Sophocles’ Antigone and the Sources of Human Ethics

David Konstan

It is in the nature of tragedy to pose questions concerning human behavior and the means of responding to ethical dilemmas. It does so by exhibiting conflicts between individuals, which bear not only on private interests but also include a public dimension, the norms and laws of citizens in their social and political context. Nowhere is this more the case than in Sophocles’ Antigone (442/1 BC), which explicitly stages the collision between different ways of understanding justice and law.[1]

Luis Gil, a philologist of the first order, who published a book on censorship in the Classical world during the epoch of Franco in Spain, explains in the preface to his translation of the play:

Since Hegel, who interpreted [Antigone] as a conflict between two equally valid spheres of right – that of the state and that of the family – to our day, the opinions of critics have been divided between two antithetical positions, as usually happens when it is a matter of commenting on works of genius which offer abundant food not only for the inquisitiveness of philologists but also for analytical and philosophical speculation.[2]

On the one hand, Gil observes, “the basis of the conflict in the Antigone couldn’t be simpler: a girl dies because she has disobeyed an edict of the established power which comes up against ethico-religious imperatives of a higher order… Viewed in this schematic way…, Antigone for her part is wholly in the right, and Creon wrong.” Indeed, it is difficult not to sympathize with the poor heroine, who dies for her love of her brother, for her loyalty to her family, and above all for her respect for divine law, which take priority over those of human beings and their governments.

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

Nevertheless, the question is not so simple. If anyone at all can appeal to eternal laws, as she or he happens to understand them, what happens to civic discipline, order, and social justice? Is Antigone really right when she insists upon burying, within the borders of Thebes, an enemy of the state who is, to be sure, her brother but who organized an attack against his own city in order to recover the throne? As Gil writes, “at the very highpoint of dictatorships, greater attention was paid, for the first time, to the figure of Creon, whose arguments acquired greater relevance in those troubled times.” So too another great philologist, Antonio Tovar, who during the Spanish Civil War (1936–9) took the side of the Francoists and taught for many years in the University of Salamanca, saw in Creon the “representative of a rational kind of politics, which was doomed inevitably to collide with the traditional and irrational factors represented by Antigone.”[3]

It is true, in fact, that Creon has a greater role in the drama, and it would have been the protagonist – that is, the main actor – who played his part in Athens, whereas Antigone exits the stage well before the end. It is Creon, not Antigone, who is the central character in the play: the tragedy is his, his is the defeat, as was argued, among others, by Francisco Rodríguez Adrados: “It is the king at the height of his power who is humiliated over the course of the play.”[4]

Antígona, Teatre Lliure, Barcelona, Spain (dir. Miguel del Arco, 2015; still from the trailer).

Now, as Luis Gil argues, “Creon’s guilt, which is implied in the words of the Coryphaeus when he suggests that the burial of Polynices is a divine act, becomes ever clearer in his successive conversations with Antigone, Haemon, and Tiresias, up to the point that he himself, if not persuaded of his errors, is at least anxious about the scope of his decree and decides to revoke it at once.” In respect to the play itself, then, I think it is clear that Gil is entirely right. And yet, when he says, “it is Antigone who combines, for good or for ill, all the characteristics of the heroic protagonists of Sophoclean tragedy,” it seems to me that Creon does so just as much. Gil himself offers a different interpretation of Sophocles’ purpose in creating a character as radical as Antigone. He writes:

Sophocles had wished to present to his fellow citizens a new model of civic heroism, as opposed to the heroic ideal; a heroism that surpassed the individualistic heroism of epic heroes, transforming their sense of personal honor into an elevated concept of duty.

Perhaps so. And yet, Antigone gives reason and justifications for her behavior, and regarded from a philosophical point of view, we are obliged to evaluate her arguments and place them in the context of Greek thought of the period concerning the concepts of right and the foundation of the laws. So let us take a closer look at the text where Antigone clarifies her position.

Creon: And yet you dared to break those very laws?

Antigone: Yes. Zeus did not announce those laws to me
And Justice living with the gods below
sent no such laws for men. I did not think
anything which you proclaimed strong enough
to let a mortal override the gods
and their unwritten and unchanging laws.
They’re not just for today or yesterday,
but exist forever, and no one knows
where they first appeared. So I did not mean
to let a fear of any human will
lead to my punishment among the gods.
I know all too well I’m going to die—
how could I not?—it makes no difference
what you decree. And if I have to die
before my time, well, I count that a gain.
When someone has to live the way I do,
surrounded by so many evil things,
how can she fail to find a benefit
in death? And so for me meeting this fate
won’t bring any pain. But if I’d allowed
my own mother’s dead son to just lie there,
an unburied corpse, then I’d feel distress.
What’s going on here does not hurt me at all.
If you think what I’m doing now is stupid,
perhaps I’m being charged with foolishness
by someone who’s a fool.      

(449–71; trans. Ian Johnston)[5]

Statue of Xenophon, Parliament Building, Vienna, Austria.

What value would this recourse to laws that are unwritten and yet eternal have had in the eyes of contemporary Athenians? There is a less widely known text, composed by Xenophon, in which a discussion between Socrates and the sophist Hippias raises precisely this issue. It is found in the fourth book of his Memorabilia or Reminiscences of Socrates. When Hippias asks Socrates for his definition of justice, or more precisely of “the just” (τὸ δίκαιον, to dikaion), he replies that his behavior over the course of his entire life testifies to his beliefs: “To abstain from what is unjust is just” (Mem. 4.4.11, trans. Marchant). Socrates then asks: “Does the expression ‘laws of a state’ convey a meaning to you?” Hippias replies: “Covenants made by the citizens whereby they have enacted what ought to be done and what ought to be avoided.” The dialogue continues:

Socrates: “Then would not that citizen who acts in accordance with these act lawfully, and he who transgresses them act unlawfully?”

Hippias: “Yes, certainly.”

Socrates: “And would not he who obeys them do what is just, and he who disobeys them do what is unjust?”

Hippias: “Certainly.”

Socrates: “Then would not he who does what is just be just, and he who does what is unjust be unjust?”

Hippias: “Of course.”

Socrates: “Consequently he who acts lawfully is just, and he who acts unlawfully is unjust.”              (Mem. 4.4.13)[6]

Hippias then offers an objection to Socrates’ claim: “‘Laws,’ said Hippias, ‘can hardly be thought of much account, Socrates, or observance of them, seeing that the very men who have passed them often reject and amend them.’” Socrates replies: “Yes, and after going to war, cities often make peace again.” Hippias agrees, and Socrates resumes: “Then is there any difference, do you think, between belittling those who obey the laws on the ground that the laws may be annulled, and blaming those who behave well in wars on the ground that peace may be made?” (Mem. 4.4.14). Socrates says much more about the advantages that derive from an absolute respect for the laws, and he concludes: “So, Hippias, I declare lawful and just to be the same thing” (Mem. 4.4.18). Antigone, have you been listening?

Aenne Schwarz as Antigone, Burgtheater, Vienna, Austria (dir. Jette Steckel, 2015; credit: Christian Michelides).

Now, how shall we interpret the fact that Socrates himself boasts that he did not obey the leaders of the state, and this on more than one occasion? In fact, just before citing Socrates’ view with respect to obedience to the laws, Xenophon remarks:

And when the Thirty [tyrants] laid a command on him that was illegal, he refused to obey. Thus he disregarded their repeated injunction not to talk with young men; and when they commanded him and certain other citizens to arrest a man on a capital charge, he alone refused, because the command laid on him was illegal. (Mem. 4.4.3)

But how, then, may one distinguish between the laws, strictly speaking, and illegal orders? Let us return, then, to the passage that we have been examining. Immediately after the words that I quoted a moment ago, where Socrates says, “I declare lawful and just to be the same thing,” and without any transition, Socrates asks: “Do you know what is meant by ‘unwritten laws,’ Hippias?” And Hippias replies: “Yes, those that are uniformly observed in every country,” that is, universal laws, which do not change from one place to another or from one society to another. Socrates continues: “Could you say that men made them?”

Hippias: “Nay, how could that be, seeing that they cannot all meet together and do not speak the same language?”

Socrates: “Then by whom have these laws been made, do you suppose?”

Hippias: “I think that the gods made these laws for men. For among all men the first law is to fear the gods.”

Socrates: “Is not the duty of honoring parents another universal law?”

Hippias: “Yes, that is another.”

Socrates: “And that parents shall not have sexual intercourse with their children nor children with their parents?”

This last question arouses a doubt in Hippias’ mind, and he replies: “No, I don’t think that is a law of God.” “Why so?” “Because I notice that some transgress it” (Mem. 4.4.19-20). Before indicating how Socrates responds to this challenge, we may observe that two of the laws that touch on human relations – the obligations to honor one’s parents and not to commit incest – have a particular relevance to the situation of Antigone and her family. For she manifests a reverence for her elder brother, who is practically like a father, and she is the product of an incestuous act, the sexual union between a son and a mother. Socrates, however, has a ready answer: “Yes, and they do many other things contrary to the laws. But surely the transgressors of the laws ordained by the gods pay a penalty that a man can in no way escape, as some, when they transgress the laws ordained by man, escape punishment, either by concealment or by violence” (Mem. 4.4.21). Might Socrates be thinking here of tragedy, and more specifically of Sophocles’ Antigone?

Antigone condemned to death by Creon, Giuseppe Diotti, 1845 (Accademia Carrara, Bergamo, Italy).

Aristotle makes the connection with tragedy explicitly in the first book of his Rhetoric:

It will now be well to make a complete classification of just and unjust actions. We may begin by observing that they have been defined relatively to two kinds of law, and also relatively to two classes of persons. By the two kinds of law I mean particular law and universal law. Particular law is that which each community lays down and applies to its own members: this is partly written and partly unwritten. Universal law is the law of Nature. For there really is, as every one to some extent divines, a natural justice and injustice that is binding on all men, even on those who have no association or covenant with each other. It is this that Sophocles’ Antigone clearly means when she says (456–7) that the burial of Polynices was a just act in spite of the prohibition: she means that it was just by nature.

Not of to-day or yesterday it is,
But lives eternal: none can date its birth.

(Rhetoric 1.13, trans. W. Rhys Roberts)[7]

Aristotle cites as well Empedocles’ injunction not to kill any living thing, since this is not just for some and for others unjust,

Nay, but, an all-embracing law, through the realms of the sky
Unbroken it stretcheth, and over the earth’s immensity. (B135)

Plato too refers to unwritten laws in his last dialogue, The Laws, where the Athenian proclaims:

all the regulations which we are now expounding are what are commonly termed ‘unwritten laws’. And these as a whole are just the same as what men call ‘ancestral customs’… For it is these that act as bonds in every constitution, forming a link between all its laws…, exactly like ancestral customs of great antiquity, which, if well established and practised, serve to wrap up securely the laws already written, whereas if they perversely go aside from the right way. (Book 7, 793a-b, trans. R.G. Bury)[8]

A fragment from Book 8 of Plato’s Laws, written in the third century AD and discovered in 1897 in the Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus (P. Oxy. 23).

Now, in the Classical world there was no concept of human or natural rights, or of human dignity as such. It is in part for this reason, perhaps, that the people appealed to divine or universal laws. But did the Greeks count, among the unwritten laws, the right, or rather the obligation, to bury one’s relatives, irrespective of their deeds, including that of having recruited an army, with troops from hostile cities, in order to conquer one’s own fatherland? In any case, in Athens at the time of Sophocles it seems it was not absolutely prohibited to leave the corpse of an enemy exposed. Vincent Rosivach summarizes the attitude of the Greeks in the fifth century BC:

• From at least the fifth century onward the Athenians were prepared to refuse burial at least in Attic soil to traitors and to temple robbers.

• For the Greeks in general in the fifth century and later victors in combat were still under no obligation to bury the enemy dead themselves but Panhellenic custom now required them to allow the defeated side to recover their dead for burial.[9]

In connection with the Antigone, Rosivach concludes that Creon, as king of Thebes, was under no obligation to bury Polynices, since he had died in battle as a foreign invader. Furthermore, Creon was acting in the name of the state, not out of personal enmity. Nevertheless, his act would not have been wholly acceptable in the fifth century, and other characters in tragedy who forbid burial are all portrayed negatively.

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

Sophocles’ Antigone is not a political or philosophical treatise but a theatrical work, and there is no necessity to justify the action of its heroine logically or by way of syllogistic arguments. The prophet Tiresias reports to Creon the alarming omens that have resulted from his decree. Creon, for his part, does not wish to recognize the significance of these events, and accuses the seer of greed: “The tribes of prophets – all of them – are fond of money” (1055). In the end, however, Creon, by now terrified, yields to the judgment of Tiresias. Sophocles is affirming a religious thesis, not a political one: that the family, in the end, counts for more than the decrees of rulers.

Jordi Balló and Xavier Pérez, in their essay, “La desobediencia civil” (“Civil Disobedience”), appended to the translation by Luis Gil, describe Antigone in exalted language:

A devoted fighter, but also a pious woman, Antigone is never moved by hatred but by love… She has been regarded as an antecedent of messianic figures of the stature of Christ himself, figures invariably graced with the qualities of Antigone… What Antigone cannot tolerate about Creon is that he abrogates, by means of his decree, the value of religious beliefs that endow life with a higher meaning, beliefs that ultimately restrict the power of the State.

We ought to appreciate, nevertheless, that Antigone does not sacrifice herself for strictly religious reasons nor for humanity in general, but for a beloved brother, a limited act that is not separable from the family context. It is family on which Antigone insists, and which forms the core of the drama.

The sarus crane, given the taxonomic name Antigone Antigone by Carolus Linnaeus, prompted perhaps by the legendary devotion between mates, or by their striking blood-red neck markings.

Bonnie Honig, a specialist in political science, has dedicated a book to Antigone, under the title Antigone, Interrupted (CUP, 2013), in which she defends the hypothesis that Ismene plays a much more active role in the drama than that supposed by the great majority of scholars, who have regarded her as an example of passivity and servility, at the opposite extreme from her sister. We know that Creon’s rage is triggered by the fact that someone has covered the body of Polynices with dust. But who was it? It is commonly assumed that it was Antigone, who certainly returned to cover it after the guards brushed away the dust and left the body exposed once more to the air. In reality, according to Honig, it was Ismene who dared to bury the body of her brother that first time, and she represents the value of conspiracy and secrecy in opposing a tyranny.

Others, however, have argued that, on the contrary, the merit of Ismene resides precisely in her recognition of the respect owed to the laws and to the decrees of the king. Bonnie Honig, again, in an article published in 2011, writes:

In a recent paper…, philosopher Mary Rawlinson focuses on Ismene as a better model for feminist politics than her more renowned sister. Ismene privileges the world of living, Rawlinson argues, and she looks toward the future. “Why should feminists valorize Antigone’s embrace of the dead brother over the sister?” she asks.[10]

Radical courage, the idea that the model for women must be that of the militant hero, like an Ajax or Achilles, is not necessarily the best of traits, whether for women or for men, however “macho” they may be. Why suppose that valor in a woman, or in anyone, must possess the traits of a warrior instead of a spirit of reconciliation, and of tenderness?

We may grant that, within the context of the play Antigone, there can be no doubt that she is right, and that Creon is not. But the relationship between the drama and philosophy is not exhausted by this recognition. We have not only the right but also the obligation to interrogate the tragedy and draw from it all the wisdom that lurks implicitly within it. In other words, the conversation does not stop at this point – rather, it is where it begins.

David Konstan is Professor of Classics at New York University. He has published books on ancient ideas of friendship, the emotions, forgiveness, beauty, love, and, most recently, on sin, as well as studies of Classical comedy, the novel, and philosophy. He is a past president of the American Philological Association (now the Society for Classical Studies).

Further Reading

Antigone has attracted the attention of a great many scholars as well as critics at large.  Here is a sample of recent studies that place the tragedy in the context of modern legal, psychological, and political theory:

Judith Butler, Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life & Death (Columbia UP, New York, 2000), finds in the Antigone a different model for the elementary structure of the family. The two following essays explore the ethical complexities of the tragedy: Lukas van den Berge, “Sophocles’ Antigone and the Promise of Ethical Life: Tragic Ambiguity and the Pathologies of Reason,” Law and Humanities 11 (2017) 205–27; and Theodore Koulouris, “Neither Sensible, Nor Moderate: Revisiting the Antigone,” Humanities 7.60 (2018); doi: 10.3390/h7020060.  All are conscious of the importance of feminist readings of the play.


1 This paper is an abbreviated version of a talk entitled “Antígona y las fuentes de la ética humana” which was delivered on 22 April 2011 in a Coloquio de Bachillerato at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, on the topic of “Reflexiones sobre la condición humana desde la tragedia griega”. I thank Nazyheli Aguirre for the invitation to present that paper and for her kind permission to publish an English version.
2 Luis Gil (trans.), Sófocles Antígona (Guadarrama, Madrid, 1969).
3 “Antígona y el tirano o la inteligencia en la política,” Escorial 10 (1943) 37–56. Tovar had produced an edition of the play with notes the previous year.
4 Religión y política en la Antígona,” Revista de la Universidad de Madrid 13 (1964) 493–523, at 517.
5 The Greek text, along with a different English translation, can be explored here.
6 The Greek text, along with a different English translation, is available here.
7 The Greek text, with English translation, can be read here.
8 The Greek text can be studied here.
9 Vincent Rosivach, “On Creon, Antigone and Not Burying the Dead,” Rheinisches Museum für Philologie 126 (1983) 193–211, quotation from p. 206, points 1 and 3 (of 5).
10 Bonnie Honig, “Ismene’s forced choice: sacrifice and sorority in Sophocles’ Antigone,” Arethusa 44 (2011) 29–68, citing Mary Rawlinson, “Antigone, agent of fraternity: how feminism misreads Hegel’s misreading of Antigone, or Let the other speak” (unpublished); quotation on p. 42.