Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Sophocles' AJAX and ELECTRA

Discussion questions forAjax:

1. Has justice been done in this play?

2. Why does Odysseus side with Teucer instead of Menelaus and Agamemnon?

3. What does Ajax learn about life during the course of the play?

Discussion questions for Electra:

1. Has justice been done in this play?

2. Why isn’t Electra upset about what happened to Iphigenia?

3. Is Sophocles suggesting that it’s ok to become devious for a good cause?


Anonymous Anonymous said...


Has justice been done in this play?
That depends on what you mean by “justice”. It also depends on whose point of view you adopt. You may point out that Ajax was not guilty of an actual crime. He killed some cattle that the Greeks had taken from the Trojans. That’s hardly sufficient cause to accuse him of treason against the Greeks. And besides, he did have some claim of provocation because it appears that Ajax did, in fact, deserve to have Achilles’ armor. Also, he had been dishonored in a very public way and was striking back the way that warriors know best.
On the other hand, you may say that Ajax was guilty in his intent to do harm. He intended to kill Greeks, and would have killed Greeks had Athena not temporarily driven him insane and made him kill cattle instead. His wholesale slaughter of cattle that in his mind were his Greek companions is proof enough that he deserved no mercy from the Greek commanders Menelaus and Agamemnon.
But besides just Ajax, we have to consider if justice has been done to the other characters. By committing suicide Ajax may have done what he considered the honorable thing for himself. But as his wife Tecmessa points out, the day that Ajax dies she will be seized and made the slave of another Greek. So will their son. Also, Ajax will be deserting his aged father, and his mother “who often prays to the gods that you’ll come home alive.” For other members of his family, where is justice in his suicide? When the play is over, has justice been served? For whom?

Why does Odysseus side with Teucer instead of Menelaus and Agamemnon?
One would think Odysseus would be on the side of Menelaus and Agamemnon, given the fact that they were the principal forces at work so that Odysseus ended up with Achilles’ armor instead of Ajax getting it. And yet, he sides with Teucer against them. Why? It depends on one’s reading of the play.
If you perceive Odysseus as basically a good guy, you may reply: Odysseus does the honorable thing. Even though he was enemies with Ajax, now that Ajax is dead Odysseus will not go further in their competition for glory and honor. It is altogether appropriate to honor Ajax now that he’s gone. In fact, it’s our duty to honor him because next to Achilles he was the best and the bravest of the Greeks.
If you perceive Odysseus as shifty and opportunistic, you may reply: Odysseus does what’s good for Odysseus. Ajax is no longer a threat, so what’s in this thing for me. By siding with a fallen enemy, I will look magnanimous. I still have Achilles armor, and by protecting Ajax’s honor (now that he’s safely out of the way) I will look better than Agamemnon and Menelaus in the eyes of the crowd. Politically, it’s a shrewd move, and who knows what help I might need down the road?

What does Ajax learn about life during the course of the play?
At the beginning of the play, Ajax claims he doesn’t need the help of the gods when he says: “a mere nobody can triumph with the help of heaven, but I expect to achieve that glory even without (any help)” and also when he says to Athena: “I don’t need propping up in battle.” This is a fatal mistake. The gods are not amused. In Greek drama, whenever the gods and mortals come into conflict, it’s always bad for the mortals. By the end of the play, Ajax not only needs help from Athena, but calls out to a whole host of gods: “O Zeus, I beg of you. And I call on you, Hermes, too…And you everlasting maidens, I ask your help…Go to it, you speeding avenging Furies…And you, the sun-god.” This is quite a change from the Ajax we knew at the start of the play. At the end, he’s a beaten man, and he knows it. The wisdom he has learned comes too late to save him, but he admonishes readers of the play: “From now onwards let us yield to the gods and learn to respect the Sons of Atreus (Menelaus and Agamemnon). They are in command, so we must bow to them.”

1/17/2006 10:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Has justice been done in this play?
Electra and Orestes would say definitely yes. Clytemnestra would say definitely not. From the point of view of Electra and Orestes, they avenged the murder of their father. It is only just that it should be so. It’s very clear to Electra, when she speaks to Clytemnestra: “you killed my father…let me tell you, it was wrong.” There you have it, a clear-cut motive for revenge, which in Electra’s mind is equated with justice.
However, from the point of view of Clytemnestra, she was murdered by her own children for avenging the death of her daughter. This cannot possibly be justice. Clytemnestra admits to Electra: “yes, I killed him…I and Justice were the killers…the goddess Justice, and you would agree with her if you could think.” Clearly, Clytemnestra and Electra do not agree on the fundamental meaning of justice. So we have to look elsewhere for a more objective viewpoint.
Orestes says that Apollo told him: “you must snatch by cunning the vengeance that is yours by right.” But remember that Orestes is also the one who prays to the gods “that I may reign over my possessions and restore my house.” Orestes may want to avenge the death of his father, but it also appears that at least part of his motivation is to take back those “possessions” that he feels are rightfully his. Orestes may not be that objective barometer that we’re looking for, pointing toward justice.
Perhaps the Chorus is more objective than the participants. According to the Chorus, “Zeus still is great in his heaven overseeing and ordering all.” Well might we ask: what kind of order is this? The place is a mess, with messy motivations and even messier solutions. According to the Chorus “their house is mortally sick…the children quarrel, all harmony shattered.” This is at least an honest assessment of the situation.
To restore harmony, a radical remedy may be required. We have not answered the basic question: has justice been done? But at the end of the play, Sophocles may be cluing us in on the gravity of the question we’re asking. Orestes says “Swift justice should overtake every criminal act: Death to all who decide to flout the law, then the prevalence of crime would be no more.” Sophocles may be asking us a counter-question: is this really the kind of justice you want?

Why isn’t Electra upset about what happened to Iphigenia?
Electra is a proud woman, the daughter of a Greek king. As such, she’s not willing to live a lifestyle of quiet moderation, but insists on driving events to their ultimate conclusion. There is no half-hearted effort on her part, it’s all or nothing. This can be seen as courageous, or it can be seen as fool-hearty.
Compare her sister Chrysothemis’ approach to the same situation: “in this time of turbid waters I think it best to shorten sail and give the impression of acquiescence – it does no harm…if I am to live in peace I must submit in everything to those in power.” This can be taken as cowardly, or it can be seen as prudent policy, given the circumstances. Sometimes we must adjust ourselves to a bad situation and learn to be adaptable and flexible in our strategies for making things better. She’s willing to at least consider that the fault is not totally on Clytemnestra’s side, and work toward some amicable solution.
For Electra, however, going straight for the solution, no matter how rigid, is the only way to live. She herself says “there is nothing worse than muddled thinking.” To consider Iphigenia’s fate would only muddy the waters in Electra’s mind and dilute her hatred of Clytemnestra. She wants a clear conscience that she’s doing the right thing by avenging her father. Any sort of nuanced thinking or reflection could only serve to decrease her determination to carry out a plan that requires the utmost dedication and confidence in her cause. She’s no Hamlet, but more of a Lady Macbeth in this regard.

1/17/2006 10:42 AM  
Blogger SMJ said...

As we recently learned from reading Plato's Republic, there are many flavors of justice, not all of which are compatible. Let's start with the idea of justice being equivalent to "fairness." What fairness implies is a moral condition in which everyone is more or less equal. In economic terms, it suggests a fair bargain in which something is exchanged for something of equal value. Fairness rests on the assumption that we are all entitled to equal treatment. But classical Greeks did not agree with the notion of equality. Most Greeks, including Plato and Aristotle, believed that some men were superior to others, and should be treated accordingly. If some men deserve better treatment than others, then justice implies giving to each man "what he deserves."

If justice is assumed to mean the doctrine of giving man what he deserves, then the central problem for Ajax is that he is not given what he feels he deserves-- the armor of Achilles. No one in the play offers a convincing argument that Ajax is unworthy of this tribute. Yet, the armor is given to men that are less worthy. In this respect, Ajax feels slighted. Next to Achilles, he is the greatest warrior in the Greek camp, and the armor should belong to him. So, even before the play begins, there has occurred an action that is embarrassing and demeaning to Ajax.

Later, we learn that in the heat of battle while besieging Troy, Ajax had offended Athena by suggesting that her assistance was not needed by him, and that she should go elsewhere to help others. Now, in terms of proper relations between mortals and gods, this was a foolish thing to say. No god wants to hear that they are unnecessary. Athena was offended, and in Greek literature when gods are offended mortal men suffer the consequences.

Thus, when the pride of Ajax collides with the pride of Athena:

Well then, now you've seen his arrogance, make sure you never speak against the gods, or give yourself ideas of your own grandeur, if your strength of hand or heaped up riches
should outweigh some other man's. A single day pulls down any human's scale of fortune or raises it once more. But the gods love men who possess good sense and self-control and despise the ones who are unjust.

In other words, justice implies having good sense and self-control, for the gods cannot love that which is unjust.

Here is the essential meaning of justice as it applies to men: that justice equals the will of the gods. Yet, the gods "love men who possess good sense and self-control." Hence, justice is not simply having superior power, as Thrasymachus in the Republic had argued (justice being the "will or interest of the stronger").

In slaughtering the cattle (and the men who guarded the cattle), Ajax has offended not only his fellow Greeks, but also the gods, since he has demonstrated a lack of "good sense and self-control." No man is stronger than the gods, and no man can disobey or insult them without offending justice.

The truth of the matter is that justice is a concept which applies mainly to human society. Between Zeus and all other gods there is no justice; there is only a kind of grudging respect based on a fear of punishment, or as Thrasymachus put it, "the will of the stronger." There is no justice among gods, but there is a hierarchy of order and respect. Between gods and men, however, there are expectations of obedience based on sacrifice and proper forms of worship.

Finally, in human society, justice implies a regard for lawful conduct. If laws are broken, punishment is deemed appropriate or just. Notice that gods are never held accountable for their behavior towards men. If they break their word, they are not punished. Thus, we infer that justice has meaning only to beings holding similar moral convictions. Since gods do not "justify" themselves to men, their actions are, in a sense, "beyond the pale of law."

Of course, Socrates would add that justice must be harmonious with truth and the Good. Otherwise, justice would not be worth pursuing. Was Ajax cheated out of the honor that was due him? If so, was he entitled to exact his own measure of justice by slaughtering those who offended him? It doesn't appear so. Sophocles suggests that only gods can slaughter humans with impunity because justice is the province of immortality. In the end, Ajax receives the dignity of a proper burial and this might be the only justice to which men can aspire.

1/17/2006 2:14 PM  

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