Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version
In such a scenario, Ulysses warns, the strong would rule the weak and youth would overmaster age which ought, in terms of the thesis of the speech, be dominant by reason of experience and wisdom. Then, the rude son would strike his father dead, and force would be right. Right and wrong would lose their names, and so would justice. Everything would grow merely powerful, powerful things would depend only upon their own judgments, which in turn will grow into self-gratification, until eventually will grows into appetite. Ulysses then draws the picture of the slide from egotism to lust. Then, appetite - this celebrated image of cannibalism as the last consequence of disorder - seconded with will and power, eats itself up.
Clearly, health as much as order is the theme of the speech. All this chaos, Ulysses tells Agamemnon, occurs when hierarchies are smothered and stifled. So the disregard of degree causes retrogression, and not progress. Applying the whole to the army and by suggestion to the Greek camp, he says that the general is disdained by the one below him, he by the next in line and so on. Every step backward is justified by precedent, and each successive level grows to an envious fever of lifeless grudge against the superiority of those above it. Ulysses says it is not Troy’s own strength, but this fever among the Greeks that keeps her going.
Ulysses speech which is strictly co-ordinate with the speeches of Hector in the Trojan council, is chiefly important for its general account of disorder in society. The validity of the ideals under discussion is by no means undermined by the inadequacy of the speakers. Ulysses’ famous degree speech is a very serious discussion of fundamental issues, political and philosophical. An argument that was familiar during the 16th Century, it depends on the notion of order as a harmony of parts, under the rule of a single head and finding analogies in the natural world.
Nestor approves Ulysses’ diagnosis and Agamemnon asks the remedy. At this point, in a speech of great precision, Ulysses describes the burlesque acting of Patroclus who satirically enacted Agamemnon as an actor playing a conqueror part while Nestor was depicted as a senile, arthritic fool. Ulysses verges upon miming the original satire for the two objects of it, thus demonstrating what he will subsequently recommend for the treatment of Achilles. If men cannot understand an explanation, they must be shown an example instead. Such a demonstration is doubly necessary if what they cannot understand is within them. Achilles will be shown pride in others as it affects himself, and here Agamemnon must be shown in its most influential form - the growing anarchy that he has so far ignored - that is, in the playing of a parody of himself and Nestor.
The Greek generals seem almost to be moving towards effective action when the scene is halted by the entry of the herald Aeneas, and all opportunity for debate is at an end. He proves by failing to know the Greek general from among his staff that Ulysses thesis is sound. It makes no difference that both sides were supposed to have fought in armor that covered the face entirely, and that major warriors, therefore, needed introductions to each other. Aeneas appearance and the challenge he brings from Hector, radically change the course of action and its tone.
Ulysses who has spoken so eloquently of the need for order and degree, now proposes a complete negligence of degree in order to cure Achilles. What began as a serious diagnosis of ills and their cure declines into trick, which proposes that two major warriors should be treated like simple-minded children.
By Ulysses’ speeches - especially his degree speech, and by Hector’s later appeal to the ‘laws of nature and of nations.’ The audience is meant to judge the action of Troilus and Cressida.