Hippocrates on Social Justice

Wherever the art of Medicine is loved, there is also a love of Humanity

Hippocrates of Kos 460-370 BC

Hippocrates of Kos was an ancient Greek physician who is considered the father of clinical medicine.  He was the first known healer to understand the importance of observation in the diagnosis of illnesses.  Hippocrates realized that by carefully noting the progression of a disease in patients in the past a physician could predict how that disease would affect a new patient and how they would respond to treatment. He also advocated a holistic approach to medicine, noting that exercise, diet and mental well being had a significant impact on a persons health.

Hippocrates placed the art of healing on a firm scientific foundation by teaching that illnesses had natural, not supernatural causes. Science, not magic or superstition, would help humanity to discover the causes and treatment of ill health.  But Hippocrates was more than an early scientist, he placed medicine on an ethical foundation that was predicated on a love of the patient and of people in general.

Ask someone about the Hippocratic Oath and they will likely tell you that it has two precepts:

  • Do no harm
  • Maintain patient confidentiality

Few people outside of the medical profession have read it and until I picked up Hippocrates in my collection of Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World  (Volume 10) neither had I.  Fewer still have ever heard it recited and fewer still have heard in recited in the language that Hippocrates himself would have used.  Before I go any further listen to the Hippocratic oath as spoken in Ancient Greek at the link below.  Close you eyes if you like, and immerse yourself in the poetry that is the common inheritance of all humanity.

Did you listen? You may have been surprised at how long it is and if you read along with the translation you now know that Hippocrates has a lot more to say than: “Do no harm” and “maintain patient confidentiality.” And I would dare say, Hippocrates is speaking to a larger audience than the medical profession.  Let’s take a closer look…

I swear by Apollo the Healer, by Asclepius, by Hygieia, by Panacea, and by all the gods and goddesses, making them my witnesses, that I will fulfill according to my ability and judgment, this oath and this covenant:

Notice that Hippocrates doesn’t swear by his fellow Greeks or their laws. Instead he acknowledges that he must ultimately obey higher laws of justice, above the fickle laws of human civilization.

To hold him who has taught me this art as equal to my parents; to live in common with him and if he is in need of money to give him a share of mine. To look upon his children as my own brothers, and to teach them this art -if they desire to learn it- without fee and covenant;

We need to love our teachers, our mentors, our elders in general who have given us much; their love, their knowledge, wisdom and experience. We are not self made and we need to have the humility to acknowledge that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.

To give a share of precepts and oral instruction and all the other learning to my own sons, and to those of him who has been my teacher and to disciples who have signed the covenant and have taken an oath according to the medical law, and no one else.

In turn, we can not be selfish with the gifts and wisdom that has been entrusted to us. In our past we received the gifts of others, in time we must also be givers to those who come after us. 

I will apply dietetic measures for the benefit of the sick according to my ability and judgment; I will keep them from harm and injustice.

We must protect those who have been entrusted into our care from the harm or injustice caused by others. Not just as the practitioners of medicine, but also as parents, teachers, coaches, caregivers and supervisors. 

I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suggest any such counsel. Similarly, I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy.

Human life is sacred, even 2400 years ago. Its no accident that Hippocrates places his prohibition of subscribing deadly medicine and abortion together.  All human life is to be protected, young and old, the weak and the powerful, rich or poor.

In purity and holiness, I will preserve my life and my art.

We must be pure and unselfish in our motives when we serve others. Our vocations in life, or “Art” as Hippocrates might say, proclaim who we are, not just what we do on the side. 

I will not use the knife, even on suffers from stone, but will let this operation to specialized practitioners.

Our actions must stay within our knowledge and experience of what we can competently do. We must avoid unnecessary risks that could harm others and ourselves.  

Whatever houses I may visit, I will come for the benefit of the sick, keeping myself far from all intentional injustice and ill-doing, among others, of sexual deeds on bodies female or male, be they free or slaves.

We must protect the innate dignity of all human beings, revering them as the sons and daughters of the Creator. No person exists, regardless of their origin or status to be used or abused by us. 

What I may see or hear in the course of the treatment or even outside of it in regard to the life of men, which ought not to be spread outside, I will keep secret, considering them improper to talk about.

We don’t gossip and we protect the privacy of others.  We protect the dignity of others while they are vulnerable. 

If I keep this oath and not violate it may I enjoy my life and my art respected by all men and in the time to come.  But if I transgress it and swear falsely, let the reverse be my lot.

The side benefit of conducting ourselves well in our vocations can be the respect of others.  Nevertheless, we need to hold ourselves and well as others accountable. 

 

Sadly, the Hippocratic Oath no longer seems taken at medical School graduations.  The modern criticism is that “it is sworn to a Pagan god(s)” or that “it’s to restrictive” and that modern doctors don’t like being bound by an Oath that in this litigious society could be used against them.  Others want to be able to perform abortions and euthanasia making the Hippocratic Oath outdated.  I have seen updated versions of a Hippocratic Oath that remove the restrictions on euthanasia and abortions. They lack the poetic power of the original and to be frank, don’t seem to be worth the trouble to swearing to.

Is treating people with respect and God given dignity outdated? If ancient people could at least strive to respect the dignity of human life, could we, who are far more advanced do the same?  As far as I know, Hippocrates never left a commentary on why his Oath says what it says.  Nevertheless, I think my own assessment is close to his intent:

  • Respect the laws of God and man
  • Love others; as individuals and as members of the human race
  • Respect the bodies and personhood of others
  • Protect others from harm or injustice
  • Respect those who came before you and pass on what you know to others who come after you
  • Protect human life, no matter how old, small, sick or vulnerable
  • Respect the privacy of others
  • Hold ourselves and others accountable when we fail to treat others with dignity and justice.

Not a bad creed to live by…

PostScript:

Here is the Hippocratic Oath in its entirety without commentary:

I swear by Apollo the Healer, by Asclepius, by Hygieia, by Panacea, and by all the gods and goddesses, making them my witnesses, that I will fulfill according to my ability and judgment, this oath and this covenant:

To hold him who has taught me this art as equal to my parents; to live in common with him and if he is in need of money to give him a share of mine. To look upon his children as my own brothers, and to teach them this art -if they desire to learn it- without fee and covenant;

To give a share of precepts and oral instruction and all the other learning to my own sons, and to those of him who has been my teacher and to disciples who have signed the covenant and have taken an oath according to the medical law, and no one else.

I will apply dietetic measures for the benefit of the sick according to my ability and judgment; I will keep them from harm and injustice.

I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suggest any such counsel. Similarly, I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy.

In purity and holiness, I will preserve my life and my art.

I will not use the knife, even on suffers from stone, but will let this operation to specialized practitioners.

Whatever houses I may visit, I will come for the benefit of the sick, keeping myself far from all intentional injustice and ill-doing, among others, of sexual deeds on bodies female or male, be they free or slaves.

What I may see or hear in the course of the treatment or even outside of it in regard to the life of men, which ought not to be spread outside, I will keep secret, considering them improper to talk about.

If I keep this oath and not violate it may I enjoy my life and my art respected by all men and in the time to come. But if I transgress it and swear falsely, let the reverse be my lot.

 

 

5 thoughts on “Hippocrates on Social Justice”

  1. Joe, a great blog. The Great Books should be introduced to every university student. I cringe when I think of the tripe that is thrown at today’s students. We lost a lot when we discarded the what were once the hallmarks of a Classic Liberal Education. I’ve been told that English Literature majors are no longer required to read the works of Shakespeare. Tragic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. IMO, an English student without Shakespeare is like an engineering student without calculus. I can’t see how it can be done. Nevertheless, some schools and teachers are moving away from Shakespeare because he is a dead European that lived hundreds of years ago.
      https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2015/06/13/teacher-why-i-dont-want-to-assign-shakespeare-anymore-even-though-hes-in-the-common-core/?utm_term=.2543333065b5

      As for me, I take the approach that all the ancient cultures of the world are the common inheritance of all humanity.

      Like

  2. A beautiful and profound blog, Joe, well worth reading several times. As you wrote, “not a bad creed to live by.” Sadly, this creed is not only removed from the medical profession, but it is removed from our society as a whole as we descend further and further into secularism . . . God help us!

    Liked by 1 person

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