The Greek tragedians were the first depth psychologist, performing on the stage tales of virtue and vice, of fatal flaws, showing to the crowd that character meant destiny, displaying to us that what moves us is often within ourselves, the rage of Achille, the nerve of Medea, the insanity of Ajax, great examples of heroism that should not be forgotten lest their great culture turn from them and decay. In other words, tell me what moves you and I’ll tell you something about yourself and what type of governance you deserve.
The origins of this story are in Troy. Achilles has died and so the Greek nobles weighed who to bestow his armor to. Instead of giving the armor to the second greatest warrior, they give it to Odysseus, Agamemnon’s chummy friend. Ajax is outraged at his dishonor, loses his mind, is driven to what might be a psychotic, PTSD laced episode, where he slaughters beasts believing they to be the men who frauded him, including Odysseus amongst their rank. But it was all a delusion, and now Ajax must face the pain, the humiliation, the grief of what he’s done:
[N]ow, being clear in mind,
He is freshly miserable. It is a painful thing
To look at your own trouble and know
That you yourself and no one else has made it. (258-261)
This is made all the worst because Greece is an honor culture, honor being their social currency.
Either he still is mad, or else can’t bear
To face the results of his former madness. 437-438
This act of insanity was social suicide to him and his culture, he can’t bear his fate. His mistress tells him how her fate is in the balance, to be strong, all things pass. It’s as if he’s trapped in a prison cell of guilt and shame. She’s opening the door, telling him all he has to do is walk out, but he doesn’t have the key, which is self-compassion. For Ajax, there would have been more fights, more lives saved, more spoils of war, more love to have been felt, his son, his wife, his family, but he can’t bear the shame. Guilt is something one carries within oneself, shame is something others throw upon a person because they often don’t possess understanding and heart.
Ajax says these last words before his death:
I must set about my business with all speed.
Strong god of death, attend me now and come.
And yet I shall converse with you hereafter
And be with you in the world below. But you,
Sweet gleam of daylight now before my eyes,
And sun god splendid charioteer; I greet you
For this last time and never anymore.
O radiance, O my home and hallowed ground
Of Salamis, and my father’s hearth, farewell!
And glorious Athens, and my peers and kin
Nurtured with me—and also here the springs
And streams and plans of Troy, my nurses all—
Farewell! This last word Ajax speaks to you;
The rest he’ll utter in Hades to those below.
[he falls on his sword]
The choir then sings, “Even in what we suffer I see the gods’ hands,” then Ajax’s brother goes on to say:
Did not a Fury make this blade of bronze?
And was it not Hades, that grim craftsman,
Who made that belt? In my opinion,
This was the gods’ contrivance, like all other
Fortunes of men, for the gods design them all. (1034-1038)
We are human, which means centrally that we are vulnerable beings. The complexity of our biology, of our psychology, of our social ways, all inked to the Furies, means so much of our destiny is out of our hands. It often feels like running water through our fingers because only under certain circumstances, in favorable conditions, do we have any control, and meeting these odds, it’s still can feel impossible at times.
The ancient Geeks knew war, if not fighting Persia or Troy, then at odds with themselves. Teucer, his brother, and the Greek tragedian Sophocles to his audience, says to the audience:
Whoever it was that first revealed to Hellas
Their common scourge, detest arms and war,
I curse him. Would the large sky first had taken him up
Or else the impartial house of Death. Generation
After generation of toil. Ah,
There indeed was a destroyer of men! (1194-1199)
Some things never change though, war has seen few breaks. And soldiers still struggle with mental collapse as families try to support them. The end of the tragedy is noble. It shows the struggle of power and the mark of the civilized world at odds with itself. To give a noble man his due with honors. Menelaus, who began this war declares he stay for the birds to pick at, like king Creon ordered Antigone to do to her own brother. But just as sisters pledge allegiance to their brothers, brothers also pledge allegiance to their brothers, he intends to ignore Menelaus, and then Menelaus’ older brother, and leader of the Greek people, Agamemnon, comes to order Teucer to leave that man be, but Odysseus enters the conversation, a man of order, and dissuades his friend Agamemnon from this dishonor he wants to throw upon Ajax.
Odysseys says, “My enemy, it’s true. But he was noble.”
“What will you do? Respect a corpse you hate?”
His greatness weigh more than my hate with him.”
Odysseus persuades their leader and then offers to Teucer to bury Ajax himself. Again, Odysseus as a man of order, a man of guest-host relationship, of friendship, the model of Greek civilization saves this family, and so it is done, and Ajax gets all his rites restored as a Greek noble.
What do we say about this tragedy? It has a resolution that remains hopeful, that the Greek way of life can be self-perfecting, that is, when a mental health crisis occurs, the Greeks can show grace. It shows a society wrestling with itself, their honor culture, how reputation can be more important sometimes than the value of life itself, and that can be carried into a vice for a society to have, for although all life ends in death, we should value all the promise and potential life still brings.
-To all those who struggle with PTSD