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Fear and the polis in Sophocles’ Ajax

by Brett Heino on February 14, 2019

Fear. It pervades the modern political scene, sinking its way into every pore of the body politic. It is impossible to comprehend the upsurge of right-wing populism in the United States, Europe and recently South America unless one also understands the constituent role played by fear. One of the essential characteristics of the far-right is it’s harnessing and channelling of fear against perceived others – the migrant who will take your job, the Muslim who will change your way of life, the welfare cheat who will cost you money. However, in this structure should be seen a particularly malevolent instantiation of a greater force – the use of fear as a political principle. As Engels explores in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, the evolution of class society throughout history generates various forms of political state, states that ultimately rest on their capacity for violence to ensure the maintenance of their power. As such, by adopting an explicitly historical view, we can gain fresh insights into the nature of fear as a political tool, as well as responses to it.

The theme of fear is central to the first text read by the Rubicon Reading Group, Sophocles’ Ajax. One of the three great Athenian tragic poets (alongside Aeschylus and Euripides), Sophocles wrote over 120 plays, seven of which have survived to modern times. Ajax, widely regarded as his earliest extant work, is eponymously named after its protagonist, and is set in the Greek camp during the ten-year war against Troy. Ajax, the greatest hero of the Argives after Achilles, is furious that he has lost out on claiming the latter’s armour after his death, which was instead awarded to the wily Odysseus. He sallies forth to kill Odysseus and the leaders of the Greek contingent, the brothers Agamemnon and Menelaus (known collectively as the Atridae). Struck down by a fit of madness from Odysseus’ protector, the goddess Athena, Ajax instead tortures and slaughters a flock of captured sheep and cattle. Upon regaining his sanity and realising his disgrace, Ajax engages in a lengthy dialogue with his slave-mistress Tecmessa, arguing that the only honourable course open to a noble man is suicide. After deceiving his compatriots as to his true intentions, Ajax steals away and kills himself by falling on the sword gifted him by Hector. There follows an intense scene as his half-brother Teucer faces off with Menelaus and Agamemnon, both of whom want to deny Ajax a proper burial (and so offending a deeply held Greek religious custom). Surprisingly, Odysseus enters the debate on Ajax’s side, using his rhetorical skills to obtain Agamemnon’s permission to bury Ajax. The play ends with Teucer burying his kin, telling the others gathered that they never followed a greater man.

Ajax is a source of rich insights into the nature of Greek politics, philosophy, religious thought and gender relations, all of which was the subject of much debate and discussion for the Rubicon Reading Group. For the purposes of this piece, however, the central point of interest was the tense scene between Teucer and the Atridae towards the end of the play as to the fate of Ajax’s corpse. Menelaus, in arguing that Ajax’s body should be thrown out ‘to feed the hungry seabirds’, draws attention to the latter’s wilfulness and defiance of orders. To Menelaus, this is an unconscionable disruption of legal authority that must be combatted by fear. It is worth quoting him at length on this point, as it goes to the heart of his understanding of the role of fear in the polity:

It’s most degrading for a common subject

Not to cooperate with the powers that be.

Law and order will never prevail in a city

Where fear’s not well established. Nor can discipline

Be maintained in an army without the backing

Of fear and proper respect…

If you feel fear and have a sense of shame,

Then you’ll be safe. But arrogant and self-willed

Behaviour, when it’s allowed, can only drag

The ship of state, after an easy voyage,

Down to the ocean’s bottom in the end.

I want foundations of appropriate fear’.

(emphasis added)

Menelaus is here outlining a theory of fear as necessary to the workings of the state, a theory that takes as its departure point the collective nature of that state. The essence of this polity is ‘law and order’ in the city, with fear providing the motive force to encourage the submission of the people to it. Individuals who rise above their station, who exhibit ‘arrogant and self-willed behaviour’, threaten the integrity of this community and must be controlled through the application of fear. Into this group Menelaus places Ajax, a man of overweening pride whose martial prowess has led him to overstep both mortal and immortal boundaries.

The system that Menelaus envisages is one which severely constrains the status and role of truly Homeric heroes like Ajax. These are judged largely on their qualities as men of excellence, combining technical excellence in combat (aretê), renown for excellence (timê), and sound-mindedness/self-knowledge (sophrosynê). The truly political community, however, requires individuals of a somewhat different cast, individuals who can trim their sails to the ship of state. The death of the protagonist in Ajax is, in a sense, simultaneously the death of the individualistic Homeric hero.   

It is impossible to understand the essence of this poetic transition without appreciating the material context in which Sophocles was writing. Democracy was still a relatively young political system in Sophocles’ time. Athens had only recently emerged from the epoch of aristocracy (interrupted by episodes of tyranny), a form of government much more in keeping with the rule of exceptional nobles lionised in the Homeric tradition. Artistic forms like tragedy were part of a cultural attempt to come to grips with the new society, an attempt that was nevertheless deeply influenced by the weight of prior tradition. The confluence of these factors tends to result in a deeply ambiguous treatment of various forms of government. Readers of Sophocles and the other tragic poets will rarely find lengthy discussions on the superiority or inferiority of democracy vis-à-vis other systems (Aescyhlus’ The Suppliants and The Eumenides being notable exceptions). Instead, we must trace the imprint of these broader material developments in the texts themselves and tease out possible meanings.

To the extent that Sophocles takes a stand in the play, it appears as though he accepts that the system of Menelaus is that of the new era, represented by the symbolic death of Ajax. The unflattering depiction of Menelaus relates more to his unwillingness to subject himself to the logic of his argument, a point drawn out by the Chorus Leader when he warns:

Menelaus, beware of laying down the law,

However wisely, and then displaying pride

Yourself in violent treatment of the dead.

The requirements of a ‘new man’ (to use Che Guevara’s famous expression) is affirmed in Agamemnon’s observation that rules, not brute force, should form the basis of social organisation. He claims that,

It’s brain, not brawn, that always rules the day.

An ox with huge flanks needs a tiny

Lash to keep it ploughing the furrow straight.

For modern readers, this artistic transition between the hero and the member of the polis, and the role of fear in effecting it, is thoroughly enlightening. It foregrounds the fact that class-based political states always employ fear as an organising principle. Ajax’s demise is due in part to the fact that he refuses to submit himself to such fear and defies what the Atridae regard as their legal authority. It also forces us to pay attention to the constitutive role of material life in the generation of the forms of this fear. Rooted in the transition to democratic forms of government, Sophocles explores, through the Atridae, the necessity of a species of fear that restrains individual pride and ambition and buttresses the power of law and order. Sophocles is ambiguous as to whether this is necessarily a positive development, but he nevertheless observes the power of this fundamentally democratic movement.

An application of this analysis to today’s political juncture shows the operation of subtly different forms of fear at play. There is the same desire to maintain law and order, to keep people at their station, but it is premised on a fundamentally different understanding of democracy. What we consider democracy today shares little with Athenian democracy bar the name. Indeed, the best approximation to our democratic forms of government is what Aristotle identified as aristocracy. As such, the forms of fear we see at play in the modern state don’t target the overweening, powerful individual so much as the mass of ordinary people. The fears identified at the beginning of this piece as the stock-in-trade of the far-right are more in keeping with this conception, based upon the marginalisation of legitimate political citizens.

Does Sophocles offer us a way forward, a way through fear? Not really – as a wealthy and highly-educated member of a very unequal society, he had limited faith in the ability of common people to regulate their own affairs without strong leadership. However, through the resolute character of Teucer, he does give us a way to check that fear and the power it underwrites. In response to Menelaus’ discourse on fear, he issues a savage rebuttal:

Sailors, I’d never be surprised again

If someone humbly born then goes astray,

Where men supposed to be of noble birth

Are so wrong-headed in their arguments.

Let’s start again, now. Do you really say

That you brought Ajax here to help the Greeks?

Didn’t he sail to Troy of his own free will?

Are you this man’s superior? What right have you

To lord it over the force he brought from Salamis?

You’re king of Sparta, not in charge of us.

There’s no chain of command that entitled you

To discipline him or him to discipline you.

Teucer here insists on a strict adherence to consent as the basis of power. Ajax (from Salamis) is not beholden to the King of Sparta, particularly given that he acted out of free will, as opposed to compulsion.

In modern democracies, where formally all power is on the basis of the consent of the entire polity (unlike the limited nature of the Athenian democracy that excluded women and slaves), Teucer’s words encourage us to rigorously interrogate every manifestation of state power. On what basis and for what purpose is such power exercised? Does it reflect the will and consent of the people? Sophocles’ Ajax counsels us to ask these questions.

Brett Heino
Brett Heino is a Lecturer in the University Technology of Sydney (UTS) Faculty of Law. His research interests include the political economy of law (with a focus on labour law), the structure of post-World War II Australian capitalism and regulation theory

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