Thursday, March 26, 2015

Odysseus's "winning words" in the Philoctetes

When Odysseus arrives on Lemnos, he ascertains first that Philoctetes is still alive, and second that he is and has been totally isolated. Having anticipated as much, the wily emissary is already working on the ruse to bring back the man he abandoned on that spot nine and a half years earlier.

He tells Neoptolemus:
τὴν Φιλοκτήτου σε δεῖ 55ψυχὴν ὅπως δόλοισιν ἐκκλέψεις λέγων 
You must deceive the soul of Philoctetes by speaking craftily.
He fully acknowledges that this goes against all that the noble son of Achilles believes is honorable, yet insists:
ἀλλ᾽ αὐτὸ τοῦτο δεῖ σοφισθῆναικλοπεὺς ὅπως γενήσει τῶν ἀνικήτων ὅπλων
No, the thing for which we must devise a ruse is just this: how to become a thief of his unconquerable weapons.
If Philoctetes has that formidable bow, force is not a viable option. But Odysseus has Neoptolemus, and a blank canvas. He saw immediately that Philoctetes is cut off from access to what is happening in the world, and thus is susceptible to virtually any representation. The world's greatest liar is tasked with persuading the world's most informationally deprived man, who happens to hate his guts. The talespinner's entire focus is on the "ruse" - σοφισθῆναι - a word that runs the gamut from "the teaching of wisdom" to "use fraud:"

σοφίζω ,
A.make wise, instructLXX Ps.18(19).8; “τινὰ εἰς σωτηρίαν” 2 Ep.Ti.3.15.
2. Pass., become or be clever or skilled in a thing, c. gen. rei, ναυτιλίης σεσοφισμένος skilled in seamanship, Hes.Op.649; “Μοίσαι σεσοφισμέναι” Ibyc.Oxy.1790.23; so ἐντοῖς ὀνόμασι ςX.Cyn. 13.6: abs., to become or be wise, freq. in LXX, Ec.7.24(23), al.; “βέλτερος ἀλκήεντος ἔφυ σεσοφισμένος ἀνήρ” Ps.-Phoc.130.
3. Med., teach oneself, learnἐσοφίσατο ὅτι . . he became aware that . ., LXX 1 Ki.3.8.
II. Med. σοφίζομαι , with aor. Med. and pf. Pass. (v. infr.), practise an art, Thgn.19IG12.678; play subtle tricks, deal subtly, E.IA744, D.18.227, etc.; οὐδὲν σοφιζόμεσθα τοῖσιδαίμοσι we use no subtleties in dealing with the gods, E.Ba.200; to be scientific, speculate, “περὶ τὸ ὄνομα Pl.R.509d, cf. Plt.299b, Muson. Fr.3p.12H., etc.; σοφιζόμενος φάναι to say rationalistically, Pl.Phdr.229c; καίπερ οὕτω τούτου σεσοφισμένου though he has dealt thus craftily, D.29.28; σοφίσασθαι πρός τι to use fraud for an end, Plb.6.58.12; 

As the first scene closes, the question is not whether Neoptolemus will have to tell Odysseus's lie. The question facing Odysseus is what specific form of "speaking craftily" will get the job done.

* * * * *
There was a seer of noble birth, [605] a son of Priam, called Helenus, whom that man, out on a solitary night raid—that deceitful Odysseus, whose repute is all shame and dishonor—captured. Leading him back in bonds, he displayed him publicly to the Achaeans as his glorious prey. [610] Helenus then prophesied for them whatever matter they asked, and, pertaining to Troy, he foretold that they would never sack its towers, unless by winning words [πείσαντες λόγῳthey should bring Philoctetes here from the island where he now dwells. And, as soon as he heard the seer prophecy this, Laertes' son immediately promised that he would bring the man and show him to the Achaeans. He thought it most likely that he would get him willingly, but, if unwilling, then by force, and he added that, were he to fail in this, whoever wished it might sever his head. [620] 

The merchant is speaking according to Odysseus's script. In point of fact, the merchant is almost certainly Odysseus in disguise. Not only would that make sense, given the character's masterful ability to play any role, but it would enable Odysseus to give out precisely the information he wishes to further his ruse. Onstage it would play wonderfully as he denigrates himself. And, it's entirely in keeping with the wit and craft and fun of polutropos Odysseus. Only, why does he disclose precisely this information?

Now Philoctetes might be spurred to have Neoptolemus take him from the isle, fearing the coming of Odysseus. But at a certain point he will know that he's been tricked and that the lord of Ithaka has him -- how willingly will he go? Is there not a good chance the plot will backfire? Why does Odysseus tell the man he's trying to persuade "by winning words" that he, Odysseus, stands to lose his head if his attempt to capture Philoctetes fails? What stronger motivation could Philoctetes have to ruin the plan?

* * * * * 

Gene Fletcher, a writer acquaintance, recently shared an essay in which he describes a man he knew more than a half century ago in North Florida:
[He] was a complex man. He lived by a code that I find difficult to understand much less explain. He was loyal to a fault to his friends. He was honest and you could depend on him regardless of the circumstances. His word was his bond. He understood the nature of people. He was the most adept man I ever met at making quick assessment of a person’s character. He knew how to arrange people and events in a fashion that caused the result that he wanted to occur. He was like a Master of Chess except he applied those skills to politics.
Two things are given with the figure of Odysseus: First, he is theatrical in the most persuasive way - he can successfully simulate anyone (or outis - no one) - it's a trait he shares with his great grandfather Hermes. Second, like this Florida gentleman, he could read people -- he knows what makes them tick, and how to get them to tick to his beat.

Keen insight into the tumblers of human nature was a key component of the craft of the master rhetorician -- a trait shared with Athena. Sophocles brings in the full range of Odysseus because he's deeply interested in the power of rhetoric, of "winning words."

Small digression

It gets more interesting. Much of the tradition deriving from Plato and Aristotle addresses the same inquiry -- the power of rhetoric as wielded by sophists to seem to speak truth. In fact they either do not know the truth (as Socrates usually ferrets out) or it's irrelevant -- they brashly use the power of tropes and syntactical dexterity to their advantage. Sophists win arguments regardless of the truth -- their power lies in "speaking craftily."

With Sophocles, it's different, I think. YES, all the beguiling charms of rhetoric are fully seen in all their misleading beauty, BUT the comfortable edge, the clear frame dividing mere crafty speech from truth is not so easy to locate. Just as we saw above with σοφίζω -- instruction that makes one wise and fraudulent pretense can make strange bedfellows within one and the same word, and do. Crafty speech indeed.

This can be seen in the Merchant's tale of Helenus' stipulation that Philoctetes must be brought back to the war, and reintegrated into the Greek cause not by force, but with πείσαντες λόγῳ -- linguistic power that persuades, or in Jebb's inspired translation, "winning words." What we call truth is what we are persuaded of. Many times in the tragedies a character will intend, "such and such is true," but what he/she actually says is, "I am persuaded of x."

* * * * * 

Later in the play Odysseus will describe himself as one whose natural desire, in everything, is to win:
νικᾶν γε μέντοι πανταχοῦ χρῄζων ἔφυν  (1052)
Victory, however, is my inborn desire in every field
There is no question of losing; it's a matter of discovering what craft will do the job. After telling Neoptolemus he must lie to Philoctetes, the first thing he coaches him to say is that he's the son of Achilles. The truth, if it will serve, is the best lie.

But we still have to ask: why does Odysseus introduce through the Merchant's mouth (which is his own, literally or no) the imminent arrival of himself? Why inject himself into the fiction, given how anathema he is to Philoctetes? What's the strategy, the rhetorical advantage, of disclosing that he is on his way?

A lesser liar would have kept that to himself. Is he not making his task ever so much harder? We'll take this up in another post.

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