Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Friday, March 11, 2016

SOPHOCLES: Antigone (Natural Law)

Sophocles has written a masterpiece of a play centering on the tension between public law and private conscience.  It seems at first glance to be an easy read.  Locke wrote that “obedience is due in the first place to God, and afterwards to the laws.” (IGB3, p. 125)  And Socrates once said “I hold you in friendship and regard, Gentlemen of Athens, but I shall obey God rather than you.” (Plato, Apology, GB1)  Case closed?  Not so fast, says Sophocles.  Locke and Plato may be right.  But the case of Antigone is very complex.  Let’s examine the conflict between her and Creon regarding the burial of her brother.  Eteocles was supposed to alternate sharing the throne with Polyneices.  When Polyneices turn came Eteocles refused to step down.  So Polyneices gathered an army and marched on Thebes where both brothers were killed in battle.

The play opens shortly after the battle.  Antigone explains the situation to her sister Ismene: “Creon buried our brother Eteocles with military honors… but Polyneices, who fought as bravely and died as miserably, they say that Creon has sworn no one shall bury him.”  That’s Antigone’s side of the story.  Creon explains his side of the story to “the old men” of Thebes (probably acting in the role of senators): “Eteocles died as a man should die, fighting for his country… Polyneices broke his exile to come back with fire and sword against his native city and the shrines of his father’s gods, whose own idea was to spill the blood of his blood and sell his own people into slavery.”  Antigone and Creon have come to very different conclusions regarding the burial of Polyneices.  Antigone reasons like this.  Polyneices was my brother.  The gods say he deserves a decent burial.  Creon reasons like this.  Eteocles died defending his country.  The gods honor men like him.  Polyneices committed treason.  The gods do not honor men like that. 

Antigone claims she’s appealing to “the immortal unrecorded laws of God.  They are not merely now: there were, and shall be, operative forever, beyond man utterly.”  This is an appeal to what Locke called “the law of nature” in our last reading.  The laws of God are higher than the laws of man.  But Creon has a good counter-argument.  Maybe the gods are on his side.  Creon says “our Ship of State, which recent storms have threatened to destroy, has come safely to harbor at last, guided by the merciful wisdom of Heaven.”  The way Creon sees it, the gods protected Thebes from the treachery of Polyneices.  He asks if “the gods favor his corpse?  Why?  How had he served them?  Tried to loot their temples, burn their images, yes, and the whole State, and its laws with it!  Is it your senile opinion that the gods love to honor bad men?”  And (at least at this point in the play) public opinion is with Creon.  The Choragos, speaking on behalf of the citizens, chants “If that is your will, Creon, you have the right to enforce it.  We are yours.”

Later in the play public opinion turns against Creon.  Even his own son questions if Creon has made the right decision.  But readers need to ponder the relationship between justice and public opinion.  Creon could well be wrong.  But so could Antigone; and so could public opinion.  Antigone could have gone to Creon quietly at the beginning and tried to persuade him that it was not in Thebes’ best interest to deny Polyneices a decent funeral.  Instead she chose to openly and intentionally defy Creon.  And the law.  She pushes her disagreement past all hope of rational negotiation.  When Creon says “you dared defy the law” Antigone retorts “I dared.  It was not God’s proclamation.”  This is open defiance of the law with no hope for compromise.  Socrates, as usual, has some good advice.  Antigone must do what she thinks is right, but so should Creon.  Socrates says “if you cannot persuade your country you must do whatever it orders, and patiently submit to any punishment it imposes on you, and it is right that you should do so.” (IGB3, p. 61) 


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