What can ancient wisdom teach today’s doctors?

By Charlie Williams
Published February 3, 2021

Key Takeaways

Physicians tend to be a future-oriented bunch. Excitement over forthcoming therapies and technologies dominates headlines across medical media, and for good reason. Even after thousands of years of practice, immeasurable possibilities wait just beyond the horizon.

But as we look to the future, we shouldn’t let the furious pace of advancement distract us from lessons of history. Such thinking is what keeps droves of medical students reciting the Hippocratic Oath—“First, do no harm”—every year. 

This ancient piece of wisdom, first attributed to Greek physician and philosopher Hippocrates around 400 BCE, guides physicians thousands of years after it was first uttered—but it’s only one of many ancient nuggets you can draw on to become a better doctor.

In this article, we’ll examine three old-school thinkers whose ideas remain applicable to medicine today—and offer links to books that elaborate on their philosophies.

(Disclosure: The following post includes purchase recommendations and uses affiliate links to Amazon products, allowing MDLinx to receive a commission for purchases. All suggestions are our own.)

Gautama Buddha and Buddhism

Medicine faces a grim reality: 30% to 50% of physicians across specialties are burned out. Health systems are scurrying to pick up the pieces, but piecemeal solutions like resilience training and subsidized yoga classes fail to address the systemic causes of burnout.

The core practices of resilience training and yoga, however, are still valuable and in use today. Mindfulness and meditation can be traced back to ancient Buddhist philosophy—a school of thought that follows the teachings of Gautama Buddha, or just Buddha for short, who lived in northern India between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE. 

Like medicine, Buddhism is concerned with the alleviation and prevention of human suffering. But its focus is less about active treatment of others and has more to do with what we’d call bedside manner—concepts like loving-kindness, compassion, empathy, and equanimity. 

Many experts agree that compassionate care is essential for better clinical and patient outcomes, but the same factors that drive burnout can cause compassion fatigue and prevent doctors from devoting enough time to their patients. Practicing mindfulness, meditation, and following ancient Buddhist philosophy can help physicians remain present and deliver more compassionate care during stressful situations.

To learn more about Buddhism as it relates to medicine, read Medicine Buddha Teachings, by Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche.

Marcus Aurelius and Stoicism

Marcus Aurelius was an incredibly powerful, wealthy, and influential leader best known as emperor of Rome during its Golden Age around 150 CE. But unlike so many powerful heads of state we read about in the history books, Marcus never let his enormous fame and fortune go to his head. His even-keeled leadership of Rome through the Antonine Plague and several frontier wars earned him as much historical reverence as his inner discipline, which resonates through the ages in the form of Meditations, one of the greatest works of Stoic philosophy.

Meditations brims with wisdom applicable to almost any scenario, but it may be of particular interest to physicians, who find themselves in a similar position to Marcus Aurelius while a pandemic rages across the country and its citizens turn to (or away from) physicians in the ensuing chaos.

In his magnum opus, Aurelius reminds us that it’s within our power to turn all twists of fate—the good and the bad—into fuel that drives us toward our ultimate purpose.  

Many lament that circumstances aren’t as we’d like them to be—that there are too many obstacles preventing us from following our dreams and fulfilling our life’s purpose. But for physicians, life is not about avoiding obstacles or allowing them to bring us down. Rather, it’s about embracing challenges and working diligently to overcome them. Stoicism and the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius can help make this happen.

To read a copy of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, click here.

Socrates and the Socratic Method

Like Hippocrates, Socrates was an ancient Greek thinker whose way of life, character, and ideas exert a profound influence on Western philosophy today. He’s widely known for the Socratic method, a logical process used to measure an opinion’s validity.

Here are the Socratic method’s four steps:

  1. Take a statement.

  2. Imagine that this statement is false and search for the contexts in which it may be untrue.

  3. If an exception is found, then the original statement must be altered to take this into account.

  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 until no instances in which it is untrue can be found.

During a time of extreme division, physicians might consider turning to the Socratic method as a cooperative search, rather than a competitive fight, for truth and understanding with their colleagues and patients.

“By examining our beliefs and practice in this systematic and logical fashion we gain a deeper understanding of them,” wrote C. Mark Harper, of the Center for Anesthesia at Middlesex Hospital in London, in a 2003 paper in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. “An important consequence is that, when challenged, we are able to defend our methods more effectively. Conversely, we are better able to cope with statements or practices with which we do not agree.”

To learn more about the Socratic method, read The Socratic Method of Psychotherapy by James Overholser.

Ancient wisdom, modern purpose

The fact that ancient philosophies, like those of Buddha, Marcus Aurelius, and Socrates, stick with us today suggests that they contain timeless truths. And as the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana once said, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

So start reading up on your philosophy, and most importantly, be sure to bring your new wisdom off the pages and into your life and medical practice.

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