The Thing About Oaths In Today's Society

I was recently involved in a situation that made me realize an oath is just a bunch of words strung together unless those using it believe in its underlying principles.

An oath is a solemn appeal to some revered person, a government, an organization or a deity to witness one's determination to speak the truth, to keep a promise, to follow a certain set of values or conduct one’s affairs in a certain manner.

The reason I am focused on this is that I recently benefitted from the principles of one of the oldest-known oaths--the Hippocratic Oath.

It amazes me that an oath written sometime in the 4th century BC, a century after Hippocrates (the “Father of Medicine”) lived, can still have relevance today. The oath basically obligates a physician to always keep the best interests of the patient in mind in terms of medical care and privacy.

Of course, today’s oath varies greatly from that of the 4th century and for good reason; times they have changed and the modern version addresses contemporary medicine. But still, in today’s medical environment, where insurance companies often drive the care of patients rather than the judgement of doctors, it can be easy for physicians to lose sight of the oath.

In my case, thankfully, one physician chose to continually push beyond the limits where some may have gone. Had he stopped after the first test--and he would have been justified in doing so because the test was “normal,” he would have missed a potentially deadly problem.

However, his intuition based on decades of experience and some anomalies in the test results told him there was something more serious than test results indicated, so he pushed on, referring me to specialists who ordered more testing.

As a result I am writing--and recuperating--today. Skilled surgeons and medical support staff were able to perform major surgery that prevented what surely one day, sooner or later, would have been a catastrophic event.

It was all because one doctor, consciously or not, followed the principles of an ancient oath; which led me to start thinking about the oaths people take and how they impact their actions.

At first glance it seemed that oaths were minimal, taken only by a few select groups. However, when I broadened my definition of “oath,” I was amazed to find that many people take an oath of one sort or another in their lifetime.

I realized that an oath could also be called a pledge, an affirmation, a vow, a (judicial) swearing, a statement, a promise and probably others I am not discovering, but that Week-Ender readers may want to bring up.

With that wider definition in mind, I started to look for examples of each that would apply to a large percentage--maybe even a majority--of us. Again, I was surprised at how many people swear to an oath of some kind in their lifetime.

Some of the examples I came up with are:

  • `The Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892 by a socialist minister, Francis Bellamy, intended to be used by citizens of any country but became uniquely American. It was different than today’s pledge, changing over the years. Think about how many people all over the U.S. say that oath to “pledge allegiance.” 
  • Affirmations are positive statements that describe a set of actions that are repeated often enough to impress them in the unconscious mind in order to attain a certain personal or group goal. Affirmations can be as simple as “I love and approve of myself” or as complicated as “I show my family how much I love them in all the verbal and non-verbal ways I can,” or as involved as “I will lose 50 pounds in the next year.” People using their power of positive thought may use affirmations without even realizing it.
  • A vow is a solemn promise taken to do a certain thing or to dedicate one’s self to something or someone. Marriage vows are a good example. There are also vows of secrecy, vows of silence, religious vows and, well, can anybody thing of other vows?
  • A swearing (not profanity!) is seen largely in the judicial realm, where people swear to tell the truth, or swear to act judiciously on a jury. The current military pledge--or oath of enlistment--starts out “I (name) do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution.”
  • Statements, promises and others; there are probably so many more that I am not mentioning. For example, youth sports have oaths for parents, participants, coaches and others. Local, state and national government officials take various vows and oaths. Journalists may operate guided by certain principles.

So when you broaden the definition of “oath,” you can see that a vast number of us have taken one, or more, at some point in our life. However, the thing about oaths is that no matter what form they take, they are only as valid or effective as the individual who takes it or group that backs it.

Over time, oaths can lose meaning from their original form, can change, and can become a rote process as prescribed by rules or procedures. Oaths can be reviewed regularly in order to ensure they are keeping pace with current reality; thus, they will change. 

However, oaths all have an origin that addressed a particular aspect of life at the time they were developed for a reason; their original form may not be contemporary, but I think that changes should not be made for change’s sake. Those who swear, affirm, promise or vow should understand exactly what they are doing, and why.

In my case a doctor who long ago took the Hippocratic Oath in some form or another chose, consciously or not, to live by those principles and do what was right for his patient. The result was life-saving and I will thank him every way I can for the rest of my life.

The thing about oaths is that, when they are based on a solid foundation and taken seriously by those who use them, they can change lives.

Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Bay Minette, AL; he can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email