Friends and enemies

February 9, 2009

If one takes for granted that the ancient Greeks wholly endorsed the ethical principle of “help friends and harm enemies,” then Ajax is something of an enigma. The character himself embodies the principle; after all, the play begins as he tortures what he thinks are his enemies, namely Odysseus, Agamemnon and Menelaus, but what are actually herd animals. However, his most hated rival Odysseus comes to his defense at the end when the other two Greek commanders seek to deprive him of proper burial rites. It is difficult to reconcile these disparate events into a cohesive whole, but Sophocles attempts to do so in the final argument between Odysseus and Agamemnon.

As in Antigone, the argument between opposing sides is over whether the corpse of an “enemy” deserves proper burial. Menelaus and Agamemnon claim that it doesn’t, while the family of Ajax, namely Teucer, argues that it does. It is reasonable to expect the family members to push for burial, but when Odysseus arrives and takes their side, Agamemnon is shocked: “…should you not also trample him now that he is dead?” he asks. Odysseus replies, “Do not take delight, son of Atreus, in that superiority which brings no honor.” This idea that harming an enemy who cannot defend himself is dishonorable at worst and pointless at best is a strangely modern one, calling to mind the adage, “Don’t kick a man when he’s down.” It seems to indicate that while there is value in defeating an enemy, there is no merit in continuing to molest him once he is already defeated.

A few lines later, Agamemnon continues, “Remember to what sort of man you show this kindness!” Odysseus counters, “The man was once my enemy, yes, but he was also noble.” Pressed further, Odysseus says, “I yield to his excellence much more than his hostility.” This directly counters the idea of only doing harm to enemies; it creates a separate class of enemy that is worthy of distinction based on his own redeeming qualities. It even seems to contradict the previously stated (and possibly wrongheaded) ideas of Ajax and Teucer, who believe it fitting that Ajax die on the sword of Hector, his enemy, even though the weapon was given as a gift. Agamemnon then states, “Men who act as you do are the unstable sort in humankind.” To which Odysseus replies, “Quite the majority of men, I assure you, are friendly at one time, and bitter at another.” This indicates that today’s friend may be tomorrow’s enemy, which is arguably the case with Ajax himself. This also implies that the opposite could be true. Either way, it provides further reinforcement for Odysseus’ position.

Agamemnon’s last concern is that he and Menelaus, and even Odysseus, will seem cowardly if they capitulate. “On the contrary,” Odysseus replies, “we will be men of justice in the eyes of all the Greeks.” This is a difficult claim to back given that the Greeks were gossiping about Ajax earlier in the play at Odysseus’ prompting. But then Agamemnon asks Odysseus if he will take responsibility for the act, and the Ithacan immediately agrees, which seems to indicate a desire to undo what he did by spreading the information in the first place. He also expands his list of reasons by adding, “I too shall come to that necessity,” meaning he will also need burying someday and hopes that he will not be deprived of proper rites himself.

Taken holistically, Odysseus advocates kindness toward fallen enemies as well as those who warrant distinction based on their deeds. He also appears to adopt an approach counter to the “help friends and harm enemies” mentality, namely one that is closer to the idea summarized as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” While the two are not mutually exclusive, the former does not allow helpful deeds to be done to enemies in the hopes of receiving reciprocal treatment at a potential future time, while the latter could be construed as favoring that attitude. However, one could speculate that Odysseus, having seen firsthand how quickly the gods can turn on their favored heroes, is less altruistically minded and more concerned about himself personally.

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