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Virtue in Literature (6) – Antigone: Justice (10th Grade)

Antigone is a young girl that has suffered much. At the beginning of Sophocles’s famous drama, she, already an orphan, has just watched both her brothers die. But not only have they died, they have killed one another in an attempt to control their city, Thebes. Her brother Eteocles sided with the incumbent leaders and died defending Thebes so he is awarded honorable burial and traditional mourning rites. Antigone’s other brother, Polynices, believed that tyrants were ruling Thebes so he led a group of Argive troops to liberate it. After the battle, the ruler of Thebes, Creon, declares that Polynices will be denied any type of funeral or burial. Instead, his body will be left outside to rot and be eaten by wild animals.

In issuing this decree this Creon attempts to control events in the afterlife. The Greeks believed that an unburied individual would be forever restless; in denying Polynices burial Creon is attempting to inflict punishment on his soul. The Greeks considered this to be an act of hubris. While a ruler may have the ability to put a rebel to death, punishing a dead man’s soul was a prerogative of the gods, not men. Nonetheless Creon declares that any individual caught mourning or trying to bury Polynices will be put to death.

Antigone hears of this order and decides to act. Her sister, Ismene, attempts to dissuade her. After all, Creon is not forcing Antigone to do anything evil; he is the evil doer and she should just mind her own business. What is more, the body of Polynices is surrounded by guards and Antigone lacks the physical strength to carry him and burn and bury him—she will be physically unable to give him a full and proper funeral. Instead, she will be reduced to carrying out a gesture that will cost her her life.

Nonetheless Antigone decides to act. She puts a handful of dirt over her brother’s body and prays for him. When caught she is brought before Creon (to complicate things, and I won’t get into all of this, Creon is her uncle and she is engaged to marry his son). Creon tells her that her duty is to submit to him. Society would fall apart if every individual decided for him- or her self what is right and wrong and what laws he or she will obey. He tells her that the gods have made him leader and he must be obeyed in all things as this is the foundation for order. He then gives her a chance to apologize and save her life.

In response Antigone gives the first articulation of the idea of “Natural Law” (a theory that would be further developed by Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas, appealed to by men like Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King Jr., and which is still an important idea today. In fact, this play was performed by the resistance movement in France while the French struggled to free themselves from Nazi occupation). Antigone tells Creon that there is an invisible, uncreated, eternal law given to us by the gods (she is a pre-Christian) and that this law takes precedent over every human authority. When any man-made law or ruler contradict it, we must obey this Law no matter the cost. Antigone says, in essence, I will obey God, not men; I will resist injustice no matter the cost (to find out the ending, you’ll have to read the play for yourselves).

Antigone’s words are just as stirring and powerful today as they were when they were first spoken in Athens 2,500 years ago. Her commitment to God’s Justice, her willingness to defy man to honor God, her refusal to live by lies, her absolute and steadfast commitment to the Truth, her unwavering resolve to do what is right no matter the cost, are just as relevant today as they have ever been.