A Hippocratic Oath for Politicians: Good Medicine for the Body Politic

Wednesday, May 11, 2016 - 5:30 am

A Hippocratic Oath for Politicians: Good Medicine for the Body Politic

Last week, while wandering down a goat trail on the Internet, I ran across the modern version of the Hippocratic Oath, the sacred vow physicians have been taking since the 5th century BC As I read it, I got a crazy idea.
How about requiring our politicians to take a political version of the Hippocratic Oath? Most will ignore this proposal, of course, but “We the People” can turn the tables on them. We can test their principles, policies, and temperaments against Hippocratic precepts before we decide whom to support.
If you insist on a doctor who lives by Hippocratic principles, why wouldn’t you insist on a president, governor, senator, or representative who does the same? After all, when we elect people to high office, we’re entrusting the health of the American body politic to their hands.
Translating the Hippocratic Oath from medicine to politics turns out to be easy; I didn’t have to change a single word. For example, with the modern version, a physician vows that:

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.

Whoa! Imagine the sheer tonnage of horse hockey we’d no longer have to slog through if politicians had to say “I don’t know” when they are clueless about how to answer a question. (You say they don’t even know when they’re clueless? Of course they do! That’s why they answer a different question than the one they were asked.) And if clueless politicians had to call in someone who knew his or her stuff, imagine the growth in public understanding of complex issues.
I know, I know, that’s not going to happen. It’s way too much fun to bloviate when one has the mic — and the wilder one’s bloviating, the more likely one is to make the news. But as “We the People” listen to the candidates, we can ask ourselves, “Which of them seems to possess at least a modicum of the intellectual honesty and humility that physicians are asked to practice?”
Here’s another precept from the modern Hippocratic Oath:

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

There’s genius in those few words that’s sorely lacking in American politics. Many politicians love to promote “cures” that don’t work because it makes them look tough. For example, we cure crime — NOT! — by sending more people to prison than any other nation on earth. With less than five percent of the world’s population, we house nearly 25 percent of the world’s total prison population, a travesty fed by the fact that prisons have become a big, profitable business in this country.
We could prevent a lot of crime by improving education and access to it — thus improving job opportunities, income, and a sense of self-worth — especially for the poor and people of color. We imprison members of these groups in numbers hugely disproportionate to their numbers in the U.S. population: this, despite the fact that the crimes that most often put them behind bars (e.g., drug-related offenses) are committed at least as frequently by whites.
In both healthcare and public life, prevention is preferable to cure partly because it’s cheaper. A 2011 study found that one year of tuition at Princeton University cost ,000, while one year at a New Jersey state prison cost ,000. The same study concluded that, “If California emptied its prisons today and sent every inmate to a University of California college, it would save almost billion a year.” Think of it! Better education for those who are currently the victims of medieval “cures” would bring budgetary bonuses.
But how do we improve our schools, those vital institutions that political machinations have done so much to bring down? Amazingly, there’s a precept in the modern Hippocratic Oath that sheds light on this question:

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.

Those words can help us see through the fiction that “scientific” high-stakes testing — testing that often penalizes the poor and rewards the well-off — is the key to education reform. It gives us a chance to regain our right minds, to remember that real education is an art as well as a science and that “warmth, sympathy, and understanding” are essential to teaching and learning.
If you don’t believe me, ask a few good teachers how they relate to the students in their care. I guarantee that you’ll hear something closely akin to the humanism of this Hippocratic principle. Then there’s this precept, engraved on the heart of every good doctor I know:

I will…tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.

Candidates for high office who aren’t brought to their knees by “matters of life and death” — candidates who, for example, bluster about sending in troops to take out terrorists and their families and other innocent civilians — should not be allowed anywhere near the levers of power, any more than Jack the Ripper should be given the keys to the surgical suite. Of course, all politicians genuflect at the awesome responsibility of sending American troops “into harm’s way.” But ever since Vietnam, “We the People” — including many veterans — have had good reason to question the political motives behind wars that have cost tens of thousands of American lives.
Declaring war is not the only way our political leaders “play at God.” Many Americans live amid such death-dealing realities as radical economic inequality, long-term wage stagnation, high levels of poverty, the omnipresence of firearms, food insufficiency, and poisoned drinking water. So we have every right to question whether our political leaders “tread with care” in these matters, and to hold them accountable to that standard.

(André-Pierre du Plessis / Flickr / Some Rights Reserved)

For brevity’s sake, I’ve cited only half the provisions of the modern version of the Hippocratic Oath, though the others have as much political relevance as those I’ve named. I’ll close with the Oath’s final paragraph, a prayer of sorts that spoke deeply to me as I move closer to my own “thereafter”:

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.

Those words invite all of us, including politicians, to regard what we do each day with an eye to posterity, to ask ourselves if we are acting in “the finest traditions” of our vocations and will know “the joy of healing” those who seek our help.
To be human is to be imperfect — I should know! So I’m glad to cut politicians at least as much slack as I cut myself. I do not withhold my respect or affection from those who truly aspire to authentic public service even when they fall short, as we all do, of the Hippocratic virtues.
But I do withhold respect and affection (as well as my vote) from politicians who speak and act with arrogance and without empathy, as if the precepts of an Oath that’s guided the healing arts for 2,600 years count for nothing.
When the time comes for the power-hungry and prideful to shuffle off this mortal coil, I hope they have a physician who aspires to the Hippocratic ideal. Every human being deserves one.
As citizens, we deserve no less from those who would lead us politically. In more ways than we may know, our lives are in their hands.

(Luca Moglia / Flickr / Some Rights Reserved)

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include Healing the Heart of Democracy, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.

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