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What is Sophocles saying about heroic values in Ajax?

Does he endorse the traditional code, or

problematize it or reject it?
The heroic values embodied by the character of Ajax in Sophocles play in many way reflect the
heroic code of the Iliad. In the Ajax however, Sophocles uses his protagonist and his relationship
with his dependants and his enemies, both mortal and divine, to explore this heroic way of life. In
many ways, it is Ajaxs inability to reconcile his adherence to the heroic code with the lack of the
reciprocal time he should receive which leads to his suicide. However, we must not see Sophocles
criticism of heroic values as a rejection of them but rather his exploration into the heroic code is a
way of investigating human nature. The interplay of the characters, their ideals and their flaws all act
to create a picture of a heroic world, but in which heroic ideals are acted upon with hypocrisy,
unjustly or not acted upon at all. I believe Socrates uses the contrast of human and divine in
combination with the portrayal of the heroic code to delve into what it fundamentally means to be
The core tenant of heroic values is the advancement of ones time above all things, and it is the loss
of Ajaxs honour by killing the livestock in a maddened state which drives the entire plot of the play.
In this sense then heroic values are key to the action of the drama, as well as being the guiding force
behind Ajaxs motives. Therefore, there is not a single part of the play which is not in some way a
comment upon the heroic code. Another integral part of the heroic values of the Ajax is the help
friends, harm enemies maxim, by which one aids ones dependants, allies, and comrades, but
injures, and even delights in injuring, ones foes. The violation of these two core beliefs of the heroic
code in the narrative is important for our understanding of the play as it is when these beliefs are
contravened that discord arises.
From the opening moments of the play we bear witness to the aftermath of Ajaxs disgrace, as
Odysseus seeks out the perpetrator of the killing of the livestock, when he is visited by Athene.
Therefore from the very outset of the play we can see how our interpretation of the heroic code is
shaped by divine interaction. In many instances, Athene seems to resemble Ajax in her subscription
to heroic values. Her glee in maddening Ajax and destroying his honour is savage, yet is consistent
with the help friends, harm enemies approach of heroic custom; she says But then, as he was
driving himself deep into his madness, I egged him on and on until I drove him right up to the edge
of a terrible trap. Her favourites, the Atriedae and Odysseus were in need of her aid from Ajaxs
murderous rampage so she protected them from him. Indeed, she goes beyond this to mockery of
Ajaxs downfall reflecting the callousness of her attitude- And isnt laughing at ones enemy the
most enjoyable laughter? We can also see how her attitude has arisen when Calchas later explains
how Ajax had rejected her help on the battlefield, and indeed the help of all the gods, disregarding
the advice of his father, Teucer. Therefore, once again Athena's wounded honour is at the heart of
her behaviour, and again she follows the value of doing harm to ones enemies.
In many ways, Ajax resembles Athena in his approach to heroism, and the help friends, harm
enemies motto. He too takes a savage joy in killing the livestock he believes to be the Greek
leaders, especially relishing torturing the animal he thinks is Odysseus, and even when he is sane he
relishes the thought of the avenging furies ravaging the Atriedae, following the harm enemies
motif. Furthermore, Ajaxs downfall represents the loss of his honour in two ways; the loss of the
contest in which he felt unjustly robbed of the prize of Achilles arms, and his subsequent slaughter
of the cattle. He also in other places in the play resembles the gods. The chorus wonders whether it
was Artemis who drove him to madness exacting retribution, perhaps, for a victory that had paid
her no tribute, whether it was because she had been cheated of the glory of captured arms, just as
he feels he has been cheated of Achilles armour and has tried to exact retribution. Furthermore,
they wonder if Ares is responsible and has taken vengeance for the outrage by contrivance
shrouded in night, just as Ajax made a night attack on the Greek leaders. The torture of Athena
subjecting Ajax to public humiliation of his madness and the torture of his degradation of his time
mirrors his own torture of the animals and his slaughter they possess the common denominator of
being entirely pitiless and ruthless. Therein lies the divine element of heroic values in that it lacks
human pity.
However, there are times throughout the play that Ajaxs apparently unmoving devotion to his
heroic values seems compromised. Firstly, we might consider his stealthy night attack on what he
thought were the Greek leaders, which may not seem entirely compatible with the openness and
honesty of heroic battle. It may be that Ajax considered the disgrace of a night attack of lesser
importance than the honour he lost at losing the prize of Achilles armour, and that the honour he
would regain from killing the Greek commanders would be consolation from the small dint in his
reputation from his underhand method. However, we might say that the punishment for the
violation of this code of honour is what in some ways prompts Athena's harsh countermeasures
against him by maddening him. On the other hand, Ajaxs justification for compromising his beliefs
may be that he was wronged first; by awarding the arms to Odysseus, Ajax does not feel that the
reciprocal nature of help friends, harm enemies has been fulfilled, and that his allies have wronged
him rather than rewarding him, in spite of his own past benefits to them in battle.
Furthermore, we can see how Ajax likewise violates the principle of help friends, in that he leaves
his dependants, Tekmessa, his son, and Salaminian warriors of the chorus utterly bereft,
disregarding their absolute reliance on him. His only thought for their wellbeing is to trust that his
half-brother Teucer will see to their future, a tenuous proposition which does not befit the
reputation of a great man. It is only Teucers own honour and subscription to the help friends rule
that means he does not abandon the duty his brother has left him.
What this shows is that in humans, even in one so great as Ajax, the heroic code is impossible to
follow so rigidly. The contrast of human and divine is so noticeable in the play for this very reason;
Sophocles illustrates that the gods have the power to carry out their intentions while adhering to
these values, and that they have no consequences on the divine plain. On the mortal level however,
no matter how closely Ajax might resemble the divine he cannot escape his mortality and ultimately
his powerlessness. We can admire these principles as one admires the divine, and we can lead our
lives by them but only so far as it is in mortal capability to struggle to the bitter and obdurate end
is the only recourse to which Ajax feels he can live, and die, by these principles.
However, Sophocles does not ultimately disregard the notion of the heroic code, but rather he
presents how heroic values can be navigated by mortals through the character of Odysseus. He from
the very beginning, in Athena's casting heroic values in sharp relief with another kind of character.
Some might say that Sophocles is introducing Odysseus as someone who in fact does not subscribe
to the heroic set of beliefs, but as a different type of hero. However, I believe that in the play, he is
cast as someone who subscribes to the heroic code, but with principles which are tempered by the
knowledge of his mortality. For an example of his engagement with heroic principles, his own
honour is validated by the respect accorded to him by the Atriedae, who also engage in the
reciprocal benefits of heroic friendship when they indulge his request to let him speak in favour of
burying Ajax. Furthermore, in his relationship with Athena, so far it can be said a god can be a
friend, by demurring to her authority and respecting her greatness, he is fulfilling his side of what
it means to be a friend, benefitting her through the respect of his piety.
Even though he acknowledges Ajaxs hostility towards him, he nevertheless takes no glee in seeing
the degradation of his enemy, and indeed, by labelling Ajax as hostile rather than his enemy he
makes the important distinction that while Ajax considers him an enemy the feeling may not be
mutual. Indeed, while he is sure never to contradict Athena directly, he does make it obvious that he
is uncomfortable with Ajaxs madness and the joy she finds in humiliating him. He says I know of no
one, but in his misery I pity him all the same, even though he hates me, because he is yoked beneath
a ruinous delusionI think of my own lot no less than his. For I see that all we who live are nothing
more than phantoms or fleeting shadow. These words are very telling. Odysseus attitude towards
Ajax is defined by their shared mortality and the knowledge that the fate of Ajax could very well be
that of Odysseus as well. Moreover, Odysseus does not pity Ajax for his lost honour or any other
human error, but the divinely inspired madness, which shows how while he seems to be pitying his
adversary, against the harm enemies rule, it is the helpnessness of mortals in the face of the gods
which he pities. Therefore, it seems that heroic principles can be interpreted in a different way,
when one acknowledges the inherent misery of the human condition. The heroic code does not have
to be merciless.
Furthermore, Odysseus moderates his devotion to heroic values through his devotion to the gods;
despite his enmity with Ajax, he realises it would be a greater evil to transgress the laws of the gods
by leaving him unburied. Just as Athena tells him to never utter an arrogant word against the gods,
nor assume any swelling pride, we can see how Odysseus is able to reconcile heroic values with his
commitment to the gods, which is what Ajax was unable to do. What Sophocles is saying here is that
it is no detraction in honour to allow oneself some reliance on the gods, whereas Ajaxs conception
of the heroic code was a supremely individualistic approach, to which he was not a servant to the
immortals, but Athena was merely his ally. Furthermore, while we cannot imagine Ajax allowing
his enmity to die with his foes, Odysseus enmity is closed once Ajax has died, allowing him to
evaluate Ajaxs life as a whole, and concluding that it was ultimately admirable.
Therefore, in conclusion, Sophocles shows that in some ways heroic values are much like his very
protagonist; they are uncompromising, they are admirable and they are utterly incompatible with
anyone who does not also subscribe to them as staunchly. Ajaxs devotion to the heroic way of life is
what makes him so admirable but it is also what causes his downfall. At no point does Sophocles
ever outright condemn Ajaxs behaviour, but in some ways we are meant to contrast his actions with
those of his enemy Odysseus, who tempers his belief in heroic values with his piety, self-restraint
and powers of the mind. As I have shown, heroic values are inherently associated in the play with
divinity and immortality, which cannot be reconciled by mortals including Ajax. The only way
mortality can be part of the heroic code is by acknowledging the authority of the gods and
recognising the futility of the human condition.