I swear by Apollo…

[Hippocratic Oath II]


OK, here goes with the first part. We’re going to top and tail the Hippocratic Oath. There’s good reason for this…

You know bookends? Those two things that stop your Kindle from falling over, right? No seriously, the two angled sculptures which go on either end of your carefully curated line of books on the shelf, to keep them upright, so everyone can admire your well-readedness. [some of us have no shelf space left and thus require no bookmarks]

The Hippocratic Oath is bookended by two parallel statements.

“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 carry out, according to my ability and judgment, this oath and this indenture.”

Now if I carry out this oath, and break it not, may I gain for ever reputation among all men for my life and for my art; but if I break it and forswear myself, may the opposite befall me.

So this here is your finest, A1 specimen of a Covenant. [nerdy aside: I think it looks like a  suzerain-vassal treaty document very like those found in the Ancient Near East (think  Ten Commandments, Code of Hammurabi)].

A Covenant in this case is a solemn promise sworn by an individual to their god, or gods, to abide by a standard of conduct, in order to gain some reward. The penalty for non-compliance is listed also.

Nothing surprising here – very much of its time – the oath taker swears by Apollo and his under-deities, and in fact calls them to be witness to the oath, that he or she will do all these things according to their ability and judgement – obedience is conditional on these two characteristics.

So what are the rewards? What are the blessings for covenant keeping? A lasting reputation, not just for the way the physician lives his life, but also for the way he practices his medical arts. But what about the negatives? What about the curses? Because there are always curses… the penalty for oath breaking, or for taking the oath falsely with no desire to keep it – the exact opposite of the blessings. An ill repute which will follow her for the rest of her life, not just in how she lives her life, but in how she practices medicine. It’s black and white – stick to the rules, get rewarded. Wander from the path, incur shame. Whether Apollo has anything to do with the punishment isn’t stated in as many words, but the line is clearly drawn between one’s professional conduct, and one’s ultimate reputation.

So why should we be interested in an ancient document that commands submission to long-forgotten gods and goddesses, with seemingly toothless curses and empty blessings?

  1. There is a solemnity about practising medicine. It’s not a flippant, irreverent occupation, not deep down, it isn’t. Oh sure, we joke, and we laugh, because otherwise we would crumble under the strain. At the outset, we take it seriously.
  2. We practise medicine before Almighty God. Of course, all our lives are to be lived in order to glorify God, and especially our working lives, but there is a special dedication a Christian Doctor ought to have to his or her God, that goes along with the responsibility of their work. If we start with this understanding, we will find it easier to continue in that path.
  3. We grow into this profession. Notice how the oath taker’s role is conditional? It’s conditional on their ability and their judgement. When we were newly qualified, our ability was small, and our judgement was poor. The decisions we made then may have been hamfisted and ill-considered. And we lament this. But mercy is shown, and we are not immediately transferred to the ‘accursed’ camp. As we gain experience and wisdom, our abilities develop, our judgement is refined. But we need to be cautious – much more is expected of the skilful doctor with good judgement – we also have farther to fall.
  4. We don’t practise medicine for the blessings, we practise it to respect and honour our God. The blessings follow. But we would still do the job, even if there weren’t any blessings. We’re not in it for the money, or the social standing. And if we are, then we might find that those blessings get flipped, and become curses instead…

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