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Commentary Last Updated: Oct 16th, 2007 - 01:26:04

The tragedy of power in Sophocles� "Antigone"

By Gaither Stewart
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Oct 16, 2007, 01:22

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Antigone�s travail begins when she learns she was born of the incestuous union of Oedipus, the former king of Thebes, and his own mother, Jocasta. After the blindness of her father-brother, Antigone follows him into exile, before returning to Thebes after his death to try to reconcile her brothers' quarrelling over the throne. Instead the two warring brothers are both killed and Creon, Antigone�s uncle, becomes king. Creon honors the brother who defends Thebes but forbids the removal of the corpse of the second, condemning it to rot as a traitor.

Antigone, moved by love for her brother and convinced of the injustice of the command, which she believes violates divine law, buries his body secretly. For this Creon orders she be buried alive in a cave.

This complex and bewildering story is the polarization of one of the basic elements of the relationship between man and society -- the individual�s challenge to Power . . . and Power�s reaction to the challenge. Since then, Antigone�s act of burying her brother has been repeated down through the centuries as women have risked all to bury their dead men-warriors.

King Creon: �Shall the mob dictate my policy. . . . Am I to rule for others, or myself?�       

Haemon, King Creon�s son, pleading for the life of his fianc�e and Creon�s niece, Antigone, who has violated the king�s law: �A State for one man is no State at all.�

Creon, who has usurped power illegally: �The State is his who rules it, so �tis held.�

Haemon: �As monarch of a desert thou wouldst shine.� Then later, sending his father to the devil, Haemon adds: �Go, consort with friends who like a madman for their mate.�

When Creon, despite his son�s pleas, accusations and threats to join Antigone in death if the king-dictator maintains his edict, the Chorus charges both king and submissive people:

�Mad are thy subjects all, and even the wisest heart
Straight to folly will fall, at a touch of thy poisoned dart.�

�Yet,� the Chorus adds: �it is ill to disobey
The powers who hold by might the sway.
Thou hast withstood authority,
A self-willed rebel, thou must die.�

The confrontation between Antigone and Creon reflects the dialectics of Western society since the time of the ancient Greeks in all its political, social, moral and legal ramifications. The reading I have given here to the tragedy is socio-political -- the individual vs. Power.

The heart of the tragedy lies in Antigone�s free admission that she committed the act -- she buried her brother�s body in disobedience of King Creon�s edict that the body was to remain untouched. Since her father-brother Oedipus was unaware of his crime of the murder of his father and of incest with his mother, his crime was excusable. Antigone�s crime on the other hand was a conscious act and therefore inexcusable.

Since Antigone knew and admitted her her guilt as Creon insisted she do, her defiance of Power appears not only as a demand for justice, an expression of the greatest love, a passion for an ideal and conformity to an ethical norm superior to the public one, but also as the head-on collision between individual rights and the requisites of the state. Hers is more than a death drive, at the edge, the limit that humans can hardly cross. It is much more than an act of feminine heroism.

Her act is a symbol of the ideal, the emergence of the higher, individual law vis-a-vis Power, the qualities of good and evil which both the modern political Left and Right would historically claim. This tragedy of 2,500 years ago turns on the politics of the private spirit and the violence which political social change exacts on the individual. This is truly the dividing line of the abyss separating individual man and society.

A terrible beauty on one hand, a terrible ugliness on the other. The clash of private conscience and public welfare! Yet, in modern times, both private conscience and most certainly the concept of public welfare have weakened.

Antigone -- first demanding justice, then claiming also that her dead rebel brother stood outside the law -- stands on the lip of that abyss before she disappears from the action of the tragedy into a death so not understood that the Chorus called her �inhuman.�

Antigone admits that she broke the law. But ethical man forgives her in the name of an unwritten law that exists above and beyond the public law that idealists in all times would make part of written law. She is criminal. But only to the extent that her act enters into an ambiguous territory of the very concept of law.

Here we are speaking of the law of the state as opposed to ethical law, �The immutable unwritten laws of heaven,�[MS1]  that however may never be written. In later days and down to our times not even the holy scriptures condemn war unconditionally, which however every thinking man knows is criminal. Antigone is symbolic of an unwritten law, perhaps nonetheless divine, eternal, universal. She exists somewhere in a shadowy realm that contemporary men strain to understand.

Though that unwritten ethical law appears as the most elevated part of man, a law that is near the divine, her defiance borders on what some theorists today would define as terrorism, because of her fanatical longing for death in defense of that law.

Yet, her choice is also not distant from the concept of the divine rights of man that lie in that same shadowy territory. In that sense her choice is transcendental for each of us, because it is linked to the good.

Instead, Creon at first justifies his severity in application of the law -- though it is his own arbitrary law -- in the name of the good of all, as per Dostoevsky�s Grand Inquisitor. His will becomes law. And he would compel the ethical individual to obey his arbitrary law. In his application of the law, he exceeds ethical law, basing his authority on his own desire, as in President Bush�s justification for going to war in Iraq: �I want to do this thing!�    

The unfolding, the denouement and conclusion of Sophocles� Antigone not only do not lead to a resolution but to irresolution. In fact, the action intensifies Antigone�s defiance, causing a cycle of death, things go insane with the suicides of her fianc� Haemon and his mother and Creon�s wife.

In that sense, the entire cast of Antigone, Haemon, and Creon himself, stand on the edge, at the limit of life, somewhere between life and death. No wonder ambiguity reigns supreme. Antigone evokes laws of heaven and earth, yet exists within the presumption of criminal guilt -- which in one view is only grieving for her dead brother -- and in a sense not even clearly in opposition to Creon�s edict in the name of the good for all. Strangely, they both claim the gods are on their sides. It is unclear if she a Christ figure, as some philosophers have concluded, a God�s child, emerging from the tomb to live through the millennia until our day.

And Creon himself, was he evil? That too is a real and eternal question: Was his edict another kind of social heroism? Or was his act purely arbitrary, a case of, �I want to do this thing�?

In the end -- and as a boon to the conscience of those persons dedicated to the role of the just social state -- Creon, the man of state, does come to regrets. Though here I am tempted to argue with myself, I recognize that Creon understands and appreciates Antigone�s stance and that he also knows that she too appreciates his position. Here we stand before the familiar old duality of life: between what we think we desire to do and what we actually do. Between enlightenment and madness. Illusion and delusion.

Meanwhile, in Sophocles, the Chorus, that is, the public and society, discerning or not, vacillates in its support, first for the man of state and Power, then for the higher right. For the Chorus, Antigone is less than human. She is one who no longer counts, somewhere out of the world, a substratum, to be compared to the unconsidered masses, non-represented, non-participating, non-voting majority of America who take no role in the exercise of Power.

At the end of Sophocles� tragedy, one wonders which gods and what kind of gods they are all appealing to if they all believe they are acting within the mandate of the gods. However that may be, in my reading, Creon is the representative of arbitrary Power which the oppressed, for whatever their reasons, have the divine right to doubt, question and bring down.

Freedom requires that man act polemically, precisely in order to realize himself and a just society. In order to reject the fatalism that leads us to accept that what will come to pass will come to pass. People die but others must go on.

Life will go on.

One must live. One must participate in order to be part of continuing life. When the laws of the land are in conflict with justice, when Mother State is no longer the just mother, then acts which Power labels criminal and which, in fact, can become violent and revolutionary become not only just, but necessary.

In my reading, Antigone is representative of the conflictual revolutionary ideal.

One recalls the proverb, �if you strike at the king, you must kill the king.�

Providence, Rhode Island, February 2007. Re-worked in Buenos Aires, September 2007

Gaither Stewart is originally from Asheville, NC. After studies at the University of California at Berkeley and other American universities, he has lived his adult life abroad, in Germany and Italy, alternated with residences in The Netherlands, France, Mexico, Argentina and Russia. After a career in journalism as Italian correspondent for the Rotterdam newspaper, Algemeen Dagblad, and contributor to media in various European countries, he writes fiction full-time. His books, "Icy Current Compulsive Course, To Be A Stranger" and "Once In Berlin" are published by Wind River Press. His new novel, "Asheville," is published by He lives with his wife, Milena, in Rome, Italy. E-mail:

 [MS1]Mutable unwritten laws of heaven

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