Sophocles’ Antigone: A Tragedy of the Democratic State
Justice is illusory in a system of conflicting ideals
By Ken Kwek
In a previous essay on Greek tragedy, I explored Aeschylus' Oresteia trilogy as a quest for sôphrosunę or 'moderation'—a rite of individual suffering mirrored by developments in Athenian society, from the brutality of the tribal vendetta to the measured legal systems of a thriving democracy. The premise of Aeschylus' drama has been articulated by Nietzsche: 'All that exists is just and unjust and equally justified in both respects'; the playwright's aim is ultimately to convey a sense of 'eternal justice' presiding over personal claims to vindication. Aeschylus' younger contemporary, Sophocles, offers no such resolution to the dichotomies of social justice. His is a decidedly darker view of the human and cosmic order, where there is no final separation between the just and the unjust. In Antigone, he demonstrates the elusiveness of justice by dramatizing what Hegel calls the 'collision of equally justified powers'.
Hegel's view precedes Nietzsche's characterization of social disorder where the just and unjust are problematically conflated. In some ways, Hegel's summation of Antigone as 'a collision between the two highest moral powers' sounds less evolved, more simplistic. And yet, this "one-sided" and absolutist view of the 'highest moral powers' – Creon's strident belief in the primacy of state and Antigone's irrepressible loyalty to family - qualifies Hegel's opinion as more relevant to Sophocles' drama of manichćistic excess and intransigence. The description does not, of course, refer to characters that are one-dimensional, or action devoid of ambiguous moral conflict. Rather, the head-on collision between Antigone and Creon unravels the personal and the political ideals of post-Oresteia Athens. The tension lies between ethical life in its universality, that is, concerning the ties of citizen to state; and natural ethical life, that is, concerning the irrepressible bonds of the family. As such, where action and theme are concerned, the characters are seen as consistent to their beliefs: Antigone's opening lines in the play are 'My own flesh and blood' (l.1), whilst Creon's first speech begins with 'My countrymen' (l.179).
One might argue that the roots of Aeschylean order, from which Sophocles constructs his moral battle, may be found in the ode sung by the Chorus just after the sentry comes to tell Creon that his orders have been defied. In this song, the Chorus – that is, the audience's representatives on stage – record the victories of 'ready, resourceful man' (l.401): Man conquers nature – indeed he 'conquers all' [l.391]) – and 'weave(s) in the laws of the land' (l.409-10) by 'the justice of the gods that binds his oaths together' (l.410-11), ensuring that 'he and his city rise high' (l.412). This celebration of social evolution – from savagery to civilization, the culmination of which is democracy in Athens – is an assertion that the interests of the city must be of paramount concern. So in spite of Creon's cruel decision to expose the corpse of Polynices, as well as the unease elicited by this act, few Athenians would have disagreed with his patriotic affirmation of national principle: 'our country is our safety. Only while she voyages true on course can we establish friendships, truer than blood itself.' (l.211-12, my emphasis)
The insistence that national unity is 'truer than blood itself' is significant. Creon's vituperation against those 'who came to burn their temples ringed with pillars, their golden treasures – scorch their hallowed earth and fling their laws to the winds.' (l.323-25) would have offered a stark recollection of the 480 B.C Persian invasion of Athens (Antigone is thought to have been produced around 440 B.C) and the desecration of Athens' temples. The gravity of Polynices' treachery would have struck a real chord in the hearts of the Athenian audience, and Creon's denial of the burial of his corpse would have seemed justified. The volatility of this denial however, lies in its grim condescension to an equally fundamental human impulse: the devotion to blood relationship. Creon's decree offends Antigone on a particularly sensitive point, for the funeral rites and laments for the dead were, in the ancient Greek household, the express duty, and the right, of the women. Yet it is a claim burdened by political innuendo. While Antigone's loyalty to the family is couched as a citizen's right, her defense of blood relationships is controversial: It extends beyond a private code of conduct, carrying with it the strong political overtones of a challenge against the state and its duly constituted authority. Her precarious stance is underlined in Creon's warning that 'whoever places a friend' – the Greek word philos includes 'relatives' - 'above the good of his own country, he is nothing.' (l.203-4)
Of course, the argument doesn't end there. In her mind, Antigone's appeal to the bond of kindred blood transcends political allegiance and conforms to the unwritten sanction of the gods. In other words, she frames her dedication to kin as a religious imperative, as a kind of faith; and it is this faith which she carries, and which carries her, to the end (of her life) without ever compromising her values. By contrast, Creon's lack of self-control and prudence, which translates as a lack of resolute commitment to the touted principles of state, culminates in the escalated development of a tyrannical disposition, and the resulting destruction of his own family. In the face of Antigone's defiance, his son's rational but grating advice, and the prophet Tiresias' forbidding chastisement, Creon spirals down the path of corruption. The weaker of two wills, he slides dramatically from the temperate rhetoric of his political manifesto into the realm of savage invective. Initially, he counters Antigone's pledge to familial ties and her appeal to the gods by making a near-blasphemous declaration: 'Sister's child or closer in blood than all my family clustered at my alter worshiping Guardian Zeus – she'll never escape…the most barbaric death.'(l.543-46). This effectively breaks off the engagement between Antigone and his son, Haemon, and creates the first fracture within his own immediate family circle. And it isn't long before he commits overt sacrilege - 'You'll never bury that body in the grave, not even if Zeus's eagles rip the corpse and wing their rotten pickings off to the throne of god!' (1151-53) – completing his separation from Haemon: '…you will never see me, never set eyes on my face again,' announces the latter, 'Rage your heart out'. (l856-58)
Indeed Creon – now Lear-like – has allowed his stubborn fury to distort his judgment, upset his family and, most critically, betray his former pledge to protect public interests. In both personal and civic spheres, his language has degenerated into the roar of a despot who rules with an iron fist: 'You will never marry her, not while she's alive,' (l.842) he threatens Haemon. He descends into megalomania, insisting that 'the man the city places in authority, his orders must be obeyed, large and small, right and wrong' (l.748-51); '…is Thebes about to tell me how to rule?' he rails, '…The city is the king's – that's the law!' (ll.821,825) By then he has defeated his own proclamation, 'Show me the man who rules his household well: I'll show you someone fit to rule the state.' (l.739-40); and Haemon can only point out, succinctly and incriminatingly, that 'it's no city at all, owned by one man alone'. (l.824) Not surprisingly, the tragic and ironic punishment that the gods eventually mete out for him, is the suicide of his son and wife, both of whom die cursing his name.
And what of Antigone? Has she also obdurately engineered her own downfall? Perhaps. But unlike Creon, her plunge is precipitated neither by betrayal of the self, nor by defying the ostensible rule of the gods. Rather, her death is precipitated by steadfast attachment to a courageous but doomed personal ideal. Her passionate and incontrovertible loyalty to her brother not only results in death, but also entails a discontinuity of life; the sacrifice of her fiancé leads to the loss of a new generation which might have issued from marriage. Here, her suffering is stretched to the point of damnation. The emotional torture and physical ordeal of her imprisonment is never reversed; she is never released or tangibly vindicated but is driven to suicide after arriving at the harrowing realization that she is alone—rejected by men, abandoned by the gods. 'Why look to the heavens any more..?' (l.1014) she asks, when the only response to her 'reverence…of the gods' (l.1034) is an inscrutable silence. Antigone's death, in the tight domino design of Sophocles' tragic action, leads directly to the annihilation of Creon's family. But this adherence to poetic justice does not retain much optimistic energy for the regeneration of society. The abiding view is melancholy and fatalistic: Man's existence and experiences are unified only by an inadvertent consignment to suffering and death: 'No more prayers now,' says the Chorus Leader, 'For mortal men there is no escape from the doom we must endure' (l.1457-58)
Still, in spite of this view of human society wasted under the auspices of indifferent gods, it would be unfair to label Sophocles' masterpiece as a theatre of dire pessimism. His objective is to make a poignant remark about the illusory nature of justice in a system of conflicting ideals. If Aeschylus' predominant aim (in The Oresteia) is to educate the audience about the suffering latent in the search for political sôphrosunę, then Sophocles' purpose (in Antigone) is to identify and emphasize the threats and sacrifices involved in the maintenance of that sôphrosunę. His play ends with the assertion that though 'the mighty words of the proud are paid in full with mighty blows of fate…at long last those blows will teach us wisdom'. (l.1468-70) And part of that wisdom lies in appreciating the ghastly but very human aspect of Creon's decline, even as he suffers 'the mighty blows of fate'. There is as well a kind of redemptive greatness written into Antigone's unwavering struggle in the tragic web of the gods' incomprehensible will. Her stoicism and self-reliance are indispensable in Sophocles' characterization of the heroic and the tragic: She reminds us that it is not by resignation to the lofty but nebulous decrees of fate but through confrontation of necessity that mankind preserves his sense of dignity. To appropriate Schlegel's words, Antigone is an imagination of that 'grand and powerful soul' who 'discovers that, despite the limits of a transitory existence within which she seems to be confined, her reach extends to the infinite.'QLRS Vol. 5 No. 3 Apr 2006