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The Antigone On Higher Law And Nature English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 2943 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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"I never thought your announcements/Could give you-a mere human being-/Power to trample the gods' unfailing, Unwritten laws. These laws weren't made now/Or yesterday. They live for all time" (Sophocles 19), Antigone replied to Creon in the early pages of Sophocles' Antigone. As demonstrated in this quotation, there is a conflict between Creon and Antigone over which law to obey in regards to Antigone's attempt to bury her brother, the law of the state or the gods' laws. Antigone believes in following the gods' laws, even if it means breaking the law of the state, a law set by Creon which states that Antigone's brother Polyneices is not to have a proper burial due to treason-he and six foreign princes charged the seven gates of Thebes. Thus, she believes that it is the gods' laws that she should bury him while Creon believes that no one should break the laws of the state, the laws he sets and the laws that help shape his people's culture. Antigone justifies her civil disobedience by following the gods' laws, to which she refers as the "higher" law, as the state lawmaker Creon is only a "mere human being" in comparison. The gods' laws, the higher laws, are therefore unpopular and countercultural, and a law based on Antigone's nature. By examining Antigone's philosophy and examples of their consequences throughout history, it can be determined that the law Antigone follows is based on her nature, and is the better philosophy given the play's situation.

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Martha Nussbaum, an American classical philosopher, wrote in a criticism of Antigone that, for the heroine, " 'Duty to the family dead is the supreme law and the supreme passion. And Antigone structures her entire life and her vision of the world in accordance with this simple, self-contained system of duties'" (qtd. in Chappell 3). The term "self-contained" in this statement implies that Antigone bases the higher law on the natural passion within her rather than the cultural influences that King Creon forces upon the people of Thebes.

The way in which Antigone justifies this "law," a law based on nature, is understandable. Antigone has always lived with injustice-the injustice of her incestuous birth, the untold injustices inflicted upon her father Oedipus, and now, in this play, the injustice of Creon's law and the exposure of Polyneices' dead body. Thus, she must be starving for justice; her hunger is likely insatiable. Perhaps the love and devotion she has for her brother, even if at the expense of her own life, stems from this suffering (Howenstein 32).

To put it another way, Antigone's unlawful burial of Polyneices could be seen as an act of reconciliation. It is because her family's tale of suffering lacks a conclusion that she is likely to find a way of giving it one, even if it kills her. Her action is an expressive one; she means it to express completion, and end the tragic cycle of injustice. By physically burying Polyneices, she is also hoping to figuratively bury her past along with him. In this way, Antigone's defiance of Creon's state law becomes, for her at least, a practical and ethical inevitability. The only way this choice would not be inevitable would have been through a relaxation of Creon's laws, which illustrates that Antigone is not the character whose actions are of most concern to the reader, but that Creon is (Chappell 2).

Regardless of the psychological reasons for Antigone's actions, Mark Howenstein of the University of Texas at Austin claimed in his Legal Studies Forum that "According to most scholars, Antigone's standpoint is the proper one" (19). After all, the eventual conversions of Creon and Ismene point towards this assertion. In the end, there is nothing so destructive as the power and injustice of Creon's law. His laws of the state provoke every major collision that occurs in the play, triggering the downfall of each of the main characters. The magnitude of the devastation is overwhelming, beginning with the deaths of Polyneices and Eteocles, and culminating with those of Antigone, Haemon, and Eurydice, as well as the total collapse of Creon himself and Ismene. Thus, the Oedipal cycle reaches its tragic conclusion, resulting in an emotional wasteland. Only Creon's conversion and Antigone's law of love, as previously mentioned, can offer any hope of possible recreation of Thebes and its laws, a hope that is "as fraught with problems as it is pregnant with possibility" (Howenstein 20), since there aren't any leaders left in the city.

However, Creon's conversion is too late. At that point, Antigone has already hung herself in the solace of her tomb, and in despair at the loss of his fiancée Antigone, Haemon kills himself in front of Creon. Finally, Eurydice kills herself as well, cursing Creon for driving their son to suicide. Although finally somewhat repentant, Creon is left broken and alone. Granted, this fate was likely deserved as Creon's conversion was not only late, but shamelessly inauthentic. He does not repent because he suddenly has insight into the laws of justice or the gods, which his conflict with Haemon makes perfectly clear. Creon also does not repent because he recognizes the truth in what Tiresias says, which is confirmed by his rebuking of the prophet (Howenstein 25). It is only after Tiresias has threatened that Creon "will be tangled in the net of [his] own crimes" and that "Men and women will be wailing over death in [his] family" (Sophocles 47) that he repents.

Towards the end of the play, Creon asserts his most radical defiance of the gods, clearly displaying the depths of his hubris. After Tiresias has warned him to beware of excessive pride, Creon proclaims:

"Not even if eagles snatched morsels of his dead flesh

And carried them up to the very throne of Zeus.

I won't shrink from that. And don't you call it 'pollution'

Or tell me I have to bury him to fend off miasma-

Surely no human power could pollute a god" (Sophocles 45).

Creon is sure that the laws of the gods would never be powerful enough to trump the laws of the city, and that the laws of the city could never tarnish the laws of the gods. He would rather be plagued by disease or a corrupted atmosphere than bury Polyneices, and subsequently his pride. However, Tiresias predicts that Creon will pay dearly for his pride, both for Antigone whom he has buried before her time, and for Polyneices to whom he has denied a proper burial (Howenstein 24). This prophecy haunts Creon, and causes him promptly reverse his decision to forgo the words of Tiresias. He says to his attendants:

"I'll go immediately. Come on, come on, everyone,

Wherever you are, grab a pick and shovel,

Hurry up! Get over to the place you see.

It's up to me, now my mind has changed.

I put her away, I must be there to release her.

I'm afraid it is best to obey the laws,

Just as tradition has them . . ." (Sophocles 48)

In this passage, Creon's urgent tone indicates that "[his] mind has changed" because he is "afraid" that Tiresias' prophecy may come true, not because of a genuine change of heart. It is fear that motivates him to "release" Antigone, in order to avoid the prophesized consequences. The power of the laws of the gods, not their justice, is what holds Creon in awe, and he repents because he is intimidated by them. He stands before the laws of the gods in the only way he knows how-as a slave before his master. The god's laws are not gifts; he does not receive them openly and he does not make them his own. They are imposing themselves upon him, coercing him to act hastily according to their will (Howenstein 25).

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Tiresias' prophecy highlights the inevitability of fate as tragedy's primary characteristic. The reader can conclude that Creon was always doomed to be alone and destroyed, regardless of a sincere or insincere conversion, from the way Sophocles has weaved into the play a metaphor for fate. As the Chorus states, Eurydice was to knit in her room until she dies. She teaches Creon his final lesson, and her death leaves him utterly alone. In the wake of her suicide, Eurydice will stop her knitting and the stab herself with her needle. The end of her knitting is the end of her life, exposing the well-known Greek myth of a life figuratively thread-spun, measured, and cut by fate. Given that each character's fate is predetermined from the beginning, as in all tragedies, it is for this reason that I would rather be a stubborn follower of Antigone's philosophy and honorably take my beliefs to my grave than adhere to conventional philosophy, only to die anyway, even if figuratively. As Tiresias predicted, Creon has paid for his pride.

In addition to an analysis of the play itself, a historical example has also convinced me that Antigone's philosophy is the proper one. The success of the Icelandic Free Commonwealth's quasi-anarchistic legal institutions from 930 through 1262 has been used as evidence against the Hobbesian argument that cooperation is impossible in the absence of a central authority. In the 990s, the King of Norway sent groups of militant Christian missionaries to Iceland, and put an end to religious freedom. Before this time, most Icelanders were pagan, and they, along with their few Christian neighbors, had to pay a temple fee to maintain the temple of the chosen Chieftain (Long 1). After 990, those who resisted the word of God were sometimes beaten or killed. The Norwegian King threatened to kill these hostages unless Christianity was declared Iceland's official religion. Many Icelanders resisted Christianity as the official religion (though it was declared as such), refusing to abandon paganism, and soon the land became divided into opposing factions of Christians and pagans (Long 2). Already, a parallel can be drawn-just like Creon in Sophocles' Antigone, the King of Norway pushed his philosophy even though it was met with much resistance, which would have consequences down the road.

With the end of religious freedom in Iceland came the institution of the mandatory Christian tithe. The most important portion of the four-part tithe was the last-the Churchstead fee, which went toward the maintenance and upkeep of church buildings. This was also the portion that did the most to undermine Iceland's legal system. Since most of the good land in Iceland had been claimed or occupied, the Church lacked the power to take land from its individual owners. Thus, Christian churches in Iceland were built on private land called Churchsteads. The money raised by the tithe went to the private owner of the Churchstead, which made owning a Churchstead a guaranteed source of income. However, those paying the tithe didn't have a choice as to where their money would go, and hence unlike the regular Chieftain fee, lacked "a crucial element of accountability" (Long 2- 3).

Over time, wealth and power began to be concentrated in the hands of a few families. Those who owned Churchsteads used their income to buy up Chieftaincies belonging to other Chieftains. Eventually, competition among Chieftains lessened as more and more Chieftaincies were bought by the few wealthy families. This meant that Chieftains could charge higher prices for their services, which often forced their Assemblymen to become "propertyless dependents." Many Chieftains began to acquire monopoly control over their districts. As a result, the Free Commonwealth was succumbing to feudalism, which was common throughout Europe, but unknown in Iceland (Long 3).

Just as there was an absence of checks on abuses of power in Iceland as a result of this new feudalistic way of life, Creon became more and more tyrannical and arrogant in Anigone as the play went on. Tiresias warned him of his fate, but he still decided that his philosophy on state laws was superior, and he chose to obey these laws rather than spare his family conflict and heartache. In a way, this is similar to abusing power, seeing how far it can go without losing complete support of the city.

Since the ownerships of Churchsteads had become the path to political power in Iceland, contests over Churchsteads were more important than contests over other sorts of property. More interest was in involved, and therefore conflict was more likely, which would be settled on the battlefield-by engaging in a civil war (Long 3). The war in Iceland could serve to parallel the division of Creon's philosophy and Antigone's philosophy in Antigone, though they are both from the same city, and more importantly, family.

Finally, in 1262, the King of Norway offered to dispel the conflict that he helped create. Iceland, desperate as it was ravaged by civil war, accepted the offer and submitted to Norwegian rule (Long 3). However, this cooperation came too late, just like Creon's conversion in Antigone. Although the Norwegian King was finally ready to put Iceland's torture to an end, like Creon was ready to reverse his decision regarding Antigone's execution, the damage was done. The Icelandic Free Commonwealth fell under the Norwegian King, and by the time Creon submitted to the laws of the gods', even if not genuinely, Antigone, Haemon, and Eurydice killed themselves before he could admit his wrongdoings and prevent the most tragic events of the play from happening.

The downfall of Iceland's Free Commonwealth was not because it was too anarchistic-rather, it was not anarchistic enough. If Iceland continued to rely on voluntary support for religion rather than instating the tithe, the owners of the Churchsteads would not have had a guarantee of income. This means they could not have accumulated wealth and power without being subject to competition. Furthermore, if the limit on the number of Chieftaincies was not fixed by the law, new Chieftaincies would have been able to challenge the emerging ruling class. The strategy of buying all the Chieftaincies would have failed; hence the competition would not have been undermined. In fact, if Chieftaincies had not been regulated by the legislature, it would have been much harder to institute the tithe law in the first place. Instead, the legal cap on Chieftancies restricted the supply of political power and the tithe funded the demand for such power, causing centralization of power to be inevitable (Long 4).

Like Iceland, Creon could have made different choices that may have steered him from the play's heavy outcome. The difference between Iceland and Antigone, however, lies in the fact that Antigone is a Greek tragedy, for which the endings are predetermined. Regardless, even if the outcome were to still be the same, Creon would not have had to sit with as much guilt at the conclusion of the play. If Creon had adjusted his law to accommodate Polyneices' burial, especially because he did not want to execute her, maybe he could have avoided becoming frightened by Tiresias' prophecy. Antigone may have still died in her brother's honor, but Creon would not have her death's catalyst. He is also the king-he could have some bearing on the law. If he was merely a citizen and not in control of the law by any means, perhaps his rigidity would be more understandable. Even if Creon believed Tiresias earlier than he did, he may have been able to release Antigone before her suicide.

In Antigone, Creon was held back by his fear of defying state law, as was Iceland in regards to anarchism. Yes, if the play followed Antigone's philosophy, maybe Creon would have been left with anarchism. However, in some cases, like in the play and in Iceland, a city or country is destroyed because its leaders failed to shatter conventional legal molds, which has the potential to enact real change, even if the change is small. In both of these cases, change was proposed far too late to be effective; Iceland and Creon were not "anarchic" enough from the very beginning. Despite the threat of the neighbors in Nowray, Iceland's polycentric legal system was so stable that corruption took a while to bloom. Its "quasi-anarchistic system broke down only in the last thirty years of its existence," professor and libertarian anarchist blogger Roderick Long wrote, and worked successfully for three hundred years before that (4). Maybe anarchy would have worked for Creon in the same way that it would have worked in Iceland in the during the Free Commonwealth period.

Ultimately, there have always been examples in society of how a city, country, or individual can actually do themselves a disservice by not taking risks and not being open to unconventional change if needed. Not only did this happen in Antigone and in Iceland, but it has happened to doctors who stick to textbooks to find a rare cure and to those who start their own businesses, among many others. Taking these risks can certainly be anxiety provoking in some sense, by the very definition of the word "risk," but sometimes the results of these risks are favorable to the results of not taking them, like in the play and in Iceland, which, once again, would render Antigone's philosophy the "better" one, in my opinion. A lot of times it is better to adhere to one's instincts or "nature," like Antigone, than simply side with the conventions or restraints of culture. And if that instinct fails-at least the Antigones of the world had the faith to see their instincts through.


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