Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.02.19

Norman Austin, Sophocles' Philoctetes and the Great Soul Robbery. Wisconsin studies in classics.   Madison:  University of Wisconsin Press, 2011.  Pp. xiii, 282.  ISBN 9780299282745.  $29.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Susan A. Curry, University of New Hampshire (


In Sophocles’ Philoctetes and the Great Soul Robbery, Norman Austin brings religion and psychology to bear on several of the challenges Sophocles’ late drama poses for the modern reader. By reminding his own readers of the religious origins of ancient tragedy and the cults of Neoptolemus and Philoctetes and by unpicking the psychological aspects of Sophocles’ own text, especially those concerned with issues of identity, Austin provides a plethora of insights, major and minor, into many puzzling facets of the drama: Neoptolemus’ multiple roles and identities, Philoctetes’ responsibility for his own suffering, Heracles’ appearance at the end of the drama, and the cultural significance of “strong words” such as psychē and daimon. General readers with a basic knowledge of the tragic genre and the Greek language and scholars, especially those for whom names such as Harold Bloom, Sigmund Freud, and Hans-Georg Gadamer cause fear and trembling, should pay particular attention to Austin’s book; for Sophocles’ Philoctetes and the Great Soul Robbery is a remarkably successful example of how the language and concepts of psychology and modern philosophy need not be anachronistic impositions on an ancient text, but can help the modern reader so removed from the context of the original performance come to grips with difficult ideas arising from the text itself.

In the last section of the book, “Appendix: The Problem of Helenus’s Prophecy and Its Relationship to Neoptolemus,” Austin notes that readers of the play are “placed under a double restraint” because “on the one hand, as post- Enlightenment humanists, we are often advised to brush aside the religious language in our study of Sophocles, while, on the other hand, we are cautioned not to import into our reading any insights to be gleaned from modern psychological theory” (208). As a result of this “double restraint,” scholars have focused primarily on the political aspects of the Philoctetes. While in no way denying the political purpose of Odysseus and Neoptolemus’ mission to Lemnos, Austin focuses his attention on character development and the moments of religious import that occur after Neoptolemus begins to put Odysseus’ false drama into motion. This book is Austin’s own response to this “double restraint.” Throughout, Austin gives Sophocles himself the benefit of the doubt. Where some have viewed the play’s difficulties as faults or weaknesses, Austin sees innovations; he sees in the character of the wily Odysseus, for example, the seed of the graeculus of New Comedy (100-102). When making a claim about the moral development of one of the characters, Austin defers first and foremost to the text. Details of the text itself provide the most compelling evidence for Austin’s main claim that Odysseus and Neoptolemus are not simply trying to deceive or persuade Philoctetes, they are, in effect, there to steal his soul.

After an introductory chapter, which provides basic information about Sophocles and the place of the characters of the Philoctetes within the epic tradition, the first two chapters of the book detail Austin’s own approach to the text, situate the play within the culture of late fifth century Athens, and describe how each of the three Greek tragedians re-worked aspects of the epic tradition in the composition of a Philoctetes. In the first chapter, “The Problem of Translation,” Austin uses Gadamer’s concept of horizons to suggest that “in reading an ancient text” we need “to fuse the two horizons, both ours and the ancient poet’s” and notes that real gap between our horizon and Sophocles’ is religion (9). He also addresses the state of Athens at the time of Sophocles’ composition of the Philoctetes and relates the contest for the soul of Philoctetes to a contest for the soul of Athens. In the second chapter, “The Strong Poet: Tradition versus Originality,” Austin relies on Bloom’s notion of the “strong poet,” a poet whose art is the result of “the anxiety of influence matched by an equally powerful solipsism,” and Dio Chrysostom’s essay on the three Philoctetes of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles to show how each tragedian came to terms with the influence of Homer and, indeed, uniquely transformed the material of the epic tradition.

The next nine chapters each concern a different part of the play: prologos, parodos, first episode, stasimon, etc. Austin begins each of these chapter by providing a definition and describing the function of each of these parts of the tragedy, especially helpful to the non-specialist. After these introductory descriptions, Austin engages in a close reading of the text, sometimes elaborating on single words, sometimes lines or sections, while never straying too far from his main theme: the contest for the soul of Philoctetes. Where relevant, Austin provides the Greek text and a translation of a passage, often referring to different translations of the play in order to relate the word choices of various translators (R. C. Jebb, H. Lloyd-Jones, and T. B. L. Webster, etc.) to the multiple nuances the Greek word had in a late-fifth-century context.

Among the many interesting and provocative ideas to emerge from these close readings, consider the following highlights: in the third chapter, “The Prologos (Verses 1-134),” Austin closely examines a number of what he terms “strong words” contained within the prologos: logos, physis, psychē, ekkleptō, etc. By pushing the meanings of these words to their limits, so to speak, and by examining how Plato writing within the same cultural context deployed these words in his dialogues, Austin effectively demonstrates just how much these already charged words meant at the time of Sophocles’ composition. For example, when Odysseus gives Neoptolemus his orders, he is not simply telling him to “beguile” Philoctetes’ “mind” as Jebb has it; he is instead ordering Neoptolemus to “steal” Philoctetes’ “soul.” The evidence Austin provides through his study of the uses of the words psychē and ekkleptō in the late fifth century is very convincing. Furthermore, since so many of his “strong words” have religious importance, one sees how aspects of religion permeate the play from the very beginning.

Just when it looks like Neoptolemus has succeeded in his mission, a number of incidents occur that further complicate the drama. In the fifth chapter, “First Episode (Verses 219-675),” Austin discusses Neoptolemus’ growing compassion towards Philoctetes as he begins to overcome his own disgust and to befriend the suffering man (108). While concepts such as compassion, sympathy, and love are not the first to come to mind when considering a Homeric hero, Austin again credits Sophocles’ foresight and innovation here. Although we are more likely to associate these concepts with early Christian culture, Austin suggests that they are present in a nascent form in the Philoctetes. The compassion that begins to grow in Neoptolemus in part results from what Austin essentially terms Neoptolemus’ “conversion.” Relying on a careful critique of the text itself, Austin argues that the bow of Heracles is a sacred object, the cave of Philoctetes, a sacred space, Philoctetes himself, a kind of holy man. When Neoptolemus touches the bow, when he enters Philoctetes’ cave, his mission, his loyalties, and his role in the drama are radically affected. A new, different drama, begins.

As Neoptolemus gradually begins to repent his theft of the bow, Philoctetes’ sole means of support, therefore, his life, his soul, it begins to seem that Neoptolemus and Philoctetes will never achieve their heroic destiny at Troy. Austin addresses the issue of Philoctetes’ stubbornness and his own responsibility for his continued suffering in the eleventh chapter, “The Exodos (Verses 1218-1471).” Neoptolemus has regretted and taken responsibility for his own hamartia in deceiving and stealing from Philoctetes, but Philoctetes must also take responsibility for the fact that “his wound was caused by his own transgression into the sanctuary of the goddess Chrysē” (183). Yet, Philoctetes will not let go of his identity as wronged and injured victim and his stubborn refusal to go to Troy, his desire only to return to his home, a return Neoptolemus lovingly promises to effect, means he will continue to suffer from his wounded state and he and Neoptolemus will fail to fulfill their heroic destinies at Troy. Austin quite correctly points out that continuing hatred for Odysseus is itself causing Philoctetes further suffering. Neoptolemus’ promise to return Philoctetes to his homeland also puts Neoptolemus in a bind: he, in a sense, takes on Philoctetes’ wound through his commitment to his earlier promise and sacrifices his own future as hero. The drama has reached a dead end.

Enter Heracles! The last chapter of Austin’s book, “Heracles: Deus ex Machina,” is, perhaps, the strongest. The religious and psychological threads Austin has been chasing through Sophocles’ text come to fruition in his discussion of the sudden arrival of Heracles on the scene, a seemingly random instance of the deus ex machina. Having shown how religion pervades the text from the prologos on, Heracles’ sudden appearance, an “epiphany,” makes far more sense. In fact, suggests Austin, Heracles has been a part of the play all along through the presence of his sacred bow, the attempted acquisition of which has propelled the plot forward from the start. Austin (following C. Whitman) writes that “over the entire play hovers the figure of Heracles as Philoctetes’ Eidos, his Platonic Idea of himself” (194). Heracles, in a sense, does the work of both religion and psychology. His supernatural appearance accomplishes what human persuasion cannot: he will get these men to Troy to become the heroes they are destined to be. Philoctetes will have no choice but to obey, giving up “the self with which he has become identified on Lemnos” (195) however difficult that will be for him.

Austin does not convince on every point. While identity is clearly a major theme in the play, it is sometimes difficult to follow the shifts in identity Austin proposes. At times, he suggests, Neoptolemus acts as the leader of the chorus, at other times Philoctetes does. Perhaps, but sometimes these shifts seem so numerous that one wonders whether an Athenian audience would really view the tragedy in this way. The discussion of the revelation of the details of Helenus’ prophecy within the play is also problematic. Austin is right to remind us that no proper version of the prophecy was written down and consulted by Sophocles in his composition; but, there is more to be said about what the characters in the drama know about the prophecy, when they know it, and the audience’s own knowledge of the prophecy. These are minor criticisms. Ultimately, Austin effectively demonstrates how the lenses of religion and psychology can enrich a traditional close reading. Sophocles’ Philoctetes and the Great Soul Robbery is a generous work of literary criticism and an exceptional contribution to the ongoing study of what is perhaps the most perplexing of Greek tragedies.

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