Winter 2009

How Could You Do What You Did?

Robert Spaemann

“Guilt can be taken away from me. But shame is a feeling that no one can take away. It pertains to the fact that I was capable of doing what I did.”1

In his tragedy Philoctetes a ninety-year-old Sophocles dramatized a mythological theme from the Homeric era and won first prize for it at the Athenian drama competition. In the story the Greeks, on their voyage to Troy, abandon Philoctetes on the uninhabited island of Lemnos because he has a foul-smelling wound that will not heal. They leave him a single tool of survival: his bow—the wonderworking bow of Heracles—with which he can hunt. But in the siege of Troy, the old prophecy is confirmed: without this bow, the city cannot be conquered. Consequently, Diomedes swindles Philoctetes out of the bow and leaves him to his fate. Sophocles replaced Diomedes with the crafty Odysseus. But most importantly, he introduced into the tale the figure of Achilles’ son Neoptolemos, who can more easily deceive Philoctetes because he is not acquainted with him. Odysseus remains in the background and gives Neoptolemos instructions.

It is Neoptolemos who is actually the dramatic character, however. He is supposed to lie his way into possession of the bow. Neoptolemos has scruples. He is ashamed. But Odysseus pressures him: “I know, my son, it’s not in your nature to talk like this, lying and cheating. But the certain possession of victory is glorious. Endure this. Later we will appear upright again. Give yourself over to me now without shame—anaides—for a short part of the day. After that, fine: be acknowledged for all ages as the most god-fearing of all mortals.” Neoptolemos is torn. “I would prefer to fail at good works, Prince, than to celebrate victory in a vile venture.” But by and by he gives in and lures Philoctetes into the trap. “I renounce all shame.” When Philoctetes later notices that he has been tricked, he says to Neoptolemos: “Are you not ashamed to look at me?”

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1. Originally published in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung 295 (17 December 2005). Translated and published by permission.