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The Hippocratic Oath

Christians claim their religion brought a civilizing influence to pagan Greece and Rome. I wonder if it was the other way around!

Pythagoras (570-470 BC) was born on the island colony of Samos. Historian Dr. Martin A. Larson describes him as:

"A universal genius...He made important contributions to music and astronomy; he was a metaphysician, a natural philosopher, a social revolutionary, a political organizer, and the universal theologian. He was one of those all-embracing intellects which appears at rare intervals."

Pythagoras' biographer Diogenes Laertius records that he did not "neglect medicine;" his followers contributed to medical wisdom. In the history of religion, Pythagoras was the first person to teach the concepts of reincarnation, heaven and hell to the Western world.

Diogenes Laertius writes that Pythagoras warned that all who did not accept his teachings would suffer torment in the afterlife, while promising his followers the spiritual kingdom.

According to the early Christian father Eusebius:

"Pythagoras...declared...that the doctrines which he had received...were a personal revelation to himself from God."

Ancient and modern historians alike acknowledge that Pythagoras was vegetarian. This was the conclusion of Plutarch, Ovid, Diogenes Laertius and Iamblichus in ancient times, and it is the conclusion of scholars today.

Nor was vegetarianism loosely connected with the Pythagorean philosophy--it was an integral part of it.

"Oh, my fellow men!" exclaimed Pythagoras. "Do not defile your bodies with sinful foods. We have corn. We have apples bending down the branches with their weight, and grapes swelling on the vines.

"There are sweet flavored herbs and vegetables which can be cooked and softened over the fire. Nor are you denied milk or thyme-scented honey. The earth affords you a lavish supply of riches, of innocent foods, and offers you banquets that involve no bloodshed or slaughter."

The Pythagoreans also contributed to medical ethics through the Oath of Hippocrates.

Hippocrates was a physician who lived in the 5th century BC. In a treatise entitled "The Sacred Disease," he maintained that epilepsy and other illnesses were not the result of evil spirits or angry gods, but due to natural causes.

Hippocrates has been called the "Father of Medicine," the "wisest and greatest practitioner of his art," and the "most important and most complete medical personality of antiquity."

Before Hippocrates, the physician studied plants and animals and had a working knowledge of both harmful and beneficial remedies. He could simultaneously heal some patients while killing others.

Hippocrates believed in the sanctity of life and called other physicians to the highest ethical standards and conduct.

The Oath of Hippocrates marked a turning point in the history of Western civilization because "for the first time in our tradition" it caused "a complete separation between curing and killing.

The Oath reads:

"I swear by Apollo Physician, by Asclepius...I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgement, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing. Neither will I administer a poison to anybody when asked to do so, nor will I suggest such a course.

"Similarly, I will not give to a woman a pessary to cause abortion...Into whatsoever houses I enter, I will enter to help the sick, and I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm, especially from abusing the bodies of man or woman, bond or free."

During the abortion debate on USENET in 1986, pro-choicers argued the reference to abortion in the Oath was not written with respect for life, but intended to prevent "back-alley" abortions.

The United States Supreme Court, however, clearly saw the Oath as pro-life in Roe v. Wade, downgrading the historical influence of the Oath of Hippocrates, by noting it "echoes Pythagorean doctrines," and the Pythagoreans were a minority religion in ancient Greece.

Dr. Herbert Ratner observes:

"Hippocrates' profound grasp of the nature of a learned profession serving one of man's basic needs makes the Hippocratic Oath one of the great documents and classics of man, a fact not only signified by its universal inclusion in collections of the great books of Western civilization, but by the universal veneration accorded it by physicians, singly and collectively, throughout the ages...

"...the Oath, properly constituted, becomes the one hope of preserving the unconfused role of the physician as healer."

American medical science consultant Dr. Andrew C. Ivy said:

"The moral imperative of the Oath of Hippocrates I believe is necessary for the survival of the scientific and technical philosophy of medicine."

The Oath of Hippocrates and its modern equivalent, the Declaration of Geneva, enacted by the World Medical Association in 1948, are frequently cited by the American Medical Association in its prohibition against medical participation in legally authorized executions.

A code of conduct for physicians as healers, as well as concern for the rights and well-being of the patient, originated with Hippocrates and the Pythagorean tradition.

Again, Christians claim their religion brought a civilizing influence to pagan Greece and Rome. I wonder if it was the other way around!

The late Reverend Janet Regina Hyland (1933 - 2007), author of God's Covenant with Animals (it's available through People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA) once commented wistfully:

"Christians accept Jesus as the savior, but they (animal activists) want Pythagoras to be the savior."

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