Language of the Self in Sophocles' Philoctetes

1 Pages Posted: 16 May 2010

Date Written: May 14, 2010


Character is central in the plays of Sophocles, and words used for the self are varied, but the nuance of those words is often missed. In this paper I would like to look at several of these words in Philoctetes.

The word psyche is used only twice, but both instances are striking: first, Odysseus tells Neoptolemus that they must steal the soul of Philoctetes. This is the literal meaning of the Greek (ψυχὴν ὅπως λόγοισιν ἐκκλέψεις) but translators tend to gloss the literal meaning. For instance, Lloyd-Jones (whose translation is used throughout here) translates the phrase thus: “beguile the mind” (lines 54-5) In LSJ, under ἐκκλέπτω, this phrase is translated “to deceive him.” The word “steal” should not be erased here; Odysseus implies a few lines later that he is also stealing Neoptolemus’ self: “Now give yourself to me. . .”. (δός μοι σέαυτον. . .84)

Later, Philoctetes describes Odysseus’ psyche: “But your evil mind looking out from its recesses skillfully taught him, inept pupil and unwilling as he was, how to be cunning in doing evil.” (1013-4) Lloyd-Jones does catch the slight personification of psyche here: it can “look.” But he alters “psyche” to “mind,” creating a less jarring image.

The word φύσις is used to refer to the character of Neoptolemus. This is implied at the beginning when Neoptolemus says: “It is my nature (ἔφυν) to do nothing by treacherous plotting; that is my nature and it was also my father’s nature.” (88-89) When Neoptolemus abandons his deception he says it is distasteful for a man to abandon his own nature (φύσιν). (902-3) When Philoctetes says later that he is just a boy and can only do what he is told (1010), he describes him as “lacking in nature.” (ἀφυῆ, 1014) However, when Neoptolemus returns the bow, Philoctetes says that he has shown his “nature.” (φύσιν, 1310) Philoctetes uses another term for the self in his final lines, where he says he is going to Troy “where mighty Fate is taking me and the will (γνώμη) of my friends, and the all-subduing god.” (1466-8). The term makes the human personality abstract, comparable to the Great Fate and to the All-mastering Daimon. But in the course of the play, γνώμη has been shown to be vulnerable, especially in the case of Neoptolemus.

Suggested Citation

Shaw, Michael Hearne, Language of the Self in Sophocles' Philoctetes (May 14, 2010). Available at SSRN: or

Michael Hearne Shaw (Contact Author)

affiliation not provided to SSRN ( email )

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