mai 21, 2024

Where Life Is, Hope Can Survive

5 min read
Where Life Is Hope Can Survive | StirlingPhilosophy

It needs to be said that, unlike some more recent cultures, the joy-loving and disarmingly honest ancient Greeks did not believe that suffering ennobled, educated, or improved the character of the sufferer in any sense whatsoever. They thought suffering was terrible, with no redeeming features, and needed to be avoided at all costs. They did not believe that suffering was distributed providentially: they were well aware that good people often suffered, and bad people had been known to die at advanced ages without apparently suffering much at all. As Philoctetes says in reference to the cynical and pitiless Odysseus, “While the gods have apportioned me no enjoyment whatsoever, you are alive and gratified. I endure so much pain and suffering, as well as being mocked by you and the Atridae.”

Philoctetes repeatedly expresses degrees of death wish, asking his own personified Life why he has not been allowed to slip down to Hades, or describing his existence as equivalent to being dead. During his first convulsive fit of agony, he begs Neoptolemus (son of Achilles) to cast him into the fires of the volcano on the island and let him burn to death; the volcanic fires also function as an analogy for the pain which surges within Philoctetes’ flesh. In his convulsive spasms, he screams for a weapon with which to kill himself, “a sword, or an ax, or any weapon—just get me one!” He wants “to mangle this flesh, to hew limb from limb with my own hand; all I can think of is death.” In addition to his suicidal and self-destructive impulses, he is extremely angry about his helplessness; he passes out from pain, and later his bow (which in his maimed state is all that keeps him alive, by enabling him to eat) is removed.1

Yet even Philoctetes’ apparently insoluble plight can be alleviated. By the end of the play, with the help of his old friend Heracles, who appears to him as a demigod, Philoctetes is persuaded to go with the Greeks back to Troy and be cured by Asclepius’s doctor son Machaon. He will have his status as esteemed master of archery restored and play a prominent role in the capture of Troy. But it is the reason why Philoctetes trusts and obeys Heracles that needs to be emphasized. Heracles is a friend—not a blood relative—and bound to him by precious reciprocal ties of loyalty, respect, and promises of protection and aid should the need arise. Even more important, Heracles has suffered a degree—although not the duration—of physical agony equivalent to Philoctetes’ own, as the demigod reminds him. Heracles’ death was caused by his putting on a garment infused with terrible corrosive poison, which gradually devoured his skin, flesh, and bones. (Heracles’ own agony is portrayed in another tragedy by Sophocles I discussed above, Women of Trachis.)2

Philoctetes knows how terribly Heracles suffered because he was present at the moment Heracles departed mortal existence to become semi-divine. Moreover, he did Heracles the ultimate kindness of putting him out of his misery: he agreed to build a pyre for him on Mount Oeta and set light to it, a deed he recalls proudly to Neoptolemus as having been “the act of a benefactor.” Philoctetes, in the world of modern medicine, might have found himself on trial for agreeing to assist Heracles, who was dying a slow and agonizing death, to a swift er demise. But in Sophocles’ ethical universe this act of euthanasia for someone facing an inevitable and agonizing death was conceived as doing the sufferer a substantial favor. In the ancient mind, such an act is wholly distinct from the temporary and intermittent urges to self destruction in a man whose life can potentially be turned around by medical care, concerned friends, restorative social justice, or random good fortune. I wish it could be discussed as a separate phenomenon today.3

One more ancient story articulates beautifully the idea that where life is, hope can survive. In this book I have used few Christian narratives, even early ones in ancient Greek, because the prevailing Christian attitude (with exceptions like John Donne’s Biathanatos) was both censorious, condemning the suicidal individual, and lacking in compassion or comfort for those left behind. But one unusual tale in an early Christian novel concerning Saint Peter’s ministry manages to be nonjudgmental and compassionate while emphasizing the same principle as that espoused by Telesphorus in his cage: where there is life there is always hope.4

Peter encounters a woman who has resorted to begging because her hands are crippled and she cannot work. She tells him that if she were possessed of a sufficiently “manly” spirit, she would throw herself from a height or drown herself to put an end to her misery (these happen to be the methods used by Edith Henderson and Robert Masterton, respectively). Peter, as a conventional Christian, warns her that people who kill themselves may face punishment in the afterlife. The woman responds that she wishes she could believe that souls live on in the underworld.

She tells him her sad story: Her husband went away for a long time, and she was harassed by her lecherous brother-in-law. She escaped by ship with her sons, but they were shipwrecked and she lost contact with them. She stayed on the island of Arados, kept alive by the hope of finding the boys: she would have drowned herself, she says, if she had not held out that hope. When she discovered corpses that she believed were those of her sons, she was saved from suicide by the kindness of neighbors. She was welcomed into their home for as long as she could work with her hands. But a disease that caused “biting pains” (perhaps osteoarthritis) put a stop to that.

The story is framed to emphasize that there is always hope of recovering both happiness and health. She finds one son alive, and her affliction is cured. The point is a Christian one, vindicating Peter’s wisdom. But the story is more universal than that, affirming the possibility that circumstances can improve in sudden and surprising ways. This is something that needs to be emphasized in any suicidal crisis.


1. On this play see Hall, “Ancient Greek Responses to Suffering.”

2. For a study of the ethics of Women of Trachis, see Hall, “Deianeira Deliberates.” For an outstanding analysis of the importance to cultural history of the representation of physical pain in Philoctetes, see Budelmann, “The Reception of Sophocles’ Representation.”

3. On suicide among the sick in antiquity see Gourevitch, “Suicide Among the Sick.”

4. The story is found in Clementine, Apostolical Constitutions 12, 13/14 =i2.312b–c.


From Facing Down the Furies: Suicide, the Ancient Greeks, and Me by Edith Hall. Published by Yale University Press in 2024. Reproduced with permission.


Edith Hall is a professor in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at Durham University. She is the author of more than thirty books, including Aristotle’s Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life. She lives in Cambridgeshire, UK.