#19: Sophocles – Antigone’s Conscience
Are you a law-abiding citizen? Yes, you might say, perhaps impatiently. Do you have a conscience? Of course, you might say, now definitely riled. Does your conscience ever drive you to break the law? Oh, my goodness, you might say. And start to think.
Written in 441 B.C. by Sophocles the play Antigone explores whose laws are greater? Those of the gods, of the state, or of an individual’s conscience? This is bare-knuckled tragedy, deliberately so to leave no room for doubt. Simply black or white – who is right? The timelessness of the dilemmas of human beings is remarkable; this play was written 2 460 years ago and is still fresh and contemporary. It is performed and read often in the modern era.
The lines below are uttered by Antigone, the niece of Creon, the ruler of Thebes. The two brothers of Antigone have both died the previous day, in battle one against the other, Polynices attacking Thebes and Eteocles defending the city. Creon has decreed that only the body of Eteocles should be granted funeral rites and covered with soil. This decree is against custom - which has deep moral and religious significance specifying that all killed in battle for either side can be honoured.
The penalty for disobedience of the decree is death by stoning. Antigone has gone out at dawn and given the unburied body of Polynices the funeral rites she believes are its due, in full knowledge of the possible consequences. She has been seen by a watchman and brought before Creon and the Theban Elders.
Creon: And yet you dared transgress these laws?
Antigone: Yes, because to me it wasn’t the gods at all
who proclaimed them, nor did Justice who lives
with the gods below make laws like these for men,
nor did I think your decrees so formidable
that you, mere mortal as you are, could override
the laws of the gods, unwritten and unshakeable.
They are not for now and yesterday, but live
forever; no one knows when they appeared.
No dread of what some man might think would ever
make me break them and be guilty before the gods.
That I shall die, I knew well enough, even
without your proclamation – how could I not?
And if I die before my time, I call it a gain;
for how would one who lives, like me, beset
by evils, not gain by dying? And so
I say that meeting with this death will bring
no pain at all to me. But if I let my brother,
born of my mother, lie dead and unburied, that
would cause me pain, but this does not.
And if you think I’ve acted foolishly,
maybe I’m being charged with folly by a fool.
Sophocles: Antigone. Translated by F. Nisetich (2016).
Sophocles has crafted a tragic situation with great skill. The conscience of the young woman is pitted against the will of the state. Antigone’s moral imperative is clear, as is the law enacted by Creon. Neither is prepared to back down and the tragedy unfolds. Antigone takes her own life; Haemon, Creon’s son and Antigone’s fiancé, having failed to dissuade Creon of his purpose commits suicide under his father’s gaze in front of Antigone’s corpse; Eurydice, Creon’s wife, later hears this tale of woe from a Messenger and ends her life in the palace. Good grief.
I find the thoughtful and spirited defence by Antigone of her conscience-driven act of defiance to be uplifting and memorable. She considers the consequences to be trivial compared to the moral obligation upon her. She acts, and pays the penalty. She is content to be held accountable.
Examples of conscience-led acts in modern society are hard to call to memory. Conscientious Objectors during both wars spring to mind. More topically, people assisting others to commit suicide to avoid pain and suffering are driven by conscience to some degree to break the law. Not in every country – do people living in Switzerland and the Netherlands possess more settled consciences as a result of their societies’ more tolerant views of assisted suicide?
Am I correct to say that in these times we do not allow ourselves to be driven by conscience to the extent that Antigone was? Or am I ignorant of many private, conscience-driven acts? Either way, the conduct of Antigone is an inspiring example of selflessness in an age of narcissism and huge public ego.
Ian Widdop, Johannesburg, October 2019.