The accepted wisdom of a culture is most accurately, and most often, reflected in the constructive efforts of its general population. Most artisans, authors and historians of Ancient Greece, for example, convey in their art and literature the norms of everyday life in Ancient Greece. More specifically, the artistry and compositions of the age were irrefutably linked to religion. Acclamations and histories of the myriad gods are often found portrayed in sculpture, paintings, poetry, and drama. One dramatist who expresses religious philosophy in his works is Sophocles.
Antigone, one of his most prominent plays, discusses the conflict between the belief in the state as the top authority and belief in the gods as the highest ruling power. At the center of this conflict are the play’s two main characters: “Antigone chooses to serve the gods, or divine law, while [her uncle, King] Creon[,] makes the state his top priority. Both serve their principle with all the force of their being” (Weigel 252). Creon believes that without his government there would be total anarchy. Antigone opposes this view and instead believes that no mortal laws could conceivably outweigh the power of the gods.
In Antigone, Sophocles puts forth that there are consequences when a political leader is not wary of a power that he, and Greek culture, imagine is much higher than that of a king. When religion and government are in conflict, should human beings be obliged to the unwritten rules of an arguably existent spiritual entity over the expressed will of the leader of their chosen government? Do the gods strike him down, or is Creon merely too haughty and brash for his own good? The importance of the bond of family, especially that which joins siblings, is the central topic Antigone and her uncle disagree on, based on their individual belief systems.
Segal observes, “Antigone’s definition of kinship… reaches deep into the conflicts of values in the fifth century polis… ” (180). Antigone’s conflict with Creon’s beliefs is rooted in a similar conflict within the government of the fifth century. Segal goes on to explain that this government, or state, relies partly on the breaking of family ties in order to gain stronger allegiance to the state because the leaders at that time thought the state was more important than family bonds (180).
Just as men of integrity fought this policy, so Antigone strongly disagrees with Creon’s apparent subscription to this same idea and fights him by violating his decree that her brother shall not have a proper burial. She buries him in secret, and is subsequently imprisoned for it. She feels it is a crime against the gods to hold any earthly ideal above love, especially love of family; it was the gods who granted all things life, so to love relations and other human beings is to feel the word of the gods inside her.
Because Antigone holds kinship above all other bonds except divine law, she will willingly risk her life for it, more so for Polyneices. She feels that brothers in particular are, to a certain extent, irreplaceable. The fact that her mother has since passed on reinforces this idea. While Oedipus, though estranged, is still alive, it is no longer possible for her to be granted another brother from the same set of parents, therefore the bond would not be as strong.
In Antigone’s mind, giving Polyneices a proper burial per the will of the gods, thereby letting his soul rest in peace, is the least she can do for her only brother, even if it means giving up her own life. She cannot understand how Creon could possibly compare politics to this bond of extremely rare love. On Creon’s side is the argument that law and order must be preserved.
Creon feels that without a strong leader such as himself, anarchy among the people is inevitable; the laws of the gods are not enough to keep everyone aligned. In an argument with his son, Haimon, on the matter, he replies to Haimon’s criticisms, “the State is the King! (Sophocles, Scene III, 107). Haimon sarcastically agrees, “yes, if the state is a desert” (108).
Haimon concedes that sovereignty lies in the rigid government of a country, but that the laws of that government are merely inanimate objects conceived in many years’ past with no regard for context, as there is no feasible way to predict the limitless situations that will arise and call upon them; it is the responsibility of the leader of that government to interpret those laws and filter them through compassion for the people and situations to which they apply. On the surface, Haimon is siding with Antigone with his backhanded comment.
In actuality, Haimon still recognizes the importance of mortal law, he just finds fault in Creon’s methods of carrying it out, that being to follow them to the letter without consideration for the circumstances. They unknowingly agree with each other on a certain level; each understands that laws without leadership, be they mortal or divine, are not enough to base a government on. But Creon fails to consider this valid criticism. “He sees and hears only the evidence of the senses: a female threatens to take over the man’s rightful mastery” (O’Brien, “Defense,” 67).
In his mistrust of opinions which appear to differ radically from his belief in the government, Creon does not listen when given the advice, numerous times, to back down and admit he is wrong. Instead, he blames his son’s disloyalty to him on Antigone being Haimon’s future wife. Also, Creon fails to see Antigone’s actions as anything more than a woman trying to get the better of a man. In aggressively defending his culpability, Creon “immediately assigns political motivations to Antigone’s act. If his enemies had wanted a symbol for the rebellion, who could be more appropriate than the heir to the throne? (Melchinger 77).
This accusation is a further manifestation of Creon’s pride-induced paranoia. In his implication of the two sisters, Antigone and Ismene, he says, “snake in my ordered house, sucking my blood/Stealthily– and all the time I never knew/That these two sisters were aiming at my throne” (Sophocles, Scene II 125-127). He would rather sacrifice his relationships with his nieces and his son than acknowledge his own faulty logic. Creon accuses Ismene equally, without any evidence of her role as an accessory, simply for the fact she is Antigone’s sister.
By unreasonably accusing Ismene without proof of her guilt because he is feeling threatened by a woman, he is associating God and family and rejecting both (O’Brien, “Defense” 67). Then, as if it weren’t enough to reject both Ismene and Antigone, Creon “… irrevocably breaks the family tie [with Haimon] not so much by calling him ‘the woman’s [Antigone’s] chattel’ as by diabolically threatening to kill ‘the hateful thing’ before his son’s eyes” (O’Brien, “Debate” 74). Through this threat, Creon eliminates any sort of relationship he had had with Haimon, which can never be mended.
Is Creon’s suffering at the conclusion of the play a direct result of his excessive pride, or did the gods punish him outright for making a decree that went against their code of behavior for mortals? Antigone’s association of the gods with family has been established; Creon’s concordance with this view has as well. On this matter, they agree. However, Creon’s power is threatened, not by a god, but by a woman. To be threatened by a god, a divine being with supernatural powers beyond the comprehension of man, would indeed be palatable to him.
To be threatened not only by a woman, an inferior being in and of itself, but one who is his junior and the daughter of a sibling is a direct attack on the king’s manhood as well as his ego. The rage he feels proves that he perceives family bonds to be of utmost significance, for he takes very negatively to the idea that those who are the most discernibly rebellious are the ones who are supposed to be his most loyal followers, as they are connected by a family bond. His family-oriented thought is also illustrated in his accusation of Ismene for no other reason than she has a bond with Antigone.
Creon’s fault lies in thinking that the government, which is really the manifestation of his ego, and interpersonal bonds are mutually exclusive. Eventually, Teiresias’ ubiquitous prophesies come true: Antigone has killed herself by the time Creon realizes his mistake and goes to free her; her death results in Haimon killing himself out of sorrow; and Creon’s wife, Eurydice, kills herself in grief over her son. Creon’s realization and punishment force him to admit to everyone, especially himself, “I have been rash and foolish… Fate has brought all my pride to a thought of dust” (Sophocles, Exodos, 134-138).
Creon has learned what the other characters knew all along, that pride in one’s beliefs over compassion for others will blind one to his own faults, and end in destruction. When Creon makes the decree that Polyneices will not have a proper burial it is based on his idea of what is ultimately right, which goes against the unwritten laws of the gods. Antigone sees no choice facing her; she simply does what is right according to her interpretation of divine law and her reverence for kinship. Her actions cannot even be thought to be premeditated because, for her, aligning her actions with her beliefs is not a thought process, but a reflex.
This same course of action can be attributed to Creon’s dealings as well. If Creon had merely considered the opinions of others before automatically dismissing them, his fate could have been avoided. He failed to recognize that keeping an open mind does not mean accepting every idea, only considering them, and that one is not weak-minded to do so. Had he overcome his pride in his government and attempted to transpose the original intent of the archaic laws to the present situation with compassion and fresh thought, instead of applying them directly and universally, the outcome would have been more positive.
Laws, even divine and unwritten laws, are not universal, which is why leaders need to exist. The gods in Antigone play a very small role, especially when compared to its prequel, Oedipus the King, where the main character’s fate could not be avoided, even in retrospect. Here, the downfall lies with human error, not any sort of divine intervention. The essential moral is not to warn those in power against transgressing divine power, but against failing to temper political action with mercy.