This Is Perhaps the Finest Humanistic Text In Existence — and Chances Are You’ve Never Read It April 1, 2016

This Is Perhaps the Finest Humanistic Text In Existence — and Chances Are You’ve Never Read It

A couple of days ago, I casually mentioned the Hippocratic Oath, and it occurred to me that while I knew what it says in general terms, I’d never actually read the whole thing (kinda like most politicians and the Constitution, or most Christians and the Bible).

So out of curiosity, I looked it up — and I was floored. Seriously: this is the most inspiring and beautiful text I’ve read it all year. Much love and admiration are due to every doctor — and every nurse — who truly practices according to these principles.

It even mentions God… in a fully appropriate, non-cringe-inducing way.


“I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this covenant:

I will respect the hard-won scientific gains of those physicians in whose steps I walk, and gladly share such knowledge as is mine with those who are to follow.

I will apply, for the benefit of the sick, all measures which are required, avoiding those twin traps of overtreatment and therapeutic nihilism.

I will remember that there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug.

I will not be ashamed to say “I know not,” nor will I fail to call in my colleagues when the skills of another are needed for a patient’s recovery.

I will respect the privacy of my patients, for their problems are not disclosed to me that the world may know. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. Above all, I must not play at God.

I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person’s family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick.

I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.

I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.

If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help.”

Although I’m naturally inclined to skepticism and even sarcasm, and don’t really consider myself a humanist, I find this pretty damn moving.

In the form quoted, the text isn’t 2,400 years old (as the original oath is); Hippocrates‘ grand promise was updated in the 1960s by Louis Lasagna, the late Academic Dean of the School of Medicine at Tufts University.

Wikipedia says this version is “used in many medical schools today.” I hope it stays that way for 24 more centuries, at least.

If you want to support the work of doctors who apply the oath under the most difficult of circumstances, my favorite charity is here.

(Photo of Hippocrates’ bust via Shutterstock)

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