Justice Served Essay, Research Paper
What is the relation of the state to the individual? Should obedience be paid to the will of the state, or to the justice with which it conflicts? If loyalty is required, is it conditional; necessary only part of the time? And, given that the state and the individual will inevitably disagree on some issues, who suffers in the end? Through their writings, Plato and Sophocles outline two sides of this issue. In Euthyphro, The Apology, and Crito Plato expresses a view of the state as flawed but necessary, never straying from the logical analysis performed by his main character, Socrates. However, in Antigone, Sophocles offers a tragic, gut-wrenching story that also looks seriously at the same issue. There are notable distinctions within the works, but the conclusions of the two figures are more strikingly similar than different. After careful examination, it seems apparent that the two authors use the same situation to relay their beliefs of the relationship between the individual and the state: Sophocles believes that the unjust will ultimately be punished, and the just will always suffer when a conflict between the gods and the state exists; Plato believes similarly that the just must obey the laws of the gods before those of the state and endure the consequences that the state imposes. The primary difference, is that Plato highlights the necessity of the laws of the state, whereas in the tragedy-drama the necessity of the law is not in dispute, probably because it would detract from the emotional outpouring from the audience for Antigone, and the state representative is a tyrant. Beyond this philosophical insight from Plato, both writers demonstrate how the state will never benefit from a conflict with the gods.
Greek writers seemed to adhere to a stringent standard of inclusion when they created their works; as is such in the three works examined. All characters play a specific role, never overlapping, bringing with them a message necessary to the fruition of the story. Although the aims of the three works can be considerably different, opinions on the same questions are immediately apparent in the texts. In Antigone, a tragedy adapted by the fifth-century BPE poet Sophocles, the struggle lies between the will of the state and the supposed demands of the gods. An edict, decreed by the new king of Thebes, demands that the body of his nephew and once friend of the city-state, go unburied, regardless of the ties that the person the corpse belonged to had with many in the city-state. Antigone, the ill-fated sister of the person the body belonged to, renounces the decree on the grounds that her duty to the gods and to her brother goes beyond the will of the state. Understandably, this is a blatant challenge to the pride of the king, and one that she will pay for with her life (Braun 4-6).
Euthyphro and The Apology, two dialogues composed by the late fifth, early fourth century BPE philosopher Plato, outline the trial of Plato’s master, Socrates. In Euthyphro, Socrates (written, of course, by Plato) has been notified of a suit (which will ultimately lead him to his death) brought against him by a fellow Athenian. In this dialogue he discusses, among other things, the meaning of piety, concluding nothing but forming an intelligent conversation around it. The Apology supposedly recreates the in-court defense of Socrates, presented before the court of Athens. In this narration, Plato’s understandings of justice are shared through the experience of Socrates, notably his beliefs. Crito, the final leg of Socrates march to death, even further highlights Plato’s understanding of justice, and the role of loyalty in the relationship between the state and the individual. (These three narratives, although separate and distinct, will from here on be referred to as the trial and death of Socrates; specific texts will be highlighted for clarification purposes.)
The trial and death of Socrates, as narrated by Plato, contains all of the situations, at least in part, which Antigone does. The similarity does not end with the events; the actions of the characters and the unspoken beliefs of the authors during these events are also alike. The setting of both Antigone and the trial and death of Socrates commences with a declaration of some sort; an action by the representatives of the state on behalf of the state, which directly affects the central character of the story. In Antigone, that proclamation is in the form of a decree by the tyrannical king of Thebes, Creon. As noted above, he releases Antigone’s brother from full burial rights, presenting the conflict that will plague the characters of the story. In the trial and death of Socrates, the official declaration comes also from the state (of Athens), in the form of a subpoena of Socrates for committing public disservice throughout his life (realized in Euthyphro). The difference between the two stories here, is that Antigone commits the crime knowing full well the consequences that the state will incur upon her, whereas Socrates is unaware of the punishment that his own actions will lead to (Barker 30)
Before and after the state decree, Antigone and Socrates share the same intentions. The state affects neither of their decisions to perform that which they know to be against the will of the state, only the outcome. Antigone, after knowing what the state forbids her to do, proceeds with the burial of her deceased brother, knowing that she will incur the punishment of the state. In The Apology Socrates, although brought before the state after the supposed crimes had already been committed, admits that he would freely perform the same acts which he had in the past that had brought him into conflict with the state. Antigone claims that she breaks the law, knowing that it is the supreme laws of the gods to which she adheres over the lesser laws of people (Braun 9). In The Apology Socrates claims that his own actions are the result of a divine guide. Thus, the two characters, although charged at different times in relation to their crime, view their actions as necessary (Braun 8, Barker 68). They attribute their illegal actions to the divine will of the gods — in other words, necessary to the common citizen of a city-state that believed that his or her actions should follow the wishes of the gods over all others. Antigone believes that her blood relation to her dead brother and the justice which Zeus commands of such a relationship outweighs the justice demanded by the state. Socrates, using the analogy of the horse and the horsefly, with himself as the fly stinging the horse (the city) into action, believes that his own role as the horsefly is a gift to the city from the gods. So, during their summons by the state, both Antigone and Socrates claim to act in accordance to the wishes of the gods, and because they are convinced so, have identical motives for committing their crimes (Barker 30).
The summons, in both cases, reveals not only the intentions of Antigone and Socrates, but also the position of the state. Antigone’s summons takes place before Creon immediately after she committed the crime. After saying that her duty is first to the gods, Creon asserts his own position. Regardless of the righteousness of his condemnation of Antigone, he believes that, should Antigone be allowed to defy the law and live, his own rule would suffer. To Creon, the most important element of the situation is the disregard for his decree — the strength of the state, he vows, must never be held in check by an individual (especially a woman). During Socrates’ trial, he also maintains his innocence on grounds that he was doing only what the gods required of him. However, the state, even after hearing his testimony disprove many of the charges brought against him, ultimately denies him his freedom. To Socrates, whom we are to believe in the story, most of the men judging him feel that he had bested them sometime in their life. He uses this as an explanation for the prejudice against him, which eventually leads to his conviction. In both cases, the state is serving of the individuals within it, whom defy the will of the gods as spoken by the defendants. So, even if the motives of the individuals within the state are not entirely self-serving, there is evidence that part of their motives are, putting them at odds with the ideal justice (Barker 71).
Because the state is more powerful than the individual citizen is, the decision made in a suit will be subjected more to the whims of the individuals comprising the state. As seen above, the state of Thebes in Antigone, represented by Creon, has a view that the state should not be undermined by the actions of a defiant individual. So, possessing the power of judge, jury, and executioner, not surprisingly Creon sentences Antigone to death, against the will of many of the citizens. This shows further that the sentence is one more of individual pride than of true, stately justice, because the majority disagrees with it. In the trial of Socrates, the state sentences Socrates to death, regardless of the weakness of the prosecution after his testimony. In both stories, it is easy to see that the will of the gods is not the primary source of the justice that the state supports, and that the individuals in both cases are clearly acting with conscious regard of the laws of the gods. This is important because the audience realizes that the actions of the individuals are pious and in complete accordance with the superior laws of the gods, but that is irrelevant to the self-serving aristocrats. The individuals receive death, the absolute penalty, for their fidelity to the gods of the state.
The state suffers after the decisions are made to kill Antigone and Sophocles. In Antigone, the suffering is very apparent. Creon, after following through with his decree against Antigone, happens upon his son dead. His wife kills herself as well. At this point his suffering just begins, and he realizes it was because he was on the opposite side of the gods’ will, as obvious when he says, “…I killed you both, son and wife” at the end of the play. The wrath of the gods is less obvious in the trial and death of Socrates, and is not memorialized by the suffering of any specific individuals within Athens. Rather, the suffering is seen as a loss of Socrates by the entire populace of Athens. In The Apology Socrates himself said that his unconventional life directly helped the people of Athens to become active and pious. And in another, more realistic sense, Athens suffered from the death of Socrates — they forever have the reputation of ignorantly putting to death one of the most influential thinkers that this world has ever known.
Aside from what the authors intended the audience to believe about the righteousness of the characters in the narratives, there is their piety under the scrutiny of the reader. Was Antigone in fact pious in the eyes of the gods? Was Socrates pious in the eyes of the gods? Was Creon acting out of personal ignorance and impiety when he convicted and sentenced Antigone to death? Was the Athenian court actually self-serving and conspiratorial when it sentenced Socrates to drink the hemlock? Or were all characters and groups acting in the best interests of the party they represented? To find answers to these questions using a view that would be suitable to Greek figures and the Greek mindset, the methods used by Socrates in the Euthyphro would seem most appropriate.
Speaking with the prophet Euthyphro, Socrates tries to find a characteristic underlying piety that can be applied to all things pious. In the end, Euthyphro does not give Socrates a straight answer to the question, but many of the statements made by Socrates can be used to judge whether or not the characters in these stories acted out of piety, or something else. The main point made by Socrates is that piety cannot be that which is pleasing to all gods, for the gods are believed to be warring over issues of this sort. The one conclusion that they did come to was that piety was always arguable between individuals. Antigone, believing that she acted on the will of Zeus and never attributing her actions to any other gods, suffers nothing from the argument of piety between Euthyphro and Socrates. On this same course it would seem that Creon must, according to Socrates, be guilty of impiety. However, Creon also swears by the gods, specifically Ares, that he commits no crime and operates on the notion that the brother of Antigone was an enemy to the state. It is only in the end, when Creon is overwhelmed by bad news and a guilty conscious that he decides to go back on his own words. Sticking to the words of Socrates in The Apology and Plato’s political beliefs, that the law must be obeyed at all times except in cases when a supreme spiritual question is at issue, Creon’s personal actions are not impious. He put the needs of the state above the needs of the individual, which is core to the ideology of the Greek city-state. That conclusion would imply that the death of Antigone could not be stopped. She just happened to be in a compromising position and recognized the higher responsibility. Creon, as the state, remained consistent and treated all enemies as enemies and punished all crimes equally, without regard for the more urgent laws of the gods (Braun 11). This ultimately was his downfall.
The trial and death of Socrates has different implications if what Socrates suggests during his trial is true, that he was only persecuted because he offended the nobles of Athens. This would imply that the nobles were in fact working out of spite and impiety, and by killing Socrates incurred the wrath of the gods.
From these stories, the answers to the questions above are subject to many interpretations. The characters within the stories display a variety of reactions to the issues, each no doubt symbolizing a realistic perspective in the society of the day. But, as both stories carry the themes of divine will, as often occurs in all Greek stories, all parties suffer and the understanding that all parties, even the state, will lose a battle with the gods. 2,477 words
Sophocles. Antigone. Trans: Richard Emil Braun. New York City, NY. Oxford
University Press. 1973.
Barker, Sir Ernest. The Political Thought of Plato and Aristotle. New York, NY. Dover
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