February 6: Oath

First, do no harm.

Today the prompt was “oath.” My first thought was of Game of Thrones and all the oaths people are always swearing to each other (then breaking) on that show; Lady Brienne’s sword is called Oathkeeper. I thought about how “swearing an oath” can also mean dropping a bit of profanity. I didn’t really feel like writing about Medieval times or foul-mouthed folks today, so I found my way to the Hippocratic Oath.

“I will use those dietary regimens which will benefit my patients according to my greatest ability and judgement, and I will do no harm or injustice to them.”

Translation by Michael North, National Library of Medicine (NIH website)

In the next section, the oath-taker promises not to murder anyone, nor to cause an abortion….but then later the oath also states, “I will not use the knife, even upon those suffering from stones, but I will leave this to those who are trained in this craft,” so it wasn’t written for surgeons, I guess. Grain of salt.

Get ready for a philosophical interlude, I guess? I almost don’t want to share this one, because it’s not fully developed or reasoned, it’s just an idea I had that turned into something like a conversation I would have with my Guy. It took me two hours to write because I kept having to stop and look up stuff that I didn’t know (and take detours to learn tangentially related things, like the difference between the Rod of Asclepius and the Caduceus). Hopefully it won’t take two hours to read.

“Have you read this?”

Mark dropped his index finger next to the paragraph he was about to begin reading and looked at Shannon over the rim of his glasses. “What is it?”

“The original text of the Hippocratic Oath,” she said, turning her book around and pointing with her highlighter at a box of text on one of the pages. “The translation, anyway—still working on my Ionic Greek,” she added dryly.

Mark peered at it for a moment. “Uh, yeah?” He raised an eyebrow. “I’m a med student?”

Shannon shook her head. “No, I mean, have you really read the original version? It’s like the Ten Commandments.” 

Mark scowled. “In what way, exactly,” he challenged her.

She laughed. “I don’t mean anything bad! Sheesh, one debate about Jesus and you’re on the defense forever.” He frowned, but his face softened. She continued, “I just mean structurally, and thematically, they’re very similar.”

Mark dropped his hand from his book and leaned back in his chair. “Okay, enlighten me.”

Shannon grinned. “Okay, so the Commandments, how do they start? ‘I am the Lord thy God,’ right?” She pointed at the top line of the text. “‘I swear by Apollo the physician’ and all the rest—they both invoke deities.”

Mark shrugged. “I guess,” he offered noncommittally.

She forged on. “The first three Commandments say, no gods before me, no pics please, and don’t use my name in vain. In the Oath, it says, I devote myself to my teacher, I promise to take care of their kids, and I vow henceforth to teach the art of healing to other healers. Those don’t totally line up, but they’re about catering to the concerns of the one laying down the law, yeah? A jealous God and an anxious physician, both looking to secure their own position first.”

Mark shrugged again. “I suppose you could look at it that way.”

“Then we’ve got: keep the Sabbath holy, honor thy father and mother, no murder, no adultery, no stealing, no lying, and no coveting; they’re not in the same order, but the Oath says, stay pure of mind and body, leave surgery to surgeons, don’t intentionally kill anyone, don’t behave improperly with patients, and respect everyone’s secrets. It’s basically the same thing.” Shannon finished triumphantly.

Mark thought for a moment. “Well, Hippocrates came after Moses,” he said, lifting his palms in the air to indicate how obvious it was. “He could have adapted the Commandments to suit his needs.” He dropped his hands into his lap.

Shannon considered this. “Sure….ooorrr, maybe he just independently arrived at the same conclusions for how best to live in the world?” She turned her book around and studied the lines again. “Maybe on some level humans just fundamentally agree that killing each other and being shitty towards one another is a bad idea.”

The two sat in silence for a few beats. Mark leaned forward over his book, found his place, and resumed reading. Shannon sat back in her chair and regarded the ceiling.