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‘For kindness always gives birth to kindness’

This simple, but beautiful and very moving little pearl of wisdom comes from the character Tecmessa in Sophocles’ Ajax. Once a Trojan princess, but now the prize slave girl of Ajax and mother to their little son Eurysakes, she is entirelyu dependent on Ajax for her protection. Yet, she is a dutiful and loving partner to him, despite what she has lost.



Tecmessa covers the body of her beloved Ajax. (https://pin.it/GbVeCEN)


Her sweet and tender plea comes as Ajax, thinking only of the shame and complete loss of reputation and honour that he has endured amidst the Greek army, has announced his intention to end his life. It is partly self-inflicted. One can perhaps understand Ajax’s anger at not being awarded the arms of Achilles upon the latter’s death. They were made for the best warrior, and logically that meant Ajax should have been next. However, Odysseus was the recipient, certainly a fine warrior, but not second best to Achilles. Did he cheat? Or use his good relations with Agamemnon and Menelaus to help rig the contest in his favour? Who knows, but Ajax was left feeling (in the terms of the Homeric code of honour and rank) justifiably slighted. What he did next only made matters worse and all by his own fault. Ajax, displaying an implacable anger worthy of Achilles, decides to take matters, quite literally into his own hands - kill the Atreidae (Agamemnon and Menelaus) and Odysseus. Off he goes on his spree. Rather dimly perhaps, he does not reckon on Athena, who will not suffer her 'goddess’ pet’ Odysseus to suffer Ajax’s wrath. She confuses Ajax’s wits, and, believing he is grimly carving up his intended victims, he is actually butchering the army livestock. His humiliation is complete. He cannot bear the loss of honour, once his senses return, and death seems the only way out to avoid further loss of face.

Poor, sweet, loyal Tecmessa knowing what her fate and that of Eurysakes will be, and also sincerely not wanting to lose Ajax, entreats him in one of Greek tragedy’s most moving supplications. She reminds him of her ungrudging loyalty to him since she was captured, reminds him of the harsher slavery that will be her and Eurysakes’ lot if he is no longer there. Then she utters her famous plea:


'It is kindness that always give birth to kindness.’


(χάρις χάριν γάρ ἐστιν ἡ τίκτουσ᾽ ἀεί)


She ends by saying that a man who turns his back on one who has treated him well, he can longer be a noble man (eugenes). Gratitude and respect are for Tecmessa the essence of duty. Ajax must now show he is capable of this. Her words have little impact on Ajax, but the chorus, also Ajax’s dependents, his sailors, are moved by her words and urge him to pay attention.

We can learn a lot from wise Tecmessa’s maxim. The play has often been read as showing a transition from shame to guilt culture in the fifth century BC, that is one based on personal honour to a more cooperative set of values. There is an element of truth in this, but I also think Sophocles is pointing us to how these different social cultures reflect something of a conflict within human nature. Shame is powerful, and more individually experienced (as a rule), whereas guilt reflects our social nature. Ajax has let shame win. It is only thanks to Odysseus, ironically, that the consequences are not diastrous for Tecmessa and Eurysakes.


Shame and humiliation are natural, but it does not make them any less dangerous. Tecmessa urges us not to let our duty and gratitude to others be obliterated by one or a few people who have made us feel small.

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