My Agony is More Noble Than Your Pain

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My Agony is More Noble Than Your Pain

In a world where an infallibly righteous God oversees justice, the source of all human suffering is known and understood. While this may not make the pain of the punishment He assigns any less agonizing, it at least lends it clarity. When Job loses his family and his fortune, he immediately knows with whom to take up his case. However, in a world where the gods do not determine all human actions and exert their influence arbitrarily, one’s misfortune is wholly one’s own to bear, no matter how undeserved it may be. Sophocles emphasizes this human aspect of injustice in Electra and Philoctetes, placing both main characters in a position of undeserved suffering caused largely by human actions. Electra and Philoctetes are in a situation comparable to Job—they were wronged by powers mightier than themselves and bringing those powers to justice is an arduous or downright impossible task. Both characters must decide whether to cling to their suffering because it is just, at the expense of their humanity or their lives, or to relinquish it in order to rejoin society either literally, in Philoctetes’s case, or metaphorically in Electra’s.

Where Job could not feasibly punish God, and was therefore left with only the choice between abandoning or maintaining his faith in the face of injustice, the world of arbitrary and human injustice opens a new avenue to end suffering: revenge. Electra immediately seizes on this as her only hope of salvation and sets the machinery to accomplish it in motion by sending Orestes off with Pedagogus after her father’s murder. However, this shifts her control of the revenge out of her hands and, while her communication with Orestes keeps the prospect close enough to obsess her, it also renders her entirely passive to his will. The chorus repeatedly rebukes her for her self-inflicted misery, claiming that nothing will assuage it once it has been too deeply entrenched. They say, “If past the bounds of sense you dwell in grief that is cureless, with sorrow unending, you will only destroy yourself, in a matter where evil knows no deliverance…Why do you seek it?” (Electra, 140-145). Electra does not refute the truth of their speech, focusing instead on her admiration of those who cling to suffering.

In contrast, whatever desire for vengeance Philoctetes has towards those who wronged him, he can only direct it through curses and appeals to the gods because he has no reasonable hope of punishing Odysseus and the Atridae himself.
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