Sophokles Against War

A stone carving of a person lying down Description automatically generated

Marble slab depicting Philoktetes after his recall from exile. Date before 2nd century. Notice how the pain and misfortune make Philoktetes look like an old man. Archaeological Museum of Brauron, Attica, Greece. Public Domain.

Prologue

Eusebeia – piety for the gods — was the common thread that tied the Greeks together, the other being of speaking Greek. We see eusebeia in most plays of the tragic poets of the fifth century BCE. Sophokles / Sophocles, without doubt Athens’ and Greece’s (and the world’s) greatest tragic poet, took that thread and made it a rope to protect Athens and Greece from the disintegrating forces of war. His most mature, and perhaps most productive, years coincided with the Greeks’ fratricidal conflict, the Peloponnesian War, 431-404 BCE.

Sophokles

In 443-442 BCE Sophokles served Athens as a treasurer of Athena (Hellenotamias); and in 441-440 BCE he was elected one of the ten generals Athens sent in charge of a naval force to suppress the revolt of Samos.[1] But Sophokles was primarily a public poet. He knew the evils of fratricide — a good reason why his work is such a denunciation of war. Like Aischylos before him, he was in love with Greek culture. And since piety, veneration of the gods, was at the heart of that culture, it is not surprising that Sophokles would take Greek religion so seriously as he did. His life spanned Greece’s entire fifth century BCE — he was ninety-five years old when he died in 406 BCE — so he lived in the best of all time, in the world’s most civilized country — ever. With Homeros as a guide, and Aischylos as a tutor, and with Euripides, Aristophanes, and Pericles as friends, he could not go wrong. And he did not. He created masterpieces of poetry and tragedy that speak to Greeks and non-Greeks alike.

Modern scholars making fun of the Greek gods

The trouble comes not with Sophokles or his intense religious message, but with critics in modern times (especially twentieth and twenty-first centuries) who make fun of the Greek gods, ignoring that the Greeks created the theater and tragedy to honor those gods. These scholars are careful to hide their own Christianity, Judaism, or Islam under unspoken conventions of “objectivity,” which, conveniently, allow them to pretend to know better. But they don’t. Their usual references to Xenophanes and Plato — as if to “prove” that the Greek gods did not exist, or that the gods were not taken seriously, or that the gods were no more than irrational forces — are part of that pretense.

However, there is nothing pretentious or superficial about Sophokles whose work these scholars secretly mock. I say secretly because of the dismissing way these critics treat the religious ideas of Sophokles, and, by necessity, those of Aischylos and Euripides — if they deal with them at all. One can be exhaustible with technical philological (grammatical, etymological) details, character development, and issues of style and textual corruption through the ages. In all these very important considerations, Western scholars have done well beyond measure. The Greeks are indebted to them for the very existence of their ancient culture.

Tragic plays

However, with masters of tragedy like Aischylos, Sophokles, and Euripides one must face the purpose of their plays squarely. Why did Sophokles, for instance, take the trouble to spend most of his entire life of ninety-five years with writing one hundred and thirty plays for the theater to be presented during Athens’ religious festival of the Great Dionysia?

Sophokles answers that question in each of his surviving seven plays. Aischylos and Euripides do the same thing. It was eusebeia, piety, the Greeks venerating their gods. Yes, it was that important. Yes, the gods and the Greeks were inseparable. In fact Greek culture without the gods is meaningless. The Greeks loved their gods.

The gods and reason in the Cosmos

Herakleitos of Ephesos (500 BCE), an important Greek philosopher, described the universe as a flowing river.[2] He taught that the entire heaven and each of its parts are pervaded by order and reason — in their shapes, power, and movement.[3] Aristoteles / Aristotle, great philosopher and inventor of the science of zoology, also said reason, present throughout nature and the universe, is responsible for the world and the order of the Cosmos.[4] The Greeks in fact believed that the Cosmos, an ordered system, had causal laws, which they could explain by observation and study. Their gods supervised the Cosmos but did not interfere in its working. Aristoteles said that the forefathers of the Greek people handed down to them the tradition that the first principles in the making and governing of the universe are gods, the divine encloses the whole of nature.[5]

It was from this understanding of the universe and the gods that the Greeks started philosophy and science, an intellectual achievement of their own making, sharply different from that of their neighbors.[6] It was the religion of the Greeks, which sparked their genius in the creation of civilization. The gods determined what happened in the world, and man did not often understand the purpose of those cosmic events. But man was free to reason things out in nature or in his own moral world — the same things that happened to Oidipous / Oedipus and Antigone. Fate pushed them in one direction, but they were in charge of the outcome.

Cosmogony was tragedy in outer space. The gods set the stage for the intense drama of creation. Humans — with only reason and piety at their command — were in a good position to grasp that cosmic play. The Greeks also believed that, with the exception of power that kept men and gods grossly unequal, men and gods were the children of the same mother, men keeping some likeness to the immortals in the grace of the body and the nobility of the human mind.[7]

Piety for the gods

Piety for the gods was much more than a ritual of pouring libations and sacrifices. It was the contemplation of the Cosmos; it was the dance, and Eros, and music of the theater and the festivals for Dionysos, son of Zeus; it was the passion of the mysteries; the thanksgiving of the traveler to the rural altars of Hermes; the peasant’s sacrifice of a lamb honoring the agrarian gods Aristaios, Makris, Demeter, Pan, and Dionysos for his own well-being and that of his family. The peasant expressed his satisfaction for the security of his rural economy and community — his harvest above all from the sacred land, having enough wheat, barley and olive oil, the good health of his flocks of sheep and goats, and the abundance and sweet taste of his wine.

Venerating the gods was also the public holidays and ceremonies in honor of Athena Polias, Athena of the polis; the celebration was Athenian and Panhellenic athletic and intellectual competition like the Olympics. It was building of a community of common interests, the constant renewal of what it was to being a Greek. That’s why Herakles himself appears in the Philoktetes of Sophokles. Herakles, son of Zeus and the greatest Hellenic hero, warns Philoktetes and the son of Achilles, Neoptolemos, not to forget to venerate the gods after they take Troy. His father Zeus is watching. Besides, Herakles says, the veneration of the gods does not start and end with the birth and death of mortal men. It lasts forever.

The purpose of Sophokles

This was Sophokles’ purpose. At a time of great distress, he was seeking inspiration from an ancient constant — the Greeks’ worship of their gods, their festivals, and mysteries, and contests, all to honor their ancestors, heroes, common origins, and culture. Sophokles knew that religion or, more exactly, piety, veneration of the gods, was the cement that kept the Greeks together. But Sophokles was not a propagandist. His tragedies, including Philoktetes, were philosophical reflections that included interplay of ideas and emotions, all coming from a human experience, and Greek historical experience in particular, that Athenians would understand. And what more relevant, if horrifying, than war, eating Athens at a time Athenians could see the performance of Philoktetes at their theater during the Great Dionysia? Like in his other plays, Sophokles used Philoktetes to bridge the growing gap between what Athens was and wanted to be known to what the great polis had become and was becoming because of the war.

Sophokles’ Philoktetes is a story about the cruelties of war and the endurance of a man, Philoktetes. He preserved his humanity. War never hurts and destroys the cowardly and scheming, Neoptolemos admits. War always kills the best of men.[8] But war also turns humans inside out. Expediency and deception become the norm, not the rare exception. Power rules and corrupts absolutely. Nothing ought to stand in the way of grabbing Philoktetes’ Bow of Herakles, Odysseus advises Neoptolemos — forget your ethical standards; do what I tell you and you will become famous for ever. Odysseus is telling Neoptolemos it’s all right to stab our fathers’ culture for temporary gain. It’s even all right to become a barbarian in order to fight the barbarians.

Sophokles stands up with Philoktetes, a man who holds on to his Hellenic traditions, a man whom the gods entrusted with Herakles’ mighty weapon. Left to rot or die on an island because of his injury. Philoktetes survives because he wants to live and return to his old father. That’s his sole purpose. Return home. To his father and to the gods of his father. Philoktetes hates war and those benefiting from its execution. He begs Neoptolemos to abandon the corrupt business of war and take him home to his father. He is distressed to discover that Neoptolemos is not what he appears to be — the honest, young son of his favored hero, Achilles.

Neoptolemos is young and handsome like his father. But he is also the corrupt face of the war Philoktetes left behind. And once he discovers Neoptolemos without the mask of Achilles, a warrior to whom he gave his bow because he believed his lies, Philoktetes fights back with the only weapon at his command — his powerful mastery of Greek. With a great deal of anger, he tells Neoptolemos he hates him — fire, terror, a shameless adventurer that took advantage of a crippled man who went to him as a suppliant.

Neoptolemos feels bad about the misfortunes of Philoktetes, and he feels even worse about his own immoral doings to satisfy the war plans of Odysseus. So he does drop his war mask and joins Philoktetes, giving him back his bow, but still hoping, however, that Philoktetes will come to Troy with him. Philoktetes, however, has had it with war and says no, at which point Herakles appears and urges them to guard each other like lions. None of them individually, neither Neoptolemos nor Philoktetes, Herakles says, could hope to conquer Troy. But together they would be invincible. And this togetherness — Greeks working as one people, guarding each other like lions, instead of their conventional fierce independence of fighting it out each on his own or against each other (as the Athenians and Spartans were doing in the Peloponnesian War) — is the second moral and political purpose of Sophokles’ play Philoktetes.

Public good, working together

Herakles had used his bow to protect not this or that private claim but to expand and defend the public interest of all Greeks. Sophokles was telling the Athenians to expand their vision of the Hellenic political community. Civil war was an anathema in such a community. There was a Troy out there for the Greeks to conquer. And that Troy was the Greeks’ own killing fields all over Greece. That is why Sophokles said that only Philoktetes and Neoptolemos working together would be able to conquer Troy; the beast of war in Greece would end if Athens and Sparta started guarding each other like lions. Herakles’ bow would be the Athenians, but only when they and the other Greeks abandoned their fratricidal war.

In addition, and this was Sophokles’ third major theme, the world was a very dangerous place. Man, he said in Antigone, was the fiercest of all animals. Yet man, he repeated in Philoktetes, had also fierce and precarious fortunes — everything about man was full of danger and fear that even good fortune and prosperity could suddenly turn to evil and impoverishment.[9] That’s why Sophokles sought confidence and strength from the old culture of the Greek people and their gods. They were permanent because they had passed the test of time. If only the Greeks could conquer their own Troy, they would be in a position to continue with their reverence towards their gods and enjoy the world of their fathers — the world of their own making. Their freedom would be secure. That was the essence of Sophokles — and of all Greek tragedy.

NOTES

1. Benjamin Dean Meritt, H. T. Wade-Gary and Malcolm Francic McGregor, The Athenian Tribute Lists (3 vols., Princeton, NJ: The American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1950), II, 18.

2. Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 9.1-3, 5-12, 15.

3. Theophrastos, Metaphysics 7a10-15.

4. Aristoteles, Metaphysics 984b15-20.

5. Aristoteles, Metaphysics 1074b1-14.

6. Hugh Lloyd-Jones, The Justice of Zeus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 162.

7. Pindaros, Nemean 6.1-11.

8. Sophokles, Philoktetes 436-437.

9. Sophokles, Philoktetes 502-503.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.