Tonight I had the pleasure of conducting an adult seminar on Sophocles’ Antigone with a group of individuals whom I have gone through Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey with and the first two plays of the Oedipus cycle. As part of this project to offer materials, support, and subject for discussion with fellow educators, students, and potential seminar leaders, I will include four governing questions which dominated our seminar tonight with some brief discussion on what the group thought of each.
1) Chorus: ‘Our happiness depends on wisdom all the way. The gods must have their due. Great words by men of pride bring greater blows upon them. So wisdom comes to the old.’ (1346-1351) Is this true in all that we have read together? Are there any counter-examples?
This question was not truly considered during the seminar as it was almost universally agreed on that old age brings wisdom with it; however, were I truly to push the group, I would absolutely bring up the deeds and acts of Creon from both Oedipus at Colonus (where Creon attempts to kidnap Oedipus’ daughter to bend him to his will), and in Antigone where Creon, the new ruler, hot-headedly butts heads with a guard, then Antigone, his son, Haemon, and then even the divinely inspired prophet, Teiresias, before he will see reason. Although, Creon has a certain sense of reason and justice, the strength of his passions may offer a strong counter-example to the maxim “So wisdom comes to the old.” Can one be wise who is ruled by passions?
2) Antigone: “For me it was not Zeus who made that order (Creon’s order to leave Polyneices, Antigone’s brother and his nephew, unburied). Nor did that Justice who lives with the gods below mark out such laws to hold among mankind. Nor did I think your orders were so strong that you, a mortal man, could overrun the gods’ unwritten and unfailing laws.” (450-454) Does Antigone have a point here that Creon’s laws of man are running contrary to the laws of the gods? It is the case that traitor’s remained unburied, but is Polyneices a traitor even though he made war on the city Thebes? Is Antigone’s first duty to her brother? To her uncle and the state? To the gods?! What is a girl to do?!
These questions occupied the lion’s share of seminar in a passionate and truly engaging way. We will start with whether Antigone is correct that Creon’s laws run contrary to the laws of gods and if so, should they be followed. Creon later nefariously suggests that Antigone ought to be buried alive (essentially) and have her “gods from below” save her since she loves them so much in a truly villainous solution to bringing further pollution on the city (Why would Creon’s sentencing Antigone to death bring pollution on the city if it were justly decreed?). Another aspect of this question asked was that if the gods questions were unwritten, how were they generally known? A suggestion would be that the people knew and kept them through traditions, customs, and rituals–possibly not even knowing their roots. But the trouble with this thought, is that if the people kept the “unwritten laws”, and the people in the first place deposed Creon who was left in charge of Thebes after Oedipus in favor of Eteocles, might Creon have some tension with the laws of “gods and people”? It may be a stretch.
The next question about whether Polyneices were a traitor or not received some traction but not as much as it ought to have. In Creon’s first speech, he announces that Polyneices (who was older than Eteocles) was a traitor, and the Eteocles was a hero. The chorus gives a very lukewarm response suggesting that Creon has the right to say what he thinks as king. Faint praise. Though it is true that Polyneices brought war to Thebes, it is also true that according to birth-order, he had the stronger claim to the throne. He could then appeal to the fact that the will of the people in Thebes did not agree with justice, and honestly, he could make a case that he was removing a tyrant from his rightful place on the throne. The people, however, did favor Eteocles, and from Oedipus at Colonus, Polyneices did know that he was doomed to fail in this battle. So, perhaps he really was a traitor, though the throne was also by rights his? It is a troubling question.
The third sub-question in this line was “Who is Antigone’s first duty to: Creon, the state, and the living, or to her dead brother?” This was hotly debated. On the one side there were those that said what Creon said was law, and that Antigone, though acting rightly, was also disobeying the law, and as she was not only niece, but soon to be the daughter in law of Creon, he might look soft on justice if he spared her. Was Ismene correct to suggest that Antigone just let this one issue slide? Or did she simply help Antigone’s spirits to burn at an even brighter pitch? The group largely believed that Antigone acted rightly, and that though Creon was in a difficult spot, as the laws of the gods did not agree with him, his soon-to-be daughter in law and son disagreed with him, and the people even seemed to disagree with him that he may have been in the wrong. That said, Antigone did not honor his fledgling authority, which in a time of transition, may have made him appear weak, especially post-war, and sparing her after her defiance, may have made him seem unfair and therefore unjust as a ruler. Were all these decisions made based on principle or passion in the driver’s seat?
3) A third point based on the second is whether Creon’s orders even have the status of laws. In the Athenian government (where Sophocles was from, though the play is based in Thebes), if a law made by man was deemed to violate the unwritten law of the gods, it was not considered a law at all. For example, during the rule of the “30 Tyrants” in Athens, Socrates was ordered to bring a man before them to be executed. He refused, and his action, in that case, was considered perfectly legal. So, is Creon’s edict that Polyneices not be buried a law at all?
This question is very much similar to one of the sub-questions above, but it alone did not gain great traction. Our people today either have somewhat fixed ideas on the divine, or very few ideas, so questions of the natural hierarchy between the laws of man and god, though in some groups may be excellent, in others could hit a stand-still. All that said, Creon was perceived as acting antithetically to the will of the people and perhaps to gods as well.
4) At line 88, Ismene claims that Antigone has more love for the dead than for the living “You have a warm heart for cold things”. She certainly does appear willing to do “more for her brother than for her own husband (though she is not yet married) or son.” And her reasoning is most likely based on Book 3 of Herodotus’ Histories (3.119) where the wife of Intaphernes is given the opportunity by the Persian King Darius to save one member of her family. She saves her brother, because she can “get another husband and by him have another child(ren), but since her mother and father are dead she can never have another brother.” All that said, does Antigone un-rightfully love the dead more than the living like: Ismene, her sole sister, Creon, her protector and uncle, and her betrothed, Haemon?
This question is tough. Does one live for one’s principles or for the people one loves? Does one who gives up his or her principles still feel the right to love? And is such a person still the person one’s loved ones loved in the first place? Clearly, Antigone has a duty to both the living and the dead, but the dead have no say in how they are treated, so Antigone takes up the cause of the “oppressed” (deceased), and in so doing so becomes oppressed and outcast herself. Truly, no good deed goes unpunished. But was what she did good, and can a good act be illegal? Or was her act good and it itself proof that Creon’s edict was illegal? We worked through this question but an answer was elusive.
*This brief chapter has been a part of a sub-series which will chronicle the questions and answers of seminars to give current and future seminar leaders and teachers of these texts material from which to draw, and issues to discuss in seminar and beyond. Please contact us if you wish us to go through any particular texts!