Beast or a God

During the Trojan War, Philoctetes, the disabled archer, has been left by Odysseus, Agamemnon, and Menelaus on the island of Lemnos. The play Philoctetes by Sophocles centers around Neoptolemus and Odysseus trying to trick Philoctetes into joining the war. When Philoctetes finds out about the scheme, he says something which gives us a clue towards how the Ancient Greeks, even before Aristotle’s famous classification of humans as ζῷον πολιτικόν, viewed themselves as essentially political beings:

And now, wretch, for me you plan bonds and passage from the very shore on which you had me flung away, friendless, abandoned, citilessa corpse in the eyes of the living. (Sophocles, Philoctetes, 1021-1023)

The words Sophocles uses are ἄπολις (without a city, state) and νεκρός (corpse). The translators aren’t exaggerating for style—they’re faithful to the original text. For the ancient Greeks, to be left for ten years without a city and a home is not merely to be exiled but to no longer be a living human being. For us, the idea that company, friendship, and a city-state are essential for being human seems quite alien. But in Sophocles’ world this is not contestable, even though so much else is (MacIntyre, 1981/2007, p. 135). The rest of the Athenian world agrees:

But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he is no part of a state. (Aristotle, Politics, Book I, Part II)

  • Aristotle. Politics.
  • MacIntyre, A. C. (2007). After virtue: A study in moral theory. University of Notre Dame Press. (Original work published 1981)
  • Sophocles. Philoctetes.

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