of the silver rule demands careful calculation. We had best look out for number one by keeping an eye on the other numbers also because injustices are eventually repaid one way or another.

My great teacher, Mary Holmes, often reminded people that we all tend to want mercy for ourselves and justice for our enemies. With the silver rule we get half our desire. There is a kind of justice for everyone. One who takes the silver rule as her guide will be likelier to stick with her prom date for the evening out of fear of being ditched on some future evening by the new boyfriend. The obeyer of the silver rule will be discouraged from plagiarism by fear of potential consequences, whether the teacher finds out or not.

This is a moral advance over the iron rule because it recognizes that something out there sometimes says no even when the self says yes, that what goes around may come around and kick the self’s butt. Of course it can be seen more positively as well. If what goes around does come around, then we may hope that if we brought in a can of Alpo for the pet food drive last week we’ll get an A on the Spanish quiz today. Though its underlying principle is still selfishness, the silver rule modifies the iron rule by implying that there will be rewards for good deeds as well as by recognizing that every merely selfish act may become a boomerang.

The third rule, the golden rule, you already know. It is expressed in the Torah by the sentence “love your neighbor as yourself” and in the New Testament by the sentence “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” To graduate to this rule is an even greater moral step. The establisher of this rule is neither a limited self nor a mindless process. It is an infallible higher will that creates us precisely for the purpose of caring about more than ourselves.

The relationships promoted by the golden rule are not between subjects and objects but between living souls who are mutually free to be both trusting and trustworthy, free to give of the self without calculating consequences or rewards. And the world is the garden of our freedom to choose between participation and isolation, between harmony and discord, between really connecting with others and being alone even when we are among people. The rule says do unto others what you’d have others do unto you whether doing so looks out for number one or not, whether what comes around goes around or not.

One who lives by the golden rule, as I know many of you strive to do, will refrain from taking someone else’s book, even if it would be useful, not because he fears the consequences from discipline committees or fate but because he doesn’t want the book’s owner to have to do without it any more than he wants to do without it himself. Trying to follow the golden rule, a student will encourage the denter of a fender in the parking lot to admit the fault and repay the debt, or will even report the incident to an authority, for several reasons: because if her car were the one dented she’d want to know who was responsible, because if she had dented someone else’s car she’d want to pay for its repair, and because she does not want to live in a community of unrepentant fender-denters and uncaring witnesses.

A prom date who abides by the golden rule would not leave her date unaccompanied because she recognizes in him a soul that is capable of the same pain she herself would feel if she were similarly abandoned. In addition, for the sake of her newer and truer love, would she not want to be the sort of person who does not renege on her promises? Finally, no student who accepts the golden rule as law could bear to plagiarize because he would know that his false pretense turns his grade, his awards, his parents’ approval, his college acceptance letters, and his reputation to dust. As he wants to trust in the validity of others’ communications with him, so he will not falsify his communications with others.

According to the iron rule, my raw desires are the only ruler, other people are my tools, and the world is a slot machine from which my nickels of selfishness may win jackpots of pleasure. The iron rule makes of me a slave to the hungers of my limited self.

According to the silver rule, the ruler is the invisible laws of necessity or fate, other people are as likely to be my punishment as my pleasure, and the world is a checking account from which I can withdraw no more nor less than what I have deposited. It makes of me either a well-oiled or a sticky cog in a machine over whose operations I have no control.

According to the golden rule, the ruler is a loving will that has created me and all other selves with the desire to be cared about and with the freedom and the duty to care about others. Under this rule every relationship with another person is potentially a relation of love and as such carries absolute value and ultimate meaning. And this rule alone implies that the world is an inheritance of incalculable treasures which I can truly enjoy only if I am willing to share them. To graduate from the iron rule to the silver rule to the golden rule is to move from the perpetual slavery of selfishness through the perpetual constraint of necessity toward the perpetual freedom of love.

My conclusion is this: Whether our school seems to you a garden of caring or a prison of rules, every legitimate rule of this community—of any true community—grows out of an attempt to graduate us all into the embrace of the golden rule. That is the graduation that makes all the others worth celebrating.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Congratulations to the Class of 2006

Congratulations to the graduates of the class of 2006!

And before you get to college, don't neglect to read Mr. Kirk's recent blog, linked here, on David Horowitz's latest book, and be warned. Find the real teachers, avoid the knee-jerk ideologues of all stripes, seek truth in humility. I wish you all Godspeed.