Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

SOPHOCLES: Antigone (Creon and the Preacher)

In his book on Ethics (GB1) Aristotle made the famous statement that “Happiness is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.”  Happiness is something we do, not something we feel.  After reading Antigone we may want to ask if the same observation applies to wisdom as well.  Is wisdom an “activity of the soul” and something we do; or is wisdom a kind of comprehensive understanding of the world by the mind?  Creon apparently believed wisdom is something we do.  He was decisive in ordering the body of Eteocles to be honored while the body of Polyneices would be left without burial.  The result?  Toward the end of the play Creon laments “Whatever my hands have touched has come to nothing.  Fate has brought all my pride to a thought of dust.”  He tried to do what (we have to assume) he thought was the right thing to do given the unique circumstances he faced as king of Thebes.  The Preacher from the book of Ecclesiastes (GB5) understood Creon’s predicament better than most of us.  The Preacher was a king too; the king of Israel.  And the Preacher’s conclusion was much the same as Creon’s.  The Preacher asks “What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?”  What good did it do you, Creon, to become king of Thebes?  It brought you wealth and power.  Did it bring happiness too?  No.  Did it give you wisdom?  Maybe.  Just not the clear and optimistic wisdom of Aristotle. 

The wisdom Creon stumbled upon was more of the melancholy variety.  It was the sad wisdom of experience.  He thought he was doing the right thing.  But so did Antigone.  This wasn’t a situation where there were good guys on one side and bad guys on the other.  They both had convincing arguments that they were doing the right thing.  It was a tangled situation and would not have surprised the Preacher.  He had pretty much seen it all before and famously stated that there was nothing new under the sun: “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit. That which is crooked cannot be made straight…”  Creon thought it was the king’s job to make crooked things straight.  Maybe he was right.  But the Preacher learned from experience that there are some things in this world that can’t be made straight; at least not by men.  Only God (or the gods) can straighten them out.  Even king Creon finally had to admit that “the laws of the gods are mighty, and a man must serve them to the last day of his life!”  The Preacher agreed: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.”  The Preacher learned patience the hard way and came to understand that “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.”  There’s a time to do this, a time to do that, and a time not to do anything at all but just sit and ponder the problem of fate, much the same way Job (GB4) sat and pondered the problem of fate with his friends.  There’s not much time to meditate for a man who has the responsibilities of a king.  Ordinary folks can take more time to ponder what the Messenger in the play has to say: “Fate raises up, and Fate casts down the happy and unhappy alike: no man can foretell his Fate.”  Or meditate on the advice of the Chorus when they sing “There is no happiness where there is no wisdom; no wisdom but in submission to the gods.”  The Preacher (and king of Israel) somehow found time to ponder these things.  What did he decide?  “Then said I in my heart, As it happeneth to the fool, so it happeneth to me; and why was I then more wise?”  If fate raises up and casts down both the wise and the foolish then what advantage does wisdom have over foolishness?  And even if I want to seek out wisdom anyway, how do I go about finding it?  Creon and the Preacher agree we can’t find it by reading books.  The Preacher put it this way: “of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”  Of course the great irony is this.  We find the wisdom of Creon and the Preacher by reading about them in a book.