“Good lives are made so by discipline.” Morals in Antigone (Sophocles)

This post contains spoilers.

“Antigone in front of the dead Polynices” by Nikiforos Lytras, 1865.

Antigone is a short play, first performed circa 450 BCE, that deals with open-ended questions around the power of the state, divine law versus moral law, and civil disobedience. There are obviously a lot of fun parallels to modern-day politics to be drawn out of Antigone, but I found myself spending most of my time thinking about the characters.

To briefly recap the plot:

  • In a war repulsing the enemy from Thebes, two brothers have died, fighting on opposing sides of the war. The new king (Creon) orders that the traitor is not to be given burial rites as a punishment and a warning against disloyalty.
  • Antigone, who is Polynices’ sister, secretly buries the man.
  • Seeking to uphold the laws of the city, Creon sentences Antigone to death for disobeying the order not to bury the traitor. After her death, Creon’s son, who was engaged to Antigone, kills himself. Upon hearing that her son has killed himself, Creon’s wife also kills herself.

Creon, then, has lost everyone in his blind reverence of the laws of man.

(I was reminded of the quote from Douglas Adams — to paraphrase, but the people who want to be rulers are perhaps those least suited to it.)

The big question Antigone asks is, well, where is justice? Is Antigone, the character, in the right, for giving the man a proper burial? Is Creon right, in a sort of sense that the laws of the state must be given respect? Creon maintains a loyalty in the rules of man until his last scene, when he has lost his wife and son. A paragon of the law he may be, but pays for this loyalty as a father.

Antigone’s rough order of priority, in terms of her loyalty, seems to be “the gods,” “family,” and “the state,” in roughly that order. Creon’s priorities, like any good literary foil, are precisely inverted.

The play was staged at least twice during World War Two; LitCharts describes as being stage in such a way where “the audience was able to identify Antigone with the French Resistance fighters and Creon with the occupying forces.”

Such a staging suggests that people have long used Antigone to ask these sorts of questions of their own lives and milieus. A 2017 book (which I’ve not read) transposes these issues onto the British Muslim community.

I can’t help but read something like Antigone through the lens of Bowling Alone and the decline of both religious and secular gathering spots for people. Maybe this is because I’m living in San Francisco, but Antigone’s reverence and her certainty in that reverence reads as very alien to me.

Whatever religiosity itself is doing in America these days (and it seems to be doing some strange things, see the rise of the religiously unaffiliated and the decline in church attendance numbers), it’s interesting to think who (or what community) would play Antigone in America in 2021. (In fact, I posted it as a discussion topic.) I’m not convinced that it would necessarily be a religious community. In a secular world, whence do we get morality as separate from state law?

Ultimately, Antigone is a way of putting these two ideas (divine law versus state law) in tension with each other: a way of asking ourselves “What would I do, if I were in this scenario?”

A second thing that came up in one of my discussions on Antigone was this idea of certainty. I referenced Antigone’s religiosity above, and the religiously-inspired moral certainty that she feels is striking. Equally strong is Creon’s strong belief in state law. I’m purposely avoiding passing judgement on just how certain they both are, but hey, I live in San Francisco: “Epistemological humility” is a phrase people use unironically here. The extent to which both characters are entrenched in their beliefs is ultimately both of their downfalls. As characters, their roles are to inhabit opposite ends of this spectrum. Creon literally says, “Whoever shows by word and deed that he is on the side of the State,—he shall have my respect while he is living, and my reverence when he is dead.” That word, reverence, is telling.

One final thought: if the characters are larger than life in this way, why name the play Antigone and not Creon? I suspect there are reasons for this that have to do with the other two plays of the Oedipus Cycle (which I haven’t read). But it seems to me like you could make a convincing argument that Creon is the central character. I suspect, with zero evidence, that Sophocles wants us to think that he is not presenting this argument dispassionately, and we are supposed to side with Antigone.

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