A key lesson of Sophocles’ “Antigone” is that fanaticism results when public actors fail to practice the one virtue capable of moderating the excesses of human nature: political prudence.
In an insightful essay (“Idolatry in Lockdown,” Law and Liberty, January 28, 2021), Spencer Klavan reflects on the contemporary significance of the conflict at the heart of Sophocles’ Antigone. Though his sobering conclusion—that our republic is being rent by the clash of “rival and incompatible theologies”—is worth heeding, a second look at the play reveals that it also contains advice on how we can strive to overcome these divisions.
Set in ancient Thebes, Antigone centers on the unfortunate daughter of the accursed King Oedipus. As the play opens, Antigone’s brothers Eteocles and Polyneices have slain one another in a dispute over their father’s throne. Intent on bringing this civil war to an end, Antigone’s uncle, the newly crowned Creon, declares it a capital crime to honor Polyneices—who led seven armies against his own city—with any of the customary rituals prescribed for the dead. Citing her duty to the “everlasting” laws of the “gods below,” Antigone proudly defies Creon’s “tyranny,” provoking him to bury her alive in a “rocky chamber.”
Though we are “accustomed to thinking of Antigone as a battle between religious martyrdom and godless statism,” Mr. Klavan contends, a closer look reveals that, rather than setting “religion against irreligion,” the story “pits two fanatics against one another.” Antigone’s adherence to ancestral piety is offensive to Creon not because he represents a secular neutrality or pragmatism, but rather because he is a worshipper of the city.
This distinction is important to us, Mr. Klavan continues, since we too are witnessing an escalation of public conflict between “traditional believers” and those who fancy themselves “secular guardians of government neutrality.” Like Creon, state and local politicians who shutter churches and synagogues while cheering partisan gatherings claim they have public safety in mind, but their actions reveal them to be adherents of “new and unnamed religions,” whose common feature is “faith in the government’s salvific power.”
How are we to respond to the ever more frequent collision of our seemingly incompatible belief systems? Mr. Klavan is right to conclude that, when reconciliation fails, believers “must worship as we are called to, no matter how imperiously today’s would-be Creons” threaten us. Further consideration of Antigone’s plot demonstrates, however, that even theological conflicts are resolvable if approached in the right spirit. Indeed, a key lesson of the play is that fanaticism results when public actors fail to practice the one virtue capable of moderating the excesses of human nature: political prudence.
A Clash of Partial Truths
Antigone and Creon are indeed fanatics, but this does not mean that they are without impressive qualities. Each is intelligent enough to grasp truths that others only dimly perceive, and heroic in his or her resolution to defend truth at all costs. The trouble with these tragic figures is not that the convictions for which they fight are baseless, nor that they are inherently incompatible. Rather, the play ends in disaster because each of these rational and spirited actors is fixated on one aspect of reality while refusing to see the aspect the other champions.
When Antigone informs her sister Ismene of Creon’s edict, the latter is horrified, but quickly concludes that those lacking political authority must be “ruled by those who are stronger,” even when their orders are tyrannical. Antigone, by contrast, is able to look critically at both the form and substance of the law. Jurisdictionally, civil authorities have “no business” nullifying divine commandments. As for the punitive power of human authorities, Antigone notes that the worst they can prescribe is death, which awaits all mortals, whereas divine punishments are “everlasting.” If the gods insist that loved ones bury one another, she reasons, it must be a “noble” thing to please them, sacrificing one’s temporal interests for eternal prosperity.
For his part, Creon has thought carefully about the burdens placed on rulers, and intends to steer the ship of state according to “the best counsels.” Having witnessed the grave danger posed to citizens when brother takes up arms against brother, he concludes that absolute loyalty to civil authority is “what saves” human beings from all perils. When the city is secure, he argues, we are able to “make loved ones”; so when loved ones turn against the city, our love for them must be sacrificed for the greater good. As for the gods, since invaders burn down temples as well as palaces and homes, divine law too must recognize the supremacy of civic affairs.
The alacrity with which Antigone and Creon explain their contrary decisions and denounce the folly of their critics marks the reasoning behind their dispute as a central theme of the play. Each character claims to be responding to the situation with prudence and is able to articulate how his or her thinking subordinates lesser to greater goods. Though neither will stoop to hearing what the other has to say, however, the results of their inflexibility eventually bring each to admit error. The concluding words of the play, which proclaim misfortune to be the result of boastful reasoning and prudence to be the key to happiness, invite us to consider more minutely where each antagonist is right, and where each goes wrong.
Antigone is certainly correct to see that the divine is more authoritative than the human, and that the goods of eternity eclipse those of this life. Yet the utter contempt with which she treats Creon, and the notion of civil authority in general, reflects a drastic distortion of reality. When an incredulous Creon insists that the gods of Hades cannot fail to distinguish between heroes and traitors, Antigone’s dodge—“who knows” what the gods think about such things?—exposes her lack of attention to a crucial question about the immortal beings whose worship is so important to her: namely, whether they are reliably just.
Having disowned her sister for failing to assist in their brother’s burial, and expecting an eternal reward for doing it herself, Antigone cannot deny that immortals judge men based on their earthly actions. If they care about a few cubic feet of dirt, why should they disdain the city and its affairs, or turn a blind eye to Polyneices’s crimes?
As she is led to her own grave, Antigone begins to see the consequences of her confusion. Reflecting that she has forfeited the chance to marry and have children, each of whom would also have possessed immortal souls, she realizes that both she and the gods have concerns that reach beyond the performance of funeral rites. “What justice of the divinities have I transgressed?” she asks, before abandoning herself to self-destruction.
For his part, Creon is justified in noting that the city provides an environment in which family and faith are capable of flourishing, so that its welfare ought to be of paramount importance to gods as well as men. Like Antigone, however, he errs in supposing that the great good he has in view eclipses all others. Though divinities do care for cities, they clearly have other and higher concerns as well, as do human beings destined for eternity. Creon’s uncritical insistence that we obey even unjust laws for the sake of the city reveals his inability to distinguish the practical necessity of law from the transcendent value of the goods it serves.
As with Antigone, Creon’s boastful theorizing is contradicted by the habits of his own heart. Even after losing his niece, son, and wife to suicide, the chastened king could take comfort in the city’s safety and his own ability to “make [new] loved ones.” Instead, Creon declares his own existence to be “no more than nothing.”
The Synthetic and Dialogical Character of Prudence
By directing our attention to the convincing but incomplete cases Antigone and Creon make for their opposing views, Sophocles invites us to consider how a more prudent response would synthesize the goods each wants to prioritize at the expense of the other.
The essence of Antigone’s case is that the gods require the living to acknowledge their dominion over the dead by conveying them to the underworld with certain rituals. Creon’s major claim is that the city must punish rebellion if it is to protect citizens seeking to live a good life. Both characters assume that upholding one authority entails rejecting the other, but closer analysis demonstrates this is not so.
Seeing Antigone “bury” her brother by sprinkling dirt on him, we ought to realize that not all burials are equally honorific. Had Creon opted to lay Eteocles to rest with pomp and praises, while disposing of his brother’s remains as obscurely as possible, the city might have respected the rights (and rites) of Hades without failing to signify its admiration for those who defend and condemnation of those who threaten its security.
If this solution is so clear to us, why does it not occur to the play’s antagonists? As we have seen, the boastful dispositions of Antigone and Creon prevent them from hearing, much less accommodating, the other’s thinking. This suggests a crucial point about the way in which political prudence is cultivated. While it is comparatively easy to see the importance of particular goods at stake in public affairs, identifying and weighing the multiplicity of such goods requires the respectful exchange of arguments among those most attuned to each good.
In the play, this point is driven home by Creon’s son Haemon. Approaching his father diplomatically, he professes his loyalty as son and subject. As such, it is his duty to inform Creon that some citizens disagree with his policies, but are afraid to say so. When his father waxes indignant, Haemon advises him that a real man is able to listen to contrary views, for the sake of discovering what counsel is truly best. Unfortunately, this sound advice further inflames Creon’s ire, and Haemon loses his composure under a barrage of invectives.
In this episode, Sophocles gives us a glimpse of what prudent dialogue might look like, while indicating the exceptional degree of self-discipline necessary to sustain it in a world where passion swiftly overcomes reason, and the passions of others readily provoke our own.
Another significant lesson emerges when we consider the Chorus, who represent the city elders. Though Creon is at pains to explain himself to these cultural authorities, he refuses to hear them when they so much as hint that his law is misguided. In their many asides, the Chorus displays a sympathy for both Creon and Antigone. Though they are wise enough to understand what motivates each faction, however, these citizens lack the intellectual and moral fortitude to identify and advocate a prudent response to the city’s problems.
Overcoming Obstacles to Political Prudence Today
If the happiness that prudence promises is to become a reality, Sophocles suggests, it is necessary that key participants in public discourse work together to identify practical ways to synthesize the multiple goods competing for personal and civic loyalty. As Mr. Klavan notes, the opposite seems to be happening in contemporary America. Inevitably, when we examine the causes of this civil discord, we will end up favoring one side in our culture wars over the other. Regardless of who is most to blame for our predicament, however, we must be resolute in asking what each side can do to make fruitful deliberation possible again.
To begin with, we should note that the traditional side in these conflicts is heir to a vast treasury of moral and theological wisdom insisting on the compatibility of earthly and heavenly duties. Socrates professes his love for the Athenian people and accepts death at their decree, even as he insists on examining his life and theirs in obedience to the god of reason. St. Augustine argues that those who seek happiness in God’s city are readiest to obey legitimate commands of human authority, while despising its deceits and corruptions. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that grace perfects and therefore presupposes nature, and that sacred doctrine must be a matter of argument if we are to comprehend it well. St. Thomas More devotes his life to the flourishing of his country as well as of his Church, dying the King’s good servant and God’s first.
Until very recently, this classical tradition has stood at the front lines of culture, playing a prominent role in the self-understanding of progressive as well as conservative forces. Drawing upon several of the figures mentioned above, Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed his willingness to take blows without returning them, in a courageous and loving campaign to persuade his fellow Americans to live up to their own religious and constitutional principles. Today, dominant voices define progress in such a way that demolishing those very principles is a necessary means, if not the very goal, of enlightened political action.
Though it is easy enough to blame the left for having gradually but decisively abandoned prudential reasoning in favor of nihilistic utopianism, we should not ignore the (mostly unwitting) contribution of latter-day conservatism to this trend. Though many traditionalists still employ classical modes of thought to articulate contemporary visions of the common good, many in the mainstream conservative movement have become far too comfortable abandoning serious discourse about moral and civic virtue and the complex of intermediary institutions necessary for their cultivation. It seems easier to appeal to recognized constitutional freedoms, while retreating into seemingly secure enclaves of business, private life, and worship.
As the regulatory state takes massive strides in the name of public health, environmentalism, antidiscrimination, and counter-insurrection, such enclaves are rapidly crumbling. If its swiftness has caught many of us off guard, however, the direction of contemporary “progress” should come as no surprise. If we are to resist the juggernaut of totalizing bureaucratic despotism, it will be futile to appeal to legal or customary doctrines for which it has no concern and whose purpose is fast escaping the comprehension of ill-educated citizens. Instead, we must learn to understand the sources of our ideologues’ appeal to contemporary citizens, so as to respond when necessary with effective counterclaims.
Attempts to revive prudential discourse may seem futile inasmuch as the most extreme actors on the left appear to be beyond the reach of reason. Here, the advice of Proverbs—“Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou be made like him” (26:4)—seems to apply. We must not forget, however, that many devotees of secular progress are sincerely convinced that the agendas they support are ultimately directed to the realization of goals (equality, fairness, well-being) whose goodness is real, when taken in the proper context.
In the case of these latter and numerous souls, Solomon’s companion verse is worth pondering: “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he imagine himself to be wise” (26:5). Though few appreciate having their folly labelled as such, we ought to be keenly aware that those laboring under ideological deceptions will occasionally face disillusionment when mugged by elements of the objective reality they have been taught to deny. It is as such moments when timely and diplomatic discussions of the wreckage wrought by ravenous revolutions and the contrasting merits of timeless wisdom may be warmly received.
For those cognizant of the dangers of fanatical secularism, but reluctant to abandon themselves to full-fledged classicism, one can appeal to a host of thoughtful skeptics (Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson come to mind) who have acknowledged the value of major elements of faith, family, and civil society without accepting the religious or metaphysical grounds typically informing them. On this note, many of those currently swept away in the currents of wokeness might be prevailed upon to ask how the tenets of today’s secular saviors measure up to the ideals inspiring their original identification with progressive causes.
In any case, the key to renewing political prudence is to suffuse our political culture—from local schools, clubs, and media to larger organizations when our reach extends to them—with historical and living examples of civic virtue. The goal must be not only to provide the reasons for one policy position or another, but to demonstrate by frequent familiarity the possibility of sustained and illuminating civil discourse among those who, though differing in their beliefs and interests, recognize that we all share the same reality, and that it is wiser to speak to one another in terms of that reality than to seek to remake the world (and others) in our own image.
Though restoring the practice of prudential reasoning in the various spheres of government and society comprising our vast republic will be no easy task, it is the only alternative to an acceleration of fanaticisms whose collision might prove cataclysmic. Avoiding our own version of Sophocles’ tragedy is well worth the sacrifices it will entail.
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The featured image is “Antigone au chevet de Polynice” (1868) by Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant (1845–1902) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.