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The ideal Physician

Hippocrates was born on the Greek island of Cos off the coast of Turkey about four hundred-sixty years before the birth of Christ. It is believed that his father was a physician, as were a number of his ancestors.

It is unclear whether he founded a school for physicians on his home island or joined an established institution. What is certain is that he did become associated with a medical school on Cos that charged a fee to its students to learn the secrets of healing. The reputation of the Hippocratic School at Cos soon spread beyond the island and attracted students from all corners of the Greek world.

The major distinction of the Hippocratic School was its emphasis on an empirical approach to the study of disease and an attempt to rationally deduce its cause. The patient's signs and symptoms were analyzed in order to determine a prognosis of recovery – an approach quite familiar to us today, but novel in ancient Greece where sickness was often viewed as divine retribution for behavior offensive to the Greek gods. The school produced a compendium of writings that helped spread its philosophy throughout ancient Greece and influenced succeeding generations to the point that Hippocrates is known as the "Father of Modern Medicine."

 One modern legacy of the teachings of Hippocrates is the Hippocratic Oath sworn by medical students upon receiving the diploma that distinguishes them as physicians. Although the oath was most probably written after the death of Hippocrates, it represents his teachings and his view of the doctor-patient relationship. Two fundamentals of this relationship are that the physician should always respect his patient and do no harm in his attempt to resolve his patient's malady.

Hippocrates also prescribed how the physician should behave within his community in order to earn the respect of his fellow citizens and elevate his status. The following document describing the ideal behavior of a physician is again believed to have been written after the death of Hippocrates, but represents his teachings on the subject. Its dictates are as relevant today as they were two thousand years ago.

"His character must be that of a gentleman, and, as such, honorable and kindly towards all."

"The position of a doctor must make him careful to keep his complexion and weight at their correct natural standard. For most people think that those who fail to take care of their own physical condition are not really fit to take care of that of others.

Secondly, he must have a clean appearance, and wear good clothes, using a sweet-smelling scent, which should be a totally unsuspicious perfume. This is pleasant when visiting the sick.

Also he must observe rules about his non-physical effect, not only in being quiet but also in being self-controlled in all aspects of life, for this has the best result on his reputation.

His character must be that of a gentleman, and, as such, honorable and kindly towards all. For people dislike forwardness and interference, even if these qualities sometimes prove useful.

He must also pay attention to his technical ability, for people like the same medicine in small doses.

In facial expression he should be controlled but not grim. For grimness seems to indicate harshness and a hatred of mankind, while a man who bursts into guffaws and is too cheerful is considered vulgar. This must especially be avoided.

He must be just in every social intercourse, and a sense of fairness ought to help him in every dealing.

The relationship between doctor and patient is a close one. Patients submit themselves to doctors, who are always likely to be meeting women and girls, and entering houses with valuable possessions. Towards all these, therefore, he must keep himself under strict self-control.

The above, then, are the physical and psychological requirements for a doctor."


Hippocrates's requirements for a physician appear in Workman, B.K. They Saw it Happen in Classical Times (1964); Bonnard, Andre, Greek Thought (1962); Brunschwig, Jacques, and Geoffrey E. R. Lloyd (eds.) Greek Thought (2000).

Originally Posted: Eye Witness History

Famous Greeks: Xenophon, Plato and Philip

After Socrates’s death, his pupils Xenophon and Plato came to believe that Athens had a perverted form of government. Xenophon espoused the idea that monarchy was the best form of government, while Plato developed the ideal of a monarchical government ruled by a philosopher-king. With Philip of Macedonia (382–336 B.C.), monarchy emerged as the dominant political form in the Greek world. As his contemporaries understood, Philip was one of the greatest statesmen in history. He was a master of diplomacy and warfare, cunning, and courageous. He transformed Macedonia from a weak, half-civilized land on the frontiers of Greece into the supreme power in the Greek world. His victory at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 B.C. marked the end of the era of the city-state. Of modern political leaders, Philip most calls to mind the German Chancellor Bismarck. Through “blood and iron,” he unified his country. The supreme opportunist, he was nonetheless guided throughout his career by a vision of personal and national power. To the student of leadership, Philip offers one of the most instructive examples in all antiquity.

Questions to Consider:

1. Do you believe that great statesmen follow a consistent vision or are they mere opportunists?

2. Why do you think the response of the Athenians after Chaeronea was so different from their response to Xerxes’s offer of peace?

Famous Greeks: The trial of Socrates

In his funeral oration, Pericles celebrated the Athenian democracy for its tolerance. The Athenians treasured freedom of speech as essential to true democracy. Yet this same Athenian democracy put to death its greatest thinker and teacher, Socrates. The previous lecture placed the trial of Socrates in the political climate of Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War and Socrates’s close relationship with avowed enemies of democracy. This lecture examines the trial and last days of Socrates. Four dialogues of Plato provide our basic sources: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo. These are less a history and more a gospel, written to convince posterity that the Athenians had wrongly put to death “the best, the wisest, and the most just man” of his day. Through Plato, Socrates would prevail over his enemies and prove that evil men may kill a good man but can never harm him.

Questions to Consider:

1. Do you think that the dynamic teaching of Socrates had to be institutionalized, so to speak, by Plato in order to make it effective over the long term?

2. By institutionalization, do we mean writing it down and giving a formal structure to the teaching?

Famous Greeks: Lysander and Socrates

The figure of Alcibiades continued to dominate the political scene of Greece in the last days of the Peloponnesian War and even after his death in 403 B.C. Athenian attitudes toward Alcibiades were responsible for the success of Lysander and the trial of Socrates. The exile of Alcibiades by the Athenians gave Lysander his chance to prove himself the most successful general and statesman of the war. His character, patriotism, diplomatic skills, and strategic genius brought victory to Sparta and made him the most famous man in Greece. His subsequent career is a cautionary tale about the blindness of arrogance, the power of envy, and the ability of mediocre men to thwart and ultimately destroy a great leader. The determination of mediocrity to destroy greatness is also the story of the trial of Socrates. His close relationship with Alcibiades was the real reason that his fellow Athenians hated him. The Athenians saw his life and teachings as subversive of their democracy. When some of the favorite pupils of Socrates overthrew the democracy, the lesson seemed clear: The corrupting influence of Socrates must be removed from the Athenian body

Questions to Consider:

1. How could Socrates be regarded as a threat to the Athenian democracy?

2. What aspects of Socrates’s teaching do you see reflected in Alcibiades?

Famous Greeks: Alcibiades and the Peloponnesian War

Like World Wars I and II, the Peloponnesian War was a total war that stretched both Athens and Sparta to their limits. Although the Spartans ultimately proved more adaptable to the demands of the conflict, the Athenians waged the war with extraordinary tenacity and courage. Even after the devastating defeat in Sicily, the Athenians refused to give up. Convinced that Sparta was determined to destroy them, the Athenians undertook a propaganda campaign to give themselves the moral courage to endure. They resorted to bold military and political strategies to give themselves the resources and leadership for the war. This included the recall of Alcibiades, whose military genius and political skill restored Athens to a commanding position. However, Sparta, too, produced a leader in Lysander, a man with far more integrity and greater ability than Alcibiades.

Questions to Consider:

1. Taking Pericles’s funeral oration and Plutarch’s Lycurgus as our sources, which nation, Athens or Sparta, most proved true to its values during the Peloponnesian War?

2. Do you think that the character and career of Alcibiades justifies a general condemnation of the Athenian democracy?

Famous Greeks: Alkibiades

Alcibiades (450–404 B.C.), nephew of Pericles, was born to wealth and position. Handsome and brilliant, he received the finest education of his day, imbibing the intellectually radical ideas of the sophists and Socrates. Above all, he learned that might makes right and that success is the only criterion for right and wrong. Alcibiades was the antithesis of Pericles. Alcibiades had neither principles nor a moral compass. His vision was political power for himself, but his charisma and ability gave him a dangerous degree of influence over the Athenians. In pursuit of his goal of dictatorial power, he led the Athenians to continue the war with Sparta and to undertake the conquest of Sicily. Thwarted by his enemies, Alcibiades turned traitor and was a primary cause for the ultimate defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War. Alcibiades was the product of the Athenian democracy, and to his critics, he embodied the failing of that democracy.

Questions to Consider:

1. What twentieth-century politician might you compare to Alcibiades?

2. Athenian foreign policy rested in part on the moral assumption that strong nations should use their powers to aid the weak. Is there anything comparable to this ideal in the history of American foreign policy?

Famous Greeks: Thucydides

Historical research and writing began in the Athenian democracy of the fifth century B.C. It was born out of the conviction that the study of the past offered the best means of making decisions in the present and foreseeing the future. Herodotus was the “father of history,” but⎯in the view of antiquity and the modern age⎯Thucydides (471–400 B.C.) was the greater historian. He was the founder of scientific history, the attribution of history to human, not divine, motivation. He was deeply immersed in the intellectual currents of his day, and strong parallels have been noted between his approach to the body politic and the discoveries of scientific medicine attributed to his contemporary Hippocrates. Thucydides participated actively in the political life of Athens. He was an admirer of Pericles. He was also a failed general, who spent much of the war in exile. His History of the Peloponnesian War has been called “the eternal manual of statesmen.” This lecture focuses on specific passages in that history to explore what is most enduring in Thucydides’s view of politics and human nature.

Questions to Consider:

1. How would you compare Herodotus and Thucydides as historians?

2. The argument has been made that the Melians were guilty of hybris. After all, is it not outrageous arrogance to think that you know what the gods approve? Do you agree?

Famous Greeks: Nicias

The personal and political enemy of Alcibiades, Nicias (465–414 B.C.) led the conservative party at Athens during a significant part of the Peloponnesian War. A wealthy man of great reputation for his piety and virtue, he negotiated a peace with Sparta in 421 B.C. Despite his opposition to the Sicilian expedition in 415 B.C., Nicias was named by the Athenian Assembly as one of its three commanders, along with Alcibiades. Ultimately, supreme command of the expedition devolved on him. He proved himself to be one of the worst generals in history. Lazy, inept, and cowardly, he brought disaster on the Athenian expeditionary force. In fact, like many men of reputed virtue, he was a fraud, deceptive and manipulative. We study Nicias because examples of bad leaders are frequently more instructive than those of good ones.

Questions to Consider:

1. Was the Sicilian expedition a reasonable strategic undertaking or was it folly from the beginning?

2. Can you find a parallel in American history to Nicias? What would you say about George McClellan in the Civil War?

Famous Greeks: Sophocles

Tragedy was the characteristic cultural statement of the Athenian democracy: that democracy required the total involvement of citizens in its political life. In such a democracy, tragedy must be preeminently political. In the view of Aristotle, Sophocles (495–406 B.C.) was the supreme tragedian. He was active in the political life of Athens and served as a general. He was also a critic of Pericles and his policies. This novel view is presented through the lens of three of his most enduring plays. In Antigone, Sophocles warned the Athenians about the potential for the abuse of power in the overweening personal authority of Pericles. Oedipus the King was an indictment of the failure of Pericles and “his war.” In his intense patriotism, Sophocles continued to use his plays as a forum for the discussion of the moral dimension of Athenian policies. Oedipus at Colonus proclaimed that the salvation of Athens lay in a return to traditional religious and moral values.

Questions to Consider:

1. Do we have anything in our American democracy comparable to Athenian tragedy as a public forum for the consideration of moral and political issues?

2. Can you see Pericles in the character of Oedipus in Oedipus the King?

Famous Greeks: Croesus

The “Father of History,” Herodotus chose to begin his great work on the Persian Wars with the tale of Croesus, King of Lydia (546 B.C.). Herodotus wrote his histories to understand what was permanent and true behind the seemingly random events of human affairs. Herodotus found this in the concept of hybris, the idea that the abuse of power leads to the fall of great nations and individuals. The wealth and international power and prestige of King Croesus provided Herodotus with the ideal subject to introduce the central theme of his history. Neither the oracles of the gods nor the wisdom of Solon could save Croesus from destroying himself and his country. This lecture considers the historical kernel of this story and its significance for the rise of the Persian Empire. It also considers the enduring meaning of this story and the question, still central to our own political discussions, of whether a political leader can separate public from private morality.

Questions to Consider:

1. Do you believe that we can or should separate private from public morality?

2. Do you believe that the primary purpose of history is moral instruction?

Famous Greeks: Anaxagoras, Phidias & Aspasia

The names of Anaxagoras, Phidias, and Aspasia (fifth century B.C.) represent the leading intellectual, artistic, and cultural currents in an age of unsurpassed creativity. Anaxagoras was as one of the sophists, professors, who made Athens the intellectual center of the Greek world. He taught that reason is the motivating force of the universe. Phidias was an artist who sought to express, in his design for the Acropolis at Athens and in his sculptures, the ideal of divine and human reason. In a society that denied rights to women, Aspasia, the mistress of Pericles, combined a career as a madam of a bordello with intellectual attainments that made her a political adviser to Pericles. All three were friends of Pericles; all became targets of legal attacks by his enemies.

Questions to Consider:

1. How does the Parthenon embody the concept of divine reason?

2. Compare the role of sophists in the Athenian democracy with the role of professors and other academic experts in our democracy.