Odysseus: Master of Moral Adaptability

In this series of posts, I examine the various versions of Odysseus/Ulysses that appear in the classical texts of the Greeks and Romans in an attempt to create a clear picture of who Odysseus really is. Most of the content in this series was written in February of 2013, as part of an assignment for a advanced literature course at Santa Clara University called Classical Mythology in the Western Tradition. In this class, we traced two major mythological figures, Odysseus and Helen, through the western literary tradition, from the ancient days to their modern incarnations.


Odysseus as Master of Moral Adaptability in the Philoctetes

In his Philoctetes, Sophocles portrays an Odysseus, who, at a cursory glance, is entirely unlike the democratic hero of the Ajax play who respects and honors his enemies. As it turns out, this version of Odysseus follows a similar principle as the Odysseus of the Ajax: the adjustment of traditional morality to achieve a practical, self-interested goal.

At the start of the Trojan War, as the Greeks are journeying to Troy, the warrior Philoctetes was bitten by a snake. The injury was so bad that it left Philoctetes with a crippled foot, and Odysseus decides to abandon him on the deserted island Lemnos.

He claims that he was “bidden by my chiefs to do… because we could attempt neither drink-offering nor sacrifice in peace; with his fierce ill-omened cries he filled the whole camp continually, shrieking, moaning”[1]. As annoying as Philoctetes’ screams must have been, he is a friend, who under traditional forms of Greek morality should be protected and respected. Odysseus, though, sees no problem in abandoning this moral principle out of a practical concern.

We also see that he defers responsibility to his superiors, as a politician often does, so as to maintain the appearance of integrity; his moral adaptability is at work. He is then willing to reverse this abandonment and retrieve Philoctetes, as soon as he learns of another practical concern: that Philoctetes’ bow will play an essential role in the destruction of Troy[2].

Odysseus uses his skills in guile and persuasive language to convince Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, to help him deceive Philoctetes so that he can be delivered to Troy. He says to Neoptolemus, “I well know… that by nature you are not apt to utter or contrive such guile, yet seeing that victory is a sweet prize to gain bend your will to it”[3]. He tries to persuade Neoptolemus by using victory—the end goal—as a justification for the possibly unsavory means necessary to attain it.

As the events of the play unfold, both Neoptolemus and the audience start to feel increasingly uncomfortable with Odysseus’ methods. Through deceit, Neoptolemus nearly convinces Philoctetes to come with him, but then he questions himself, asking, “Must I be found twice a villain, by disloyal silence as well as by shameful speech?”[4]

Neoptolemus, like his father Achilles, is shown to be a bastion of honest and direct confrontation, who not only views deceitful tactics as inherently immoral, but also feels that he is being disloyal by deceiving Philoctetes, whom he starts to view as a a friend.

“All is offense,” he says, “when a man has forsaken his true nature and is doing what does not befit him”[5]. Here, Neoptolemus is saying that the Odyssean use of lies clashes against his own core ideals of honorable honesty and kind treatment of friends.

This forsaking of one’s true identity sounds very much like the changeable and adaptable morality of Odysseus. Neoptolemus’ portrayal acts as an indictment of the Odyssean system of thinking. Odysseus is willing to use any means necessary to achieve his goals: first he uses deceit, and when that fails, resorts to violence to bring Philoctetes to Troy[6].

Philoctetes refuses to go with Odysseus, and at first, we understand and sympathize with his justifiable rage[7]; after all, he has been abandoned by his own friends on a deserted island for ten years, with an injured, festering foot that causes him considerable pain. As a result, Odysseus’ mistreatment of him seems at the very least unsavory and unsettling, if not villainous.

As time goes on, though, Philoctetes’ refusal to go to Troy appears increasingly irrational; at Troy, his injured foot will be healed by the sons of Asclepius, thus ending his constant pain, and he will also receive great glory in battle. He will no longer be abandoned and will be welcomed back, with open arms, by his Greek comrades[8].

So, the end-goal of Odysseus—bringing Philoctetes to Troy—is not a terrible one: Philoctetes himself will benefit from it. At the end of the play, even Herakles, the hero who has become a god, decrees that Philoctetes must go to Troy[9]. Neoptolemus and all the other Greek warriors would also very much like to see the fall of Troy.

If the practical end goal is agreed to be positive for all parties involved, why then are we left with such an unsavory view of Odysseus? Why do we feel so uncomfortable with his moral adaptability and his willingness to harm and deceive his own friends? He is, after all, being quite pragmatic in his actions.

Sophocles seems to warn the audience that it is very easy in the ever-changing society of democratic leaders and morally adaptable politicians to lose track of basic moral principles—treating one’s friends well, for instance—and to conduct oneself dishonestly, even in the pursuit of goals that are ultimately good.

Strangely, Odysseus only describes the positive results of his actions when he is trying to persuade others, like Neoptolemus, to do what he wants[10]: he never says that he wants to end the Trojan War to prevent more deaths or anything of that sort. All he wants is “victory”[11]—to succeed at his goals, no matter the cost.

He, then, is an amoral pragmatist, who needs no goal of positive moral standing to justify his actions. He just needs a goal—any goal—and he will achieve it. In a democratic society like Athens, citizens must not choose leaders who justifies any actions in the name of getting things done; instead, leaders must ground themselves in some form of morality, instead floating on some ill-defined moral adaptability like Odysseus.


The version of the Philoctetes that I read was from a book containing all seven of Sophocles’ surviving plays. The editor, Moses Hadas, took the old-fashioned Jebb translations of Sophocles and has apparently updated them for a modern audience.

However, though it is cheaper and more convenient to have all these tragedies collected together, this translation is probably not the easiest version to get through. It is decent, certainly, but the language is a bit too archaic for most readers, I’d expect.

Unfortunately, this version does not use line numbers, so that meant I needed to use page numbers when quoting from the play. If you want to follow along and see exactly where certain quotes came from, you’ll need to use this exact version.

However, if you’d just like to read the Ajax play for your own knowledge or enjoyment, here are some other editions I might recommend to you, even though I have not personally read them before.

First is the Sophocles II volume published by the University of Chicago Press and edited by Richmond Lattimore and David Grene, containing the four plays of Sophocles that are not part of the Oedipus cycle (this includes AjaxPhiloctetesThe Women of Trachis, and Electra). The entire Greek tragedy collection of Grene and Lattimore has been the standard of translation for over fifty years, but has recently been updated in a third edition.

You might also want to try the translation by David Raeburn, the new edition from Oxford University Press, or the volume from Meineck and Woodruff. Again, I have not read these versions, but they are newer and more modern than the one that I read for class.

[1] Philoctetes, p. 183, The Complete Plays of Sophocles, R.C. Jebb, tr., (Bantam).
[2] Philoctetes, p. 184.
[3] Philoctetes, p. 185.
[4] Philoctetes, p. 203.
[5] Philoctetes, p. 203.
[6] Philoctetes, p. 205-6.
[7] See Philoctetes, p. 204-7 for examples of this anger.
[8] Philoctetes, p. 215.
[9] Philoctetes, p. 216-7.
[10] Philoctetes, p. 184-5, 205-8.
[11] Philoctetes, p. 207.


2 thoughts on “Odysseus: Master of Moral Adaptability

  1. Odysseus is clearly not practicing Greek morality and definitely lack of leadership. He is not prepared to cope with unanticipated circumstances (i.e. weather, sickness, sea/wind conditions…) as he is heading to the war. On the other hand, I find his “moral adaptability” amusing yet practical, it is truly an art that he mastered.

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