Sophocles’ play “Antigone” illustrates the conflict between obeying human and
divine law. The play opens after Oedipus’ two sons Eteocles and Polyneices have
killed each other in a civil war for the throne of Thebes. Oedipus’ brother in
law Creon then assumes the throne. He dictates that Eteocles shall receive a
state funeral and honors, while Polyneices shall be left in the streets to rot
away. Creon believes that Polyneices’ body shall be condemned to this because of
his civil disobedience and treachery against the city. Polyneices’ sister,
Antigone, upon hearing this exclaims that an improper burial for Polyneices
would be an insult to the Gods. She vows that Polyneices’ body will be buried,
and Creon declares that anyone who interferes with his body shall be punished.
This is where the conflict begins. Thus the theme of this play becomes the
priority of unwritten law. The question is whether duties to the gods are more
essential then obedience of the state and law. Creon calls the rotting of
Polyneices’ body an “obscenity” because he believes that burial of the dead is a
necessity of human law and not of a citizen. . There is no compromise between
the two – both believe in the absolute truth of their obedience.
Antigone believes that the unwritten and natural law supercedes any form of human written law. Honor and a principled responsibility to gods and family are given equal weight in her self-defense. She says that she fears, not men\'s condemnation, but penalties from the gods if she does not act The painful evils that beset her life (the loss of mother, father, and brothers) make death a gain in her eyes By contrast, if she had left her mother\'s son unburied, she would have grieved She expects to win glory for her gesture to the gods. Antigone displays the characteristic trait of pride in the way she justifies and carries out her decisions. She is obstinate in her beliefs, and throughout the play refuses to listen to advice. This poses a danger because it causes her to overlook the limitations of her own powers. Antigone’s ethics derive from a dual responsibility to the unwritten laws and the gods’ will and to family relations and care for others. Even though Antigone exhibits a blamable pride and hunger for glory, her vices are less serious than Creon’s. Antigone’s mistakes only harm herself, where as Creon’s mistakes harm a whole city. Creon’s refusal to bury Polyneices is a worse offense to human values than refusing to heed his order.
Creon has no toleration for people who place personal beliefs over the common good. He believes that government and law is the supreme authority, and civil disobedience is worst form of sin. The problem with Creon’s argument is he approaches He approaches every dilemma that requires judgement through descriptive generalizations. In contrast to the morality defined by Aristotle in his Nicomachaean Ethics, Creon shows that he is deaf to the knowledge of particulars--of place, time, manner, and persons, which is essential for moral reasoning. In short, he does not effectively bring together general principles and specific situations Creon does not acknowledge that emotion, and perception are as critical to proper moral consideration as reason. This explains why he does not respond accordingly with the reasoning of the guard, Tiresias the prophet, Antigone, her sister Ismene, or even his own son Haemon. Throughout the whole play, Creon emphasizes the importance of practical judgement over a sick, illogical mind, when in fact it is him who has the sick, illogical mind. He too exhibits pride in his argument. To Antigone and most of the Athenians, possessing a wise and logical mind means acknowledging human limitations and behaving piously towards the gods. Humans must take a humble attitude towards fate and the power of the gods, yet Creon mocks death throughout the play. He doest not learn his lesson until the end of the play when he speaks respectfully of the death that is continually hurting him. At the end of the play, the Chorus, made up of Athenian elders, makes a speech that states all of the learned lessons of the play: wisdom is good, respect for the gods’ is necessary, and pride is bad. Creon learns all of these lessons through his flaws.
Haemon, Antigone’s fiancé, becomes entangled in a similar issue, whether he should obey his obligations to his parent, Creon, or his obligation to his wife. When Creon questions him about his loyalties, Haemon replies that no woman is important to him as his father, and that he will obey him. Creon praises his son’s “wisdom.” Haemon then tells his father that the public does not believe that Antigone deserves the punishment of death. He implores Creon to rethink his decision. Creon is insulted by this and defends his absolute authority. Haemon calls Creon stubborn and proud. His arguments are rational. He says that reason is the gift of the gods, and he cautions Creon not to be single-minded and self-involved, noting that there is no such thing as a one-man city. Yet it needs to be noted that from Haemon’s rage, his hints at suicide, and from the Chorus’ comments on eros, erotic love, that he is in the grip of passion, a vice. Creon argues that since Haemon’s will should be subject to his, there should be no conflict of loyalty. He says that Haemon shouldn’t even be attracted to Antigone since she is an enemy of the state, and is disgusted with the thought of his son marrying a traitor. Creon denies that there are any ethical problems or decisions that should be deliberated. In consistency with his pride, he insists on staying with his views, so that he would not be called a liar.
Antigone’s predicament coincides in many ways with Socrates’ ethical dilemma in Plato’s “Apology” and the “Crito.” Socrates has argued that one must obey one\'s superior, someone who is relevantly wiser than oneself, the god in ethical matters, in any situation in which one\'s only reason not to obey is that obedience puts one at risk of death. He has not said at all that one must obey anyone in authority, no matter what they command. Socrates has been ordered to philosophize by Apollo, his superior in ethical matters. He knows himself that doing philosophy every day is the greatest good. Hence he knows that not to philosophize would be wrong. Then the court orders him to abandon philosophy on pain of death. But the court is not his superior in ethical matters or in wisdom.It is his inferior, as his many examinations of the jurors or their peers have shown. Moreover, he knows that what the court has ordered him to do is wrong. Even though he has received conflicting orders, then, the principles defended in his argument require him to obey only the god\'s command. They positively forbid him to obey the court. In the Crito, Socrates must choose between obedience of the state and obedience to his family and goodness of the gods. Antigone shares this same dilemma. She realizes that she must choose between obedience of her father and the edict of the government and obedience of the gods, which eventually proves to be the higher good.
In contrast, the basic elements of their arguments are different. Antigone believes and upholds her belief in the gods and disobeys the order of the state. Socrates, instead, feels that disobeying the order of the state would in fact disobey the gods. He believes that because he has been raised by the state, civil disobedience would impede his path to goodness, which is what the gods ultimately want their subjects to strive for.
Both Antigone’s and Socrates’ argument discuss and uphold moral goodness in the eyes of the gods. However, while Socrates’ takes in account both sides of the argument in the “Crito” and “Apology,” Antigone’s argument has some flaws. From the Greek point of view both Creon’s and Antigone’s views are flawed because they both over-simplify ethical life by recognizing only one “good” or duty. By oversimplifying, each denies that fact that there should be any deliberation at all, and this is a factor in Antigone’s failure to convince Creon. Antigone’s pride causes her to be blind in considering both truths. Antigone’s argument is also hypocritical. Antigone attacks Creon’s edicts on the grounds that his interpretation of justice and the will of the gods are wrong. She may be correct in this assessment, but in saying so she assumes the power that she can interpret justice and Zeus’ will, just as Creon did. Her accusations are wild and reckless, and she seems to be trying to seize the glory in her “heroic” actions. Socrates, on the other hand, concedes both sides of the argument, but explains his reasoning well for choosing to obey the will of the state. As was argued, since the god commands the practice of philosophy and the pursuit of justice, to obey the god is to obey one\'s own reasoned conclusion about the just. To obey a human superior, by contrast, is to follow the orders of the expert. Socrates does not, despite appearances, advocate \"following orders\" -- even when the orders are legal; he believes one ought to follow orders only if they are in one\'s judgment, just. He therefore declares that throughout his life he had been the sort of man who never conceded anything to anyone contrary to the just. He will not obey Crito, instead he obeys nothing of his own but the logos that seems best to him upon reasoning. Yet he insists, in the Crito as in the Apology, that when there is an expert, the expert must be obeyed. Thus Socrates in the Crito recognizes the validity of, exercising one\'s own moral judgment when it results from careful reasoning from philosophy -- as well as following the opinion of the expert or government, if there is one. Socrates will not, therefore, obey Crito unless Crito produces a principle superior to his. If Crito does not have a superior principle, as Creon does not deliver a superior argument than Antigone, Crito has no claim to be obeyed: on moral questions, only the best logos and the moral expert deserve his obedience. Thus Socrates delivers the better logical argument.