The apparently happy ending of Sophocles’ Philoctetes has led many viewers and readers to overlook or underplay its deeply pessimistic implications for teaching, learning, and introspection, key themes of the play and topics of growing importance in Athens in the last decades of the fifth century BCE. The moral crisis of Neoptolemus has been well studied, as have the stages of his progress towards the good character he is supposed to have inherited from his father Achilles. Scholars have also reached a mostly convincing consensus about the resolution Heracles effects ex machina, emphasizing the role played by friendship, suffering, and healing, with the end result of socially productive heroism. This paper shows that the ending nevertheless remains more pessimistic, more “tragic,” than is generally recognized, and not just because of the dark allusion at 1440-4 to Neoptolemus’ future impiety. In Philoctetes’ under-appreciated final rhesis (1348-72), the play takes a close look at the possibilities of moral progress through reflection on the true self and suggests that this method ultimately fails. The speech forcefully reminds us that Neoptolemus remains divided against himself, while Philoctetes’ integrity cannot survive his removal to Troy.
In the first half of the speech, Philoctetes tries and fails to “see himself” accepting Neoptolemus’ well-meant advice. In studying it, I draw on recent work by Edward Jeremiah, who shows that imagining future misfortunes to oneself is an emerging “technique of care of self” (later called προενδημεῖν, literally “to inhabit in advance,” by the Stoic Posidonius) of which there are striking evocations in Euripidean tragedy (Jeremiah (2012) 179-80). The goal (for example, in Eur. fr. 964) is to inure oneself to the “bite” of the misfortunes when they actually occur, but Philoctetes cannot overcome the shame he anticipates on re-entering the public gaze (Soph. Phil. 1348-9, 1352-3, 1354-6, 1358-60). In the second half of his speech, Philoctetes unknowingly presents a convincing case that the one detail Neoptolemus is still withholding from him, that he never quarreled with Odysseus and has no reason to hate the leaders of the Greek army, fully undermines Neoptolemus’ integrity. It does not matter that Neoptolemus earlier recognized the “disgust” of abandoning his own nature (902-3) and soon afterwards felt the sting of Philoctetes’ challenge to “be in yourself” (950); the fact remains that when he speaks at 1373-5, he cannot disclose all of his motives, and thus his “true self,” to Philoctetes without revealing that he is still involved in Odysseus’ intrigue. The play’s optimistic discourse of teaching, learning, and finding one’s way, then, comes to a dead end at this point and is not revived either by Neoptolemus’ “Let’s go!” (1402) or Philoctetes’ “I shall not disobey” (1447). The former leads to “false closure” in response to Philoctetes’ intransigence, the second to “true closure” in response to Heracles’ authoritative μῦθοι, but the formal ambiguities of both leave open questions about the characters who speak them—questions not answered, in the case of Philoctetes, by his anapaestic farewell to Lemnos (1452-68), as argued by Schein (2013) in an otherwise insightful and balanced discussion.
With regard to Philoctetes, then, this paper accepts Jeremiah’s conclusion that “Tragedy delves into the negative implications of an emerging self, whether it be an individual who suffers for herself alone, the tension of individual self-determination with the sovereignty of the state, or the dangerous siren song of self-knowledge” (Jeremiah (2012) 192). Tragedy is generically disposed to exploit the potential for suffering in the split subject, the disjunction between the “I” who sees and the “self” that is seen. Moreover, the medium of drama has inherent advantages when it comes to representing the self in meaningful and memorable ways. At the same time, the “neo-Snellian” aspects of Jeremiah’s project call for caution. We can interpret the thought-worlds of individual plays without committing to sweeping historical claims about an emerging self.
Discourses of Greek Tragedy: Music, Natural Science, Statecraft, Ethics