The coronavirus pandemic and the protests against racism and police brutality appear in the eyes of many observers to converge. The two crises coincide in the person of George Floyd (who had COVID-19), in the urge to say “I can’t breathe” amid teargas, and in references to “a pandemic of racism.” But beyond these evocative coincidences, what does the convergence consist of, if it even exists?
An ancient Greek tragedy, Sophocles’s Philoctetes, can help us to think holistically about our own political moment. What Sophocles shows us is that the same bodies the polity dominates, annihilates, or consigns to suffering in isolation it also tends to use for its own ends.
That political communities too often view certain bodies to be expendable is a tragedy of political life, both ancient and modern. In this way, and in spite of the many differences separating classical Athens from contemporary America, we can learn from what the ancient Greece did to Philoctetes—and what the United States is doing to many Black Americans right now.
Staged in Athens in 409 BC, near the end of the long life and career of Sophocles, Philoctetes is a strange and underappreciated play. Perhaps its relative neglect arises out of its depiction of the intense bodily suffering of Philoctetes, which can be difficult to read, never mind to watch. From Sophocles’s account of the mythic material, we gather that Philoctetes was a Thessalian king who accompanied the Greek expedition to Troy—but never arrived there. A snake bit Philoctetes’s foot while the fleet was en route, and his comrades could not tolerate the stench of his suppurating wound and his ceaseless agony. At the behest of Agamemnon, Menelaus, and others, Odysseus abandoned him on the deserted island of Lemnos. Because Philoctetes possessed Heracles’s infallible bow, however, he managed to eke out a miserable existence on the empty island, shooting and eating birds. Aristotle later wrote that to live outside the city, a man must be either a beast or a god: Philoctetes was somehow both—a broken body sustained by a divine bow, as well as godlike pride and anger.
The play opens on Lemnos, ten years after the abandonment of Philoctetes. Odysseus, accompanied by Achilles’s son Neoptolemus, has returned to capture Philoctetes and bring him to Troy. A prophecy has revealed that the city will fall only with the combined efforts of Neoptolemus, Philoctetes, and his bow. Odysseus knows that the proud Philoctetes, an old-school Greek warrior, will never agree to fight alongside the men who left him for dead. Rather, should Philoctetes see Odysseus, he will shoot him on sight.
That’s where the young and impressionable Neoptolemus comes in. Odysseus commands him: “Ensnare the soul of Philoctetes with your words…For one brief, shameless portion of a day, give me yourself, and then for all the rest you may be called the most scrupulous of men.” Begrudgingly, Neoptolemus agrees. Odysseus composes a lie for Neoptolemus to tell Philoctetes: he should say that the same men who consigned Philoctetes to death prevented Neoptolemus from inheriting the arms of his dead father, Achilles; for this reason, Neoptolemus left Troy in disgust.
Stage-managed by Odysseus, this play-within-the-play goes off without a hitch. Philoctetes is easy prey. Upon first seeing Neoptolemus and his crew, Philoctetes begs them for conversation; he has been starved of it: “May I hear your voice? Do not be afraid or shrink from such as I am… Take pity on me; speak to me, if indeed you come as friends. Please—answer me.” When Neoptolemus reveals his parentage and curses the Greek commanders, Philoctetes evidently feels that he has found a true friend, someone who shares his loves and understands his hatreds. By the time Neoptolemus and his crew offer to take Philoctetes on board their ship, he is effusive: “God bless this day! Man, dear to my very heart, and you, dear sailors, how shall I prove to you how you have bound me to your friendship!”
His first proof is to allow Neoptolemus to hold the sacred, unerring bow of Heracles: “You may indeed touch my bow, then give it back to me that gave it to you—and proclaim that alone of all the world you touched it, in return for the good deed you did.” Neoptolemus responds deceitfully: “I am glad to see you and take you as a friend. For one who knows how to show and to accept kindness will be a friend better than any possession.”
Yet Philoctetes has been hiding himself no less than Neoptolemus. He hides his pain—lest Neoptolemus find it intolerable—until the pain overwhelms him. “I am lost, boy,” he confesses in agony. “I will not be able to hide it from you longer. Oh! Oh! It goes through me, right through me! Miserable, miserable! I am lost, boy. I am being eaten up.”
Like the men who marooned Philoctetes to begin with, Neoptolemus does not grasp the meaning of this body in pain. Bodily suffering has the potential to divide and isolate: a body suffering in solitude is like a deserted island. Although Socrates says in Plato’s Republic that in the ideal city, all citizens will share pleasures and pains, pain can never be truly shared—as anyone who has given birth, or witnessed it, knows well. No wonder that the philosopher Stanley Cavell, whose work focuses on the problem of skepticism, saw in the expression of pain a chief limit of our knowledge of other minds. Neoptolemus misses something crucial about the experience of Philoctetes when he hides his pain, but he also fails to empathize even when Philoctetes does express his suffering.
Overcome by pain, Philoctetes thrusts the bow into the hands of Neoptolemus. Here the action could have ended. Having disarmed Philoctetes, figuratively and then literally, Neoptolemus has the chance to leave, bow in hand, with or without the unconscious, powerless Philoctetes. But Neoptolemus hesitates: “A kind of compassion, a terrible compassion, has come upon me for him. I’ve been feeling it long since, more and more.” When Philoctetes comes back to his senses, he screams. For even though Neoptolemus has said he now empathizes with the suffering of Philoctetes, he sticks to the plan hatched by Odysseus.
Neoptolemus and Odysseus together urge Philoctetes to accompany the fleet to Troy, but Philoctetes is enraged. He refuses to leave Lemnos, preferring to die in his cave rather than to fight alongside the men who had left him for dead. Only a deus ex machina, the entrance of the god Heracles, can resolve the tension—tight as a bow-string—between Philoctetes and Odysseus (and Neoptolemus). Heracles orders Philoctetes to go to Troy, and he complies.
In the end, Philoctetes might not seem to be a tragedy at all. Not only will Philoctetes go on to conquer Troy but he will also have his foot cured by Greek doctors, the sons of Asclepius. Glory, health, reintegration: how is this a tragic outcome for Philoctetes? The tragedy lies, in my view, in the use and abuse of Philoctetes’s body that we have witnessed.
Who can blame Philoctetes when, before departing, he looks back wistfully on his solitary life in Lemnos: “Lemnos, I call upon you: Farewell, cave that shared my watches, nymphs of the meadow and the stream, the deep male growl of the sea-lashed headland where often, in my niche within the rock, my head was wet with fine spray, where many a time in answer to my crying in the storm of my sorrow the mountain of Hermes sent its echo!” Philoctetes lacked friends on Lemnos; but at least the mountain echoed his pain. The Greeks had tried to silence it.
Where does this reading of the play leave us? Perhaps, in the situation of Neoptolemus, who, like the man imagined by Socrates in The Republic, must choose whether to return a weapon to a friend, even though the friend is not in his right mind. Socrates’s point is that justice cannot be reduced to a rule: giving to each what he is owed. For how could justice require harming a friend—or oneself?
Near the end of the play, Neoptolemus decides to return the bow to Philoctetes; but at the same time, he grabs Philoctetes’s hand before he can shoot Odysseus. While Neoptolemus joins the Greeks in forcing Philoctetes to come to Troy, his conduct suggests that he also cares, in the end, for Philoctetes and Odysseus, as well as himself. He at least tries to construct a common good.
In this way, even as Philoctetes displays the casual cruelty with which the political community marks some bodies as expendable, it also points to the virtues of friendship, and the need for solidarity. The challenges of friendship and solidarity are even more severe in modern liberal democracies than they were in the classical polis.
Whereas Aristotle said that legislators care more about friendship than they do about justice, Immanuel Kant imagined that well-designed political institutions could produce justice even among devils. Likewise, James Madison presented the causes of faction—the scourge of ancient Greek cities—as inescapable and even salutary in a large, representative republic. Add to these institutional and ideational factors the long history of slavery and racism in the United States, and civic friendship and solidarity might seem to be naive aspirations for Americans in 2020.
But what choice do we have? Is there some argument that could persuade someone that Black lives matter, that no person’s knee should dig into another person’s neck for nine minutes straight, that ordinary people should not be compelled to risk their lives just to bag groceries? I am reminded of Frederick Douglass in his famous Fourth of July speech: “Would you have me argue that man is entitled to liberty? That he is the rightful owner of his body? You have already declared it. Must I argue that the wrongfulness of slavery? Is that a question for republicans?” The problem is ethical: it lies on the level of character, dispositions, and habits, rather than argument alone.
Sophocles cannot solve our problems for us. But he can help us to clarify them. In the absence of civic friendship, a citizen can be reduced to a body, a thing, whose suffering makes no claim on others, who can be left dead in the street or made to risk life and limb for the state. As the site of pain and work, the human body is what is most and least our own, Sophocles suggests. No one can share our physical pain: “I can’t breathe” means that I can’t breathe. Still, bodies can be put to work—in fact, they can be forced to do “essential work.” Expendable bodies, in ancient Greece and contemporary America, are those that the polity destroys or deploys at whim.
Daniel Schillinger is a postdoctoral associate and lecturer in the Humanities Program at Yale.