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The Rhetorical Resolution of Sophokles’ Aias

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Abstract The resolution at the end of Sophokles’ Aias is brought about through a collaborative rhetorical strategy between Odysseus and Agamemnon. They agree to redirect their agôn away from the deliberative question of whether to bury Aias toward an interrogation of Odysseus’ philia, so that Agamemnon can eventually grant the burial publicly as a favor to Odysseus. In Aristotelian terms, the debate takes the unusual form of developing the character pistis in isolation from the logical pistis. This mutual avoidance of a demand for theoretical agreement is analogous to democratic practice.

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24. FN1 1)Holt 1981, 286, with Duchemin 1945, 137, 147 n. 1, describes Odysseus as a replacement for Teukros in a continuation of the same agôn. The form of the agônis irregular, in that Agamemnon does not have a long speech in response to Odysseus’. Odysseus as “replacement” is a way of naming that formal irregularity, but as Holt also notes, Sophokles has made a pairing of “irregular” and “successful”.
25. FN2 2)Blundell 1989, 96-102; Goldhill (1986, 87, 160) is more postmodern in reading the resolution as founded on a deconstruction of rigid moral concepts.
26. FN3 3)Most readers have a general ‘feel’ for what happens in this scene. E.g. Bowra 1944, 59-60, “[Agamemnon] gives in, not indeed to argument but to reasons of the heart . . .[T]he quiet moderation of Odysseus . . . has impressed Agamemnon and made him feel that he cannot refuse such a request to so noble a man who is also his friend.” In broad strokes, that is an acceptable summary of the conclusion. My purpose is to examine in detail how Sophokles portrays the rhetorical negotiation of personal/relational motivations.
27. FN4 4)Hesk (2004, 117-8) has identified the Teukros agônesas instances of ritualized verbal abuse, often referred to as ‘flyting’, which can develop as either sublimation of or prelude to violence. Cf. Heath & Okell 2007, 376-7; Hawthorne 2009, 29-34.
28. FN5 5)Heath & Okell (2007, 377-8) observe that both the dilemma and Odysseus’ mediating intervention have an epic conventionality about them. Everyone is hoping for and perhaps even expecting a mediator, though Odysseus is an unexpected choice given his portrayal earlier in the play. To call Agamemnon’s resistance “purely token” (378), however, is to too easily flit past Odysseus’ genuine rhetorical task of finding a tenable resolution, which produces the drama of the scene (the agôn).
29. FN6 6)Worman (1999, 46-7) observes that Odysseus in Aiasbelongs to a genre-spanning intertextual pattern, by which he is portrayed as giving considerable attention to the rhetorical construction of his own character ( êthopoiia, or Aristotle’s ethical pistis). Here he associates himself with an authoritative type, a person who is balanced, fair, and concerned with what is ‘fitting’. Such a move is more complicated than in its Homeric precursors, however, since this authoritative type does not obviously play to his audience, Agamemnon, but rather clashes with him; for Agamemnon is committed to enmity and harsh justice toward Aias and expectant of allegiance from a philosrather than balanced fairness.
30. FN7 7)As Blundell (1989, 95) observes, the lines could apply to either or both disputants.
31. FN8 8)In actuality, someone in a particular situation might be able to make a request and have it granted solely because his audience knows and trusts him. But in such a case we can not really say that a skill at persuasion has been practiced. There is a structural parallel between Aristotle’s assertion about the rhetorical deployment of character and his observation in Poetics6 that character is only a concern of tragic drama to the extent that it produces action (which would certainly include verbal action). Aristotle’s theoretical ideas point to a coincidence of rhetorical and dramatic interest; one which Sophokles already recognized and employed.
32. FN9 9)Garvie 1998, ad loc.
33. FN10 10)Jebb 1883-96, ad loc.: “The words seem alsoto glance atthe alleged disloyalty of Ajax” [italics mine].
34. FN11 11)Contra Winnington-Ingram 1980, 69, who remarks, “It is surprising that the adjective ἔµπληκτος has so often been taken as referring to Odysseus, whose friendship for the Atridae and its value are fixed points never called in question”. The explanation is an arbitrary imposition onto the agôn, which would reduce the exchange to meaninglessness. Odysseus has, however, set his φιλία on the line, and it is thoroughly examined (which, I grant, does not necessarily mean the exact same thing as “called into question”).
35. FN12 12)On self-interest and Athenian citizenship, see Christ 2006, ch. 1.
36. FN13 13)Nill 1985, ch. 2. As Nill also observes (1985, 2-3), Antiphon later undercut Protagoras’ assertion of the compatibility of the individual’s interests with communal normative demands, and these fifth century debates set the stage for Plato and Aristotle in the fourth to reprise the grounding of ethics in self-interest.
37. FN14 14)Allen 2000b, 151-67.
38. FN15 15)Allen 2000b, 165.
39. FN16 16)In a deliberative context, see e.g. Nikias and Alkibiades in the Sicilian Expedition debate (Th. 6.9, 6.16-7).
40. FN17 17)In an Athenian courtroom, such an argument would have required rhetorical contortions, as demonstrated in Lykourgos’ Against Leokrates, on which see Allen 2000b, 156-60, or the fuller treatment in Allen 2000a.
41. FN18 18)E.g. Easterling 1993, 82-3; Falkner 1999.
42. FN19 19)Cf. Thucydides’ account of the Mytilenian Debate. He claims that the motivation for reopening debate on the issue of mass execution was a widespread moral impulse (3.36), but when it came to the actual deliberation, Diodotos won the day through a public discourse of practical advantage (3.44-8).
43. FN20 20)Agamemnon is not necessarily incapable of being convinced that his act is unjust, but the philosophical or forensic discourse in which that would be possible could not simultaneously preserve his honor and authority. He lacks a public discursive framework in which he can allow himself to change his decree without great loss. Contrast the scene in the Antigone, in which Haimon suggests to Kreon that he might change the social meaning of Antigone’s act by inscribing it in an epideictic discourse rather than a forensic one. What Haimon lacks is the resources to motivate Kreon to make the shift. Agamemnon has the motivation, but lacks a discourse. He ultimately does not want violence, but has already set his authority on the line in his agônwith Teukros. Odysseus offers him a meaningful framework in which he can mitigate the loss.
44. FN21 21)E.g. Knox 1961, 21-2, 25; Winnington-Ingram 1980, 66, 71-2.
45. FN22 22)Havelock 1957, 201.
46. FN23 23)An ideal of conceptual consensus also seems to be at the root of the ‘stronger & weaker λόγος᾽ fragment. See Schiappa 1991, ch. 6.
47. FN24 24)Cf. Aristotle’s critique of earlier rhetorical τέχναι, which only dealt with putting the judge in a certain state of mind ( Rhet.1.1.3-10).
48. FN25 25)Torrance 1965, 280: “The opposites come no closer to union; the centrifugal forces are in no way diminished. Odysseus, though honored by all, is very nearly as isolated as Ajax had been.” Rose 1995, 73-4: “Both in scale and content the behavior of the decently motivated Odysseus, who adroitly fawns on the Spartan tyrant, cannot constitute a viable political or social alternative. His benign humanism is rightly perceived as a utopian aspiration in a world where neither the Atreidai nor Ajax find it viable.”
49. FN26 26)My account of the resolution of the Aiasas bearing democratic marks has a parallel in Sunstein’s (1996, ch. 3) account of “incompletely theorized agreements” in the legal systems of modern liberal democracies. People can often reach agreement on a particular case and concrete outcome where they might disagree on general principles. Judges and lawyers in fact tend to avoid the potential conflicts of high-level abstractions whenever possible. “[I]ncompletely theorized agreements can promote two goals of a liberal democracy and a liberal legal system: to enable people to live together and to permit them to show each other a measure of reciprocity and mutual respect” (Sunstein 1996, 39). (I am grateful to Danielle Allen for pointing me to this parallel.)

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Affiliations: 1: Kenyon College, Integrated Program in Humane Studies Timberlake House, Gambier, OH 43022 USA


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