One of the oldest and most universal moral precepts is the Golden Rule: Treat others as you want them to treat you. That mandate shows up in Confucianism and in the Code of Hammurabi. It was reiterated by Seneca and by the Buddha. It appears in the Bible, as the command to love thy neighbor as thyself. It might possibly have been taught to more people than any other notion in history.
It is also, on reflection, a little weird. For a guideline about how to treat others, the Golden Rule is strikingly egocentric. It does not urge us to consult our neighbors about their needs; it asks us only to generalize from ourselves—to imagine, in essence, that everyone’s idea of desirable treatment matches our own. As such, it makes a curiously narrow demand on our imagination, and, accordingly, on our behavior. And it is not alone. From Kant’s Categorical Imperative to John Rawls’s Veil of Ignorance, the self is a common benchmark in moral reasoning.
Middlemarch breaks with this tradition. Morality does not start with the self, Eliot insists; it starts when we set the self aside. “Will not a tiny speck very close to our vision blot out the glory of the world?” she asks. And then: “I know no speck so troublesome as self.” What a killer line, and what a memorable image. We dwell in moral myopia; literally and figuratively, we are too close to ourselves.
Over and over in Middlemarch, Eliot urges us to refocus. When Rosamond Vincy, arguably the most self-absorbed character in the book, dismisses another woman as “so uninteresting,” the much kinder Mary Garth counters her: “She is interesting to herself, I suppose.” The problem Dorothea faces in her marriage is not how to support her husband, as she yearns to do, nor how to liberate herself from his thin tyrannies, as readers often yearn on her behalf, but how to accept that he has “an equivalent centre of self, whence the light and shadows must always fall with a certain difference.” That self is not like Dorothea’s; no two selves are, not even so-called soul mates. That’s one reason why marriage lies beyond the reach of the Golden Rule: As Dorothea learns to her dismay, other people do not necessarily crave the treatment we expect them to appreciate. To thrive in sustained intimacy requires learning to provide not what we think someone else wants, or should want, but what actually makes him or her happy.
This struggle to see others is the moral drama of Middlemarch, and of life. . . .