2. The Virtuous Physician. A New Translation of a Pseudo-Hippocratic Text and Its Implications for the History of Moral Inquiry; or, The Significance of an Insignificant Text

  • Elliott Burton Martin, Jr. Children’s Hospital Boston


This article presents a new translation of the previously little-studied pseudo-Hippocratic text, Precepts, with commentary, and a broader discussion of the work in its context at a crossroads in the history of moral inquiry. A distillation of the schools of medical thought between the age of Hippocrates and the age of Galen, Precepts is not an oath, but a set of pragmatic, comprehensive guidelines for the comportment and practice of what the unknown author describes ideally as the ‘virtuous physician’. I propose a new way of interpreting the development of Greek ethical notions, as exemplified in our sample text, as the inevitable philosophic product of the religious influence of the Ancient Near East. Rather than suggest a conflict between the polytheists and the challenge of monotheism, I describe an interplay between the two belief systems. I propose that the Greek attempts at reconciliation between these systems were the critical impetus for the development of moral inquiry alongside the birth of ‘rationalism’. In other words, it will be seen that it was through the avenue of the Greek enlightenment that the ancient physician transformed from physician-priest to physician-philosopher.


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