Ajax: The Suicide

The Suicide

The Chorus, who have been obtuse throughout the play, have misunderstood Ajax’s parting words as a change of heart instead of a rueful admission that he misjudged the world he has lived in.  The drama becomes more intense, when a messenger comes in to report on Teucer’s hostile reception in the Greek camp, and on the instructions he had received from Calchas the prophet NOT to let Ajax out of his hut.  He also adds an account we should certainly accept that in his courage and self-reliance, Ajax had informed Athena she should not waste her time helping him in battle, when it was other Greek fighters who need her assistance.  This behavior is consistent with his previous condescension in telling her he would obey her in all else but his plans for Odysseus.

Ajax, about to carry out his plans, appears once more but not to kill himself on stage—that would be sacrilegious.  He quite correctly anticipates that his body will be dishonored and he asks the messenger to make sure Teucer finds it and does what is proper.  Many readers and scholars assume he regards violation of the corpse as an act that will prevent him from finding peace in death.  This is certainly a reasonable assumption, but the point is not made here.

Rather many lines have been athetized, that is, marked for deletion as later additions which strike some scholars as inappropriate—his continuing rage against the Atridae, for example.  With his last words, he pays tribute to the beauty of Salamis and the glory of Athens, sentiments that would have struck a deeper chord with Athenian spectators than they might with American readers.

The chorus enter, filled with anxieties, and are in time to hear Tecmessa’s cries of grief.  They realize their folly in taking seriously what appeared to be his repentance.  They say they appreciate her grief, but she tells them that woes that only seem so to them are the complete object of her thoughts.  The chorus assume that Odysseus will be delighted to mock the sad death of his enemy, but Tecmessa understands how much the Greeks have lost and makes it a general observation that we fail to appreciate our benefactors until they are gone.  I may be off base, but I cannot help thinking of the exile of Ajax’s kinsman Cimon, the greatest of the Athenians of his time, but set aside in favor of the glib (and, one has to admit heroic) Pericles.

Teucer arrives, and his grief, extreme as it is, leaves room for the consideration of his future.  What sort of greeting will he receive from Telamon his father?  He remembers that the sword with which Ajax has killed himself was a fatal gift from Hector, who now has his revenge—a thought that had previously occurred to his brother.  But ultimately, it is the gods who are responsible for this—and for everything significant in human life.  Others are free to think otherwise.

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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 photo Thomas Fleming says:

    If anyone has a question or comment, please do not hesitate to make them. Otherwise, the discussion of the Ajax is closed.

  2. Jacob Johnson says:

    We have a description of a man who has exceeding qualities of martial virtue who takes, what some people call, the easy way out. My initial impulse is that this seems to be inconsistent. Why not show up everybody by submitting to torture and execution, ideally without a flinch? Or going charge of the light brigade at one’s enemies? This is tempered by considering concern for submission to authority as a motivation for his snuffing it, in a way which reminds me of the Japanese ritual disembowelment . This is so alien to the limp-wristed time and cultures we between that I am prompted to repeatedly re-consider this scene. I have only known one person, whom I met twice casually, who committed suicide. The thought of the practice makes my skin crawl in a way few things do, there is always another option someway, somehow. The idea of violation of Ajax’s corpse preventing postmortem peace may explain this, though it is alien to my own thinking. That is just worm food. I will have to consider this scene further.

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Let us put the question of the ethics of suicide on the table. I shall do my best to characterize, in the briefest possible terms, the Christian, the Stoic, the Japanese, and the Greek attitude/approach to suicide. In the case of the Japanese, I shall be operating from a rather slender knowledge base.

    For the Christian, a human life is a gift from God. Since we do not have the power to grant the gift, we are not permitted to take it away except in pursuit of some end sanctioned by divine law, as in self-defense, executions and war. Not every Christian would go so far as the catechetical response that each of was made to know and to serve God–it has always seemed to me that this statement implicitly accuses our Creator of petty vanity–but even a skeptic to this extent would say suicide, in most acses, is an act of despair and not just of one’s own life and prospects but of the power of God.

    Roman Stoics, whose goal was to lead life in accord with Nature–a Nature that was to a great extent knowable to the senses and to reason–took a view of suicide somewhat similar to Jefferson’s view of revolution. Governments were instituted to secure life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, and whenever a government becomes subversive of those ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it. So Cato the Younger or Seneca might have argued. Of course, suicide was not in itself a good thing, but it could be preferable to living under the dictatorship of Julius and Caesar. In some cases, of course, the Roman suicide was doing what he had to do to preserve the civil rights and some of the property of his wife and children. Christians who condemn such a man would also have to condemn the spy who knows, if he is tortured, that he will betray his country and perhaps cause the deaths of many people and even the loss of his people’s liberty.

    The Japanese view is bound up, it seems to me, both with a code of feudal obligation–if one betrayed or failed a liege lord, one should do the right thing–and with a moral and social system based strongly on attachment. The Japanese psychiatirst Takeo Doi has written quite brilliantly on this subject. We speak slightingly of “loss of face” as if it were a trivial thing, but that is because we are all disciples of Adam Smith, Ludwig von Mises, and Ayn Rand. I prefer the Japs.

    The Greeks are quite different in their approach. They believed they were kin–at least some of them were–to the gods, and that the gods cared what happened to them, punishing those who defied the gods and rewarding those who obeyed them. Still, even in the Iliad, they are free to make their own choices. When Athena pulls Achilles’ hair and tells him not to kill Agamemnon, they both know he is free to to do just that, but, as the hero acknowledges, it is better to yield to the god. This, allegedly, is what Ajax has refused to do. His heroic virtue has deluded him into thinking he is entirely self-reliant–as Oedipus thinks himself in the OT, but not because of his heroism but because of his intelligence. In a way, Ajax and Oedipus are studies in contrast–something like Cimon and Pericles.

    For the Greeks, I don’t see much evidence of horror or stigma attached to suicide, though it was not a practice they engaged in or even spoke about very much. They enjoyed life intensely, more intensely than we can perhaps imagine. Homer’s noble swineherd was once an aristocrat, and, now that he is a slave, he can still display his character by his loyalty to Odysseus and his bravery even in old age. Still, enough can occasionally be enough. Sophocles, interestingly, has several suicides, usually indicative of despair: Jocasta kills herself when she discovers she has married her son, who murdered her husband. Haemon kills himself at the cave where his fiancee Antigone has been entombed. Heracles, in unspeakable agony from the Napalm-imbued cloak he has put on, casts himself onto a funeral pyre. The last words of that play (The Tachiniae) are either baffling, depressing, or a revelation, depending on how we interpret the play: The chorus, after observing that the present is unendurable and the future unknown, tells a witness, “You have just now seen terrible deaths and unprecedented sufferings, and none of these things is not Zeus.” Whew! I have always believed that Sophocles took it for granted that the audience knew that after a career of strife and suffering, Heracles was taken up to Olympus and made a god, but there are scholars who argue that a playwright could not take such knowledge for granted. My own view is that such people are used to people who don’t know that the story of Job has a happy ending or are even familiar with common biblical stories.

    Mary Blundell, in her book “Helping Friends and Harming Enemies, ” discusses Ajax’s dilemma, that is, whether to suffer dishonor and do his best to help those who depend on him–an obligation Ajax acknowledges–or follow the opposite course, also dictated by Greek morality, to anticipate the impending execution and refuse to live with dishonor. She adds the observation that if he is failing his philoi (friends and relations), they have, in allowing the Atridae and other Greeks to dishonor him, have failed in their duty.

    So Ajax is not following a Greek code parallel to Bushido–though honor is at the root of both of them. He is not bound to kill himself, as the novelist Mishima felt bound, after being ridiculed by military officers he had exhorted to revere the Emperor, but he–and the audience–are confronted with a conflict, not, as it would be in Shakespeare, between right and wrong, but between two forms of right. Aeschylus put this perfectly, in a play, when he spoke of War/Ares clashing with Ares, and right with right. I think for Sophocles, Ajax’s madness and suicide were taken for granted, and what seems most to interest him is the recognition in Ajax of the power of the gods and political authority, in Odysseus of the need to honor great men, even if they are one’s enemy and have done terrible things. I’ll shut up for the moment.

  4. Jacob Johnson says:

    As opposed to the current regime’s practice of inventing reasons to dishonor any man whose qualities can serve as an uncomfortable counterpoint for anyone who happens to see them.

  5. Allen Wilson says:

    Personal circumstances prevented me from taking part in this discussion. However, I can sympathise with Ajax, since for now and for the for the foreseeable future I am done with any sense of duty toward my fellow man, as my limit has been reached.

    The only thing sensible which comes to mind after reading the Ajax is the dilemma which Col. Lee faced in having to decide between his state and the federal government, finally deciding that, having been absolved of any duty to the union by the secession of his state, his true duty lay with his native Virginia, it’s people, and Dixie, and not in any emotional attachment to a government or political arrangement.

    Of course this sense of duty was quite different from what Ajax would have understood, and in fact Lee suffered humiliation and indignity after the war in continued service to his people.

    I wonder what Ajax, Odysseus, Sophocles or the Greeks in general would have thought of Lee.