Ajax: The Parodos and First Episode

Athena’s parting words are to remind Odysseus and the audience that “The Gods love the sophrones and hate the kakoi.  These are two key words for Greek morality and are rather more opposed than the English words “prudent” and “bad.”  The man who is sophron, is he whose thinking abilities (the phrenes) are sound, who can judge the future by the past, who keeps his strong feelings under control.  Sophrosyne, the great Aristotelian virtue, is a distillation of the Greek folk wisdom exemplified in the Delphic proverbs, "Nothing in excess," "Measure is best," and "know thyself," which is to say, "always bear in mind  that you are mortal and fallible."  Sartre says somewhere--with uncharacteristic insight--that cultures tend to prize the values they find most difficult.  He gives, as I recall, the Greek celebration of moderation and self-restraint, and the modern (thatdf  is, post WW II) obsession with freedom.  The Greek temperament--and the classical temperament ever since--is a like a finely strung bow, holding in tension opposed forces of extreme self-assertion with extreme restraint.  Heraclitus uses a similar metaphor to express the principle of world-order he called the Logos, a word with a history that takes us through the Stoics to John the Beloved Disciple.

He who is kakos, is not simply imprudent but base, cowardly, and therefore wicked.  Is Odysseus sophron?  Yes.  But, is Ajax kakos?  Hardly.

Athena leaves the stage and the chorus of Salaminian sailors marches in to the usual anapestic dimeters:

uu-uu-  - - uu-.  The anapest is the reverse of the dactyl and as in most dactylic meters, one long syllable can be substituted for two shorts.  For a sense of what anapests sound like in English, try on this bit of Tennyson from “Maud”

For a breeze of morning moves, 

And the planet of Love is on high, 

Beginning to faint in the light that she loves 

In a bed of daffodil sky, 

To faint in the light of the sun she loves, 

To faint in his light, and to die. 

Line 2 is anapestic thought it is catalectic (cut short at the end).  Since English is a stressed language, Tennyson is free to alter the number of unstressed syllables. 

The chorus loyally declares that their own happiness depends on the happiness of their king—an ancient and deep conception—and whether Ajax suffers from a divine intervention or the slanders of his fellow-fighters, they feel it.  They blame Odysseus for spreading the rumor but say his listeners are even more thrilled.  It is great men whom the little people attack, not realizing how essential are the great ones to their own safety.  This is not exactly democratic thought, and it would resonate with supporters of the Philaid leadership, descendants of Ajax:  Miltiades, Cimon, and Thucydides son of Melesias.

At first 72, their entry-march is finished, and they take up their position on the orchestra to perform the lyric part of the parados.  

Many scholars have concluded, on the basis of certain technicalities of construction--the fact that the play falls into two parts that may or may not be successfully integrated--and style/meter--the lower incidence of resolution (substitution of two short syllables for one long in iambics)--that the Ajax is a comparatively early play.  I have doubts about this line of analysis, and Lloyd-Jones, for other reasons, would date the play later.

Ajax parodousAjaxSetting aside the question of dating, though, I would point out that the lyric song of the parades is remarkably dramatic as opposed to being purely lyrical.  Ajax's sailors are agitated and involved in the drama.  In their dialogue with Tecmessa they function as much as a character as a chorus.  They are in an awe that borders on fear of Ajax.  They earnestly hope that he will recover from his furious madness, but Tecmessa points out a reality that is by no means obvious to them or to most people today, namely, that Ajax may be better off mad.  In the present circumstances, all his friends--those who love him and are attached to him--are suffering while he is happy in his ignorance, but in recovering, he will only aggravate the unhappiness of those who care for him.

Tecmessa gives a more detailed account of Ajax' fury.  Why?  Because a tragedy consists, in addition to dialogue,  largely narrates in song and speech.  Such a speech--like messenger speeches--are meant to convey the horror without depicting it.  To depict such irrational misery would be something like depicting extreme evil or baseness, a degradation of the citizens playing the part, the audience, and the festival.

In coming to his senses, Ajax has lost none of his extreme sense of his own honor.  A modern feminist would be horrified by his abrupt, rude dismissal of Tecmessa to other pastures, but his desire to be left alone is what many loving husbands must occasionally feel, when they are being unseasonably comforted by the woman they love.

I'll pause here at line 450 and let readers advance the discussion by commenting and questioning,  before we take up Ajax' exchange with Tecmessa.

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

5 Responses

  1. Avatar Jacob Johnson says:

    An unexpected seventy hour work week from Wuhanathon personnel shortages has impeded my plan to spend time trying top unravel the pronunciation and meter, so I ask this question out of complete ignorance. Do any of the English translations (I’m reading Lloyd-Jones) attempt to maintain the meter of the original language?

  2. Avatar Robert Reavis says:

    Dear Dr Fleming,
    Thank you for teaching this play. Especially enjoyed the etymology references and the explanation of the meters used that I suppose (rightly or wrongly?) were used in different contexts of the play to assist in establishing the mood ? In any case I have enjoyed the play along with the comments as well as your attention to all the various parts. These foundations have been sacked in our colleges and Universities but going back to them is so refreshing to the soul.
    Aeschylus once wrote that :
    “”He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
    It is difficult for me to see how any young man or woman of the Christian faith could understand the love of God in the crucifix or the Litany of the Sacred Heart who had not pondered the Greeks observing human suffering. Or Ajax going mad over perceived injustices. Thank you again for providing these introductions to a new generation of readers however few there might be.

  3. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    To JJ, I know of no translation of the Ajax that makes the slightest effort, but, then, I don’t pretend to have read many translations. Douglas Young’s Oresteia was something of a stab in that direction, and, when as his student I read over it for him, I argued (successfully in every case) a few metrical questions, for example, his view that you could end a line of varied meters–say mixed iambs and dactyls–with the sequence u-uu. I pointed out that unless the meter were comic and pronounced dactylic –Higgledy Piggledy/ Benjamin–an English reader would automatically accent the short final syllable. Young was a poet, mostly in Scots, of some distinction, though he did not publish a great deal. He was famous for a poem rather skeptical about religion–Maurice Lindsay observed” “No twentieth century Scottish anthology can be complete without his ‘Last Lauch.”

    The Minister said it would dee, the cypress buss I plantit
    But the buss grew till a tree
    Naething dauntit.
    It’s growan, stark and heich
    dark and straucht and sinister,
    kirkyairdie-like and dreich.
    But whaur’s the Minister?

    As a devoted but somewhat impudent dissertation writer, I composed a response, beginning

    “The minister is dead and gone
    Here only his dust reposes,
    Dust and ashes were all he won
    And a bed for roses….

    I don’t recall entirely the second stanza but it went something like:

    He did not root his faith in earth,
    though man will never know it,
    He death was really second life
    And a last laugh on the poet.

    Young said there had been many responses, but mine was the best. He have just been kind to a student, though he did once say in a letter of recommendation that I had a pretty wife and a talent for making verses.

    Thanks, Robert, for the insights. The argument that runs through my Summer Seminar lectures on Homer’s religion is that Greek poetry and philosophy form the pagan Evangelical preparation that taught us that gods and men, however great the gulf, were related, that divine beings actually cared for men and wanted them to be brave and just, that rituals of sacrifice foreshadowed greater things….. I’ll pick up the pace on Ajax this week.

  4. Avatar Jacob Johnson says:

    I initially could not find Young’s Chasing an Ancient Greek book, but I found it later on the Canadian Amazon, though I’ve not read it yet. Since at first the only this I could find was a collection of his poems entitled Naething Dauntit, I ordered that. It has a very useful glossary of Scots vocabulary.

    Reading though the chorus, one thing which stuck out to me as not immediately understandable was the unusual simile in “I am greatly anxious and am fearful, like the troubled glance of the winged dove.” Is this a specific reference to something, or a common idiom I am not aware of?

  5. Thomas Fleming Thomas Fleming says:

    Doves were and are proverbially timid, and the doves that frequent my yard seem to roll their eyes around. Why HL-J translates omma as glance rather than eye, I don’t know. Why winged? Possibly it is just to fill out the line and conventional but possibly it is to indicate the skittishness of doves that are constantly ruffling their wings. Sophocles repeats the bird simile at the end of their entry, comparing Ajax’s detractors with birds that make a big clamor until a vulture appears and they become voiceless.

    In thinking about it a moment, Sophocles is rather fond of birds. Teiresias had been listening to his birds–in the Oedipus, was it?–and in the great polla ta deina ode of the Antigone, Numberless are the world’s wonders but none more wonderful than man, we find this line to express man’s mastery over the beasts: “He catches the tribe of light-thoughted (i.e. thoughtless, bird-brained) birds. They are both suggestive of weakness, timidity, thoughtlessness, but also important in augury as representing the will of the gods.