The Triumph of Antigone

I think it is something of a miracle that despite the passing of some two thousand five hundred years, we are able to read words that reach out to us, words that not only move us, but make us to think about the most profound aspects of being human; I speak of the Ancient Greek play Antigone by Sophocles. Despite the centuries that separate us from the playwright, there is an immediacy in his magnificent words that haunt us still. And even if we cannot read the original language in which the play was written, there are powerful translations available and even a twentieth century film starring Irene Papas that captures Antigone’s essence. With all the ubiquitous, vacuous entertainment in our electronically interconnected world, like philosopher Simone Weil I hope that the reader of my words—if he has not already done so—discovers this magnificent work.  For as Weil wrote in her essay from her book Intimations of Christianity among the Ancient Greeks:

These [plays] are hardly read any more except by people who specialize in the subject; and this is a very great pity, because these old poems are truly so human that they are still very close to us and can interest everyone. In fact, they would be much more moving for ordinary people, who know what it is to struggle and to suffer, than for those who have spent their lives between the four walls of a library.

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Sophocles is one of the greatest among these old poets. He has written works for the theatre, dramas and comedies; only a few of his dramas have come down to us. In each one of these the principal character is a courageous and noble being who wrestles alone against an intolerably painful situation; he is bowed down by the weight of solitude, of humiliation, of poverty, of injustice; at times his courage is at the breaking point, but he holds on and never lets himself be corrupted by misfortune. For that reason, no matter how painful they are, these dramas never leave us with an impression of sadness. Instead, they leave us with an impression of serenity. Intimations of Christi... Simone Weil Best Price: $23.11 Buy New $27.11 (as of 10:41 EST - Details)

Antigone is the title of one of these dramas. It is the story of a human being who, all alone, without any backing, dares to be in opposition to her own country, to the laws of that country, to the head of its government…

Antigone’s defiance was to disobey the decree of King Creon, her uncle, to offer burial under pain of death to her brother Polyneices, who had been exiled from the city of Thebes by his brother the King Etiocles. Polyneices had raised an armed force from the city of Argos to attack Thebes, and brother had slain brother; Creon viewed Polyneices a traitor to the city, hence to be denied funeral rites, a sacred obligation.

Simone Weil was meticulous in her translation of the Ancient Greek; while I do not know of any extant translation by her of the entire play, I think it significant how she translated this passage from the beginning of the play, words spoken by Ismene, Antigone’s sister:

We must submit ourselves to those who are strongest
Execute all their orders, even most painful ones…
For myself I shall obey those in power
I was not made to stand up against the State.

As Simone Weill notes, Antigone considers Ismene a coward; she will have none of it. And the stage is set for the conflict between two opposed and irreconcilable world views. Antigone does not submit and so she makes her lonely stand against Creon. Antigone Best Price: $2.71 Buy New $15.99 (as of 09:40 EST - Details)

Bernard Knox noted in his introduction to Robert Fagles’ translation of the play that Creon initially seemed reasonable; he and Antigone had two conflicting claims and he quotes Hegel’s renowned analysis of the play: “A collision between the two highest moral powers.” Yet as Knox clarifies, Hegel was writing during a period of “fervent German nationalism…his views on the loyalty of the state were very much those of Creon.” Knox then details how Creon’s actions subsequent to his reasonable opening speech prove that he goes too far:

His announcement of his decision to expose the corpse, the concluding section of his speech, is couched in violent, vindictive terms—“carrion for the birds and dogs to tear” (230)—which stand in shocking contrast to the ethical generalities that precede it. This hint of a cruel disposition underlying the statesmanlike façade is broadened by the threat of torture leveled at the sentry (344-50) and the order to execute Antigone in the presence of her betrothed [his son] (852-54)…Against the two sanctions invoked by Antigone, the demands of blood relationship, the rights and privileges of the gods below, he rages in terms ranging from near blasphemous defiance to scornful mockery.

If Creon were a priest his authority would be limited to that realm; what is crucial to the drama and a factor in his conduct is that Creon holds the power of life and death and this is a power that he does not wield with prudence, wisdom and reverence for a morality higher than his own. If anything, the power corrupted Creon, who exhibits hubris—that willful blindness and cruelty that provokes the wrath of God.

Fagles’ translation is excellent but I have a fondness for H.D.F. Kitto’s that was written for dramatic performances and understands how integral song was to the plays. Yet the most compelling insight into Antigone’s plight for me is not Knox who believes Antigone’s death “is a thread in a tragic web spun by powers who are beyond our comprehension” but Weill’s who writes (and would that more people were familiar with her brilliant work):

Among Greek poets, Sophocles is the one whose quality of inspiration is the most visibly Christian and perhaps the most pure (he The Three Theban Plays... Sophocles Best Price: $1.25 Buy New $5.98 (as of 11:15 EST - Details) is to my knowledge more Christian than any tragic poet of the last twenty centuries). This Christian quality is generally recognized in the tragedy of Antigone, which might be an illustration of the saying: ‘We ought to obey God rather than men.’ The god who presides over this tragedy is not known as being in heaven, but beneath the earth. It comes to the same thing. It is always to the true God, the God who is in the other world, that reference is made. Man in his charity must imitate the impartiality of God who watches over all. It is this that the Christ bids us to imitate: the perfection of the Celestial Father who makes the rain fall and the sun to shine over all creation…

Antigone is a perfectly pure being, perfectly innocent, perfectly heroic, who voluntarily gives herself up to death to preserve a guilty brother from an unhappy fate in the other world…

Throughout history and sadly to our own time, there always is a Creon; and there always will be. Yet when the time comes, as it surely shall, that we are given the choice to obey Creon’s edict and forswear the will of God, who shall we become? Shall we choose to be Ismene or will we ask our Creator for courage and become Antigone?

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