Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Monday, November 14, 2016

SOPHOCLES: Antigone (Freedom or Fate)

Every four years Americans vote for President of the United States.  American democracy has a long tradition of a smooth and peaceful transition of power as the outgoing President hands on the office to the incoming President-Elect.  Not every democracy makes a peaceful transition. In this play Sophocles shows what happens when the transition of power is not peaceful.  The political plot is simple.  The “presidential” term is up for Eteocles and now it’s time to hand power on to the next ruler, Polyneices.  But Eteocles refuses to step down.  So Polyneices goes away, raises an army and comes back to Thebes to try and take the office by force.  In the ensuing battle both leaders are killed.  Then Creon steps in to take charge and tries to restore law and order to Thebes.  With that background in mind we should remember what Simmel had to say about freedom.  His theory of freedom is that it evolves historically from slavery to serfdom to freedom.  Money liberates individuals by freeing them from personal obligations to specific individuals.  With money I’m free to choose my own destiny.  Sophocles doesn’t agree.        

Money gives us the illusion that we’re free to choose our own destinies.  For Sophocles the concept of Fate is much more prominent than we think.  We like to think more money will give us more freedom but what it actually does is corrupt hearts that may otherwise be honest.  Creon puts it like this: “Money!  There’s nothing in the world as demoralizing as money.  Down go your cities, homes gone, men gone, honest hearts corrupted, crookedness of all kinds, and all for money!”  Money is just a symptom of a deeper problem and Sophocles wants us to ponder the tragedy of the human condition.  Every character in this play tries to do what is right.  Creon’s position is entirely logical.  “Polyneices made war on his country.  Eteocles defended it.”  Therefore Polyneices is a traitor; Eteocles is a hero.  Creon tries to do the right thing and clearly explains his position: “No ruler can expect complete loyalty from his subjects until he has been tested in office.  Nevertheless, I say to you at the very outset that I have nothing but contempt for the kind of Governor who is afraid, for whatever reason, to follow the course that he knows is best for the State; and as for the man who sets private friendship above the public welfare, I have no use for him.”  Antigone and Ismene also want to do the right thing.  Antigone tells Ismene “now you can prove who you are.  A true sister, or a traitor to your family.”  Ismene is afraid and her position is pragmatic.  She says “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.”  But it’s not just fear that motivates her opinion.  She also considers her religious and civic duties.  When Antigone says “Apparently the laws of the gods mean nothing to you” Ismene responds “They mean a great deal to me; but I have no strength to break laws that were made for the public good.”  Ismene has a point.  Antigone is acting on what she conceives to be her private obligation.  Creon is acting on what he conceives to be best for the public good.  Ismene is caught in between.  Creon’s son Haemon puts this whole situation into perspective when he says “Reason is God’s crowning gift to man, and you are right to warn me against losing mine… yet there are other men who can reason too; and their opinions might be helpful.  You are not in a position to know everything…”  Haemon is right too.  No one knows everything.  We each have our own opinions and we live amidst a turmoil of clashing human opinion; but when the dust finally settles, what then?  Sophocles sums it up in one word: Fate. “Fate raises up, and Fate casts down the happy and the unhappy alike: no man can foretell his Fate.”  We may really want to do the right thing but love of money and power get all mixed up in politics.  The result of that potent mixture is what Sophocles calls Fate.  Simmel thinks people in the rational modern world are free to choose their own destinies; Sophocles hints that we’re not as free as we think.    


Post a Comment

<< Home