You are here

The Ethics of Aisthēsis: The Meaning of Embodied Experience in the Philoctetes

Afroditi Angelopoulou

University of Southern California

The Philoctetes is remarkable for its emphasis on embodied experience. For example, the play is framed by the sense of hearing: it begins with Philoctetes’ repulsive, cacophonous cries that drove his community to expel him (9-11;201-18)—sounds that overwhelm internal as well as external audiences (see Worman 2000, 21-2; Nooter 2012, 125-6)—and ends with the ‘longed for’ sound of the voice of a trusted philos (1445: φθέγμα ποθεινόν). Further, scholars have underscored how touch and lack thereof significantly shape the dynamics of intersubjectivity in this drama (e.g., Kosak 1999; Kaimio 1988, 54-5). Building on these observations, I aim to show how the Philoctetes reflects extensively on the physical, epistemological and ethical dimension of aisthēsis as ‘sense,’ ‘sensation,’ ‘perception,’ ‘awareness,’ and ‘feeling.’ The central theme of deception is closely related to perception and its manipulation, partly effected through the equation of ‘seeing’ (ὁρᾶν), and more broadly ‘perceiving’ (αἰσθάνεσθαι), with ‘knowing’ (εἰδέναι, γιγνώσκειν). Accordingly, my argument is twofold: I first indicate how sensory experience plays an important part in shaping the characters’ perception of ethical reality. For instance, terms indicating sense perception overwhelm the prologue (16; 21;24;27-8; 29;39; 52-3; 75; 86; 94; 110; 119; 124), which concludes with Neoptolemus adopting an Odyssean lens through which to see things (108-22). At the same time, Philoctetes’ susceptibility to deception is partly grounded in his over-reliance on the senses (especially sight and hearing; e.g., 223; 234-5; 403-5: σύμβολον σαφές | λύπης… καί μοι προσᾴδεθ᾽ὥστε γιγνώσκειν). Yet by the end of the play trust is restored and moral repair starts to takes place— a process that, I suggest, presupposes the repair of aisthēsis, as Neoptolemus ‘sees’ (e.g., 839: ὁρῶ) and thus ‘begins to feel and understand’ a new reality (Segal 1995, 107). My second claim, therefore, is that the rehabilitation of aisthēsis is essential for the establishment of the bonds of philia between Philoctetes and Neoptolemus. The two men need to achieve a ‘together sensing’—what Aristotle called sunaisthanesthai (Eth. Eud. 1244b24-6; Eth. Nic. 1170b9-12), a mutual perception and awareness (Konstan 2019, 10), which forms the affective basis of ideal friendship. Neoptolemus’ ultimate task is to become Philoctetes’ suntrofon omma (171), his supporter (755: ξυμπαραστάτην), one who shares in the physical and mental burden of his philos (871). Co-presence, co-feeling (e.g., 806), and shared proximity (evinced in the reoccurrence of sun-compounds in the play) are crucial for the development of skillful embodied coordination: the two men begin to perform this rhythmic give-and-take and acting together, through which victory in the battlefield can be accomplished, so that they eventually become comrades— ‘like two lions feeding in the same pasture’ (1435:  λέοντε συννόμω). The Philoctetes thus dramatizes how sensory practices help create intercorporeality (e.g., 1066-7), which is essential for the establishment of fellowship and solidarity (see e.g., Meyer, Streeck and Jordan, 2017). This drama then constitutes a prime example of how moral restoration begins, first and foremost, with and from the body.

Session/Panel Title

Greek Tragedy (1)

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy