Why We Need Antigone

Edmund Stewart

Natan Sharansky was abducted by the Soviet KGB in March 1977. He would spend nearly a decade in prison, charged with spying for the USA. His real offence was pro-democratic activism, as well as a desire to emigrate to Israel and practise his religion (Judaism). Like many educated people who have been similarly detained, Sharansky spent the long, empty hours reading. Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, in which he was initially housed, had an excellent library, its main contributors being intellectuals purged by the regime. In his prison memoir, Fear No Evil (1988), he describes the pleasure and encouragement he found in revisiting Classical texts:

As I continued reading, I found that the feelings and thoughts of many classical authors and their heroes seemed remarkably appropriate to my own predicament. I was inspired by Ulysses, with his wit, his stubbornness and his enormous curiosity – even on the edge of the abyss. … And Antigone – pressed by fate, she refused to violate the basic, eternal values, and saw her mission as bringing love, not hate … All of these characters, it seemed to me, hurried towards me from various countries and across the centuries. “You see,” they told me, “there is nothing new in this world of ours. But how much there is worth living for – and if necessary, worth dying for as well.”

For Sharansky, Antigone seemed almost to understand his sufferings because she too had experienced the same kind of persecution. The cause was different (Antigone was facing death for attempting to bury her brother), yet, as a lone individual who had refused to renounce established principles at the arbitrary whim of a tyrannical power, she appeared nonetheless a friend and kindred spirit.

From Svetlin Vassilev’s Antigone (2013), reproduced with the artist’s permission (© Vicens Vices, Barcelona, Spain).

I regularly teach Sophocles’ great tragedy Antigone and a question often asked by students is, ‘Why is Antigone a sympathetic character’? or, ‘Should we not have more sympathy and admiration for her sister Ismene?’ My usual answer is that ‘sympathy’ is a personal emotion: not everyone can or will feel sympathy for the same literary character (or real person). We tend to sympathise with people who either resemble us or who resemble the sort of people we wish to be. And many readers and scholars have not sympathised with Antigone. They may find Antigone’s treatment of her sister unnecessarily harsh and unkind. Ismene initially seeks to keep herself and her one remaining relation alive; Antigone dismisses such caution as cowardice. Ismene then tries to share the blame for something she did not do; Antigone refuses to let her take the ‘credit’ for burying Polynices. Ismene cannot bear to live without her sister; Antigone dismisses her as Creon’s accomplice.

Why do we need Antigone? The virtues of Ismene – tenderness, empathy, undogmatic realism, a spirit of compromise – may appear more appropriate in a democracy, whether in fifth-century BC Athens or the modern world. And, indeed, they are more appropriate for those societies (mainly democracies) where the Rule of Law applies and, moreover, where written law and moral principle broadly agree. Under these conditions, it is perhaps easier to be good than otherwise. Heroic inflexibility is less necessary and less welcome. Yet this is not the case under a dictatorship, or even in a democracy in which the majority is intent on becoming a tyranny. In these societies, morality and law need not agree, because the law is framed only to serve the interests of the ruling caste or tyrant, regardless of concerns for truth or justice. Here it may be that the laws of God and Man conflict, and, in such circumstances, one cannot own two masters. For this reason, compromise (the prime virtue of Ismene) can at times prove no virtue at all if we are asked to abandon moral principles.

From Svetlin Vassilev’s Antigone (2013), reproduced with the artist’s permission (© Vicens Vices, Barcelona, Spain).

What are the virtues of Antigone and why do they matter? The first is constancy, or moral clarity. For Antigone, no new decree or law could change what she had always known to be true: that she loved her brother, that she owed him a debt of love and that the dead deserve to be buried. Antigone’s actions do not arise from a fit of pique nor are they derived from some adolescent need to rebel against the rules. Rather she is motivated by a determination to uphold established norms against the threat of violation by a new tyranny. But for moral principles to matter, the additional virtue of courage is needed. And Antigone’s courage is quite exceptional. In the twenty-first-century world, determined and strong women are familiar figures who are often held up as role models to admire and emulate. But in classical Greece, the notion that a young unmarried girl could publicly challenge a tyrant, where older men feared to do so, is quite incredible.

Yet to resist tyranny, neither conviction nor courage are sufficient on their own and both can be turned to the use of evil. One final virtue is needed to complement the others, the love of truth. Tyrants do not simply frighten their subjects into abandoning morality: they also deceive and flatter them. Creon’s greatest trick is to argue that the gods must surely endorse his own flouting of their very laws, if it is done to punish an enemy of the state. He chooses to suborn, not threaten, the elders of Thebes. They have been quietly loyal to Oedipus and his sons; they should remain so now under Creon. The chorus, according to Antigone, are afraid to express their opinion on this decision, but perhaps it is not in their interest to do so either. Their elliptical and ambiguous utterances are nonetheless revealing. In the so-called ‘Ode to Man’, they celebrate human ingenuity. But they also admit that such cleverness has its limits: “possessing resourceful skill, a subtlety beyond expectation, [Man] moves now to evil, now to good.”

Tyrants have on occasion employed great intellects to effect and justify their crimes. The Communist regime that persecuted Sharansky, among many other and worse enormities, has had, and continues to have, many erudite and eloquent apologists. The same was true of the Nazis. It is a remarkable fact that a majority of those present at the Wannsee Conference (the meeting that determined the Final Solution of the so-called ‘Jewish Problem’) held doctorates. German universities and German intellectuals, who had been at the forefront of so much academic and scientific progress in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, willingly consented to and participated in the crimes of the Third Reich. Of course, one must also concede that many German academics did flee abroad, but (as the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, who himself opted to become a British subject in 1938, noted) it is remarkable how few of these were not Jews or members of other persecuted minorities.

From Svetlin Vassilev’s Antigone (2013), reproduced with the artist’s permission (© Vicens Vices, Barcelona, Spain).

Only a disinterested desire for truth will prevent this corruption and manipulation of the human mind. Without it nothing matters but power. Perhaps one of the most important arguments for the existence and importance of objective truth was made by the philosopher Socrates (469–399 BC), a younger contemporary of Sophocles (496–406 BC). The search for truth mattered more to Socrates than personal interests or feelings and, like Antigone, he was prepared to die rather than consent to deceit or injustice. A firm advocate of obedience to human laws, he also believed (again like Antigone) that his first duty was to the gods who had brought him to love and seek wisdom. If the gods commanded something for which the laws decreed the penalty of death, then he was prepared to accept death. Socrates was thus in many ways a living, historical embodiment of the virtues of Sophocles’ mythical heroine.

What can we learn from Antigone (and also Socrates)? Perhaps that an idea that is popular or new is not always right; that what we knew to be true yesterday cannot be easily unlearned today; that what is expedient is not always just; that sometimes it is better to speak the truth, even at the risk of causing offence; and, yes, that ‘there is much worth living for – and if necessary, worth dying for as well.’

Edmund Stewart is Assistant Professor in Ancient Greek History at the University of Nottingham.