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Wounded HeroesVulnerability as a Virtue in Ancient Greek Literature and Philosophy$

Marina Berzins McCoy

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199672783

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2014

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199672783.001.0001

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Pity as a Civic Virtue in Sophocles’ Philoctetes

Pity as a Civic Virtue in Sophocles’ Philoctetes

(p.63) 3 Pity as a Civic Virtue in Sophocles’ Philoctetes
Wounded Heroes

Marina Berzins McCoy

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Chapter three examines Sophocles’ Philoctetes notion that the excluded and polluted one is central to the city’s good. Here, Sophocles develops a picture of Philoctetes as one who is not only physically but also emotionally wounded. His presence at an ‘in between’ space on Lemnos, literally at the margins of society, further develops a picture of human vulnerability, especially the suffering born from social exclusion. The figure of Neoptolemus and his internal struggles also develops two political virtues in the play: first, pity as a political virtue, and, second, the virtue of being able to accommodate unjust harm properly. These two political virtues both concern a proper responsiveness and care for vulnerability—not only care for the weak but also acceptance and care for one’s own city in light of the imperfections of political structures.

Keywords:   Sophocles, Philoctetes, Neoptolemus, Odysseus, Herakles, speech, wounds, war, pity, virtue, justice, injustice, politics, persuasion, rhetoric, civilization, community, friendship, bow, exclusion, pain, marginalization

The Philoctetes does not open with its main character, because at the start of the play, no dialogue is possible for him. The first word of the dialogue in Greek is ἀκτή‎, or shore, an appropriate beginning since Philoctetes himself belongs at the periphery, the edge, the space in between belonging to society—to which he naturally as a human being forms a part—and being an island to himself in his isolation on Lemnos. Lemnos is a large island west of Troy, and so it is somewhat surprising when Odysseus describes it as completely uninhabited, a place that no one even visits. Because of this isolation, we find Philoctetes to be someone in a place that is ‘in between’. Physically, he is entirely separated from his fellow comrades in arms with whom he willingly went to fight at Troy. He lacks the ability to speak with any other human being, to communicate. He is also excluded from the company of the gods, insofar as his treading on the sacred ground of Chryses, en route to Troy, is the cause of his oozing wound, and the ground of his subsequent exclusion from the company of his own men. At the same time, we know Philoctetes to be by nature a social man. While Odysseus himself is said to have feigned madness in order to avoid fighting in the war, Philoctetes went willingly, bringing seven armies with him. His bow and his subsequent military power, so highly sought after by Odysseus in this final year at Troy, are the result of a gift of Herakles. When Herakles desires to die to escape the intolerable pain of his poisoned cloak, it is Philoctetes who willingly sets the fire to the pyre after others refuse, allowing Herakles to escape his pain. Although he is severely wounded, Philoctetes’ empty cave nonetheless contains traces of civilization: a crudely carved wooden cup; a bed made of leaves; material for making a (p.64) fire; and especially Philoctetes’ bow, which allows him to slay birds and to survive off their meat. While isolated from the materiality and sociality of civilization, Philoctetes nonetheless endeavours to live a distinctively human life. The ‘shore’ is thus an image of Philoctetes himself, not only as in between island and world, but also as representative of someone who is located in between isolation and society, between brutishness and culture, between nature and civilization.

Sophocles presents not only Philoctetes’ physical wounds, but also his existence in this ‘in between’ space as that which grants him access into humanity in a special way possible for those at the margins. As a marginal figure, he belongs to both the human and the inhuman. As the shore is both sea and sand, Philoctetes is both social because human, and yet, denied the sociality that he craves. But what is important about Philoctetes is not only the fact of his wound. Surely his extreme physical pain matters to him, and at times occupies his attention to the exclusion of many things. But even for Philoctetes, this wound is only a figure of much deeper wounds suffered in his exclusion from society, from the company of fellow human beings. He knows his need for society, precisely through its being denied to him. Philoctetes eventually gains a deeper access to his humanity, precisely through others’ denial of it. His experience of longing for others opens him up to a deeper understanding of his own nature, by virtue of his lack. And it is this longing and need that lead another, Neoptolemus, to his growth in the political community. The vulnerable and wounded are not merely to be tolerated or accepted; rather, Sophocles presents Philoctetes’ weakness as contributing to the growth of Neoptolemus’ virtue, and to the growth of the political community.

In this chapter, I argue that Sophocles develops the notion of two political virtues: first, pity as a political virtue and, second, the virtue of being able to accommodate unjust harm properly. The vulnerability of individuals such as Philoctetes demands the need for both a kind of pity that verges on interpersonal compassion (as found in Neoptolemus), but also the ability to respond properly to unjust harm. Our own contemporary cultural tendency is to think of such musings about vulnerability and pity as private, as apolitical, as better suited to the realm of psychology than to the realm of politics. However, Sophocles presents Philoctetes’ physical and emotional woundedness (p.65) as a distinctively political problem. Neoptolemus is not simply engaged in an interpersonal relationship with Philoctetes; he is a political emissary who seeks to return Philoctetes to Troy. Odysseus is not presented only as an individual concerned with his own glory. In some ways, he stands for a fundamental problem in politics itself, namely, the tendency of politics to move toward dissembling and even ruthlessness in the working out of its larger goals. Odysseus and the Greeks wish to succeed in the war against Troy, and Philoctetes in his individuality is subsumed to that larger project and its demands. To this extent, Odysseus and his lies possess a kind of ‘reasonableness’, from the point of view of achieving ‘greater’ political ends. Thus, Neoptolemus must work out for himself how to reconcile his care for Philoctetes and for moral integrity, against the demands of his political world. Philoctetes must learn how to accommodate the past harm done to him, in the light of Odysseus’ refusal to express sorrow, into his own citizenship as part of an imperfect Greek community.


Odysseus initially describes Philoctetes to Neoptolemus primarily as one who cries, who makes noise. He claims that Philoctetes was abandoned because his ‘savage cries (ἀγρίαις‎) and ill-omened words (δυσφημίαις‎)’ kept interrupting sacrifices (9–10). Indeed, the Chorus and Neoptolemus discover Philoctetes by his constant cries, so that we might expect to find a wild man, a savage, in that first encounter. But instead of wildness, we find something else entirely. Philoctetes’ first sounds, once he encounters men again, are not screams, but a speech; in fact, he gives a speech about speeches. Philoctetes pleads that the others speak to him (he is especially hopeful from their clothing that it will be in Greek, which he can understand) because primary to his own healing is communication:

Strangers (ξένοι‎)! Who are you? Who are you that have landed in this place without good mooring or inhabitants? Of what homeland are you, and what family might I be right to say? The style of your clothing is Greek, always beloved to me. I want to hear your voice (φωνῆς‎). Don’t shrink in dread from my wildness, but pity me a man miserable, alone, abandoned, friendless. (p.66) Speak, if you have arrived in friendship. Answer me, for it is not appropriate that I should miss (ἁμαρτεῖν‎) this from you or you from me. (219–31)1

Philoctetes asks a whole series of questions, questions that demand answers, and whose answers demand an expression of identity: the speakers’ home, ethnicity, language, and whether their presence is one of friendship or not. Every one of these first questions posed by Philoctetes expresses the need for society in both content and in form: the content concerns the social nexus into which his visitors belong, and whether Philoctetes in some way belongs to that same nexus, as Greek or friend; but the form of speaking itself for Philoctetes is also already connective; and his question as a question is connective, or at least desirous of connection. Questions are speech acts that embody longing of some sort—whether the longing for an answer to a problematic philosophical question, or the longing for the contact of speech itself, a question is an invitation to another person, or to the world, to offer some kind of an answer. A question is an expression of not-yet-having what one desires, of lack, of need. Philoctetes is a needy man, and is far past the point of denying his neediness. For him, that they would somehow miss one another (ἁμαρτεῖν‎) is beyond what is reasonable for a man to endure; the use of ἁμαρτεῖν‎ here gives us the sense that it would be almost a moral or religious failing.

When Neoptolemus offers the briefest of answers, ‘Stranger (ξέν´‎), know first that we are Greeks (232),’ Philoctetes makes no effort to hide his joy in finding this moment of connection, exclaiming, ‘What beloved sound (φίλτατον φώνημα‎)! Alas! To receive (λαβεῖν‎) a greeting from such a man after such a long time!’ (234–5). The sound of the Greek is a ‘beloved’ experience for him, because of the fellowship that it offers, the possibility of meaningful exchange, the experience of gift and giver, of reception and recipient making a return of the gift of the word, in each reply. Philoctetes is deeply aware of the giftedness of the word, of λόγος‎, almost exuberant with its joy.

(p.67) Philoctetes’ eager desire for speech is matched only by Neoptolemus’ hesitance to engage in speech, a hesitancy that I think we can fairly attribute to two causes: first, Odysseus has warned Neoptolemus that Philoctetes may be resentful of Odysseus or anyone associated with him. The image he has conveyed to Neoptolemus is to be careful not to be shot at with the powerful bow. Second, Neoptolemus has been sent by Odysseus to use deceitful speech to trick Philoctetes into handing over the bow, but Neoptolemus from the beginning finds such a use of speech to lack nobility and goodness. He is most hesitant to begin speaking, because of the possibility that words may be used for deception, not friendship, to steal, rather than to make a gift. We find then, in these earliest exchanges between Philoctetes and Neoptolemus, a prefiguring of a choice Neoptolemus himself will have to make about the proper use of speech in response to his encounter with Philoctetes’ woundedness.

Speech, especially persuasive speech, will be a central topic of this play, and here we see the necessity of speech for a human being at its most elemental. At its most basic level, speech presumes contact, and the play’s concern centres around two interrelated issues: first, the narrower issue as to whether false persuasive speech for the sake of a just goal (such as the defeat of Troy) is an acceptable means to that end, and second, the broader issue as to what speech ought to communicate.2 For Neoptolemus, his own development is to regard speech not only as a means of effecting action, but more importantly, as a communication of the self, or of two selves to one another. Neoptolemus’ window into the need of speech to be interpersonal, an authentic communication of one person to another, arises (eventually) from his contact with one who has so long been deprived of such communication. It is Philoctetes’ lack that will expose his neediness for communication to Neoptolemus, and so also communicate a larger truth about speech to him. Neoptolemus learns that speech is that which connects persons, and is not only a means of accomplishing goals, as Odysseus would have it. To this extent, Neoptolemus preserves his natural inclination toward speech that is measured by virtue, rather than political efficacy; his encounter with Philoctetes (p.68) reinforces his understanding of justice and virtue as central to good speech.3 Philoctetes’ need, and even his pain, are what assist Neoptolemus in growing in his understanding of speech as requiring a care for virtue. Neoptolemus’ sympathy for Philoctetes allows him to resist an understanding of speech as oriented exclusively toward political efficacy, instead moving him to understand speech as oriented toward building political community and friendship.

When Neoptolemus feigns ignorance of Philoctetes’ story, Philoctetes seeks to communicate it. His self-understanding is not merely that he is wounded, but he says that his comrades abandoned him (267). To be sure, Philoctetes’ wound itself is painful, but his suffering comes from his understanding of himself as abandoned, desolate, left alone with no one to witness the pain, let alone to share in it with him, even through a minimal act of sympathy, as an experience of choosing to take on and experience some portion of pain with another. This idea of being known, his pain being witnessed, is apparent in his deep disappointment that Neoptolemus has not even heard his story. Part of the suffering, to be sure, is simply the absence of human contact, and his sorrow that he is not even missed enough for stories to be told about him. But the suffering from abandonment in this case is worse, for the very reason for his being abandoned is that his pain was too much for the other Greeks to bear. It was, for them, an interruption, a disturbance of their senses of smell and sound. However, perhaps his cries also disrupted the others precisely because they did call forth a certain shared feeling, a feeling-with Philoctetes of extreme discomfort, that could not be ignored, or put away, except by putting him away. So while Philoctetes is in pain, he suffers less from the wounded leg than from the wounds of rejection, from the judgement and evaluation that his pain is too much to bear, that the community will not bear his pain along with him. Philoctetes becomes identified not as a man who has pain, but as pain, as the one who cries and disturbs the order. His identity becomes submerged in his being ‘the wounded one’, when for Philoctetes, he is still a Greek, a warrior, the (p.69) one who mastered the bow of Herakles, the one who was willing to fight for his fellow men. He does not wish to be defined entirely by his pain, but ironically, in being cast out from society, is left with little else except his pain, through the exclusion of all the rest.

Philoctetes survives—just barely—because he is able to crawl out and to find food, to hunt with the bow, and to create fire. He says, ‘When there was no fire, striking stone against stone, I’d bring to light the hidden spark (ἔφην´ἄφαντον φῶς‎), which always saved me’ (296–7). Philoctetes’ three technologies available to him are fire, shelter, and the bow.4 These are his only bridge to civilization, as well as his means of survival, when deprived of the culture and society of others. In Sophocles’ Greece, when a new colony was founded, a symbolic fire was taken from the public hearth of the Prytaneum, to the new city, and used to light its hearth. In the light of this tradition, we might imagine the importance of fire in the Greek understanding of a public space. Philoctetes has a private fire, which he must strike anew each time, and is deprived of the public hearth, the fire of the city that burns for the whole community, and not only a private home. Still, the presence of fire is more than a mere necessity for him, and serves as a reminder of the civilization that he has left behind.

Herakles’ bow is also representative of Philoctetes’ middle place between solitary existence and civilization, for its original purpose in being with him was for use in the Trojan War. As such, his bow was intended to serve him as a warrior and as an ally in the Greek agreement to defend the guest–host relationship. On the isolated island, however, Philoctetes’ bow is primarily an instrument that can bring him food, in the absence of the physical ability to work the ground and grow food. Instead of fighting Trojans, he is killing birds. His bow is also his last remaining vestige of his power; it is the sole reason that Odysseus returns for Philoctetes and wishes to bring him back. As Segal argues, the bow connects Philoctetes to the divine; in the absence of wine, he was unable to perform sacrifices to the gods while on Lemnos, but his bow was invested with Herakles’ greatness and becomes almost a ‘talisman’ of the dead king.5 The bow soon also becomes a sign of friendship between Neoptolemus and Philoctetes, when the latter allows the young man to hold it and even to protect it, (p.70) as a sign of his trust in their bond. By its very structure, a bow is connective; in its exchange between the two men, the bow also becomes a symbol of their connection. Thus, the bow connects Philoctetes to the divine Herakles, but also back again to the social and political world through Neoptolemus.

Rather quickly into their conversation, Philoctetes receives the experience of connection and of empathy that he desires, but in the form of a deception. Neoptolemus seeks to gain Philoctetes’ trust and confidence by suggesting that they share a common enemy among the leaders of Troy. He tells the story of how Odysseus denied him the armour that had belonged to his father, Achilles, and emphasizes his own anger at Odysseus’ lack of honour. The psychological aim of such a story is to ally himself with the wounded man through a kind of reverse empathy. Neoptolemus presents himself as one with whom Philoctetes can sympathize. He presents himself as if he were the one in need; rather than directly sympathizing with Philoctetes, Neoptolemus engages him by drawing him into his own false story. Philoctetes can identify with the story insofar as he can see himself, or aspects of himself, within it. Thus, in this act of sympathizing with the false Neoptolemus, Philoctetes is, in a way, sympathizing with himself. His own pain is put on display for him, albeit in a modified form. He is both the suffering one, and the one witnessing the suffering, through this story of anguish similar to his being placed before him in the story of Neoptolemus. Through the other’s narrative, he can understand something of his own suffering, and find relief in its being shared by another. Thus, the tragedy exhibits for us the ways in which the witnessing to pain, and sharing in it, to some extent lightens its load for those who suffer, and can even draw them into a mutual fellowship. As the final chapter of this book will argue, such mediation and sharing of suffering is also key to the audience’s experience of tragedy, an experience that makes possible sympathy not only between audience and characters, but also even between the members of the audience.

Neoptolemus’ account of his own suffering resonates with Philoctetes (343–90). The most obvious resonance rests upon their shared sense of anger with Odysseus, who is supposedly responsible for denying him his father Achilles’ armour, a typical gift for a son after his father’s death. But his story sets forth other elements present in Philoctetes’ life, too: Neoptolemus feels the loss of his father, and his separation from the one he loves, as does Philoctetes feel strongly (p.71) the separation from his people. Odysseus has supposedly told Neoptolemus that the reason he may not have Achilles’ armour is that ‘You were not with us, but instead somewhere else, where you shouldn’t have been’ (379). But this sentence also articulates perfectly Philoctetes’ perception of his own situation with respect to Troy: that he cannot share in the glory of war, because he is somewhere else, and should not be. Lemnos for Philoctetes is hardly even a place, for the island is not defined by any people; when he leaves, he says that he is leaving behind a ‘dwelling’, but not a ‘home’. Just as in Homer, Odysseus is οὔτις‎, nobody, and no one, on the island of the Cyclops, when denied the presence of a civilized community, Philoctetes can see his own location only as ‘somewhere else’; he is nowhere and somewhere all at once.

Philoctetes begs Neoptolemus not to leave him by making himself a suppliant. In asking a question, a person makes himself somewhat vulnerable to another person or to reality itself, in admitting a need for something he lacks, and his desire to have that which he does not yet possess. Supplication is an even more intensive expression of lack or need. The Greek verb for supplication, ἱκετέυω‎, is specific to a ritualized set of practices that place a supplicant into a specific relation to the one whom he supplicates. As Naiden has demonstrated, the difference between a supplication to a god and a prayer is that in supplication, the god must be present (as in an epiphany), while prayer is possible when the god is not literally present.6 Thus, supplication always implies asking for an immediate response, in a way that prayer need not; it is a two-way social act. Here, Philoctetes supplicates not only to get the goal he wants (to leave Lemnos), but also to continue social interaction (the supplication itself assures that he will not be alone, so long as the conversation and act of supplication continues). His supplication is an expression of his desire for home, and of his loneliness in dreading the possibility of yet another abandonment.

In kneeling or grasping the knees of another, a supplicant makes himself vulnerable to the other, by displaying in physical posture his weakness compared to the one he is approaching (kneeling, or lowering oneself expresses one’s lower station, but also makes one vulnerable to attack from above). His verbal request, accompanied by (p.72) the physical gesture, is desperate. He explicitly asks Neoptolemus to take pity (ἐλέησον‎) on him (501). (At other times, Philoctetes uses the term οἶκτος‎ for pity; οἶκτος‎ might better be rendered as something like pity/grief as it expresses elements of lamentation as well as pity; when Aristotle discusses pity, he restricts himself entirely to the term ἔλεος‎.7)

Konstan’s work on the nature of pity in Greek and Roman thought briefly attends to Philoctetes. As part of his analysis of the Aristotelian concept of pity, Konstan points out that Aristotle requires vulnerability to suffering as a condition of pity. Aristotle writes that there are two sorts of people that are unlikely to feel pity: those who have lost everything, for they are not likely to fear the possibility of losing anything further; and those who are extremely fortunate, for they are not likely to believe that they might suffer the same sort of experience as the one who is now suffering (Rhetoric 2. 8). In other words, Aristotle makes as a condition of experiencing pity my ability to identify myself as capable of being in the same or a similar situation. On the one hand, to have pity for another requires that we have different current fortunes (if we are both sharing the same affliction, it is not pity, but something more like commiseration); on the other hand, I need to be able to imagine myself into the position in which you are. For this reason, Aristotle suggests that most often we are capable of pity for those who are more like us in age, station in life, or character.8 We must also understand ourselves as vulnerable, and so as like the other who asks for our pity.

At the same time, pity is distinct from sympathy, in which the emotion is more closely shared between two people. Konstan shows that fairly consistently in Greek literature, the term pity (οἶκτος‎) is excluded from reference to family members’ feelings for one another, and for the emotions of friends who witness one other’s suffering. Pity requires a certain emotional distance, a continued stance of being a bit of an observer, rather than simply one who suffers the same as the one pitied, while sympathy (συμπάθεια‎, a term that arises only after the classical period) or other terms such as συναλγεῖν‎ (to feel pain with) or συλυπήσομαι‎ (to feel pain or grieve with) connote a (p.73) deeper sharing of the experience that we might expect in friendship or familial relationships.9

We might ask, then, what allows Neoptolemus to take pity on Philoctetes, what in his character, experience, or disposition opens up the possibility of pity that also moves him to action, when Philoctetes’ comrades had abandoned him as a reaction to his wound and his cries. Of course, Neoptolemus and Odysseus have come for Philoctetes’ bow, so that the Trojan War might be won. However much this is a part of Neoptolemus’ own motivation, in his reluctant agreement that they must deceive Philoctetes, eventually the ‘better part’ of Neoptolemus wins out, the part of Neoptolemus that understands good speech to be virtuous, and not only effective. Good speech in this case also means being responsive to Philoctetes as a man, not only as the possessor of the bow; that is, Neoptolemus understands Philoctetes’ dignity as a human being to be more significant than his status as possessor of the weapon that must be had in order to win Troy.10 We see the natural pity that Philoctetes incurs as a human being even in the Chorus’ response to him as one of pity (317–18).

The use of the character of Neoptolemus as the one sent to retrieve Philoctetes is a Sophoclean innovation. While little is known of the Aeschylean and Euripidean versions of the play, aside from a first-century critical essay by Dio Chrysostom, we do know that Sophocles alone has Neoptolemus be Philoctetes’ primary relationship on Lemnos; in both Aeschylus and Euripides, the conflict centres around Odysseus and his relation to Philoctetes.11 This dramatic innovation allows Sophocles to explore the significance of natural sympathy between human beings as the ground for a political bond. Neoptolemus has no direct connection to Philoctetes aside from being a Greek of noble class, and yet, his interpersonal bond to Philoctetes is profound as a result of their mutual encounter with his pain.

(p.74) The turning point for Neoptolemus seems to be neither entreaties to be pious, nor the praise of his good character heaped upon him, not even Philoctetes’ claim that Neoptolemus is a ‘friend’ (φίλος‎), though we might imagine that these words prepare the ground for Neoptolemus’ renunciation of his deceitful rhetoric. Instead, Philoctetes’ cries of pain, when an episode of especially acute suffering comes upon him, deeply affect Neoptolemus. As Philoctetes cries out both for relief from the pain, and for protection for his sacred bow (the only thing of worth to him aside from a pain-soothing herb), Neoptolemus exclaims that he feels Philoctetes’ pain along with him and has been concerned for his troubles this whole time (806). In the midst of this pain, Philoctetes begs for Neoptolemus to light a fire to burn him, so that he might escape his pain (800–1), just as Philoctetes had once done for Herakles.12 While Neoptolemus ignores this request, he does give his oath that he will wait and will not leave without Philoctetes (813). When the wounded man falls asleep, Neoptolemus is faced with the possibility of recapitulating the previous episode in which Odysseus and his men abandoned him on the island (while he slept); but while the Chorus suggests that this is the most advantageous time for a clean get away now that he has the bow in hand, Neoptolemus remains. His reason is: ‘I see (ὁρῶ‎) that the hunt for the bow is in vain if we sail without him. For he is the one who must have the garland. He is the one that the god told us to bring back (κομίζειν‎)’ (839–41).

Philoctetes’ suffering produces a clear decision on Neoptolemus’ part to bring back not only the bow, but also the man (whereas Odysseus thought stealing the bow to be the wisest course of action). While his reasons to the Chorus are that the mission includes taking back Philoctetes, not just the bow, as soon as the wounded man awakens, Neoptolemus can no longer contain his ambivalence over his next course of action. His increased rational understanding of Philoctetes as a man whose dignity must be respected, lest he deserve shame and disgrace, stems from an emotional, not simply purely rational, encounter with the man.13 That is, Sophocles presents this (p.75) young man’s moral growth, and understanding of the right moral action to take with Philoctetes stems in part from a proper emotional response (feeling pity) to the suffering man. While Neoptolemus from the beginning suggests that it is not in his nature (ἔφυν‎) to plot against others (88–9), his nature (φύσις‎ ) can only be developed and brought to fruition through an encounter with the one who suffers. He also must reconcile Odysseus’ claim that the oracle demands the return of Philoctetes with the question of the man’s freedom; that is, he must try to understand piety better.14 Thus, the political problem of how to get Philoctetes back into the community and back to Troy, so that the Greeks may be victorious, requires an interpersonal, sympathetic encounter that allows Neoptolemus to grow morally. Such moral growth includes a proper emotional, as well as rational, component.

Indeed, one might say that Neoptolemus’ moral growth comes to fruition when he is able to unify the emotional and rational elements within that have so far been in conflict, without excluding the complexity of their demands. Odysseus seems to rely solely on his judgement that piety and justice require that the bow be taken; he excludes compassion from his moral compass, or even to avoid internal conflict. In contrast, Neoptolemus’ experience of pity significantly informs his exercise of reason, for the experience of witnessing the suffering man leads to his reasoned judgement that the proper moral response is to abide by his promise and to return the bow to Philoctetes. He manages to integrate his reasoned judgement about the best course of action with his affective response to the man. Neither Philoctetes nor Odysseus seems to manage such integration of feeling and reason: Odysseus excludes compassion, but Philoctetes seems completely under the sway of his immediate feelings, unable to consider the demands of political obligation. Philoctetes, too, must come to terms with his vulnerability, though differently from Neoptolemus.

(p.76) II

Philoctetes is initially overjoyed when he awakes to find himself still surrounded by others, but Neoptolemus expresses confusion, disgust, and even pain in trying to discern what next to choose (see 911–21). Neoptolemus even uses the Greek term παπαῖ‎, the same exclamation that Philoctetes had earlier used when he was in pain, suggesting that Neoptolemus’ pain over his own moral failing mirrors the physical pain that Philoctetes had experienced; it exhibits itself as much more than regret, or worry, but as taking on a physical, gut-wrenching quality (compare 895 and 785–6). Neoptolemus explains, ‘It’s not that I am leaving you, but rather I am sending you somewhere that will cause you distress. This is what’s been grieving me (ἀνιῶμαι‎) for so long’ (912–13). His agony is understandable, for Neoptolemus must consider not only the justice and nobility of his actions towards Philoctetes, but also the question of piety. Odysseus has argued that if Neoptolemus obeys Odysseus he will nevertheless still be called ‘the most pious of mortals’ (εὐσεβέστατος βροτῶν‎) (85). While it is conceivable that Odysseus is simply claiming that one shameless act will not stand in the way of Neoptolemus’ reputation for piety, if we take Odysseus to have a genuine concern for piety, then he might understand piety as demanding obedience to the oracle (83–5). Even so, Odysseus’ sense of piety is subservient to his sense of his own glory and victory; it is Neoptolemus who is left struggling to reconcile the multiple demands of piety, politics, natural pity, and nobility.15

Philoctetes, understandably, feels betrayed, and demands the return of his bow. Here, we especially see how the bow has taken on the significance of a sign of friendship between them. Just as Herakles had offered it to Philoctetes not only as a reward for his relief from pain, but also as a sign of their connection to one another,16 (p.77) Philoctetes had allowed Neoptolemus to touch it as a sign of their friendship, a connection which had relieved much of the wounded man’s pain of isolation. The bow is not only Philoctetes’ only way to survive, in his lameness and inability to grow food for himself; more significantly, it is a sign of his honour and his strength. Traditionally, Herakles himself received the bow from Apollo;17 this bow, then, is also a sign of the friendship between the gods and human beings; but Philoctetes’ frequent expressions of doubt as to the justice and care of the gods suggest his bow may be one of the last concrete signs of that divine–human care. In choosing to hand over this bow to Neoptolemus, he makes himself much more vulnerable than he had been before; in feeling betrayed in his moment of trust and vulnerability, he demands that the main sign of his vulnerable friendship with Neoptolemus be returned to him (924).

The moment of betrayal arises not in Neoptolemus’ claim that the Greeks need the bow, but rather in his admission that his stories thus far have been a lie: the violation of trust experienced in deception is as significant for Philoctetes as the potential loss of the bow itself. Philoctetes’ angry reaction to the betrayal is understandable, for while Philoctetes could have chosen differently, out of his great need and loneliness, he chose to open himself in friendship to Neoptolemus. One might imagine, for example, an alternative story of a man abandoned on an island because of his wound, who grows to hate others, to reject humanity in others and even in himself as a result of the rejection that he had experienced. Or imagine Philoctetes, after ten years, turned entirely to non-human concerns, separating himself from his humanity through a reserved asceticism. Philoctetes might reasonably have been distrustful of the strangers who arrived on his island, assuming that these human beings, too, were likely to bring him harm. Instead, Philoctetes lays himself bare to them in his need, hiding none of his suffering, neither his physical pain, nor his desire for friendship, community, and truth. Sophocles presents Philoctetes as far more willingly vulnerable than in the (p.78) Euripidean version of the play in which, Dio tells us, Philoctetes’ first response to Odysseus’ arrival and proclamation that he is a Greek is that he will shoot any Greek he meets with his bow.18 This Philoctetes is aware of the dangers, but willing to encounter them. He chooses to react to his pain by willingly ‘staying with’ his neediness and vulnerability, in trusting Neoptolemus after Odysseus’ prior betrayal, only to find that the two of them have been deceiving him all along. Philoctetes repeatedly uses language that indicates he feels a fatherly connection to Neoptolemus, whom he speaks of in terms that might be used of a son: through much of the play, Philoctetes calls him παῖς‎, or τέκνον‎ (more than fifty-two times in all).19 It is no wonder that Philoctetes says that Neoptolemus is taking his life and that he is ‘nothing, the ill-fated one (ὁ δύσμαρος‎)’ (931; 951). Philoctetes had used his very last strength to decide to engage openly and wholeheartedly with those who promised him relief, even abasing himself in supplication, only to find that Neoptolemus’ treasured words were only lies.20

At the same time, Philoctetes defines himself too much in terms of his own victimhood; his many years on the island in isolation have led to an element of bitterness and resentment easily triggered by others’ actions. He understands himself too much as a passive recipient of others’ actions and not enough as an active agent in the world. Philoctetes wishes to curse Neoptolemus, failing to recognize the complexity of the demands that Neoptolemus faces, in the youth’s struggle to reconcile obedience to his superiors, piety, and care for Philoctetes. Still, even here, kindheartedness inherent in the man remains beneath his sense of victimhood, as he says, ‘Curse you (ὄλοιο‎)—but not yet, before I learn whether you might again change your mind (γνώμην μετοίσεις‎)’ (961–2). His desire for goodness in Neoptolemus, for goodness in the humanity that Neoptolemus has come to symbolize, is so strong that, even now, he awaits a change of heart on the youth’s part.

Neoptolemus does not disappoint, and the young man is remarkably open in discussing his own feelings of pity, confusion, and (p.79) oppression. Philoctetes consoles him, suggesting that Neoptolemus is not a bad person, but has been taught by evil men. Here, again, we see the Sophoclean use of the language of virtue, a language that focuses on the good of character as necessarily linked to persuasion, rather than the efficacy of words as central to the good life. Philoctetes asks for the peaceful return of the bow and to be left alone. At this moment, Odysseus appears, unmoved and inflexible in his demand that both the bow and Philoctetes come with him. Philoctetes releases all his anger on Odysseus, challenging him for his reasons for abandonment (since, now that it serves his purposes, his cries and the smell of his wound are no longer reasons for separation). Philoctetes curses Odysseus with the curse that he had considered laying on Neoptolemus. Odysseus responds by saying he will then leave with the bow, and take the glory of defeating Troy for himself. Here again, Odysseus misses the point, seeing neither the bow’s significance as an inheritance from the gods, nor as a bond of friendship, but simply as an instrument of war; once again, efficacy is foremost in Odysseus’ mind.21 In a moment of real cowardice, Neoptolemus does not act counter to Odysseus’ demands.

Philoctetes bemoans his situation, and falls into despair, as his missing bow is also his only source for food. The Chorus entreats him to join the ship before it departs, insisting, ‘know that it is up to you to escape death’ (1166). But the difficulty of this choice for Philoctetes is understandable, for to rejoin the ship is to accede completely to his enemy’s demands, to endure further humiliation, and to again make himself even more vulnerable than he is in his isolation. To return is to resume a place in a community where other men who have treated him with so little care, most often with a concern for convenience. Philoctetes eventually expresses a wish to commit suicide, so lost is he in his sense of the inevitability of his isolation, lack of power, and his feelings of betrayal. Just as he asks for a weapon such as an axe with which to complete the deed, (p.80) Neoptolemus arrives, running and out of breath, to return the bow. Instead of being given a weapon to end his own life, Philoctetes receives this sign of power and of friendship, not only restoring him the means of survival, but also restoring his honour (along with Neoptolemus’ own sense of his dignity). The bow takes the place of the axe. Neoptolemus defies Odysseus, insisting that the justice of this act is more significant than any strategic advantage for Troy in owning the bow. Even when Odysseus threatens that the whole Greek army will come after the young man if he returns the bow, Neoptolemus stands firm in his belief that it is just to return it.

Here Neoptolemus stands in the same position to Philoctetes as Philoctetes once stood in relation to Herakles. Philoctetes seeks to repeat history, in asking Neoptolemus to end his suffering and pain; his initial choice of hurling himself into a volcano even repeats the motif of death by fire.22 As Kirkwood phrases it, ‘Philoctetes is heir not only to the bow but to the suffering of Heracles.’23 But Neoptolemus will not light the pyre, so to speak; instead, his return of the bow seeks to move Philoctetes not away from, but back to, the political community of the Greeks. The return of the bow is not a return to stasis, but rather an acknowledgement of Philoctetes’ dignity in being free to choose, or not to choose, to return to fight at Troy. Thus, Neoptolemus rejects both force and forceful persuasion, in favour of a form of persuasion that acknowledges Philoctetes’ human freedom. But this transition back to society is not easy for Philoctetes.

Neoptolemus not only returns the bow and arrows, but also stays the bow when Philoctetes tries to kill the approaching Odysseus. As a mediating figure, Neoptolemus here represents a mean between two extremes, advocating neither betrayal of the sort that Odysseus planned for the sake of defeating Troy, nor the simple vengeance of anger. While Neoptolemus fails to be persuaded by Odysseus’ manipulations (outright humiliating Odysseus at one point; see 1292–5), Neoptolemus also insists that such a vengeful act will not bring Philoctetes any honour.

And to this extent, Neoptolemus is acknowledging the possibility of honour, of a return of social status, and of the importance of a place in the community for Philoctetes. That is, simply by saying that honour (p.81) must be a concern for Philoctetes, Neoptolemus reintroduces the possibility of an orientation to the world that is not limited to victimhood, or even the place of a supplicant. He offers the exiled man something better than being a victim, even something better than being rescued, which is to be returned to a moral status in the community where his honour is up to himself again. Such a world view also seeks to reconcile the multiple demands of nobility, friendship, piety, and political expediency, insofar as he challenges Philoctetes to willingly take up his divinely given task, not out of subservience to the Greeks who have harmed him, but out of a sense of his own responsibility for honour.

Neoptolemus then offers mature advice well beyond his years, in suggesting that Philoctetes must leave his sense of injury behind. Of course, Philoctetes’ feelings are understandable, after ten years of rejection and separation, and then re-experiencing the same trauma when Odysseus returns and again betrays him. However, Neoptolemus tells him that ‘Those who willingly (ἑκουσίοισιν‎) wrap themselves in their pain (ἔγκεινται βλάβαις‎), just like you, it is not right either to excuse or to feel compassion for’ (1318–20). Neoptolemus cannot mean the wounded leg, for this wound was entirely accidental, and so far is incurable. Instead, the ‘self-inflicted injury’ that Philoctetes continues to experience is his living in accordance with his own vision of himself as a victim of both physical and emotional, even spiritual, injury. Neoptolemus lays out the facts: ‘You will never find rest from this heavy sickness so long as the sun rises and sets again, unless you go to the plain of Troy freely (ἑκὼν‎), meet with the sons of Asclepius there, and be relieved of this sickness (νόσου‎)’ (1330–4).

It is not that Philoctetes is inaccurate about the depth of his mistreatment by the others. The abandonment he experienced, the betrayals of being left alone on Lemnos, and then deceived in an effort only to gain his weapon, are indeed real betrayals and losses, which reflect poorly on Odysseus and those who support his manipulations. The gods have not done much to assist the wounded Philoctetes until now. But Neoptolemus’ point is that Philoctetes chooses to see himself in the light of these others’ visions of him: as sick, as too noisy in his cries; as useless to the war; as a victim to be pitied. His choice to reside in the place that these others have ‘given’ to him is no longer enforced by his physical isolation, but can be overcome by a choice to go to Troy. To do so from a position of strength requires that Philoctetes abandon his view of himself as victim, and return to (p.82) Troy. To some extent, he must also move past his image of himself as the inheritor of Herakles’ pain along with the bow, and understand his unique place in history, distinct from that of Herakles. Thus, Neoptolemus says he must return not only to be healed of the wound, but also to fight and to be ‘revealed as the one who sacked’ Troy (1335). Through Neoptolemus’ imagined vision of who Philoctetes really is, or who he might choose to become, Philoctetes gains a new perspective on himself, and does leave his sense of himself as victim behind.

In abandoning his view of himself as victim, Philoctetes does not leave behind his vulnerability, his capacity to be wounded. Indeed, his return to society is also a return to social vulnerability. Philoctetes does not replace his vision of himself as the wounded one with a view of himself as invincible, nor does he pretend that no wrongs have been done to him. As he mulls over the question of whether to embark on the ship, the question of whether to rejoin society (realistically, his only chance to do so), he expresses his fear that his vulnerability to future harm remains: ‘it’s not the pain of what’s bygone that bites (δάκνει‎) at me, but what it is necessary to suffer from these people, as I think about what is still to come’ (1358–60). And Philoctetes is completely right; not only does return not guarantee his safety, but also, he is rather accurate about some of his comrades’ deficiencies, and the evils that might befall him in rejoining their company. He ought not to be naive in supposing that betrayal of trust is not a possibility; he has experienced too much betrayal to know that it might even be likely. His deepest longing is to go not to Troy, but to retreat, and to go home … or to remain isolated in his suffering.24 To some extent, his vulnerability to society and possibility of rejection begins when he leaves Lemnos, and must participate in political, social, and military actions with those who betrayed him. That is, Philoctetes must accept the limitations of the political realm and the reality of its inherent tensions between care for virtue and the necessity of political expediency.

From all of this, Neoptolemus learns not only a general truth that the vulnerable man has a place in the community. More specifically, Neoptolemus learns another virtue, one that concerns the proper way to respond to unjust harm. As Achilles’ son, Neoptolemus has in his (p.83) father one model for how to respond to being harmed by others in the community (in Achilles’ case, the taking of his prized Briseis). Achilles reacts first by withdrawing from that community and later by re-entering the war with rage at all who encounter him. Achilles’ rage is one extreme response to suffering harm unjustly. At the other extreme is Philoctetes’ desired withdrawal from the body politic. Philoctetes’ response to the harm suffered by the Greeks is initially to wish to return home, and to leave behind those who had abandoned him. Neoptolemus chooses to encourage a middle path in Philoctetes: neither to retreat altogether, nor to respond in anger, but rather to return to the community with a realistic, but open, sense of his role within it. Philoctetes, must learn to suffer harm at the hands of others in the proper way: not to overlook it, but also to participate in that community despite its shortcomings and the contingent nature of harm. Through the process of finding a way to bring Philoctetes back into the community, Neoptolemus himself learns that part of political virtue is to know how to suffer harm appropriately, i.e. to know that suffering from experiences that do not fit into a perfect model of justice is part of ordinary political life.

Ultimately, Neoptolemus chooses to make virtue a part of politics, against mere political efficacy.25 In contrast to the false merchant, who says that either force or persuasive λόγοι‎ must be used to bring Philoctetes to Troy, Neoptolemus asks about why those who deserted the man now want to bring him back: ‘What longing (πόθος‎) has come to them? What force and vengeance (νέμεσις‎) from the gods, who punish evil deeds?’ (601–3)26

Neoptolemus reintroduces the question of proper moral motive as part of political solution. Still, Neoptolemus and Philoctetes alike must grow to understand that the political order will never allow for the complete moral reconciliation of the sort that Philoctetes desires, i.e. sorrow from Odysseus and the rendering of justice for past harms from the other Greeks. For the nature of politics always includes a concern with the necessary, the useful, the expedient; part of human virtue is to know how to accept such limitations in order to (p.84) continue to participate in the everyday human world. Herakles’ speech serves as a reminder of the importance of larger social and political needs beyond Neoptolemus’ interpersonal relationships. Neoptolemus manages to balance such concerns without abandoning the moral claims made on him, and without ignoring friendship with Philoctetes in favour of political efficacy.

Whether or not Pericles was explicitly on Sophocles’ mind, Neoptolemus proves himself to be his father’s son, though more moderate than Achilles himself.27 Neoptolemus insists that returning to Troy, being healed, and fighting again is really best for Philoctetes—his friend’s good now being Neoptolemus’ primary concern instead of the bow. Neoptolemus wishes to see Philoctetes restored to health, and to return to the war—but Philoctetes will not and can not be the same man who goes to Troy now as the one who first set out on the journey there so many years ago. Philoctetes refuses, until Herakles appears, as a deus ex machina. While some commentators have disparaged the appearance as a contrived end to the dilemma,28 Sophocles’ inclusion of Herakles is entirely appropriate to Philoctetes’ emergence into society again, because of the role that he had played to Herakles, and how Herakles has served as a model for him.

Herakles’ speech is no doubt persuasive because of the bond that he shares with Philoctetes; as a friend, and as the original giver of the bow, his words instil trust in the wounded man in a way that Neoptolemus has not been able to do. But Herakles also fulfils the function of being two relationships for which Philoctetes longs: a father, and a caring god. Philoctetes, in his moments of pain, most often exclaims πάππαι‎, or even long strings of παππαπαππαπαῖ‎ (see e.g. 754). Avery suggests that the exclamations play upon the Greek παππας‎, or father.29 Herakles appears as a strong, male presence. Philoctetes has also characterized himself as ‘hateful to the gods (πικρὸς θεοῖς)’ (254) and so Herakles’ presence serves as a sign that the gods, who seemingly have only injured or ignored him, (p.85) do care for his well-being.30 After all, Philoctetes wonders whether the decrees of the gods are just or not (451–2); in Herakles, he finds not only a promise of future restoration of his glory, but friendship with the gods, the presence of care. Whether or not Philoctetes’ desire for justice has been fulfilled, at least his desire to know that the gods care is fulfilled in Herakles’ appearance. Moreover, Philoctetes is reminded that his own story, his own life’s narrative, takes on meaning in the light of a larger divine narrative; to be pious is not merely to carry out the correct sacrifices and rituals, but to understand one’s self in terms of the story of the Greeks. Herakles shows Philoctetes that his life’s meaning is connected to the Greek story of victory against Troy that is to be told; a narrow concept of justice as revenge will not fulfil that larger, divinely sanctioned narrative.

Philoctetes’ language in assenting to the return to Troy reveals a Sophoclean sensitivity to the relational nature of the bond with Herakles. He proclaims, ‘The voice (ὦ φθέγμα‎) much longed for, you brought, you who after a long time appeared (φανείς‎), I will not disobey your words (μύθοις‎)’ (1445–7). Herakles is not only important because of his words, but because of his voice, φθέγμα‎. That is, Herakles’ voice communicates more than just words or the content of ideas; his voice communicates his presence, the friendship of the gods, to Philoctetes. Φωνή‎ (voice) both condemns and redeems Philoctetes; while his cries at first had led his comrades to abandon him as a curse to the gods, words from a god also restore him to his position in the community. In the way that God’s self-revelation to Job in the Hebrew Bible heals Job’s spiritual affliction (as well as physical ones) even as his suffering is not adequately explained, Herakles’ simple presence in and of itself is healing for Philoctetes. That he also promises glory is secondary to Philoctetes’ concern as to whether the gods are just and capable of friendship. Such friendship assures Philoctetes that the problem of justice, which he understands as a theological problem—‘Are the gods just?’—has a positive resolution, at least in Philoctetes’ concrete, lived history. Sophocles presents the question of justice as both political and theological, for both concern the possibility of friendship and community, between human beings and between the divine and the human.

(p.86) Herakles can play this role of bridging the gap between the divine and human because he is not only a god, but also a friend. His story is also especially resonant with Philoctetes’ own story. Herakles recounts his own story, telling of his own deeds, labours, and eventual divine glory. However, absent from Herakles’ tale is the well-known story of the intolerable pain he felt that led him to escape from life. Although the Sophoclean play does not mention the longer story of Herakles’ suffering, Philoctetes references it earlier when he himself desires to die by fire: ‘Oh, my son, noble one, take me and burn me with this fire which is called Lemnian. I once agreed to do this to the son of Zeus in exchange for the weapons that you are now guarding’ (799–801). On some accounts, Herakles suffers because of a betrayal, as he wears a poisoned robe given to him by his wife. Both the physical suffering and sense of betrayal that Philoctetes encountered long ago in Herakles must resonate with Philoctetes. Indeed, they might well have been ideas on which he dwelt when on Lemnos alone, with Herakles’ bow as his only real connection to civilization.

However, while Philoctetes has presumably seen the death of Herakles, and his own assistance in that death, as the key feature of Herakles’ life, Herakles speaks not at all of these events. Instead, for Herakles, the greatest significance of his life lies in his deeds, his accomplishments, and the mutual interdependence that Neoptolemus and Philoctetes will need to have with one another if they are to capture Troy. Betrayal and suffering were a significant reality for Herakles, but in his narrative understanding of his life after its end, they are not the main events. Indeed, Philoctetes must return if he is to become an active agent, instead of a mere passive recipient of others’ actions. If Philoctetes’ sense of his own victimhood arises in part from being one who merely is the passive recipient of others’ actions, whether just or unjust, then his return to fight at Troy is not only necessary for the Greeks, but also for himself. There alone will he find healing in becoming an active agent in the political realm.

At the same time, Herakles is insistent that the bond that Philoctetes and Neoptolemus share is crucial to their success. Like a ‘pair of lions (λέοντε‎)’, they will have to guard one another (1436). But the source of their close bond stems from this mutual vulnerability that they have experienced on Lemnos: not only Philoctetes’ multiple vulnerabilities, but also Neoptolemus’ willingness to expose his shame, his moral vulnerability and weakness, to Philoctetes, and to seek reparation rather than running away from its possibility. (p.87) Philoctetes willingly rejoins the political community with openness to the reality of his vulnerability within it. Just as importantly, Neoptolemus rejoins that community with an understanding of the vulnerable one as he who possesses dignity and who is fundamental to the success of the community. We cannot also forget that Herakles warns against impiety; and in that tradition, Neoptolemus will impiously kill Priam on the altar at Troy. Sophocles is not naive about the difficulty, the fragility of care for the vulnerable, and there is a dark edge that accompanies this mostly happy ending.31 Nonetheless, such an event lies outside the scope of the play’s action. Instead, the play ends with an affirmation of inclusion of the wounded one and the promise of his restoration. At the moment of their departure from Lemnos, we can see in Philoctetes and in Neoptolemus that each has undertaken a journey made possible only by the presence of the other; each has grown in new directions previously thought impossible. So while their destination is Troy and a new battle, the Chorus’ words of homecoming are nonetheless appropriate, as they end the play, saying,

  • Let all of us depart together
  • when we have prayed to the sea nymphs
  • to come and guide our safe return (νόστου‎). (1469–71)


(1) Translations in this chapter are my own. Greek text is from Sophocles, The Philoctetes of Sophocles, edited with introduction and notes by Richard Jebb (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1898). Perseus Digital Library, 〈http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3atext%3a1999.01.0193〉, accessed 2010–12.

(2) As Rose demonstrates, many anthropological claims of the sophists about survival, the development of society, and the need for persuasive speech enter into the drama and narrative of the play. See Peter Rose, ‘Sophocles’ Philoctetes and the Teachings of the Sophists’, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 80 (1976), 49–105.

(3) Biancalana sets out a similar distinction between virtue and efficacy in speech, but sees it as a direct criticism of Athenian politics when the play was produced around 409, shortly after the political revolt of 411 BCE. See Joseph Biancalana, ‘The Politics and Laws of Philoctetes’, Law and Literature 17 (2) (2005), 155–82. I agree, but wish to link vulnerability and pity to political community in a way that Biancalana does not. See also Charles Segal, Tragedy and Civilization: An Interpretation of Sophocles (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), 333–40.

(4) Later Philoctetes also mentions the herb he found that is somewhat capable of soothing his pain.

(5) Segal, Tragedy and Civilization, 294.

(6) F. S. Naiden, Ancient Supplication (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 7–8.

(7) See David Konstan, The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks: Studies in Aristotle and Greek Literature (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006), 111–28.

(8) Konstan, Emotions of the Ancient Greeks, 49–50.

(9) Konstan offers extensive evidence on this distinction between Greek terms; Emotions of the Ancient Greeks, 111–28.

(10) See Martha Nussbaum, ‘Consequences and Character in Sophocles’ “Philoctetes”’, Philosophy and Literature 1 (1) (Fall 1976), 47 which emphasizes Neoptolemus’ concern that Philoctetes be free to choose.

(11) See John S. Kieffer, ‘Philoctetes and Arete’, Classical Philology 37 (1) (January 1942), 38–50; Dio discusses the three Philoctetes tragedies in his 52nd and 59th Discourses. Dio Chrysostom, also called Dio of Prusa, was a first-century CE commentator, philosopher, and writer in the Roman Empire.

(12) Segal notes the traditional association of Lemnian fire with the volcanic fire of Mount Mosychlos, again suggesting that Philoctetes seeks to flee the gods and the heavens for the depths of the earth. See Segal, Tragedy and Civilization, 305.

(13) See Anne Hawkins, ‘Ethical Tragedy and Sophocles’ “Philoctetes”’, Classical World 92 (4) (1999), 337–57. Hawkins offers an account of the role of emotional response in Neoptolemus’ ethical dilemma of the Philoctetes. See also Mary Whitlock Blundell, ‘The Phusis of Neoptolemus in Sophocles’ “Philoctetes”’, Greece and Rome, Second Series 35 (2) (October 1988), 140; and Rose, ‘Teachings of the Sophists’, 74.

(14) Charles Segal, ‘Philoctetes and the Imperishable Piety’, Hermes 105 (2) (1977), 133–58.

(15) Aristide Tessitore describes the potentially conflicting demands of piety and politics experienced by Neoptolemus in ‘Justice, Politics, and Piety in Sophocles’ Philoctetes’, Review of Politics 65 (1) (Winter 2003), 61–88. Nussbaum suggests the good of all citizens is more significant than Odysseus’ personal glory, but it is more accurate to say that Odysseus sees his own victory here as tied to the success of his mission, no matter what that means. See Nussbaum, ‘Consequences and Character’, 25–53.

(16) As Avery points out, when Philoctetes addresses the bow at 1128–9, he says that it must pity ‘τὸν Ἡράκλειον‎’; the use of the adjectival form of Herakles here links Philoctetes closely to Herakles as his successor or even like a son. See Harry C. Avery, ‘Heracles, Philoctetes, Neoptolemus’, Hermes 93 (3) (1965), 293. For an excellent account of the many, layered nuances of the bow, see Segal, Tragedy and Civilization, 318–21.

(17) Diodorus Siculus, 4. 14. 3. Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, Vol. II, Books 2. 35–4. 58 (Loeb), trans. C. H. Oldfather (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1935).

(18) See Dio Chrystostom, Discourse 59, line 7.

(19) Avery, ‘Heracles, Philoctetes, Neptolemus’, 285.

(20) The gift of the bow bears strong resemblances to rites in a ξενία‎ (guest–host) relationship. As Belfiore has argued, the gift of the bow is reminiscent of ξενία‎ rituals that unite the two men in a form of formalized friendship. See Elizabeth Belfiore, ‘Xenia in Sophocles’ Philoctetes’, Classical Journal 89 (2) (1993–4), 113–29.

(21) See Biancalana, ‘The Politics and Laws of Philoctetes’, 162. Ryan Drake also makes the interesting point that Odysseus himself is confronted with many of the same issues that Neoptolemus faces, namely, a conflict between compassion for another and the political order. In my view, Odysseus is not as ambivalent about how to treat Philoctetes as Drake suggests. However, Drake raises significant points about the role of political order in the play, and Philoctetes’ limits in recognizing the larger, divine narrative of which he forms a part. See Ryan Drake, ‘Natural and Divine Orders: The Politics of Sophocles’ Philoctetes’, Polis 24 (2) (2007), 179–92.

(22) See Avery, ‘Heracles, Philoctetes, Neoptolemus’, 295 and Gordon Kirkwood, ‘Persuasion and Allusion in Sophocles’ “Philoctetes”’, Hermes 122 (4) (1994), 426.

(23) See Kirkwood, ‘Persuasion and Allusion’, 426.

(24) Avery, ‘Heracles, Philoctetes, Neoptolemus’, 284.

(25) One commentator suggests that the general thrust of the Philoctetes as a whole is to defend traditional aristocratic virtue against the new democracy of Athens. Biancalana, ‘The Politics and Laws of Philoctetes’, 155–82.

(26) Biancalana, ‘The Politics and Laws of Philoctetes’, 166, where Biancalana notes Philoctetes’ concern with πόθος‎.

(27) See Blundell, ‘The Phusis of Neoptolemus’, 144.

(28) See, for example, Biancalana, ‘The Politics and Laws of Philoctetes’, 178.

(29) Avery, ‘Heracles, Philoctetes, Neoptolemus’, 288. See also M. Roisman, Sophocles: Philoctetes, Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy (London: Duckworth, 2005), 108. For a different perspective, see Segal, who argues that such exclamations show how far Philoctetes has departed from the civilized world, in these moments of ‘linguistic depravation’: Tragedy and Civilization, 333.

(30) Roisman, Philoctetes, 108. See also Christopher Gill, ‘Bow, Oracle, and Epiphany in Sophocles’ Philoctetes’, Greece and Rome 27 (2) (1980), 137–46.

(31) Blundell, ‘The Phusis of Neoptolemus’, 146; Kirkwood, ‘Persuasion and Allusion’, 428; Rose, ‘Teachings of the Sophists’, 102.