Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, March 14, 2016

SOPHOCLES: Antigone (Reason and Law)

Early in this play Antigone has to decide whether to obey divine law and bury her brother Polyneices or obey civil law and leave him unburied.  She publicly proclaims she will follow “the immortal unrecorded laws of God” rather than the mortal recorded laws of Thebes.  What does she mean by that?  How does she distinguish between immortal laws that are eternal and man-made laws that are not?  What qualifies her to make that decision?  John Stuart Mill believed “an opinion on a point of conduct, not supported by reasons, can only count as one person’s preference.” (On Liberty, IGB3)  Antigone’s preference is to give her brother a decent burial.  Her feelings go beyond the boundaries of rational justification.  But as Mill points out “people are accustomed to believe… that their feelings, on subjects of this nature, are better than reasons, and render reasons unnecessary.”  In her own eyes Antigone doesn’t have to defend her decision and makes very little effort to persuade Creon.  She merely states that she’s taking the high road of moral justice and Creon is a moral moron.  This may make Antigone feel righteous but it doesn’t provide Polyneices a proper burial.  And it gets her into deep trouble with the civil authorities.  Creon may be wrong.  But everyone can at least understand Creon’s legal reasoning.  He says in plain words that Polyneices “tried to loot the temples of our gods, burn their images, and the whole State and its laws along with it!”  For those reasons Creon doesn’t believe Polyneices should be honored with an honorable burial.  Antigone disagrees.  It’s not the disagreement that gets Antigone into trouble.  It’s disobedience.  She can think whatever she pleases.  Antigone isn’t being punished for what she thinks; it’s what she does that gets her into trouble.  Even the Theban citizens think Antigone is stubborn like her father, Oedipus.  They say “like father, like daughter: both headstrong, deaf to reason!”  In Antigone’s mind reasons aren’t necessary.  She just feels she’s right in her bones and doesn’t try to justify her actions.  But her boyfriend and fiance Haimon tries a kinder, gentler approach.  He opens his speech to Creon on a conciliatory note.  “I am your son, father.  You are my guide.  You make things clear to me, and I obey you.  No marriage means more to me than your continuing wisdom!”  This is a good start. 

Contrast Haimon’s approach with the words Antigone used to describe Creon’s law.  “It was not God’s proclamation.  The final Justice that rules the world below makes no such law.”  We could say that Haimon’s approach is too timid, fawning upon the king’s pride, while Antigone’s approach is bold, to get in Creon’s face about it.  The question is which approach is more likely to work with a man like Creon?  Haimon thinks Creon can be persuaded by rational argument.  So he tries that tactic.  He starts out by noting that “Reason is God’s crowning gift to man, and you are right to warn me against losing mine.  I cannot say (I hope that I shall never have to say) that you have reasoned badly.  Yet there are other men who can reason, too; and their opinions might be helpful.  You are not in a position to know everything that people say or do, or what they feel…”  This is a very different tactic than the one Antigone used.  Antigone appeals to the idea of “good” as defined by the will of the gods.  Haimon appeals to reason.  Sophocles is presenting two very different concepts of law here, holding up two alternatives for consideration.  Should law be based on morality, doing the right thing, regardless of the outcome?  Or should it be based on utility, doing what works best for society as a whole so it can continue functioning in an orderly manner?  It’s a hard question.  And it’s interesting to see how Thebans respond.  At first they back Creon but later change their minds.  Haimon tells Creon what Thebes is thinking now.  “They say… Antigone covered her brother’s body.  Is this indecent?  She kept him from dogs and vultures.  Is this a crime?”  How can society solve tough political problems without tearing itself apart?  Our next reading by Tocqueville explains how America does it.


Post a Comment

<< Home