Perhaps the most recurrent character in the Western tradition is the tragic rebel- from Ulysses to Christ to James Dean in East of Eden, he who defies the old gods and is struck down for his trouble embodies something of the spirit of the West. Oswald Spengler, who was actually a bit cracked, basically said this when he described the “western world soul” as Faustian. Others have used the term Promethian. In American culture, the tragic rebel is most often compared to Captain Ahab. It’s arguable, though, that the greatest tragic hero in western literature is Satan; he’s certainly the most fascinating character in Milton, and probably a close second in the Bible; it’s still radically subversive to have the tragic hero die for everyone else’s sin.
The great sin in the classical tragedies is intemperance. Their passion leads men to defy the order of the world and the supremacy of the gods and forget the central fact of their existence: “that all of us who live are nothing but ghosts, or a fleeting shadow.” In the case of Ajax, his passion is anger, but his sin was already committed before his transgression in believing that he did not need the gods’ protection.
As Sophocles’ play begins, Αίας has already transgressed: angered that his rival Odysseus has won the arms of the dead Achilles instead of him, Ajax intended to slaughter the Greek chieftains who awarded Odysseus, but Athena turned his hand against the flock of Danaans (Δαννων). Having lost his honor, Αίας despairs. “The noble man must live with honor or be honorably dead; you have heard all I have to say.” Appropriately, he kills himself soon after.
There’s a nice symmetry in the play: after Αίας impales himself on his sword, his brother Teucer and wife Tecmessa demand the right to bury him, which the gods deny them. But, his memory is defended by his former rival Odysseus, who has overcome the anger that foiled Ajax. “His excellence weighs more with me than his enmity.” He wins the right for Tecmessa and Teucer to bury Ajax.
The painful lesson taught by fate is the first lesson. “Even if a man has a mighty frame, he must remember that he can be brought down even by small mischief. Know that when a man feels fear and shame, then he is safe!” To learn to fear is the beginning of knowledge.