At the center of Sophocles’s Philoctetes is Odysseus’s deceptive plan to trick Philoctetes into returning to Troy with the Greek army to sack the city and win the Trojan War. According to a prophet named Helenus, the war cannot be won without Philoctetes and his bow and arrows, which were gifted to him by the Greek god Heracles and never miss their mark. Philoctetes, however, despises Odysseus and the Greek army since they marooned him on a deserted island nine years earlier because of his festering wound, and he adamantly refuses to lift a finger to help them. Philoctetes’s intense hate for the Greek army means he can’t be persuaded, and his unerring bow and arrow mean he can’t be forced. Thus, Odysseus maintains, Philoctetes must be tricked if he is to be brought to Troy to win the war on behalf of the Greeks. Odysseus enlists the help of Neoptolemus, the son of the late hero Achilles, to trick Philoctetes, but Neoptolemus’s strong ethics and inherent aversion to lying make this task repugnant to him. Neoptolemus, however, agrees to Odysseus’s dishonest plan against his better judgement. After all, Odysseus is his superior officer, Neoptolemus reasons. Through Odysseus’s deceitful plan and Neoptolemus’s moral struggle with such dishonesty, Sophocles ultimately argues that deception is unethical in any context, even in war.
Since Greece’s victory in the war hinges on Philoctetes going to Troy against his will, Odysseus has no problem using deception to get him there. For Odysseus, the use of deception is justified because it will lead to success. Odysseus knows that it goes against Neoptolemus’s moral fiber to be dishonest, but he reassures him it is for the best. “But victory’s a prize worth gaining,” Odysseus argues, “Bring yourself / To do it. We’ll prove our honesty later on.” Winning the war is paramount to Odysseus, no matter the cost, even if he must abandon his morals to do so. Odysseus asks Neoptolemus to put himself “in [Odysseus’s] hands” for a time and forget his morals. “Then, for the rest of time,” Odysseus says, “Be called the most god-fearing man in the world!” Odysseus assumes that, like Odysseus himself, Neoptolemus can bend his morals a little to win the war and simply pick those morals back up again afterwards, but this isn’t the case for Neoptolemus. Odysseus also tries to convince Neoptolemus that lying is not dishonorable if it “leads to success.” If Neoptolemus successfully tricks Philoctetes into going to Troy, Neoptolemus will be hailed as the cleverest hero, Odysseus maintains. In other words, not only will Neoptolemus’s deceit be good for the Greeks, it will benefit Neoptolemus as well, so that deceit cannot possibly be unethical.
While Neoptolemus eventually agrees to deceive Philoctetes, he deeply struggles with the moral implications of such deceit, which suggests that lying can’t be justified after all. “Double-dealing is not my nature,” Neoptolemus tries to explain to Odysseus. Neoptolemus claims he is “most reluctant” to carry out deceitful orders and finds them “distasteful,” but he is given little choice to refuse Odysseus’s orders. Neoptolemus claims he would rather attempt to take Philoctetes by force, even if Odysseus claims it cannot be done. “I’d rather fail / In a noble action than win an ignoble victory,” Neoptolemus argues. To Neoptolemus, lying is shameful, and even if it does ensure that the Greeks win the war, it will not be much of a victory. Just as it looks like Neoptolemus has tricked Philoctetes into coming with him, Neoptolemus begins to falter. “I’m torn apart, and cannot say how!” Neoptolemus cries. He feels “disgust” for himself because he “betrays / His own true nature and acts against it.” In Neoptolemus’s eyes, winning the war is not enough to justify lying to Philoctetes.
Neoptolemus ultimately comes clean with Philoctetes and tells him the truth to “undo the wrongs that [he] did before.” In initially listening to Odysseus “and the whole of the Greek army,” Neoptolemus is manipulated into using “guile and deceit to entrap a man,” for which, Sophocles implies, there is no excuse. Such lying is immoral and dishonorable, Neoptolemus tells Odysseus, and he won’t continue to deceive Philoctetes. Odysseus reminds Neoptolemus that helping Philoctetes instead of the Greeks will cause the Greek army to turn on him, but Neoptolemus can’t be swayed. “I’d rather my actions were right than wise,” Neoptolemus claims. In other words, he knows that telling the truth will likely get him killed, but Neoptolemus is more comfortable with death than with abandoning his moral compass. Luckily, Philoctetes agrees to go to Troy after an epiphany in which Heracles orders him to go; in the end, it’s not deception at all that gets him to do what Odysseus wants, but rather honesty and authority. Sophocles’ argument is clear: even in war, deception is never ethical or justified, and moreover, it’s not an effective way of getting what one wants.
Deception, Ethics, and War ThemeTracker
Deception, Ethics, and War Quotes in Philoctetes
Now let me explain why you can safely meet
This man and secure his trust, when I can not.
You didn’t sail with the main expedition. You weren’t
Committed by oath or forced into taking part.
But every one of these charges applies to me.
If he sights me while the bow’s in his own possession,
I’m finished and you’ll be finished for being with me.
Those weapons can’t be resisted. Our task must be
To contrive a way for you to steal them from him.
I know, my boy, it isn’t part of your nature
To tell untruths or resort to double-dealing.
But victory’s a prize worth gaining. Bring yourself
To do it. We’ll prove our honesty later on.
Now, for a few hours, put yourself in my hands
And forgo your scruples. Then, for the rest of time,
Be called the most god-fearing man in the world!
Death, death, I call on you to my aid
Like this every day. Why can you never come?
My boy, you are nobly born. Seize my body
And burn me in the volcano, the holy fire
Of Lemnos. Be true to your nature. I brought myself
To do the same for Heracles, son of Zeus,
The hero who gave me the arms you now are guarding.
What do you say, my son? Oh, speak!
Why are you dumb? You seem to be lost, boy!
You are not bad, I’m sure. But wicked men
Have taught you this base behavior. Leave it to others
And sail. But first return my weapons to me.
So why are you taking me now and carting me off?
What for? I’m nothing to you. I’ve long been dead.
How, you bane of the gods, am I no longer
A stinking cripple? How, if I come on board,
Will you burn your victims or go on pouring libations?
That was your specious pretext for throwing me out.
Perish the lot of you! Perish you surely will
For the injuries done to me, if the gods have any
Concern for justice. I know they have. You’d never
Have crossed the sea in quest of a mouldering wretch,
Unless some spur from heaven were goading you on.
True men always will plead their causes justly.
Yet once they’ve spoken, they say no more.
Curb their spite and withdraw their sting.
Our young master was chosen.
Under Odysseus’ orders he came.
Helping friends and doing his public duty.
Odysseus: Please tell me why you’re coming back!
What’s all this frantic haste for, man?
Neoptolemus: To undo the wrongs that I did before.
Odysseus: I don’t understand. What wrong have you done?
Neoptolemus: I listened to you and the whole Greek army.
Odysseus: What wicked action did that entail?
Neoptolemus: Guile and deceit to entrap a man.
Odysseus: For god’s sake, whom? What crazy idea . . .
Neoptolemus: Not crazy at all. To give Philoctetes . . .
Odysseus: What do you mean to do? I’m frightened.
Neoptolemus: To restore this bow I stole to its proper . . .
Odysseus: What! Are you going to give it back?
Neoptolemus: Yes, it was shameful and wrong to take it.
Odysseus: For heaven’s sake, are you joking with me?
Neoptolemus: If telling the truth is a joke, I am.
Odysseus: Look here, Neoptolemus! What do you mean?
Neoptolemus: Have I got to repeat it three times over?
Odysseus: I wish I needn’t have heard it once.
Neoptolemus: Well, it’s all that I have to say.
Odysseus: Be careful! You may quite well be prevented.
Neoptolemus: Tell me, Odysseus, who will prevent me?
Odysseus: The whole Greek army, myself included.
Neoptolemus: A foolish remark for a clever man!
Odysseus: Your words and actions are no less foolish.
Neoptolemus: I’d rather my actions were right than wise.
My words concern you too. You’ll not take Troy
Without his aid, nor he without your help.
No, each one guard the other, like two lions
Prowling the bush together. [to Philoctetes:] I shall send
Asclepius to heal your wounds in Troy.
The citadel must be captured by my bow
A second time. But when you lay the land
To waste, remember this: show piety
Towards the gods, since nothing ranks so high
With Zeus. For piety does not die with men.
Men live or die, but piety cannot perish.