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Sophocles’ Ajax: A Lesson in Empathy

Sophocles’ Ajax is a wonderful play, but it is certainly not the one that first springs to most people’s mind when you say ‘Sophocles’. It is more likely to be Oedipus Tyrannus and Antigone. Both amazing plays, the latter containing a particularly pertinent message for us today. But Ajax is also powerful, reflective, and thought-provoking. So, a brief summary of the plot before I move to the resonant lesson in empathy that I believe it so richly showcases.

Ajax was a fine warrior, second only to Achilles. In terms of honour and warrior status, the great arms of Achilles (fashioned by Hephaestus) should have passed to Ajax. However, so one version of the story goes, Odysseus gains the arms by setting up a contest in which he cheats (so Ajax believes). Overcome with anger and resentment at what he perceives to be a slight on his honour and reputation, Ajax fumes with rage, until his anger goes completely. He launches an attack against Odysseus, and the sons of Atreus, Menelaus and Agamemnon. However, unable to endure the threat to her beloved Odysseus, Athena drives Ajax mad and clouds his vision. Poor Ajax kills a load of livestock. Very humiliating for the now greatest fighter of the army, licking his wounds because he was denied his prize. It is at this point that the play begins.

Hang on, you say. Surely, Ajax just needs to be told to get a grip? He’s throwing his toys out of the pram. To a point, I agree. However, the ancient heroic code of honour was very much based on visible marks of your achievement and ability. Agamemnon was first in wealth, Achilles had been first in fighting, thus worthy of divine armour. By such a code, Ajax SHOULD have got the arms of Achilles as public recognition of his prowess.

We don’t do that anymore, you say. No, not in the social code sense. But I wish to suggest that this is an extreme version of the sportsperson, musician, scholar, who feels that they have been rejected from the team, band, competition, for a lesser person in their perception. Hopefully, they won’t go dashing about on murderous rampages. But their feelings of resentment are not a million miles from Ajax’s feelings.

The message of empathy comes from elsewhere. By the Homeric code, laughing at one’s enemies who have come a cropper was entirely permissible (nowadays, it would be bullying). Achilles glories gruesomely over the body of Hector, and Ajax, believing he has the bodies of his three most-hated Greeks exacts humiliation with glee.

The play opens with Odysseus hunting for Ajax after the Greek livestock have been found murdered. Athena reveals everything to him and shows him the still divinely deluded Ajax, boasting joyfully. She invites Odysseus to laugh at the shamed, deluded man in return.

Odysseus refuses. Moved and even saddened, he reflects:

But I entirely pity the wretched man, although he is my enemy, because he is shackled by the yoke of a terrible delusion. It makes me think of my own lot, no less than that of this man: for I see that we are nothing but phantoms or fleeting shadow, while we live.”

Humans are fragile creatures. Human life is fluid. One day can raise someone up, and the next can dash them down without warning, surely a lesson we should all learn from the pandemic. What Odysseus realises is that he could be the shamed, ruined man one day. He refrains from vaunting at the poignant perception of his own humanity in the pitiful figure of Ajax. It is true of all of us.

Self-congratulation, personal grudges, and anger, however justified it may seem at the time, block our own sense of vulnerability and the respect we must show others when they are suffering. Later in the play, Odysseus admits Ajax was the second best to Achilles. For that he should be remembered and honoured. To trash that is not justice.

So, here lies the lesson in empathy. Show compassion to people when down, even if you would class them as your enemy. It may be you needing that compassion and empathy one day.

Such lessons are relevant for the playground, the classroom, and, well, life.

Sophocles’ beautiful portrayal of this message resonates and calls to us still.

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