Print Story Sophocles rocks my world
By lm (Wed Apr 12, 2006 at 06:48:28 AM EST) (all tags)
I just re-read Antigone. In a brief twelve thousand words, Sophocles spins a dramatic web more compelling, more provoking and more profound that most modern works of fiction.

Antigone overflows with various conflicts. Sophocles gives time to the conflict between male and female modes of power, between ruler and the ruled, between love and justice, and between natural law (physis) and human law (nomos). The last of these is the over-riding theme. In fact, Sophocles' play is the earliest extent attestation to the concept of ``unwritten laws.'' While Aeschylus' epic Orestia documents the transition of justice from the divine to the human by means of Athena creating the first trial by jury, Sophocles goes further and has his character Antigone argue that there are unwritten laws by which both the gods and humanity must abide. To transgress these laws, Antigone's fate shows us, is to invite disaster upon all.

One of the most curious aspects about the way the drama plays out, though, is that the tyrant Creon is the conservative voice. He argues for much that sound decidedly modern: the rule of law and the application of objective judgment to be applied to ruling the people. His decision to elevate one of Antigone's dead brothers as a hero and castigate the other as a traitor comes off as the type of falsehood Machiavelli, the father of modern political philosophy, would propose as good leadership for maintaining civil order.

Yet Creon is the mouthpiece of the conservative movement in Antigone. He represents the status-quo, the way that rulers have ruled Thebes for hundreds of years. The innovator is Antigone who proposes laws that are bound into the very fabric of nature itself and that subservience to these laws are more important than heeding laws created by mortal legislators. How curious to go back in time to an era where the principle that underlies modern conservative movements such as the Islamicists and the Christian Dominionists is the new kid on the block.

But perhaps this principle is not so foreign to the modern liberal mindset. The very liberal idea that all human beings have inherent rights such as freedom of conscience and freedom from torture by the state simply because they exist as human beings also stems from Antigone's concept that unwritten laws exist. The prosecution of brutal dictators such as Saddam Hussein for war crimes which were not crimes under existing law presupposes the existence of law that transcends mere human law. To say that human law is all there is, Sophocles seems to suggest, justifies all human rulers no matter the consequences of their actions. If Creon is justified, then too is Saddam Hussein.

But Sophocles also throws in something that the modern mind tends to rebel against. Both Creon and Antigone are presented as heros. Despite that the actions of both characters result in their own misery as well as the misery of those who love them, Creon and Antigone are both presented as heros rather than as villains. They conflict and clash over ideas and actions, but both are models of virtue and, in the grand scheme of things, both are losers to fate. This is because in the ancient world goodness was seldom seen as the result of one's actions. Rather, goodness was seen as an interior quality of specific persons. A hero, to the ancient Greek mind, is no less of a hero if his or her actions leads to the misery of all rather than to some greater good.

What a scandal to the modern mind! Who today could accept the idea that goodness has little to do with the consequences of the actions one takes? The modern mind condemns figures such as Saddam Hussein precisely because of the descpicable actions they've taken that have resulted in pain and suffering for many. How could it be that a person who is more a monster than a man like Hussein could be good or virtuous irrespective of the great evils he has brought about?

So Sophocles does what few Hollywood movies dare to do, to invite us to see the hero in those who bring doom to themselves and misery to others. He invites us to look into the mirror and question just who we are irrespective of our actions and the consequences of our actions. He does this not to resolve the conflict, but to reinforce it, to make the reader uncomfortable by knowing that who we are in our heart of hearts will not necessarily save us from bringing about pain and misfortune to ourselves and our loved ones.

Perhaps by facing these questions we can, as the chorus in Antigone concludes discover wisdom in our old age.

< The Myth of Trust | BBC White season: 'Rivers of Blood' >
Sophocles rocks my world | 3 comments (3 topical, 0 hidden)
My modern mind by MartiniPhilosopher (2.00 / 0) #1 Wed Apr 12, 2006 at 12:36:57 PM EST
admittedly has a problem with your example of Hussein. How can a monster such as he be good or virtuous? I'm all for separating the actions of the individual from the individual itself and freely examining both. However when one's actions, such as his, so clearly overshadow any goodness which might be present in one's personal or internal actions the question of the individual's "heroicness" seems pretty settled.

What Sophocles seems to propose here, and I could be completely off with this analogy, seems to be on the same level of Lucas' redemption of Vader/Anakin in RotJ. David Brin did a better job of analyzing that than I found himself questioning  why should a single, personal, action be enough to redeem or otherwise exonerate an individual of their many and multitude sins?

Setting aside the issue of Ancient Greek philosophy vs Modern American can we examine the reasons behind Sophocles writing the play? What little I remember from my own reading on the subject indicated that many of these Tragic plays were part of an overall desire of the Greek philosophers and their students to try and educate the populace of their time. Could one then argue that part of the reason behind the character and their flaws was not so much to challenge the watcher's sense of hero vs. villain and not instead point out a character weakness such that the audience is invited to examine their own behavior for such things?

Whenever I hear one of those aforementioned douche bags pontificate about how dangerous [...] videogames are I get a little stabby. --Wil Wheaton.

I only picked Hussein because of Godwin's Law by lm (2.00 / 0) #2 Wed Apr 12, 2006 at 12:48:31 PM EST
But do note that I didn't say that Saddam Hussein was good and virtuous. I only pointed out that if one subscribes to virtue ethics that his monstrous actions say little about whether he himself is good or evil. That is supposed to be a disturbing idea. I find it disturbing that some people could still champion a Hussein or Milosevic as a national hero. And yet millions did and, I'd argue, not all were under duress and I don't think that you or I anyone else is really all that different from those who have done just that.

Aside from which, Star Wars analogies are teh suck. If Star Wars is still around in another 2500 years and still carries as much relevancy as Antigone, then I'll roll over in my grave and eat my words six ways from Sunday.

As for your last point, feel free to examine anything you like about Sophocles and his motivations for writing.

Kindness is an act of rebellion.
[ Parent ]
I always loved Antigone. by calla (2.00 / 0) #3 Wed Apr 12, 2006 at 01:37:10 PM EST
I had a professor in college who translated Greek plays. Knowing her makes me wonder how much is lost in translation.

Sophocles rocks my world | 3 comments (3 topical, 0 hidden)