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Leaders as Healers

Leaders as healers: Ancient Greek ideas on the health of the body politic

April 1, 2020 9.59pm EDT


Associate Professor in Ancient History, Australian Research Council Future Fellow, Macquarie University

In the current health crisis, we might ask what needs to be cured more urgently: the virus itself or people’s poor sense of moderation.

We have seen shocking footage of panicked citizens fighting over the last pack of toilet tissue, our politicians’ exasperation at selfish stockpiling, and blasé disinterest from those who don’t think social isolation rules apply to them.

The Athenian philosopher Plato outlines in his dialogues, especially the Symposium and the Laws, the practice of civic moderation – sophrosyne in Greek – in an ideal state.

Plato, drawing on ideas already developed by earlier Greek writers, saw justice and injustice in the soul as comparable to health and illness in the body. Although Plato eventually promoted philosophers as political leaders, many writers saw leaders as physicians curing diseased communities. These ideas feed into what we expect from politicians today.

First, do no harm

The therapeutic effect of politicians was already a powerful metaphor in early 5th century BCE poetry (alongside the idea of the leader as captain of the Ship of State.

In his Fourth Pythian Ode, written in 462-461 BCE, the lyric poet Pindar compares Arcesilaus IV, the king of Cyrene, with a physician. The king is entreated to “heal” the city which has been left wounded by the exile of a prominent citizen, Damophilus (whose name, conveniently, means “dear to the people”).

In Aeschylus’ tragic play Agamemnon, written in 458 BCE, the king, having just returned from Troy, announces to the Argive assembly his political agenda. He will maintain what is good, “but whenever there is need of healing remedies”, he “will try by applying either cautery or the knife reasonably to avert the damage of the disease”. In simple terms: cut out the bad bits with surgical means if necessary.

According to ancient historian Thucydides, Nicias, the general who warned the Athenians about the disastrous Sicilian expedition of 415-413 BCE, advised the city’s executive council to act as physicians “in trying to do as much good as possible or at least no voluntary harm”.

Both Nicias and his political opponent Alcibiades agreed that the Athenians needed to change their usual way of doing politics to deal with the crisis at hand. Nicias insisted on a radical, immediate change of habits. Alcibiades argued remedies ought to be proportionate.

By employing medical metaphors in their arguments, they sound very much like today’s politicians debating approaches to the pandemic.

A healthy balance

The use of the leader-as-physician metaphor by ancient Greek poets and historians reflected the rising prominence of the Hippocratic Corpus, a collection of texts associated with Hippocrates and his teachings. The collection also highlights the tension between medicine, mainly preoccupied with curing symptoms, and philosophy, whose aim is that understanding nature and its causes.

The Hippocratic texts advocate the notion of health as a kind of balancing act: between elements in the body such as cold, hot, wet, dry, sweet, bitter or, in terms of bodily fluids, a balance between blood, phlegm, yellow and black bile.

Alcmaeon of Croton, an early medical writer and philosopher, described this balance as isonomia (equality). In addition, he called disease, which he understood as the prevalence of one of these elements or fluids, monarchia (monarchy), clearly borrowing his terminology from politics.

The body politic

Plato, a voracious reader, preoccupied with the ideal constitution, appreciated the leader-as-physician metaphor.

The Laws, Plato’s last work, explores the ethics of government and law, including the notions of social responsibility and restorative punishment. Plato thought justice (Greek dikaiosyne) secured a better life for the individual and made them more willing to obey laws. At a social level, “the union of justice, moderation, and wisdom” is proposed as the solution, or prescription, to ensure social harmony – like the balance the Hippocratics aspired to for the body.

Plato advocates moderation (sophrosyne) as a most excellent quality in the pursuit of justice and virtue. He also references mental health and civic moderation. Besides the clinically mad, he says, there are two other groups of people who may behave foolishly: the young who can be reckless as a result of naivety, and those unable to withstand pleasures and sorrows or control their fears, desires, and frustrations. Plato describes their disease as anoia (mindlessness).

His proposed “cure” is risky: to instill permanent bravery in the citizens, he argues, we may use a fear drug to artificially arouse fear in them, either fear of bad reputation or fear of the enemy. By applying a drug similar to wine as a medicine (pharmakon), the citizens would be purged of vice and a sense of moderation restored.

Like modern medicine, the process is allopathic: using remedies to produce effects different from those produced by the disease being treated. Bravery is produced by fear, moderation by excess.

Learning moderation the hard way

In Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War Greek history’s bad boy, Alcibiades, makes a familiar call to arms:

… understand that neither youth nor old age can do anything without each other, but together the frivolous, the middling, and the very exact, when united, will have most strength. And that, by sinking into inaction, the city, like everything else, will wear itself out …

In modern political parlance: we’re all in this together.

The trouble might be today’s citizens are getting mixed messages. On the one hand, they hear Alcibiades’ rallying cry. But they also hear, via the mouths of political office holders, his political opponent Nicias’ more drastic treatment approach for a sick society at war. Nicias asked the Athenians to vote to “Stay home.” History proved him right.

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7 Kommentare

Kate Hunter
Kate Hunter
13. Mai 2020

Now more than ever, our world truly does need leaders that can heal more than just physical wounds. This article is extremely relevant in today’s world, and our society can be compared to a body that’s ridden with disease, with leaders as its physicians. With healing remedies, extreme care, and focus on what’s good for the overall health of the society, we could slowly start to heal our world... but without focused and mindful caretakers, the disease will win.

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Sheri Catron
Sheri Catron
04. Mai 2020

How closely this relates to what we are dealing with today is scary.It is rare the politician cares about his charges. Especially if they have been in office a long time and their pockets are lined with the wealth of special interest groups. Doctors are the experts on what will work to make us healthy as a society, not some idiot with a social media platform that only cares about keeping his and his cronies pockets lined.

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This is the first time I have been introduced to the idea of a political figure being compared to a doctor. I laughed out loud when I read that due to the current state of world politics but the idea does make sense. Although if you ask me, our current leaders make terrible doctors. Just as a doctor is supposed to help their patients, a political leader must help their citizens. I also really liked the part about doing no harm. I believe the world would be a much better place if every leader entered office with the mindset of whatever it is they want to do or change, they should avoid causing any further harm at all costs possible.

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I really enjoyed this article. I am firmly convinced our world needs healing leaders now more than ever. It might be uncomfortable, or controversial but they can be the change that can make a difference in the lives of everyday people. Especially now when everything is overwhelming, and people feel trapped. It is important to not lose sight of your own needs and making yourself a priority. Also, enables you to think more clearly, and empower others to build an inspired life.


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26. Apr. 2020

This article brings light to the human spirit good and bad and relates to the ancient teachings. In todays world we seemed to be split more than ever and through this pandemic many are not acting accordingly. we have all seen first hand when some are in survival mode they grab as much supplies as possible afraid they may run out. some are not thinking of others just themselves. some politicians even celebrity's have this mindset that rues don't apply to them and the who world seems to be in a mess right now. Doctors and nurse right now are becoming the leader and being put on the front line.

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