The Judgment of Aias

by Roderick T. Long

[written for Literature and Arts C-16, Harvard, 1 March 1985]

The Aias of Sophokles is often regarded as anticlimactic for killing off its protagonist halfway through the play. But it is not clear that the Greeks of Sophokles’ time would have found it so; rather, they appear to have seen events occurring after a person’s death as determining or at least affecting the meaning of his life. Aristoteles, for instance, writing only a few decades after the age of Sophokles, observes: “That the fortunes of descendants and all a man’s friends should not affect his [a dead man’s] happiness at all seems a very unfriendly doctrine, and one opposed to the opinions men hold.” (Nikomachean Ethics, 1101 a 22) And in Aischulos’ Oresteian trilogy, the ultimate resolution comes not with the deaths of Agamemnon or Klutaimnestra, but with the eventual vindication of Agamemnon in the trial of his murderer’s murderer. A subsequent, post-mortem judgment, then, may decide the final ealuation of a person’s life; such is the case in Aias.

Aias is a man who has become completely alienated from the traditional order of Greek society, in both its divine and human aspects: “I have no hope of mercy from the gods, I am not worthy to ask the help of man.” (343-402) This condition was brought upon Aias by his own choices; not only did he defy the Atrean kings, who “are in command, And we are under them; that is as it should be” (646-705), but he also deliberately separated himself from the gods: “any fool can win With God beside him; I intend to win Glory and honour on my own account.” (706-770) The debate over his burial will determine whether Aias’ virtues make it possible to bring him back into the moral order, or whether his vices instead demand that he remain forever an outcast, even in death.

In a way, Aias’ virtues and vices are one and the same: pride, courage, self-assertion. The evaluation of these characteristics depends on the uses to which they are put. If freed from all restraint, these traits can prove destructive to the general good, as Menelaos emphasises in his speech: “There is no law In a city where there is no fear, no order In any camp that is not fenced about With discipline and respect.” (1045-1105) But in themselves, these qualities are not harmful, and may indeed be considered praiseworthy if applied to good ends. Teukros reminds Agamemnon of the “day when you were penned within your fences, Routed in battle, given up for dead, And he [Aias] came single-handed to deliver you.” (1223-1280) An Athenian audience would be likely to admire Aias’ arrogant confidence, if we may accept Thoukudides’ characterisation of them:

If they aim at something and do not get it, they think that they have been deprived of what belonged to them already [certainly an appropriate description of Aias’ attitude toward the Achillean armour]; whereas, if their enterprise is successful, they regard that success as nothing compared to what they will do next.
(History of the Peloponnesian War, I.70)

Such people as these could not but have identified with “a man Supreme in judgement, unsurpassed in action Matched to the hour.” (112-163) Indeed, the Aias seems calculated to make its hero appealing to the ears of the individualistic, competitive Athenians. In his death scene, Aias salutes “great Athens too, farewell, Whose folk are kin to mine” (819-878), while Teukros points out Menelaos’ association with Athens’ traditional enemy: “You came as Sparta’s king, not ours. What title Had you to give him orders?”

Nor is Aias’ basic motivation, by Hellenic standards, an unworthy one: “Honour in life, Or honour in death; there is no other thing A nobleman can ask for.” (467-531) But he has mistaken the proper field for the exercise of his virtues. To pursue personal ambition and honour in the context of the polis, in peaceable competition with fellow citizens (whether in public politics, in athletic or dramatic contests, or whatever), is noble; but violence to man and disrespect to God do not earn one honour among one’s peers, but rather disgrace and expulsion: “where licence reigns, And insolence, the ship of state is doomed.” (1045-1105)

Piety, as construed by Teukros, demands Aias’ burial; justice, as construed by Agamemnon and Menelaos, forbids it. The resolution of this conflict, combined with the resolution of the conflict between the individual and the community, constitutes the real climax of the drama. Unlike the Eumenides’, the Aias’ conflict is resolved, not by Athene, who fades into the background after the first scene, but by the mortal exponent of human wisdom (homo ex machina?), Odusseos.

Odusseos is able to transcend the narrow black-and-white mentality of Spartan authoritarianism, to recognise Aias’ genuine, if misdirected, value: “He was my enemy, But he was noble.” (1336-1380) He is also able to transcend the dichotomy between the interests of the individual (Aias) and the group (the Greeks under the rule of Agamemnon). His argument is based on what seems an egoistic justification: “Whom should I serve if not myself?” (1336-1380) But it is a noble egoism, which permits Odusseos to recognise his opponent’s likeness to himself and to identify with him. “I’m sorry Now, with all my heart, for the misfortune Which holds him in its deadly grip. This touches My state as well as his. Are we not all, All living things, mere phantoms, shadows of nothing?” (112-163) “Some day I too shall need that office [burial].” (1336-1380) Agamemnon and Odusseos both consider this justification an egoistic one – “Ay, there you have it: every man for himself” (1336-1380) – but if egoistic, it is not crudely so, but seems to be simply a universalisability principle based on the need for mutual cooperation, and thus represents a triumph of the democratic spirit over both tyranny and anarchy.

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