doctors, drugs, ethics, Hippocrates

Should physicians treat their enemies?


There are a lot of mistaken ideas about the ‘Hippocratic oath’; for example, that it was written by the real Hippocrates (deeply unlikely – probably written way after his supposed lifetime); that it bans abortion (no, it bans giving an abortive pessary to someone asking for one, so other methods could be fine, and maybe the issue here is instead that the physician should not hand over drugs to someone who may use them a long way away from proper medical supervision); that it forbids assisted suicide (no, it says you must not give a deadly drug to anyone if asked for one, which may again be about keeping control of dangerous drugs rather than handing them out); and so on. With all this concern about drugs, we do well to remember that the ancient Greek word pharmakon means both ‘healing drug’ and ‘poison’!

There are also assumptions about clauses that people think are in there, but which aren’t. Like ‘first do no harm’, which is from another ‘Hippocratic’ treatise, not this one. And all sorts of notions about the ethics of an ancient Greek physician which are not even touched upon in the oath. One of these is the reassuring idea that a good doctor will treat anyone, no matter what their race, nation or creed may be. But that’s not an ancient idea either. In fact, quite the contrary. Here’s a story that was told about Hippocrates:

Once a terrible plague was ravaging Persia, the historic enemy of the Greeks. The king of Persia, Artaxerxes, had heard that Hippocrates was the most brilliant physician in the world, so he sent an embassy to see him. When they arrived the king’s men begged him to come and help. They offered him all the silver and gold he could possibly want. But Hippocrates shook his head and said, ‘No. I have enough food, clothing, shelter and everything else I need for life, and I don’t want all that Persian opulence. I will not help those who are the enemies of the Greeks’.

In the ancient world, patriotism beat mercy hands-down.

In 1792, the artist Girodet painted the scene above, in which Hippocrates refuses the gifts of the king. The various Persians around Hippocrates show different expressions as the great doctor refuses to help them: angry, amazed, sad… Meanwhile Hippocrates’ foot is pushing away the pile of money on the floor. At the time this painting was done, Hippocrates’ patriotism and his disdain for wealth were right up there with his ‘scientific’ medicine as what made him so great.

What do you think? Should doctors treat anyone, regardless?


4 thoughts on “Should physicians treat their enemies?”

  1. Many thanks for this.

    I feel I should know but where did the Hippocrates story come from? Although his last sentence he seems to be patriotic, to me he also seems to be advertising his Athenian ‘credentials’ by rejecting the Persian opulance – a binary distinction demonstrated by Euripides in Persians. So was the story also propaganda?

    I know that wasn’t your question but I do find it interesting.

    As for Girodet’s reception – I read into this the combination of Classic and Romantic movements with a destinct nod towards values which should be attributable toward Napoleonic France (although he was in Italy in the year of this painting).


    1. The Hippocrates story is from the pseudepigrapha, the ‘fake letters’ and also fake speeches composed to create a biography for Hippocrates. There’s a good edition by Wesley D. Smith, 1990. The dating is really difficult. Smith notes that the first couple of ‘Persian letters’ may have been written to provide a lead-in to letters 3-6, which are the ones telling this story. There are also different versions of some of these letters in the manuscript tradition! But nobody would put the speeches earlier than 3rd c BC, with the letters later than that. I don’t feel qualified to say anything new about Girodet!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Many thanks for the reply – interesting.

        I am sure you know a lot more that Girodet than I do (hint – I hadn’t come across him until I read the blog!).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s