Essay, Research Paper
Laws of the City-State vs. Higher Law
as Seen in Sophocles’ “Antigone”
In Ancient Greece, after 800 bc., new ideas came to the forefront concerning the governing of society. These ideas led to a more organized leadership and a government whose decisions were primarily based on majority rule. This system took the form of city-states, large self-governing towns. These city-states were founded on principals of “freedom, optimism, secularism, rationalism,?[and] the glorification of body and mind”. Accompanying these principals was an obligation of fierce loyalty to the city-state and a willingness to shed blood for its betterment. These ideals, while ambitious and noble, often ran in stark contrast with those previously laid down by Greek gods, whose routes went back to the chaotic Dark Age of Greece(1150-800 bc.). Problems of this sort were probably commonly debated in city-states during the time Sophocles wrote “Antigone”.
In the play “Antigone”, Antigone is faced with an extreme example of this conflict. Her Brother, considered a traitor by the king, has died, and she must decide whether to give him a proper burial or yield to the king’s wishes and allow his body to be desecrated. She chooses to bury him, citing the will of the gods. “I will bury my brother, and if I die for it?convicted of reverance-I shall be content” , she remarks to her sister in defiance. Later, when captured and brought before Creon himself, Antigone continues to push her holy defense, “I do not think your edicts strong enough to overrule the unwritten unalterable laws of God and heaven, you being only a man.” Her opinion is routed in the belief that a proper burial will secure her brother’s place in the after-life, regardless of his loyalty to the state. Antigone valued the will of the Gods over loyalty, a cornerstone of the city-state system.
Antigone probably also felt that her right to freedom as a citizen of the city state was being compromised by Creon. Antigone voices this opinion to her sister, “It is against you and me he has made this order, yes against me.” . With both the will of god and the rights of her citizenship as her defense, she goes to die by the order of Creon. Even as Antigone is taken away, she remains certain her decision is the right one. Her last words are, “Go I, his prisoner, because I honoured those things in which honour truly belongs.”
Creon’s actions, although seemingly savage and unjust, can easily be justified within the culture of the Greek city-state. In this society, freedom and leisure time were enjoyed with the assumption that when the time came, every able bodied man would be willing to fight for his people. Indeed, political leaders and local authority figures were usually heroes of war. A policy Creon wholeheartedly endorses, “Alive or dead, the faithful servant of his country shall be rewarded.” But Creon seems to take his loyalty a step further, perhaps to set the standard for the remainder of his term in office. It is in one of his first orations as king that he says, “As God is my witness?no man who is his countries enemy shall call me a friend.” . It is clear that he aims to establish himself as a true patriot of the state. In this fiery speech Creon also foreshadows the tragic end, “I have always held the view?that a king?unwilling to seek advice, is damned.” , advice he would have done well to take himself. In trying to impress his citizens it seems Creon’s judgment becomes clouded and he construes the Greek ideal of loyalty into a liscence to do whatever he wants and disregard the will of the people, who are who he is supposed to serve in this “ideal” society.
The tragic ending of “Antigone” seems to make it pretty clear which side of the argument Sophocles is taking up. The play ends with Creon riddled with guilt, ready to die. “I am nothing. I have no life. Lead me away?my hands have done amiss, my head is bowed” , he says in a pitiful final speech. In this moment he knows he has been wrong, blinded by pride and loyalty to his state. But while it is obvious that Sophocles is condemning Creon, the reasons for his demise are open to debate.
In the play’s final stanza, the chorus sings what appears to be a moral to the tragedy. “Is wisdom?to hold the gods in awe. This is the law.” It would seem that Creon has underestimated the gods and put to much stock in the value of his country, and this is no doubt true. But the chorus’ simple message seems to lack as a full explanation for Creon’s fall. Perhaps the underestimation of the gods and his failure to see their will was only a symptom of Creon’s larger problem, arrogance.
Creon is clearly an extremely hard-headed man. In dealing with Teiresias, whom Sophocles has used as a voice of reason before , Creon first praises, then dismisses the prophet when he dosen’t get the answer he wants to hear. At this point, Creon is blind to reason, to proud to admit he is anything but absolutely correct in this matter. It seems that Creon falls under the category of other Greek figures (Achilles, Odysseus, etc.) whose pride and stubborn nature proves to be their undoing. The true lesson to be learned from this play may be spoken by Teiresias, “It is a fool who is governed by self-will.”