On Activism, Caging, Empathy, and Impact

In this time, I often hear from people practicing activism and advocacy that the exhaustion is overwhelming, that the pressure to educate is debilitating, and that the pain and despair is unbearable most days.
I am one of these people. I am one who, like many others in similar positions, feels everything so deeply that I can hardly breathe most days, who spends my days engaging in dialogue with people who will never open their eyes to reality or care to meaningfully digest history, politics, or the realities of our world.
I am tired.
In this time, I also see some who are choosing to sit in their radio silence, marinating in their complicity and conscious/willful ignorance, claiming that activism is an empty practice, a hollow feat, a meaningless endeavor that never inspires or commands real change. In the minimal words they do find, they demean and minimize the efforts of those who are adamant about not only critically thinking about systems, human nature, politics, history, and change, but seeing it through as well.
These are cages.
From the beginning, we are told that our realities, histories, communities, and truths are worthy of erasure, are easily ignorable and negated, and that our experiences are only significant in relation to the power structures and forces that dominate our existence. I have found myself feeling limitless amounts of sadness and hopelessness during this time, sitting in the heavy reality that this is the world we must live in. But it’s that very same anger, frustration, despair, and heartbreak that make the deep feelers, activists, and allies of the world the type of people that will question and challenge the very systems that harm them most, the ones who blaze trails, who catalyze change, and who make this world a brighter, safer, and more inclusive  place.
This world and this society will always tell us that we cannot make a difference. The system is built on the silencing and deeming of the oppressed/the Other as “crazy,” “loud,” “angry,” or “much.” But we are navigating through everything that we have no choice but to deeply feel because it is so close to us, and we are channelling our “muchness” into the kind of work, dialogue, activism, and philanthropy that is both needful and world-improving. We will be the ones to feel our way through leading what needs to be led, challenging what needs to be challenged, and shaking the earth under the structures and systems that have forever tried to inhibit the power and impact of our voices and our lives.
Nothing is simpler or more convenient than creating and perpetuating a system by and for one, while the many are silenced into thinking they are helpless, aimless, powerless, and worthless. But the power abandons the empowered when we realize that its continued suppression of our voices and our experiences, its dismissal and ignorance of our potential and value, and its unjust, marginalizing treatment of the oppressed is wholly dependent on our acceptance of such a premise. The continued drowning out, co-opting, and silencing of our own voices depends on our willingness to accept such false truths. The power (undergirded by ignorance, racism, bigotry, white supremacy, misogyny, and endless oppressive forces) is contingent upon our ability to believe in its falsehood. The system and the world want nothing more than to make us feel like we cannot make a difference, that our voices will not be heard, or that change, progress, and dismantling of inherently unjust systems could never be seen.
History proves otherwise.
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Should we decide that it is no longer enough to feel it all and be told to sit with it and be grateful, should we decide that we are to rise and to fight, the foundation of such injustice and misplaced power will have already been lost. A system that is so deeply and fully broken cannot have the strength and unwavering support in its roots that will be necessary to continue on. A system that was never built for us cannot betray us, but we are empowered and informed enough to turn our back on it, for we were intentionally excluded from every notion and ideation of “equality,” “justice,” and “equity” this country has ever popularized. We are not required to listen to the songs of the oppressors, to tame our voices, experiences, and activism so as to not make the ignorant uncomfortable, or to thank the system for having not killed us yet.
In this nation and in this time, it is increasingly important that we push on, that we continue doing the necessary work and creating the change we wish to see, that we advocate and educate, exhausting as it may be. And while our bravery may be less brave as it it compulsive in order to free our minds and make space for all that we are, our voices are meaningful. This work is meaningful, and change is meaningful.
There is nothing more imperative than activism and empathy now and always, and THIS is what will continue to have lasting impact.
Extending Activism Beyond Our Own Circles
At this point, there is nothing that weighs on my mind and my heart more than the questions of how to reach people, how to extend beyond the circle I have (proudly) chosen to surround me, and how to surpass the social media feeds and the people who consistently appear on and support my platforms. Though I am more proud than ever of those whom I call friends and of what continues to be shared amongst and within them on my feeds, I’m not naive enough to think that this is the way everyone’s phones or computers look right now. And while it’s equally inspiring and esteeming to see and hear people in your circle who directly participate, advocate, and show understanding, there is no doubt that these are not the people we need to reach. We can share, post, talk, and reinforce historical and political truths to one another until the end of time. But at some point, we’re just singing to the choir. The people who have made the effort to become informed, who have spoken, who have made deliberate, conscious, and intentional choices and actions, and who have listened to BIPOC and our experiences during this time already get it. They already know. They have shown this everyday. Our activism must now go beyond.
The question is: How do we reach those who need to hear it most? Those who so violently turn their heads away from the truth, reality, brutality, contexts, and political and historical facts that they continue to willfully ignore and even deny the existence of? Those who choose not to care, choose not to see, choose not to listen/hear, and choose not to learn?
Is the comfort of living such false truths and perpetuating incorrect narratives and histories that worthy of protection? Is that “Americanism?”
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Although this is still one of the heaviest and most daunting questions for me to consider and I’ve yet to come up with a clear, concise way to tackle this and to most effectively reach beyond, here are some tips and methods that I’ve found to be the most integral when communicating with people who appear to be uninformed, non-empathetic, or wholly apathetic to the Black Lives Matter movement and the Black experience:
  1. Continue to share Black stories. The consistent uplifting of Black voices and perspectives has been one of the most inspiring and necessary outcomes of the movement that I’ve seen on every media platform. Black voices have been silenced, repressed, and ignored for 401 years too long, so including as many Black perspectives, opinions, experiences, etc. when in dialogue with someone who may be majorly unaware is absolutely essential. Do not allow the continued ignorance of the Black experience to be a shield or an excuse for the conscious refusal of many to learn and evolve, particularly when resources and content is more available than ever. The world has learned enough whitewashed history and has heard endless white voices— it’s time for the Black community to be seen.
  2. Try to give people practical, methodical steps that they can choose (or choose not to) take. Ignorance and apathy are both poisons that threaten the Black Lives Matter movement and prevent the sharing of proper information, the opportunity for meaningful dialogue, and the necessary dismantling of the inherently unjust systems on which this nation was built. I’ve found that being as clear as possible in my wording and through even offering examples, circumstances, or any kind of experiential perspective on relevant topics is most likely to be impactful to those who do not understand, fail to hear, and cannot begin to think of living outside of themselves.
  3. Recommend insightful resources for people to self-educate, for it is not the job of the oppressed to teach about oppression. Learning, listening, and engaging is of utmost importance right now— encourage it in every way you can. Simply providing book, podcast, speech, or tv/movie recommendations that engage productively and meaningfully with race, racism, power structures, and systemic injustice is a good start, and incorporating an artistic lens or layer to complex topics is rarely a harmful thing.
  4. Speak as confidently and as often as you can, and be comfortable with making people uncomfortable. There is no space for fear, hesitation, or trepidation in this movement and in this time. BIPOC are being killed everyday, and our lives are consistently endangered. It is no longer the responsibility of the oppressed and silenced to enable the continued misconstruing and perpetuation of wrongful information, harmful ideas, or hateful ideologies (even those that have been societally accepted/permitted). While it is not our job to educate, I feel a moral obligation to say something, to step in when incorrect facts or falsified information is documented or shared, and when people outside of the movement work to demonize and villainize the intentions and purpose behind it.

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

-Audre Lorde

 

Keep fighting. This is only the beginning.

On Loneliness & Yearning

When I was young, I often felt lonely. To be frank, most days I still do.

I remember always wondering if I’d feel this way forever. You know, like home to the deep kind of loneliness that just takes your breath away. In trying to explain how my heart felt, I would always write off the deep ache within as nostalgia, a force I’m anything but a stranger to. I’ve always been aware of how nostalgic and past-centered of a heart I have (I mean, I used to sob on New Year’s Eve as a child because I didn’t want the year to end and for a chapter of life to close). In addition to that, though, there was always a steadfast, lingering feeling of aloneness I had. Not in the surface-level, simplistic sense that I needed more friends or felt unsupported/under-encouraged in any way, but in a massive, profound way that tied into what felt like the depths of the entire universe. From a very young age, I became fascinated by the seemingly endlessness of the world, the grandiose and mysterious ways in which people inhabited it, each finding their direction and their people to make it through. I found it extremely overwhelming to think about the world in such a vast and limitless way, for it inherently had an ability to make me feel small. It’s taken me many years to realize that the vastness and capaciousness the world entails does not intrinsically make me any less significant; that the world can be limitless, striking, and magnificent, and so can I.

Significance and brilliance do not have to be exclusive, and I don’t find it to be.

As a child, it was nearly impossible for me to grapple with the innate philosophic nature of my mind that has always been present and simultaneously find ways to suppress how lonely this kind of thought often made me feel. I don’t remember a time ever feeling full or “complete,” for the mere knowledge that such a grand world existed and I was so bound by the time, space, and life I had was crippling. Maybe it was a severe case of FOMO, or maybe it was something much deeper. It has always been difficult for me to properly express or explain what this feeling was like, but what I do have are vivid memories of telling my mom that I just felt out of place sometimes. More that that, I think I even felt as if I was in the completely wrong time and place. These kinds of thoughts and sentiments I had were always accompanied by a great deal of guilt, for I couldn’t fathom the truth of having many friends, feeling great love, having every bit of encouragement and reassurance one could need, and yet still feeling so incredibly alone when I lied in bed at night. I felt guilty for having so much and somehow not putting together how exactly to reap what others had sown for me. What more could I need in order to feel complete? How could I teach myself to just be fulfilled and whole like everyone around me was?

This internal dialogue never silenced in my mind or in my heart. I carried it with me for years, always convinced that I must have been missing something. I knew I was happy, content, and even inspired. But still, a part of me remained that wondered if every space and vacancy inside of me could ever be filled. I never let go of the loneliness or of the guilt that followed its lead, wherever it went. I spent a lot of my time observing others, questioning what the ability or sense they had inside was that enabled them to feel fulfilled and not alone on this vast planet. Now, a lot has changed for me in the ways I observe and engage with others. The ebbs and flows of this life have taught me this: a human being’s understanding and expression of fulfillment is one of the things most unique to them. A sense of wholeness is not only something to be sought after, but something to be felt and learned through the many evolutions we experience in this life. I’ve come to accept that the aloneness I experience is not emblematic of my inability to experience fulfillment. Rather, perhaps my loneliness is a subconscious recognition of the idea that people aren’t born complete. Nobody comes into this world at the height of their being, having felt and embraced complete and full humanness. That is something we must learn. What greater purpose could we have as human beings than to pursue ourselves (in the form of our passions, lifestyles, loves, failures, successes, etc.) in an even greater attempt to feel whole? I find no deeper or more profound meaning to this life of this existence, so maybe feeling incomplete is the gift that allows us to continue living beautifully and with great heart. Maybe feeling alone is what most binds us all together, makes us all understand & sense one another’s hearts in their most open and vulnerable of forms, and serves to remind us that none of us are ever truly alone at all.

Homesickness. Longing. YEARNING.

That’s the best way I’ve come to describe the feeling that often stops me in my tracks, forces me to be still, and pushes me to examine every ounce of who I am and what I wish to be in this world. It’s the constant, debilitating pressure I feel every minute of everyday to be somewhere, to do something, and to grow into someone of importance. The aloneness reminds me everyday that the universe is grand, mysterious, and often relentless in the ways it creates paths for all of us here. The endlessness of it all can be alluring in the most beautiful and magical of ways, but it can also be equally paralyzing. That’s the part of it that consistently creates and reinforces the loneliness inside of me sometimes, for the awareness of infinite possibility only heightens the innate sense of insignificance or smallness I often feel inside. In some ways, I find that having such a gracious world home to limitless opportunity is a kind of hindrance in itself, for its lack of barriers somehow enhance the ones I have within. The unknown has always been a source of great strife for me, for I enjoy having plans, expectations, goals, deadlines, and a life of obligations and checked-off lists. The funny thing I’ve come to realize though, is that the things I once believed to help complete and ennoble me were actually the things that made me feel most alone. In other words, everything I’ve always thought to be the end goal and what I wanted most is anything but; what I really needed was something I neglected for years upon years— stillness. To just be.

Contrary to what I once believed, there is a kind of power to be embraced in stillness; to simply exist and do/expect nothing more. I always thought that the more time I spent in my own head, sorting out my internal monologue and discovering my own emotionality, the more lonely I would be. I mean, it’s only logical to assume that spending time alone and in introspective analysis would be especially isolating. For me, though, places and situations that allow me this type of freedom and creative space are actually where I feel most myself and at home. As I’ve grown and evolved with time and with experience, I’ve found that I tend to feel most alone when I’m surrounded by lots of people. This isn’t always true, but it is when the space I occupy is simultaneously being occupied by people with which I go unseen or unheard. Feeling known is something I’ve discovered to be really important to me. Not liked, just known. Heard. Understood. The solitude I’ve heeded throughout the years has allowed me to see this in myself, and that has made the world of a difference in my heart’s loneliness.

I’m surrounded by the greatest of friends, the most loving, wonderful family, and a world of opportunity and experience just outside the door. But still, my heart often aches with nostalgia and pangs with reminders of how incomplete I sometimes feel. I still don’t feel complete, nor am I fully satisfied with the life I’ve lived thus far. I’m not always fulfilled, and my breath is often taken away by how intensely I feel that I’m walking alone on this earth, for no one is me, therefore no one could fully understand me. The awareness that only I am myself, that my heart cannot be held or seen in its completeness, and that my thoughts & words may not ever be expressed or understood in the way I intend to articulate them remains a great fear of mine. I feel as if I’m reminded of the individual and lonely existence we all have here more than anything else, and it frequently saddens me and fogs my ability to embrace the beauty of this world and this life as the moments continue to pass. But the isolation within my heart and the lack of fulfillment I experience is more encouraging than disheartening, more hopeful than discouraging, and does not oppress or bind me in the ways I once believed it to.

Feeling alone is merely a part of the human condition. It is a fraction of my existence and my personhood and, though at times it feels overwhelming in the most intense of ways, it is not consuming. It does not entrap my mind or my heart, and it no longer has the power to. Maybe we’re all a little bit empty, a little bit unfulfilled, a little bit lonely, and a little bit incomplete. And maybe that’s okay. Because we’ll figure it out. We have to. That’s the point of all this, isn’t it?

That’s who we are and what we’re made to do: to yearn, to long, and to search— for meaning, life, love, value, wholeness, and fulfillment. We will one day discover it all, if not in people and in things, then in our hearts and our souls. Perhaps that will be the last place we think to look, but that’s where the deepest and most significant findings will occur.

All within.

All alone.

 

Political Community vs. The Soul

Alright, everyone. We’re taking a break from the emotional, nostalgic wave I’ve been riding lately and are getting back to some philosophical roots in this post! The state of our nation and the direction of the political world is constantly on my mind, but especially as of late. One of the political questions I’ve been pondering since the start of my undergraduate career is the role of political community and how virtuosity and viciousness tie into both political engagement and the lack thereof. In other words, I’ve taken great interest in human nature, matters of the soul, whether or not politics is inherently engaging and virtue-bearing, and whether political “retirement” or refusal to involve oneself in matters of the state is emblematic of some form of vice. My graduate school coursework will likely have some semblance of these questions and theories, so this essay I wrote last year has been at the forefront of my mind in recent weeks. Here are some notes on political community and the human soul:

In Politics, it is undeniable that Aristotle proceeds to make a multitude of claims about the nature of the state, how it relates to the notion of a community, and the role and responsibility that he believes human beings to have to participate in such a community. He emphatically discusses at length how important and necessary communities are, and ultimately works to argue that human existence and engagement in political community and is absolutely essential in trying to achieve eudaimonia, or the ultimate good/happiness. In the very opening of Book I of Politics, he claims that “it is clear that all communities aim at some good, and that the community that is most authoritative of all and embraces all the others does so particularly, and aims at the most authoritative good of all. This is what is called the city or the political community” (Aristotle 1).

Through his immediate articulation of the notion of community and what he understands it to be working towards, it is clear that Aristotle holds the political community to a high (if not the highest) regard, even equating it to the city itself. His emphasis and transparent declaration that the political community is the highest and all-encompassing community allows him to set the stage for what will be discusses in his subsequent books in Politics, and ultimately leads him to stating that “the city belongs among the things that exist by nature, and […] man is by nature a political animal” (Aristotle 4). This premise is what most undergirds Aristotle’s argument throughout the text and bodes well in concisely summarizing what he wishes to proclaim about the function of the political community and the agents within it– that the community is absolutely needful, the source of human engagement, and the only means by which a human being may obtain eudaimonia. In short, Aristotle’s theory of virtue and eudaimonia is completely dependent and contingent on human beings’ potential and actualization of participating in a political community, and he deems it completely imperative for people to do so. He even goes as far as to say that human beings are their most human (that is, we best express our humanity and highest capacities) when we engage politics and claims that we simply cannot exist without the community in general. He claims that “the individual when separated from [the city]is not self-sufficient” and that “one who is incapable of sharing or who is in need of nothing through being self-sufficient is no part of a city, and so is either a beast or a god” (Aristotle 5). This, by and large, is the argument that most grounds what Aristotle works to lift up throughout the text, and is the principle that will be challenged throughout this paper. Aristotle says that political engagement and the participation in a community of this sort is unquestionably necessary in order to pursue justice, virtue, and eudaimonia, and he does not believe it to be possible or probable for people to exist outside of the community successfully. However, I think it possible that Aristotle, in so enthusiastically defining the political community and describing its essentiality in relation to human beings, perhaps undermines several other elements that have major force in the lives of people, and even misses some that may even be more important. That is, Aristotle fails to recognize the complexity and difficulties that may arise between individuals and their community, and he undermines the possibility of an unjust political community in and of itself. Should he believe the political community to be the ultimate driving force in the pursuit of justice and eudaimonia, yet the political system itself is unjust and detrimental for the individual, I find it very difficult to agree with Aristotle in saying that it is necessary for human life and happiness. If the political community and the practice of engaging with it is, in some way, damaging to an individual or their soul, then Aristotle’s argument appears to be somewhat self-defeating. In short, he fails to consider the potential for an unjust and injurious political community, as we witness in Sophocles’s Philoctetes, thus causing him to overlook circumstances and states in which engaging with the political community would not only be disadvantageous for an individual, but also pain-inducing and harmful to their life and soul.

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One of the ancient works that I have found to be in direct conflict with the overall premise and argument articulated in Aristotle’s Politics is Philoctetes, a tragic play by Sophocles. The play tells the story of Philoctetes, a notable archer and warrior in ancient Athens, who was bitten on the foot by a snake and abandoned by his own men on the island of Lemnos, left with nothing but his wound to rot (and his bow and arrow). Throughout the play, Philoctetes is further schemed when Neoptolemus and Odysseus, after being told by a well-regarded prophet that Philoctetes and his bow and arrow are necessary to bring down Troy, attempt to rob him of his bow and deceive him in doing so. The Athenian men go to Lemnos with the intention of persuading Philoctetes to rejoin their army and fight the war with them, but many complications and questions arise when Philoctetes (rightly so) does not wish to rejoin Athens. Philoctetes, in this sense, has been completely disengaged from his political community and the life in Athens following the desertion he faced after being left on Lemnos by men he trusted, and does not feel an obligation nor a desire to re-engage with the community that had abused and wronged him. The clear deception that Odysseus and Neoptolemus exercise right from the start indicate that their motives are not derived from an innocent and virtuous place, for they only wish to trick Philoctetes enough to succeed in escorting him back to Athens with them. As Odysseus speaks to Neoptolemus and directs him in what to say to Philoctetes, the malice is evident: “You must maneuver the mind of Philoctetes and deceive him with beguiling words. […] Say they implored you to leave home and join them as the only man who could bring down Troy […] Say what you will, as bad as can be, the worst things imaginable” (Sophocles 6). Odysseus’s attempt to persuade Neoptolemus to act in such a deceptive and scheming manner is both disappointing and unjust in itself, for it illustrates the malfeasance and degrading effects the corruption of the youth may have in the formation and actualization of people’s character. Following the orders given by Odysseus, we see the character and demeanor of Neoptolemus change from a man of high integrity and one who “would rather do right and fail than do wrong to win,” to one who, in attempting to follow orders from those who are hierarchically more powerful and respectable, abandons his sense of virtue and goodness for the sake of honor and victory. This initial change in Neoptolemus’s character after being inveigled by Odysseus is the first instance in which it becomes clear that the Greek political community is perhaps mal-intended and unjust in itself, thus raising question as to whether the community has the capacity to be considered something essential in achieving eudaimonia, justice, or virtue. That is, if both the political community and the actors who engage in the community do not act according to justice, it would be difficult to sustain Aristotle’s claim that the community is the mode by which justice can be attained. Assuming that the Athenian political community that is reflected throughout the play is one in which the men deceive one another for the sake of achieving glory or honor, lose their integrity in order to prove their loyalty to those with power, and treat the misfortunes and pains of others (as in the case of Philoctetes) as negligible and unworthy of consideration, I would hardly say that this type of environment is one aimed at the good, justice, or any facets of the sort that Aristotle is so certain of being true of the political community. The way in which the Athenian community is presented in Philoctetes challenges Aristotle’s notion and role of the political community that he describes in Politics and poses the question of whether or not communities have the capacity to cause more harm than good and be more detrimental for the individual and his/her soul. In the case of Philoctetes, his forced re-entry into the political system is something that is questionable– there is reason to doubt if his being forced to engage with the system, people, and community that had previously caused him immeasurable amounts of agony and grief was necessary for him to continue on. Furthermore, I find it unlikely that his reintroduction into the community was something that would enable him to be “happier” than he was in existing outside of it. For this reason, I find Philoctetes and his life to be an unmistakable counterexample to Aristotle’s notion of community and its capacities.

In some ways, the Aristotelian view of political community is both understandable and agreeable, for it is difficult to imagine a world where communities of this sort don’t exist, and even harder to imagine individuals who are so detached from the community as a whole and are completely uninvolved in every aspect. In this sense, the community can be deemed necessary merely because it exists. However, that in no way means that the community manifests all of the assets Aristotle believes it to in his articulation. It is possible, and clear in Philoctetes’s circumstance, that the community is neither just nor good, thus rendering it somewhat improbable to conclude that it is capable of promoting the pursuit of eudaimonia and virtue. For Philoctetes, the mistreatment, abandonment, and pain (both physically and psychologically) he endured at the hands of the political community which betrayed him is irreparable. The damage and harm the political community caused him was not without cost, and the attempt of Odysseus and Neoptolemus to deceive him further only illuminates the inherent conflict between political community and the proper orderliness of the soul more. If Aristotle is correct in his notion that Philoctetes could only flourish, achieve the ultimate good, or display his humanity if he were to re-enter the environment that had destroyed him in the past, his circumstance is extremely problematic, for it asks an awful lot of Philoctetes. Not only is he expected to put aside all that has been done to him and the pain he has been forced to deal with, but he is also expected to assist those who had wronged him in their pursuit of glory and honor, something that Philoctetes undoubtedly would not desire to do. The re-engagement with his political community that Philoctetes ultimately concedes to is not a choice that came without consequence (if it can be considered a choice at all). Philoctetes, in describing what he had been through and the position he later found himself in, stated, “Evil creatures are never destroyed; some unseen power carefully protects them and takes perverse pleasure in diverting criminals and wrongdoers away from Hades, while the just and the good are sent straight there” (Sophocles 23).

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It is clear that, after all that had been done to him, Philoctetes had lost faith in the rightful outcomes of justice in accordance to man’s character, and he did not take lightly the wrongdoings that had been committed against him. Still, when Neoptolemus and Odysseus arrive on Lemnos trying to persuade him to come back to Athens, rejoin their army, and reintegrate back into the political community so that they may win the way, Philoctetes does so. It only takes the arrival of Heracles at the very end of the play to change the course of Philoctetes’ thoughts. The deus ex-machina ending of Philoctetes involves Heracles descending from the heavens and directing Philoctetes to go with the men to Troy so as to “be cured of [his] vicious wound” and be known as the army’s champion (Sophocles 69). Heracles proclaims that his suffering “will be repaid with a life of glory,” and that the Athenian civilization will forever hold him in high regard,” something that clearly is of high value to the people of Athens (Sophocles 69). The order of the god takes immediate hold within Philoctetes, and he immediately agrees to sail back to Athens, but the dissatisfaction and malcontent that accompanies this ending should not go unnoticed or unexamined. By the end of the play, it is evident that Odysseus had only selfish and conniving intentions for wanting Philoctetes to rejoin the Athenian army. He had not only succeeded in persuading Neoptolemus to abandon his sense of morality and integrity in going along with his deceitful motives, but he also achieved what he wanted to accomplish all along when Philoctetes agreed to return to Athens and fight the war. The mere injustice of the course of these events throughout the play is what makes Aristotle’s conceptualization of the political community as a mechanism through which happiness and justice is achieved a hard pill to swallow, and a description that doesn’t quite fit Philoctetes’ situation. It seems as if asking Philoctetes to simply let go of all that was done to him and wash away his pain is a wearying and unreasonable task, yet he is still asked to do so, and concedes upon being asked. The encouragement of those around him, Odysseus, Neoptolemus and Heracles alike, to return to Athens by their side whilst dismissing from mind all of the turmoil and pain he had endured is not only a sign of manipulation, but a reflection of an unjust political community. Philoctetes’s re-entrance into the Athenian community was one in which he did not receive the just treatment or recognition he deserved, nor did Odysseus and Neoptolemus reprimanded in any way for what they had done. In this way, the wicked were never punished (or even considered wicked except by Philoctetes himself), and the good individual with the virtuous soul was forced to reconcile his burdens and pains so as to rejoin the political community that had created his misery in the first place.

See the source image
See the source image

The tragedy of Philoctetes lies in the fact that political life itself is in conflict with the pursuit of justice and virtue, and there is no inconsequential and just way to go about it, for human beings ourselves are incapable of escaping the injustices that accompany political engagement (illustrated for the need of Heracles to descend and “solve” the worldly problem).  Philoctetes must return to Greece with those who betrayed him, while simultaneously receiving an opportunity to be healed. The paradoxical ending reflects the tragedy that participating in a political community may be inevitable and unworthy of choice but is perhaps not always the best option for the nature of the soul. In the end, we are left with a meaningless solution provided by a god– one that offers no insight as to how to begin solving the lasting and inevitably tragic conflicts that come with political and social life. The harmony has been lost, and there is no seeing a possibility of coexistence between political community/engagement and the pursuit of justice and virtue, thus challenging Aristotle’s claim that political community is where eudaimonia is said to be found and where the source of justice lies.

With Philoctetes in mind, it is clear that political community can be harmful and have detrimental effects on the individual, which leads me to believe that perhaps political engagement is not what allows for the highest good. In fact, it is something that can produce permanent and ruinous impacts on people and their lives. In this way, I disagree with Aristotle, for I find it more agreeable to say that political community is somewhat inevitable (simply because it exists), but not necessarily essential for human life or the pursuit of eudaimonia or justice. The likelihood that political communities, like that of Athens in Philoctetes, will be unjust and reflect a world in which the wicked proceed to be honored, moral compromises are made and result in the loss of integrity, and the blameless suffer is not a community that I call just, nor is it one in which I can imagine human beings flourishing. That is to say, political engagement comes at a very high cost, one that is often irreparable and unfair. And to me, the inherent conflict between the need to engage in political community and the pursuit of justice, a well-ordered soul, and human flourishing is enough for me to defy Aristotle’s elevation of political community as the means to achieve the highest good. Political community is, in itself, a tragic element of human life; we are forced to live with one another despite everything, but that doesn’t deem the community necessary for happiness. For if the community is unjust and inequitable, as it is in Philoctetes, the position of the individuals and their souls is at stake, something that should never be taken lightly. Aristotle fails to acknowledge the possibility of such conflicts that may arise, as Philoctetes’s circumstance so perfectly demonstrated, and through Sophocles’s play, it becomes clear how complex and tragic political life really is, despite all of the potentials Aristotle believes it to have.

Works Cited

Aristotle, Politics. Edited by C. D. C. Reeve. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2017.

Sophocles. Philoctetes. Edited by Seth L. Schein, Cambridge University Press, 2013.