Throughout Sophocles’s Philoctetes, both Philoctetes and Neoptolemus are faced with difficult decisions and extreme consequences. After Philoctetes was bitten by a snake and a festering, putrid wound developed, Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, along with a fleet of Greek warriors, marooned Philoctetes on a deserted island. Now, Philoctetes is expected to help the same men who abandoned him by going with the Greek army to Troy to sack the city and finally win the Trojan War. Prophecy states that Heracles’s legendary bow and arrows, which now belong to Philoctetes, will guarantee a Greek victory; however, in his deep hatred for Odysseus and the Greek army, Philoctetes is not inclined to help them. Neoptolemus, the Greek warrior enlisted by Odysseus to deceive Philoctetes and trick him into going to Troy, likewise struggles with the decision to abandon his morals and deceive an unwitting man. Neoptolemus is not deceitful or malicious by nature, and he is reluctant to lure Philoctetes to Troy using dishonesty, but Neoptolemus knows that if he does not do what is expected of him, he will be severely punished by Odysseus and the army. With the difficult decision-making portrayed in Philoctetes, Sophocles effectively argues that people often grapple with balancing their own desires against what is best for the greater good of society, and he ultimately argues that the struggle is a lose-lose situation, as there is likely to be some sacrifice involved in either choice.
Philoctetes adamantly refuses to go to Troy and help the Greeks win the war, and instead chooses to honor his grudge and selfish desires over the needs of the Greeks. While Sophocles implies that Philoctetes has definitely been mistreated by the Greeks and has every right to hold a grudge, it would be nobler of him if he pushed beyond his hatred to help the Greeks at large, who have nothing to do with his hatred for Odysseus. When the Greek sailor approaches Philoctetes and Neoptolemus disguised as a merchant and tells Philoctetes of Odysseus’s plan to force him to Troy, Philoctetes can’t be persuaded. “I’d rather obey my bitterest foe, / The deadly snake which turned me into a cripple,” Philoctetes says. His hate for Odysseus is so strong, Philoctetes cannot bring himself to fight on his behalf, even if it is necessary to win the war. As the chorus, made up of Greek sailors, tries to encourage Philoctetes to go to Troy for his own good, Philoctetes refuses. “I’ll never agree to it, never, believe me,” Philoctetes says, “Not if the lord of the fire and the lightning / Comes to set me ablaze with his thunderbolts!” In other words, not even Zeus himself, the king of the Olympian gods, can force Philoctetes to Troy with his powerful thunderbolt. Even after Neoptolemus tells Philoctetes that Helenus, the prophet, has said his wound will be healed if he goes to Troy, Philoctetes still won’t agree. “To hell with you all,” Philoctetes says to Neoptolemus, “The Atridae first, then with Laertes’s son, / And finally you!” Philoctetes will not fight for Menelaus or Agamemnon, the brother kings of Greece, nor will he fight for Odysseus or Neoptolemus. He stubbornly chooses to endanger all of the Greeks to satisfy his own selfish need to hold a grudge.
Neoptolemus, too, decides to act on behalf of his personal moral compass instead of acting in the best interest of the Greeks. Sophocles suggests that Neoptolemus’s desire to remain true to his morals is commendable, but as with Philoctetes’s grudge, Sophocles implies it would be nobler if Neoptolemus instead acted on behalf of the greater good. After Neoptolemus gains Philoctetes’s trust and wins possession of the bow and arrows under false pretenses, he decides to return the weapon to its rightful owner, regardless of the risk to the Greeks and their cause. He believes they have obtained the bow “in vain” and that “shame and disgrace” are sure to follow. Again, Neoptolemus’s decisions are guided by his desire to uphold his own beliefs, not what is best for the Greeks. As Neoptolemus admits his deception to Philoctetes, he refers to himself as “base” and is convinced all of Greece will consider him low as well. “The thought’s been dogging me all along,” Neoptolemus admits. He is so ashamed of his dishonesty, he can’t go on with Odysseus’s plan. After Neoptolemus tells Odysseus that he can no longer be part of his deception and is giving back the bow and arrow, Odysseus reminds Neoptolemus that the Greek army will seek vengeance for his leniency. “Aren’t you afraid of the Greeks?” Odysseus asks. “I’m not, with right on my side,” Neoptolemus answers. Neoptolemus is more worried about satisfying his obligation to himself and his morals than he is about satisfying his obligation to the Greeks. While Sophocles certainly implies that deception is never ethical, he also suggests that Neoptolemus has an obligation to find some way to get Philoctetes to Troy for the good of the Greeks; after all, the entire war depends on him.
Philoctetes convinces Neoptolemus to take him home to Greece instead of forcing him to go to Troy to fight in the war, despite the danger this choice poses to both Neoptolemus and Philoctetes. If Neoptolemus refuses to follow Odysseus’s orders and instead helps Philoctetes to go home, Neoptolemus will likely be killed for neglecting his duty as a soldier. At the close of the play, just as Philoctetes and Neoptolemus leave the island to head back to Greece, Heracles appears and stops them on behalf of Zeus. He claims that Philoctetes’s wound will be healed and both Philoctetes and Neoptolemus will forever be regarded as heroes if they go to Troy. Philoctetes and Neoptolemus both agree immediately and make their way toward the ship headed for Troy. Without the sudden and fortuitous appearance of Heracles, both Neoptolemus and Philoctetes would have neglected their duty to the Greeks, which would have led to disastrous consequence for everyone involved. In this vein, Sophocles implies that one has an obligation to the greater good, such as one’s country and gods, before one’s self, even though sacrificing one’s own interests is challenging.
Decisions, Obligation, and the Greater Good ThemeTracker
Decisions, Obligation, and the Greater Good Quotes in Philoctetes
Now, Neoptolemus, true-born son of Achilles,
Greatest of all the Greeks, it was here that I once
Put ashore the Malian, Poeas’ son, Philoctetes,
Acting upon the orders of my superiors.
The gnawing wound in his foot was oozing with pus.
We couldn’t pour a libation or offer sacrifice
Undisturbed. His animal shouts and yells
Were constantly filling the camp with sounds of ill omen.
That story needn’t detain us now, however.
This isn’t the moment for long discussion.
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.
You only have yourself to blame, unhappy man.
Nothing has struck you with force irresistible.
Where was your better judgement?
Fate would have been kinder, but you
Chose to accept a worse life.
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.
All men are bound to endure with patience
The various chances of life which heaven brings.
But if they cling to trouble that’s self-inflicted,
As you are doing, they don’t deserve any pity
Or understanding. You’ve grown too brutal. You won’t
Accept advice, and if somebody out of kindness
Makes a suggestion, you hate him as though he were
Your implacable foe. But still. I’m going to speak,
And I call on Zeus, god of oaths, to bear me witness.
Mark what I say, and carefully take it to heart.
Now that you know this, surely you must agree,
And gladly. You have so much to gain. First,
To come into healing hands, and then to be judged
The foremost hero of Greece, by taking Troy,
The city of sorrows, and winning the highest glory.
You’ll go with Neoptolemus to Troy,
Where first your painful wound will soon be healed.
Then, chosen for your prowess from the host,
You’ll use my bow and arrows to bring down
Paris, the cause of all this bitter strife.
When you’ve sacked Troy, the army will present
You with the prize of valour, and you’ll bear
Your spoils back to your home on Oeta’s heights
To show your father Poeas. Do not fail,
Whatever spoils the army grants to you,
To lay a portion on my pyre in tribute
To my bow.
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.