Friday, November 2, 2012

Aias - Sophocles

How does a man reconcile what he knows to be true, his values, that by which he has ordered his life, with a changing world? When we are ill-served, or unable to meet a certain situation, the modern tendency is to deride the individual, and call for greater flexibility and acceptance of circumstance. So inseparable is such a belief from our varying modern ethos, that it hardly goes remarked upon. Such a position assumes much about the world, about progress, even about the teleology of men and women.

Homer called Aias (the Greek for Ajax) the "bulwark of the Acheans" a towering and imposing warrior of great ferocity and unbending will. Amongst the Greek soldiers, Aias was second in fame and greatness only to Achilles, and would contest (and eventually befriend) Hektor, butt heads with Agamemnon and deride Odysseus. Every Greek watching Sophocles' tragedy would have known how the story ends: with Aias' eventual suicide; one of the few (masculine, honorable) self-destructions in all of classical antiquity. As such, Aias is a noteworthy, and even remarkable hero. Stolid in the face of divergent opinion, perhaps even to the point of pigheadedness, Aias, more that perhaps any other Homeric character, represents a bygone age of grand and terrible warrior chieftains. Eclipsed by the age of the polis, such heroes were, by the time of Sophocles, largely relegated to myth - or, marginalized as barbarians beyond the bounds and bonds of the civilized world.

Sophocles takes, what many Greeks may have considered a dim-witted personage, and transforms him into a far-seeing beacon of extinct days. Everything Aias does in this play, every word he speaks, every action he commits, is seen as unfit for the moment - either tragedy or lawless destruction. Yet, he is prized above all others. Held entirely blameless before, during and after his crimes and suicide. How are we to reconcile such seeming conflict? Sophocles provides no answers. Rather, he leaves us to ponder even greater questions. How are we to know what is right and wrong when we interact with our fellow man? What about with the world? Aias sees a world that is all change: seasons come and go, the sun rises and sets, man glows brilliantly and is extinguished. He only will stay true to course; to honor and what he has been taught is right. Uncompromising: he lives and dies as only he sees fit. Aias is unable and unwilling to change with the world. He would perhaps say that he is unwilling to be rendered basal by the thieves and turncoats, the greedy and lecherous surrounding him. We cannot say for sure. He is undoubtedly a man of great violence: in many ways. He will be praised for his vision of the world, and, more crucially, his role within it: bulwark of the Acheans, unbent and unbowed.