From the Battlefield to the Streets of Baltimore

Dr. Christopher M. Leighton

Woodruff 's analysis in The Ajax Dilemma is urgent and hugely important, most especially in a city that is asking itself what it means to do justice well.


Ajax was the man that you wanted beside you when you were trapped on the front line. He was dependable and steady, strong and mighty, courageous and loyal. Indeed, his battlefield resolve had earned him the respect of both his comrades and his opponents. He was the largest of the warriors at Troy and had saved more of his friends in battle than anyone else. He fought with honor, and he would spin out of control with anger if denied his due. Yet his soldiers would follow him anywhere and make any sacrifice at his command.

Odysseus had other gifts. He charmed and beguiled with words. He was smart and wily, capable of startling intrigue and tactical surprise. He did not hesitate to chart an unpredictable course, and he was not bound by convention or honor. His agility as a speaker and strategist created a sense of unease, and you could imagine him going over to the other side if the price was right and the challenges lined up with his ambitions. You knew that victory depended on more than brute force. An end to the war required his game-changing schemes.

So now that Achilles is dead, King Agamemnon must decide who deserves special recognition, Ajax or Odysseus. Only one can be rewarded with Achilles’ armor, and who will it be? By one standard, “Ajax is the most valuable because he shows the virtues of courage and loyalty most consistently in battle, and these are the virtues prized by the army. By another standard, Odysseus is the most player because he is the soldier who cannot be replaced” (p.154). This quandary serves as the touchstone for Paul Woodruff’s meditation entitled The Ajax Dilemma: Justice, Fairness, and Rewards (Oxford University Press, 2011). Woodruff teaches philosophy at the University of Texas, and he has served as department chair and dean. He knows intimately the struggles of leadership and the labors required to build a community in which individuals feel that they are paid their due. He also knows how to write a lucid narrative and how to develop a carefully reasoned inquiry. He circles problems and examines conflicting points of view by plumbing the psychological and emotional depths of the human character.

Given that philosophy is often steeped in technical discourse and pedantic displays for fellow members of the guild, readers may be tempted to move the cursor in search of other recommendations. Wait a moment! Woodruff has something to say that is urgent and hugely important, most especially in a city that is asking itself what it means to do justice and what kind of leadership is needed at this time and in this place. He delves into the dynamics of rage and the breakdown of community. “Anger must have its due. Anger is to injustice as pain is to injury. If you do not notice pain, you may perish through unnoticed injuries. If you are unable to suffer anger, you may not recognize injustice, and so be wiped out by the transgressions of others” (p. 162).

In excavating an ancient story, Woodruff prompts readers to enter into conversations that are critical for a healthy democracy. He opens up an unsettled and unsettling dialogue about how and why we single out some students and teachers for special recognition, how and why we celebrate some employees with bonuses and promotions, and how we maintain community when the rewards are so unevenly distributed. Woodruff expands the range of our memory and puts us into spirited debate with our ancestors. And this is the payoff: We are handed the tools and given the guidance to ask ourselves anew what is demanded of leaders who are committed to the rebuilding of trust and what steps must be taken in the pursuit of justice. If these concerns register as overly academic and cerebral, then grab a hold of this volume and let Woodruff show you how the future of our troubled city is inescapably tethered to the weighty challenges bequeathed to us by the Greeks.