“The only crime is pride.”
Folks, this week we’re going way back.
So I read this book while I was waiting for my GP appointment. Yes, the entire book. Which tells you a lot about both waiting times for doctors here in London, and the length of the book.
But let’s dive right in. So. This is the ancient – literally – story of Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus (yes, that Oedipus.) One thing I love about ancient Greek sagas is that everyone is somehow related to everyone, which reminds me a lot of the tiny village where I grew up.
So. The story begins after two of Antigone’s brothers – their names don’t really matter, so I won’t mention them – kill each other in a battle. Antigone’s uncle (and the new king) Creon decrees that one of them is not to be buried or even mourned, on pain of death by stoning.
Antigone defies the king, but is caught and brought before the king, where she willingly admits that she knew of the law, but chose to break it, claiming the superiority of divine over human law.
Of course, because this is a Greek tragedy and the Greeks didn’t really do things in a half-assed way, things end in disaster. Creon orders Antigone to be buried alive in a tomb. He then has a change of heart and orders to free her, however, he finds she has hanged herself.
Then, Creon’s son, who was in love with Antigone, commits suicide with a knife. And because that’s not enough death, his mother (and Creon’s wife) also kills herself. So the only one standing at the end of the play is Creon, whose cruelty set the plot in motion.
So, there’s enough death to go around, but really, what I want to focus on (and what caught my attention enough to distract myself from all those ‘YOU COULD HAVE THIS HORRIBLE ILLNESS’ Posters) is two things.
First, the distinction Antigone draws between what she calls ‘divine’ law and human law. This is actually a thing in political science and philosophy. The idea is that there are certain laws that are enshrined in human nature, that were given to us by God (if you are inclined to believe in one) and that stand above the laws passed by normal acts of legislature.
The best example for this is the American Declaration of Independence, which reads as follows: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
So the Founders of the United States justify their rebellion by referring to what they call ‘unalienable’ rights – rights that cannot be separated from the person, that every person inherently has. (The irony, of course, being that they denied those rights to more than half of their population – slaves being the most atrocious example, but let’s remember that women didn’t count as people, either.)
These are the rights that Antigone refers to in her discussion with Creon – his refusal to let her bury her brother break those divine laws.
When I first heard about the story, this seemed a bit far-stretched. Sure, refusing a burial is a dick move, but not an infringement of our divine laws as human beings, right?
Except for the Greeks, it was. I had to look this up, because humanity has changed a lot since Sophocles wrote this, so the following would have been obvious for all his Greek fans. It’s proof to the obvious statement that you cannot disconnect a piece of art from the circumstances of its creation.
The soul of an unburied body simply could not obtain any rest in the realms of the dead. It wasn’t like Antigone’s brother would go to hell – to get entrance to hell (or their equivalent of hell), he’d have to be buried. So Creon sentenced him to a fate worse than death for all eternity. We have to understand the severity of this sentence to understand Antigone’s outrage over it.
Creon, according to Antigone, infringed on divine rights by issuing a law. And, in her view, divine right trumps human laws. In modern terms, we’d speak of ‘natural law’ versus ‘positive law’ (the latter being the name for laws issued by humans).
It is a very old conflict, and it is still being debated. Natural law is by its very definition un-codefied, meaning it might have different definitions depending on time and place. (See: US Founders and women / slaves).
But this exactly why Antigone never stopped being important: because she shows that unjust laws need to be disobeyed. This concept is called ‘civil disobedience’, and I’m always fascinated by it. It is the refusal of a citizen to obey certain laws that they regard as unjust – or, quite simply, as ‘lawful but awful’.
But it requires a certain type of citizen: one that does not simply follow orders (or laws), but questions them. One who has a set codex of morals, and who constantly cross-checks laws with this moral framework.
(There’s another really interesting segway that I don’t have time to go into right now – but what if your definition of natural law is different from mine? Especially if you are referring to laws given by a God that I do not believe in?)
So that’s the first takeaway from Antigone. Natural law vs positive law.
The second thing that I found really, really interesting – especially for our times – is the fact that it is the refusal to extend basic rights to an enemy that brings upon the downfall of the house of Creon.
It’s something you see every time there’s a process against terror suspects – or even murder suspects. It’s the ‘just throw him in jail and throw away the keys’ approach. I remember the public outcry when the Norwegian Terrorist Anders Breivik complained about the conditions he was being held in.
He has brought so much pain upon so many people, the argument went. He has lost his right to complain or expect basic human decency.
I do understand this train of thought, and in a way, it is very tempting to join the chorus. After all, doesn’t he deserve what he got?
Yes but no. We as a society show who we are in the way we treat those who hurt us. I don’t mean to say that Breivik should go free – of course not! But I do think that what makes Western Liberal Democracies so valuable is exactly the fact that we don’t deny rights to anybody, even our foes.
It’s a difficult question, I admit. And the fact that it has been debated for thousands of years now shows that there is no definitive answer for it.
And one last thought – whenever I read plays, I wonder how I would produce them. (I still think my Macbeth set in 1920 New Orleans would be AMAZING.) For Antigone, I was thinking – modern black Antigone going to a protest against police brutality.
Antigone going to the protest because she owes it to her brothers and being arrested, talking to Creon (who would be of course white) about how some laws need to be broken, Antigone dying in jail and they say it is because she hung herself but everyone knows it’s a lie.
Well, I’ll leave you with that.
Next week – I’m reading a book that my mom doesn’t like (even though she should!)