In the generation before the Trojan War, the struggle for power in Thebes was the great tragic event in Greece. After Oedipus’ doomed return to the city of his birth, where he killed his father and married his mother, the sons of this cursed union, Eteocles and Polyneices, plunged Thebes into civil war. This story was told in Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes. In this struggle, the two brothers killed one another. It’s from here where Sophocles’ Antigone begins, and it’s in the struggle between Antigone and Creon that follows that we learn something crucial about the world – man is transient, the forces of nature eternal. Pry where you don’t belong and you will pay the price.
With Oedipus’ male line having become extinct, Creon, brother of the former queen Jocasta, takes the throne. His first decree as King of Thebes is that Eteocles is to be buried with full honors, but the other brother, Polyneices, is to be left as carrion for the dogs and birds. Creon has simple and indeed patriotic reasons for this decree. During the events of the Seven Against Thebes, Polyneices went into the Peloponnese and brought a hostile foreign army to his homeland, putting his own city under siege.
There can be no greater example of treason. If we follow Cicero’s view of morality as seen in On Duties, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Creon is morally correct in issuing his decree. The treason of the type that Polyneices committed is the opposite of living in a civilized nation. No nation can exist if everyone acted like Polyneices.
Yet, it isn’t so simple. What we don’t see in Antigone, but what is shown in the Seven Against Thebes, was that Eteocles violated his oath with his brother. The two had made an agreement to share power by ruling every other year, rotating in and out of power. At the end of the first year, Eteocles refused to step down, breaking his oath. Polyneices’ response was certainly extreme, but it is important to note that Eteocles also violated the practical notion of morality that Cicero put forward. Broken oaths break down trust in society, and society is built on trust. Neither brother, it can be said, was truly in the right.
From a consequentialist perspective, though, Polyneices’ sins against Thebes were clearly greater and more destructive. Two wrongs don’t make a right, but it’s hard to feel sympathetic for him. So far, it’s difficult to argue against Creon on this issue, but Antigone does just that.
Despite the decree that Polyneices’ corpse is to be left to rot and that anyone attempting to give it burial would be executed, Antigone acts. She buries the body with full honors and openly declares that she did so in defiance of Creon. In explaining her actions, she declares that she “owes a longer allegiance to the dead than to the living.”
The laws of the dead, she says, have been established by the gods themselves. Creon’s decree is simply a man’s law and cannot be higher than the eternal laws of heaven, which mandate that the dead be honored.
It’s at this time that we should remember that it was a sacred duty for the Greeks to uphold the proper rites for the deceased. Homer reminds us of this in the Iliad, when Zeus orders Apollo to tend to the body of his fallen son, Sarpedon. Apollo is to cleanse it and present it for burial, where it will be cremated and given a tomb. These, Zeus says, “are the solemn honors owed the dead.”
Antigone is simply trying to follow the same law. Since she will ultimately reside in the land of the dead forever, she says she must honor the laws that the gods themselves have established in relation to the dead. Creon’s decree cannot interfere with these higher, more authoritative laws.
What’s interesting about this is that Antigone is implying limits to the power of the king. In response, Creon replies that the lawful king “must be obeyed in great and small things, and things that are just and unjust.” In effect, he is proclaiming a theory of absolute monarchy. The likes of Louis XIV and James VI/I would have approved of Creon here.
Antigone is unwittingly closer to our modern viewpoint of political power, but it doesn’t tell us much about her moral rightness in comparison to Creon’s. Indeed, under a modern lens, Antigone seems quaint. Religious belief isn’t an invitation to break the laws of the land, after all. Furthermore, we would find it difficult to support someone showing so much affection for a traitor. Creon seems to win out under our modern conceptions of right and wrong, but it might not be so simple.
Antigone vs. Creon: Who is Right?
Antigone’s execution is quickly arranged, despite the objections of Creon’s son, Haemon, who is engaged to her. His father famously says that there are “other fields for him to plow.” However, this is exactly the kind of arrogance that will prove his undoing.
Just at the height of his power, Tiresias, the blind prophet that Odysseus will one day meet in The Odyssey, warns Creon that he has “done violence to the gods,” who will “cut short the folly of men.” This forces him to reconsider his actions, but too late. The execution of Antigone prompted the suicide of Haemon, who didn’t want to live without her. His wife, Eurydice, followed. The play ends with Creon still king, but a defeated, broken, demoralized man who has lost everything important to him. The final words of Sophocles’ play are worth reading and re-reading every day:
Reverence towards the gods must be inviolate. Great words of prideful men are ever punished with great blows, and, in old age, teach the chastened to be wise.
Here we see the true magnitude of Antigone and her point of view. She might have been defying the King of Thebes, but she did so not for selfish or egotistical reasons. She did not act for reasons of expediency. Indeed, she did the exact opposite. She acted because she knew her place in the world. Creon’s power corrupted him and he didn’t know his own place anymore, dooming him.
For the ancients, morality was as much a question of living the good life as it was about pure ethics. Ethics was less abstract than it is today and more concerned with creating a blueprint to good living. Antigone’s own circumstances may have led to her death, but can we say that her sentiment was wrong?
Like Creon, we are a people that disregards all limits. Personally and as a culture, we meddle in things that are best left alone. We tempt fate with no regard for the consequences. This headline is an emblematic example:
Harvard and Yale scientists are proposing that we tackle climate change by dimming the sun.
It sounds crazy, but according to their research, it could actually cut the rate of global warming in half: https://t.co/Ty8cCK3J5j
— CNN (@CNN) November 23, 2018
Note the lack of irony, the straight-faced presumption in the headline that something like this could be executed without any negative consequences. Suddenly, Antigone’s reverence toward eternal laws doesn’t seem so unwise. Like Creon, we are prideful men, begging to be punished by great blows for our disregard of the past, of our inherited wisdom, and our rush toward nothing beyond our own self-satisfaction. We are paying a dear price for this.
The words of Herodotus on the cyclical nature of fortune ring true when we examine the Antigone vs. Creon conflict:
If you think that you are immortal and that you command an army which is also immortal, it will be pointless for me to declare my judgment; but if you have realized that you are a mortal man yourself and command others who are so likewise, then learn this first, that for the affairs of men there is a revolving wheel, and that this in its revolution never permits the same persons always to have good fortune.
Antigone teaches us to be mindful of ourselves, our place in the world, and, as Louis XIV cautioned, carefully deliberate on our actions, especially if we have good fortune. Kings stand above the rest and thus suffer greater falls when they are wrong, he warned his son.
Overall, Creon has the stronger argument in terms of its immediate ethics. Polyneices’ crime against Thebes was, after all, far greater than Eteocles’. Yet, he’s right for the wrong reasons, and his actions in response to the crime tempted fate in unwise ways. Man has limitations. Some things must be obeyed and preserved, despite our desires. It isn’t enough to be right in theory. Rightness also requires acting appropriately. Wrong actions for the right reasons still hurt us.
Read Stumped for more insight on just how foolish we humans truly are.