Sophocles, Philoctetes and Democratic Decadence


by Bill White


Athens in the final period of decadence and the United States of the 21st Century draw interesting parallels, and the transfer of characters from these democracies in their final stages is not a terribly difficult exercise. Sophocles poses a moral question by contrasting scheming Odysseus with Neoptolemus’ remorse and the gullible menim of Philoctetes: Is the scheming of Odysseus justified to achieve the higher goal of victory in the Trojan War, particularly when that victory also benefits Philoctetes? This is a the moral dilemma of a social structure that has lost its heroic center, and which has become human and goal focused, rather than focused on the divine.

Athens of the Fifth Century was at the final end of changes that ultimately destroyed its society and made it subject to, first, Sparta, then Macedonia, then Rome. Its democracy was a jealous and levelling force, as is witnessed by the ostracism – the expulsion and confiscation of the property of one of its best citizens every ten years. Athens was entrapped in foreign wars, following its victory over Persia and including the expedition into Sicily and the effort to reconquer its colonies in Ionia, that eventually bankrupted it and made it a dependency – just as Britain’s victory in the Second World War bankrupted it and left it an appendage of the emerging American empire.

Similarly, the United States of the 21st Century finds itself possessed of a democracy that is characterized by an alliance of the very rich and the very poor against the productive classes. Its government is essentially Marxist and targets virtue rather than vice. Its intelligentsia and the currents of thought they maintain are similar to those of the Athenians as well, and it has been weakened by foreign adventures that it cannot afford. One saving grace may be the fact that it does not face an existential war.

With these similarities, parallels should be expected between popular archetypes of Grecian and American culture – and there is every evidence Sophocles was a popular writer of a type that today might be providing material for an audience similar to Hollywood’s – His Oedipus, which embodies what Sir Oswald Mosley referred to as “the man of the next five minutes”, could be Barack Obama or any modern politician, i.e., a man who sees only the exigencies of the current situation, and not any larger moral framework for action. The key difference is that Odysseus is at least aware of the goal for which he struggles, whereas a character such as Obama is only aware of his own advancement.

Neoptolemus is initially the reluctant accessory of Odysseus, but becomes an all too willing one for whom repentance comes late and, one senses, may be just for show. He completes the deception of Philoctetes and acquires his bow and arrows, and while repenting in time to correct the error, seems to be more trying to contrast himself with Odysseus than pursuing any particular principle. This kind of morality-seeking-public-applause is what motivates guests to make self-righteous poses on Jerry Springer or TV reality programs. It is the desire to appear excellent, and not to be excellent one’s self – an inversion of the Socratic maxim.

In modern America, Neoptolemus might represent the publicly self-righteous and nominally reactionary opposition politicians such as Obama face, which loudly declares its opposition while pursuing the same agenda. The Persian King Yima is said to have lost his divinity the first time he lied, and, by initially joining Odysseus’ plot, Neoptolemus shows his character – neither strong enough to adhere to a course once divided, nor strong enough to take a principled stand from the onset. Instead of affirming his honesty, he manages to betray both his own side and Philoctetes.

The kind of moral dilemma that seeks excellence in a choice of either hesitant betrayal of one’s enemies or hesitant betrayal of one’s friends typifies the degenerate philosophical musings of late democratic society, in which only the exigencies of the moment and a willingness to meet them seem worthy of reward. As such, Odysseus and Neoptolemus offer many parallels between Athenian and American society.