Caring about Ajax
Caring about Ajax
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter focuses on the character of Odysseus in the story of Ajax. The story reveals that Odysseus, the man who will do anything to win, cared about Ajax. Odysseus also felt compassion for Ajax and brings respect for his honor. Odysseus can be compared to a quarterback who has respect for the offensive line. He accepts his fame with its huge rewards along with an acute awareness of his own vulnerability.
Odysseus speaks first in my narrative. He has won the contest but lost a friend, and he knows that this is not the way a contest should end.
The story he has to tell here is sad in many ways, sad for Ajax and for all who loved him. But it is also sad about justice and compassion and friendship. All the good things failed for Ajax and Odysseus. Good things are not supposed to fail, so we need to ask what went wrong.
But something is going right in the story. It reveals itself in Odysseus’s attitude toward Ajax. This is a stunning surprise in the play by Sophocles: Odysseus, the famous trickster, the man who will do anything to win, the man who invented the Trojan Horse—this man cares about Ajax.
Ajax used to be lovable enough, but now he has changed. The lovable, loyal, hardworking soldier has transformed himself into a furious killing machine, driven by the anger that grew from shame and dishonor. He was always a man who cared about honor, who did the honorable thing again and again, and was honored for what he did. But now Odysseus’s victory in the contest has put him to shame. The more you care about honor, the worse it hurts to be (p.72) put to shame. And shame leads to anger—anger at those who shamed you, anger at those who saw you being shamed, and anger at yourself for being shamed. Ajax’s love of honor was prodigious, and so, therefore, was his anger.
“Silly old Greek!” you want to say. “We are so much better off than he was; we, at least, do not have to live in a primitive culture that makes so much of honor and shame.”
Think again. He was no sillier than we are. Many of the disputes we experience daily over rewards and compensation are all about shame and honor. In a philosophy department, Professor X is angry to find that a colleague who has published less than he is making a higher salary; or Professor Y is angry that Professor X is well paid while giving no attention to teaching. “No one respects the time and energy I put into my students,” Professor Y fumes. Perhaps his honor will be satisfied if he is given a major teaching award. Little of this has been about the buying power of a salary; it has mostly been about shame and honor.
Consider the difference in a university between the staff who provide student services and the faculty who bring glory through research. In hard times, staff jobs will be cut and salaries frozen or diminished through furloughs, while the most distinguished faculty will be untouched or rewarded. Top faculty are irreplaceable and essential to what the university perceives as its mission; student services staff can be replaced or eliminated with no damage to the rankings of the various departments. Budget cuts of this kind show these loyal hard workers that they are outliers in the university community. They are hurt when they are deprived of money, but they are hurt more grievously by the realization that they do not count for much. They are Ajax.
(p.73) Take the case of the banker and the autoworker. The worker really does not have enough buying power; but what angers her most about the whopping bonus the banker received is that it insults the hard work she has done; she has a sense of injustice, and she needs money, but her sense of injustice is tuned more closely to her to her need for respect than it is to her need for money. “I work hard every day and barely break even; he just had a few clever ideas and makes off with a fortune. They—the bosses—insult me. They say I can quit and be replaced; they say they don’t ever want the banker to quit; that is why they need to give him all that money. It’s worse than unfair.” She too is Ajax.
She is right. This is worse than unfair because of the damage to her personal sense of honor. It is devastating to be told that you are disposable, while other people are not. We are no better than the old Greeks on this: we care about honor too, and we should.
In the previous paragraphs, I have been trying to overcome a barrier to feeling compassion for Ajax—the barrier that rises between us and people whom we think are very different from us because they have feelings that make no sense to us. The ancient Greeks believed that compassion arises from a felt recognition of common vulnerability. When Odysseus pities Ajax, he does so because, as he says in Sophocles’ play (Meineck’s translation):
- I pity the poor man
- Yoked to this insatiable evil,
- Even though he is my enemy.
- It could just as easily have been me.
- We are all insubstantial shadows,
- And life is just a flickering dream.
(p.74) Odysseus knows that he too could lose his mind in anger, and we know he will, when he has been shamed by the presence of the suitors in his palace and the hospitality of his maidservants. He will slay them all without pity, men and women, and sling up the maidservants like clothes on a line—an action for which the townspeople will want to hold him accountable. Perhaps traumatized old soldiers are especially prone to such murderous anger, but we are all vulnerable. It could have been me, or you.
Along with this compassion, Odysseus brings respect for Ajax’s honor. That will show to special advantage when the time comes to bury Ajax with full honors.
Odysseus is like the quarterback who has respect for the offensive line. He accepts his fame with its huge rewards; on the other hand he is acutely aware of his own vulnerability. He knows in his gut why he needs the screen of men in front of him. So Odysseus: he knows why he needs Ajax, and he understands why he must treat Ajax with respect, even though he knows that an Ajax is easier to replace than an Odysseus.1
(1.) Contrast Odysseus against the anti-Ajaxes we also frequently encounter—people who demand more honor than is their due (the professor who leaves in a huff because he has been outvoted, enraged because his vote counts no more than anyone else’s, even though he has published more books). Ajax is not one of these; he really is the best fighter, as Odysseus is the best strategist. On Ajax’s prowess, see Athena’s remark at Ajax 119–120 and Odysseus’s judgment: “I have to admit he was the best fighter of all of us” (line 1340, Meineck).