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The Kleos of Solitude in Sophocles’ Philoctetes

Emily Austin

University of Chicago

Isolation is central to the drama of Sophocles’ Philoctetes. Although major points of disagreement remain about, e.g., the integrity of the play’s ending (spurious/absurd: Kott, Poe; integral: Vidal-Naquet, Campbell, Easterling, Newman; cf. Schein [2013]) or the status of Neoptolemus as a deceiver, friend, and/or hero (Schmidt, Easterling, Segal; cf. Schein [2006]), the loneliness of the play’s eponymous hero is incontrovertible. Philoctetes’ loneliness has spurred fruitful investigations into the heroism of this character in light of his forced inactivity (Knox, Van Nortwick). The play has also been mined for insights into illness and health as such (Leder, Parham), and has even been used to help veterans process their experience of woundedness (“The Philoctetes Project”; cf. Meineck). This paper returns to Philoctetes’ loneliness, but from the unlikely angle of solitude’s fruitfulness. It takes seriously the play’s suggestions that his endurance of isolation will be his kleos, and situates this claim against the traditional understanding of glory stemming from the Iliadic tradition, as well as the various understandings of suffering in the Homeric poems and Athenian tragedy.

Philoctetes is proud of his capacity to endure unparalleled isolation. Where the other heroes of Troy seek excellence in battle for the sake of glorious renown, Philoctetes boasts of his own, private endurance of suffering, which surpasses the capacity of those who abandoned him on the island (Phil. 793-795); and which indeed goes beyond what any man alive could have endured (Phil. 534-538). Philoctetes’ boasts of endurance interweave with his tremendous desire for his pain to end, both the pain of his wound and of his isolation. Nevertheless, his boasts are real claims, which characterize his solitude as a place of unique possibility. Solitude’s capacity to allow the sufferer unparalleled opportunities for heroic endurance is an awful sort of capacity, but the play allows it to unite Philoctetes with Herakles, likening his solitude to the labors of Herakles, and explicitly linking that “toil of endurance” with kleos: “Know this well,” Herakles says, “You had to suffer this, / to make your life glorious (eukleā) through these toils” (Phil. 1418-1422).

Certain strands of the play’s reception cast Philoctetes’ experience in terms of what it affords him: the Stoics pick up on the link between suffering and glory (cf. Seneca’s Hercules Oetaeus), and a late 17th century text, The Adventures of Telemachus (Fénelon), present Philoctetes’ grief in terms of how it enables him to comfort fellow sufferers and win over friends (Book 9, 16; cf. Dugdale). But in the intensely public world of 5th century Athens, Philoctetes’ claims are a dramatic innovation in what we might call the “poetic discourse” on suffering (e.g., Achilles’ worldview in Iliad 24, the Hymn to Zeus in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon). Although he desperately wants to alleviate his loneliness, it is not simply the inevitable lot of mortal existence, or the path through which the gods deal out violent grace; loneliness is the substance of Philoctetes’ personal heroism and will confer on him unparalleled renown.

Session/Panel Title

The Powers and Perils of Solitude in Greek Literature

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