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ELPENOR - Home of the Greek Word

Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Gilbert Murray 
Greek is the higher life of man

From, G. Murray, The value of Greece to the future of the world,
in R.W. Livingstone (ed.), The Legacy of Greece, Oxford University Press, 1921.













Page 3

To take a third case: all through later antiquity and the middle ages the science of medicine was based on the writings of two ancient doctors, Hippocrates and Galen. Galen was a Greek who lived at Rome in the early Empire, Hippocrates a Greek who lived at the island of Cos in the fifth century B. C. A great part of the history of modern medicine is a story of emancipation from the dead hand of these great ancients. But one little treatise attributed to Hippocrates was in active use in the training of medical students in my own day in Scotland and is still in use in some American Universities. It was the Oath taken by medical students in the classic age of Greece when they solemnly faced the duties of their profession. The disciple swore to honour and obey his teacher and care for his children if ever they were in need; always to help his patients to the best of his power; never to use or profess to use magic or charms or any supernatural means; never to supply poison or perform illegal operations; never to abuse the special position of intimacy which a doctor naturally obtains in a sick house, but always on entering to remember that he goes as a friend and helper to every individual in it.

We have given up that oath now: I suppose we do not believe so much in the value of oaths. But the man who first drew up that oath did a great deed. He realized and defined the meaning of his high calling in words which doctors of unknown tongues and undiscovered countries accepted from him and felt to express their aims for well over two thousand years.

Now what do I want to illustrate by these three instances? The rapidity with which we are now at last throwing off the last vestiges of the yoke of Greece? No, not that. I want to point out that even in the realm of science, where progress is so swift and books so short-lived, the Greeks of the great age had such genius and vitality that their books lived in a way that no others have lived. Let us get away from the thought of Euclid as an inky and imperfect English school-book, to that ancient Eucleides who, with exceedingly few books but a large table of sand let into the floor, planned and discovered and put together and re-shaped the first laws of geometry, till at last he had written one of the great simple books of the world, a book which should stand a pillar and beacon to mankind long after all the political world that Eucleides knew had been swept away and the kings he served were conquered by the Romans, and the Romans in course of time conquered by the barbarians, and the barbarians themselves, with much labour and reluctance, partly by means of Eucleides' book, eventually educated; so that at last, in our own day, they can manage to learn their geometry without it. The time has come for Euclid to be superseded; let him go. He has surely held the torch for mankind long enough; and books of science are born to be superseded. What I want to suggest is that the same extraordinary vitality of mind which made Hippocrates and Euclid and even Denis of Thrace last their two thousand years, was also put by the Greeks of the great age into those activities which are, for the most part at any rate, not perishable or progressive but eternal.

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Cf. Greek Literature * Greek History Resources
Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome

Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Greek Literature - Ancient, Medieval, Modern

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