Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, June 16, 2012


In our last reading Georg Simmel made a powerful argument that money gives us more personal freedom.  He wrote this in our own modern era, around the turn of the twentieth century.  At the other end of the Great Books spectrum stands Sophocles.  One of the characters in Antigone had this to say about money: Money!  There’s nothing in the world so demoralizing as money.  Down go your cities, homes gone, men gone, honest hearts corrupted, crimes of all kinds, all for money!  Sophocles wrote about 2500 hundred years ago.  Has money really changed that much over time?  No, the concept of money itself hasn’t changed much.  But our understanding of money and our understanding of personal freedom have evolved since the days of Sophocles.  However, here’s a question that continues to bother modern Americans as much as it bothered Sophocles: where does the power of the state end and where does my personal freedom begin?  In Antigone we explore this question in greater detail.  Ismene makes the argument that we should obey the law because the state is strong and its citizens are weak: The law is strong; we must give in to the law in this thing, and in worse.  I beg the dead to forgive me, but I am helpless.  I must yield to those in authority.  And I think it is dangerous business to be always meddling.  This is the practical argument for obeying the law; stay out of trouble.  Don’t meddle in things that don’t concern you. The Chorus makes the argument that we should obey the law not because it’s good for us but because it’s good for the country: When the laws are kept the country proudly stands!  When the laws are broken, what of the country then?  Never may the anarchist find rest at my hearth; never let it be said that my thoughts are his thoughts.  This is the patriotic argument.  Then Creon makes the argument from the perspective of political leadership: I have nothing but contempt for the kind of leader who is afraid to follow the course he knows is best for the country.  As for the man who sets private friendship above the public welfare; I have no use for him either.  I call God to witness that if I saw my country headed for ruin I would not be afraid to speak out plainly… no one values friendship more highly than I do; but we must remember that friends made at the risk of wrecking our ship of state are not real friends at all.  These are my principles…  Political leadership means doing what’s best for the country, not what’s best for my friends and political allies.  Our country will only be strong if we have political leaders who make good laws and govern good citizens who will in turn obey those laws.  This is crucial in a democracy.  The question, both in Sophocles’ time and in our own, is this: what do we do with people like Antigone?  Antigone seems to be a good citizen but she refuses to obey one particular law.  Antigone doesn’t see herself as a troublemaker.  She just wants to obey a higher law.  Here’s the exchange which explains Antigone’s basic argument for disobeying a law she thinks is unjust: CREON:  You broke the law.  ANTIGONE:  I did.  But it wasn’t God’s law.  That final Justice which rules the afterlife makes no such laws.  Your edict was strong but all your strength is still weak against the immortal unrecorded laws of God.  Those laws are not merely for now; they were there before we were born and will still be in effect long after we’re gone; forever.  Antigone respects the laws of the state; but she respects the laws of God even more.  Personal freedom is not the issue here and Simmel’s theory of money doesn’t help either.  Sophocles sums up the problem like this: Fate raises up and Fate casts down both the happy and the unhappy alike.  No man can predict his own Fate.  Take the case of Creon.  Creon was happy once… and now it’s gone.  Who can say that a man is still alive when his life’s joy fails?  He’s a walking dead man; even if he’s rich and lives like a king in a mansion.  If his pleasure is gone then I wouldn’t give so much as the shadow of smoke for all he owns.  Maybe money can’t buy happiness but it can buy freedom.  That’s the good news from Simmel.  The bad news from Sophocles: we’re never free from Fate, no matter how much money we have.


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