Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
The Ajax DilemmaJustice, Fairness, and Rewards$

Paul Woodruff

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780199768615

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2015

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:osobl/9780199768615.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (oxford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2020. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use.  Subscriber: null; date: 11 August 2020

The Answer

The Answer

How to Survive the Dilemma

(p.199) The Answer
The Ajax Dilemma

Paul Woodruff

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses the advice that a student of philosophy should give to a commander in Agamemnon's position. This entails telling Agamemnon that his army should have had someone with the wisdom needed to sustain it as an effective team, along with the leadership qualities to communicate that wisdom and apply it to the case. This wisdom was justice. When the army was in danger of becoming unraveled, Odysseus possessed the wisdom as well as compassion to convince angry troops to return to camp with a sense in their hearts that justice had prevailed. The army then went back to work and won the war.

Keywords:   Agamemnon, leaders, commander, wisdom, army, leadership, justice

What advice should you give a commander in Agamemnon’s position? Suppose you have been granted a round trip to the underworld, so that you may visit with Agamemnon. You should recall that Agamemnon’s pride and insensitivity led him into deeper trouble at home than it had in the army. When he came home to his wife, he brought with him a trophy woman from Troy, Cassandra. At his wife’s invitation, he stepped from his chariot onto a scarlet tapestry made for the gods. He entered his palace to wash off the dust from his journey, and there, in his bathroom, he was confronted by his wife and her lover, with an ax. His wife had many reasons to be angry; not least of these was the sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia on behalf of the army, to obtain a fair wind for the voyage to Troy. And then of course there was his long absence.

Now he has had thousands of years in the underworld to look back on his life. All this time he has wondered whether he could have done anything to save the life of Ajax, whom everyone loved so much. Suppose that, after hearing you have studied philosophy, he asks what you think he should have done.

(p.200) After reading this book, I hope you would say: “Your army should have had someone with the wisdom needed to sustain it as an effective team—along with the leadership qualities to communicate that wisdom and apply it to the case. The wisdom you needed is justice. You did not have that, and neither did your army. By the time that hard decision fell into your lap—the decision about Achilles’ armor— the army was seething with suspicion and discontent. It was too late then to look for wisdom. You had been foolish too long. There was nothing you could have done to save Ajax so late in the day.”

Suppose Agamemnon answers, “Yes, I confess to what you say. But we won the war.”

Then you should say, “That was because you were lucky. In the nick of time, when the army was in danger of coming unraveled, someone showed up who did have the required wisdom—Odysseus. That was when you were about to haul Ajax’s corpse out from under his weeping child and toss it in a ravine, under guard, for scavenger dogs and birds to rip apart. Odysseus had compassion in his heart and the gift of communicating it to you all. Because of his compassion, and his good words about that, the angry troops could go back to the camp with a sense in their hearts that justice had prevailed. Justice had prevailed, thanks to his compassion. And so the army went back to work and won the war. You were very lucky. When you most needed justice, you had a leader as a member of your team, someone who had the wisdom that is justice and knew how to bring it home to the army. That was luck.”

“You think I’m lucky! You call this lucky?” Agamemnon would ask, showing you the gaping ax wounds on his neck and torso.

(p.201) “Ah,” you should say. “Don’t blame that on luck. You should have thought about your marriage long before you went to war. War is desperately hard on a marriage. There is no room for fairness between those who go to war and those who are left behind. You needed love, and beyond love you needed wisdom. And to carry that love and wisdom, you needed a steady conversation. That was missing as much in your family life as in your army. You needed to listen as much as to speak.”

Agamemnon would shake his head and rumble one word, “Hopeless,” turn on his heel, and merge with the throng of the dead. The truly unwise have no idea what they are missing. Proud and insensitive, Agamemnon could not learn, even from the hatred in his wife’s eyes, how thoroughly he had failed in wisdom. (p.202)