The Question of “Deus ex Machina” in Philoctetes

The notion of “deus ex machina” (god from the machine) is taken from the Latins who borrowed it from the Greeks. It refers to the machine, like a crane, which was used to deliver a last minute unexpected salvation for a tragic hero. Salvation typically comes in the form of a god, which alters the course of the tragic plot. For example, in Aeschylus’s masterful Oresteia, the unexpected arrival of Athena saves Orestes from the tormenting EumenidesThe god solves the problem of suffering for the hero.

To the modern sensibilities, a “deus ex machina” is considered lazy. The idea of unexpected redemption is a kind of false hope. Modern eyes and ears have no patience for a false promise of salvation. The tragic hero, as Aristotle notes in the Poetics, is experienced at close-hand for the audience, unlike the comedic actor, which is looked down upon as base and inferior by the audience. The audience experiences suffering closely. Keeping this distinction in mind, the modern audience looks for strength in its tragic heroes, not sudden and miraculous salvation. The hero must overcome his suffering either through his own guile or pure strength of will.

The Philoctetes is the last of Sophocles’s seven surviving tragedies in our survey of antiquity. It is the only surviving tragedy of Philoctetes, as Aeschylus are reported to have also written plays about Philoctetes. It was performed at the Dionysia in 409 BC, and won first prize. Recall, the Dionysia was the second-most important festival in ancient Athens, to the Panathenaia, in celebration of Dionysus.

It takes place after much of the events of the Iliad. Years earlier, Philoctetes, the famed archer, was  awarded by Heracles after being the only man willing to light his funeral pyre upon his death. In return, Heracles awarded Philoctetes his bow. Later, Philoctetes departed for Ilium with Odysseus and the Atridae. However, he accidentally violated the sacred grove of Chryse by stepping into it and is bitten by a snake which leaves him with a horrible stench and atrocious pain. As a result, Odysseus abandons him alone on the island of Lemnos where he dwells for ten years.

In the last year of the war, Odysseus captures the seer Helenus from Troy and demands to know how the Greeks can win the war, a difficult task as Philoctetes hates Odysseus. Among several criteria, Helenus says the Achaeans must convince Philoctetes to rejoin them in battle with his bow from Heracles. The play begins as Odysseus and Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, land on Lemnos. Odysseus devises a scheme for Neoptolemus to ensnare Philoctetes to join them. Neoptolemus, known for being true and honest, is skeptical. Odysseus hides, and Neoptolemus convinces Philoctetes that he, too, hates Odysseus, for taking the armor of his now-fallen father, Achilles (a lie). They both agree to return home, but Philoctetes comes into a fit of pain and gives his bow to Neoptolemus. Odysseus appears and the ruse is exposed, however in a moment of change and pity for Neoptolemus, he returns the bow to Philoctetes. Odysseus departs, and Philoctetes convinces Neoptolemus to return him to Greece, though this will earn Neoptelomus the ire of the Achaeans.

However, just before the end of the play, Heracles appears before them, a “deus ex machina” and convinces Philoctetes to fight in Troy, which will heal his foot and also bring him honor.

The play is a study in moral authority. When is it good to lie? Odysseus, ever the diplomat, fails to convince the young and honest Neoptolmus to ultimately complete the trap of Philoctetes. It is said, in later works, that both Neoptolemus and Philoctetes preferred to storm the city of Troy continually until it fell, rather than partake in Odysseus’s ploy with the giant wooden horse, though Philoctetes was one of the men who hid inside the horse. In the Iliad as well as the Odyssey a strong case is to be made that Homer preferred the “Wily” Odysseus, by identifying him as the ‘victor of the Trojan War’, for his guiles, rather than Achilles for his “rage”, which is the consideration of the Iliad. 

Odysseus, though not a god, must ultimately find a way to compel human beings to do his bidding. He does this through the use of ploy and deception. In the absence of Odysseus’s ploys, there is need for the “deus ex machina”, or for Heracles to suddenly appear and correct the tragedy. The closest man can get to mind of the gods is through the diplomacy of Odysseus, as the gods are equally deceptive, but superior in the ability to harness the physical world and initiate miracles. A lie for the sake of the good, is therefore good. Perfect honesty and empathy, as exemplified in Neoptolemus, can be dishonorable.

The modern reader is tempted to find solace in the pure goodness of Neoptolemus, a figure who finds harmony with contemporary Christian morality. However, in the Greek understanding, he is inferior and stands in the way of the greater project of Odysseus, the Achaeans, and the gods.

For this reading I used the Richmond Lattimore and David Grene edition with a translation by David Grene.

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