Sophocles: Antigone- Estrangement, the Divine, and the State

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Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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  1. Avatar E.C. Gach
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    If there is what Jaybird calls a “moral fabric to the universe”, surely it’s represented in Sophokles as fully as in any Passion play, and that’s really what gives Antigone it’s horrible inevitability: she knows her obligation and we know our obligation, in spite of our individual terms for that obligation- we can’t help but know.”

    Coming into your Sophokles posts late, you may have already addressed this. In speaking of “moral fabric” and “godless,” how exactly do you mean these terms? They probably would have been anachronistic to the Greek city states at the time of Soph’s writing. Should we understand them slightly different than their connotations today?Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to E.C. Gach
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      @E.C. Gach, I’m using the terms in a modern sense because it’s really the only one I have- I don’t really think we can ever fully enter into the Greek mind, so we have no choice but to use our own terms to describe it to ourselves.

      When I talk about a “moral fabric to the universe”, what I mean- and maybe Jay does too- is the sense that our ethical ideas actually resonate with something beyond humanity. That Antigone really can’t cross that ethical line without all of nature, personified in the gods, rising up against her. I tend to think of the tragedies as a bit like shasher films in which some aware or unaware transgression- I told them not to go into those woods! sets into motion a sort of doom machine that inevitably kills or mutilates the transgressors. So, for me, the moral fabric is the sense that there really are natural laws that can’t be violated without catastrophic results ensuing.

      When I say that I’m godless, it’s because I only suspect such an order, which for a religious person is tantamount to disbelief. Certainly, Sophokles had no doubt that there was a sacred order that enforced certain ethical obligations, and he addressed that order throughout his life. For Jews, Christians and Muslims, that order is, of course, quite different, although the terms are similar. For myself, I don’t claim that the billions of people who have addressed the Divine and obeyed what they saw as its commandments weren’t essentially right, but I have no personal experience of such an order and am deeply pessimistic that anything like “God” would have any interest in me or my sins, or any desire to save me. My suspicion of a moral fabric to the universe is thus something like my suspicion that mothers really have an immediate bond with their newborn children- I have no experience of this whatsoever, but assume they know better I do what they’re talking about.Report

  2. Avatar J.L. Wall
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    So my current pet theory as to why this play appears to have two tragic figures (Antigone and Kreon): because there are two competing and mutually exclusive sets of “religious obligation”: Kreon may be a statist, but he’s a statist who invokes the Justice of Zeus in his burial decree, and who is constantly citing Zeus’ Justice in his defense. Antigone, while she, too, is invoking a super-human Justice, is invoking something much more cthonic: she goes so far as to invoke Hades in her defense. (I think that’s a dangerous thing for her to do — physically, not logically — but that’s another discussion.)

    The problem is that they both seem to have equal claims to rightness. Yes, even Kreon: burial rites were religious rites, and dead ancestors played an important role in the ancient religious life. Kreon wants — I believe he says it explicitly at one point — to prevent sacrilege. (And teach people a lesson about rebellion. But you knew that.) And Polyneikes rebelled against his own city and family — he was the aggressor, and he violated the divine order we’ve spoken of. Kreon thinks that Justice requires some sort of distinction between loyal and unloyal between the self-same brothers who died a self-same death at one another’s hands — and Thebans, even those who maybe personally wouldn’t mind allowing a burial, have the initial reaction of shrugging and saying, “Well, I guess he’s got a point.”

    So, even considering the fact that Antigone is ultimately shown to be right*, Sophokles is also making a point about the difficulty in deciding between completing claims to divine justice. It’s not even that there were different interpretations of justice — there were two different justices thrown into conflict. (Note that no one challenges the existence of the cthonic Justice Antigone cites.) They bring in tired old Tiresias — and his sacrifices sputter and are rejected by the gods, who tell him nothing. He sides with Antigone, but as a theory for why the sacrifice was rejected.

    *But how right was she? So her Justice trumped Kreon’s; but she’s very much a fanatic — I don’t think there’s any question about it. And I don’t think that Sophokles wants us to look on this positively. She doesn’t just want to bury her brother. She wants to join him. She wants to be a martyr — once she’s in the tomb, she hangs herself and brings down curses on Kreon — even though he has just realized she was correct. Whereas Oedpius is an appealing, charismatic figure you’re pained to see fall, both Kreon and Antigone are barely, if at all, likeable. They both think they’re “The One”: to redeem Thebes, or at least Justice. One certainly (perhaps both) thinks she has heard the voice of God — but her language also betrays an almost incestuous passion to “be with” her brother in Hades (the wordplay in the original is really quite remarkable at times). I think it’s just as likely as not that, as is so often supposed of Kreon, she picked her side first, and fit it into a scheme of divine justice second.

    In the end, of course, Thebes loses. Again. But then again, they’re out of Labdakids now, so maybe Thebes wins, after all…Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to J.L. Wall
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      @J.L. Wall, These are good points. Let me read it again tomorrow and then comment.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. in reply to J.L. Wall
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      I think Kreon’s idea of justice is maybe more tied to the Theban state, while Atingone’s might be more universal. However, your idea of one as the law of Zeus and the other as a more cthonic law makes would work with that. Have you ever noticed how often in these tragedies the women are more closely allied with a more primitive cthonic religion? Here, I think you could almost see Kreon as representing civilization and Antigone as nature, although I don’t know how far I’d want to push that old dichotomy.

      Kreon does evoke sacred law as well- Polyneikes was a traitor who probably smashed some temples along the way and Kreon seems to see all gods as local gods, which of course they were. Antigone’s point is that every man is owed a decent burial, which is also a sacred law, but more universal. I just noticed what you mean about her feelings for her brother- the Chorus actually says that she is going to die for love, and her explanation of that love does raise questions. And then there’s Haemon’s death, also for love. One great thing about Antigone- there’s just so much going on there!

      Anyway, I guess I’m more sympathetic to Antigone, even if she is a religious fanatic. Kreon’s take on sacred law is too closely tied to the interests of the state for me, and her ideas, while they are a bit self-aggrandizing, are more universalizing as well. She seems disinterested in the fate of Thebes, which is understandable given what happened to Papa.Report

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