The Conflict over Political and Natural Law
In Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone there are many major political conflicts present. Some of these include the role of women in politics, claims of justice versus claims of the family, individualism versus patriotism, the state versus religion, and obligation to the versus the obligation to ones conscience among others. But the conflict I have chosen to examine is that of the law of the gods or natural law versus the law of humans or the political law. In order to do this I will be focusing on three sections of argument: what occurs in Antigone to prompt this conflict, how Plato would react to and resolve this conflict, and finally how I would evaluate this conflict and work to decipher which approach leads to the best resolution.
The context that leads up to the major conflict in Antigone is that after Thebes’ ruler Oedipus is dead his two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, gain the crown. Initially the two brothers agree to alternate governance of Thebes but this quickly changes when Polyneices is denied his time on the throne by Eteocles. Polyneices returns with an army, of which he accumulated from Thebes’ enemy Argos, and the two sides clash outside of the seven gates of the city. Thebes remained victorious but the two brothers were each impaled by the others spear. (From Paul Woodruff’s notes of lines 14-15 on the bottom of page 3). What followed this was their uncle, Creon, becoming the new ruler of Thebes “because I am closest to kin to those who died” (Antigone 174). When thrust into power Creon makes it clear that he will be unwavering about his policies, this is because he believes the he is the only one who can ensure this cities safety and “raise this city high” (Antigone 191). This decree is very controversial because it rejects the norms and traditions of Greek society that were very careful to follow the laws of the gods. He puts this suggestion into action when he chooses to give Eteocles an honorable burial but decides to disgrace Polyneices’ body by feeding it to the birds and dogs. This was a controversial decision to make because it denied the law of the gods and traditions of this Greek society in regards to how they are to treat the dead. The norm of the time was to bury the dead in the ground with a token to ensure them passage to the underworld where they would be subject to Hades.
Antigone is the sister of Eteocles and Polyneices and she does not believe Creon is just in deciding to treat one of the bodies with respect and dignity and the other with such malice, which is against the traditions and laws of the gods. Antigone decides she is going to stand up against Creon so she decides to go bury her brother’s body. Even though she knew her doing so would be viewed as a crime punishable by death, she was willing to accept that fate because she saw what she was doing as the natural way. When Creon does interrogate Antigone of her actions about breaking his laws she states:
“What laws? I never heard it was Zeus who made that announcement. And it
wasn’t justice either. The gods below didn’t lay down this law for human use.
And I never thought your announcements could give you—a mere human
being—power to trample the god’s unfailing, unwritten laws…. No man could
frighten me into taking on the god’s penalty for breaking such a law. I’ll die in any
case, whether you announce my execution or not. But if I die young, all the
better: people who live in misery like mine are better dead. So if that’s the way
my life will end, the pain is nothing. But if I let the corpse –my mother’s son – lie
dead, unburied, that would be agony. This way, no agony for me. But you! You
think I’ve been a fool? It takes a fool to think that.” (Antigone 450-470). This statement and act of deviance symbolizes the major conflict between political law and the laws of the gods in this play. Antigone is showing that common feeling of people at the time that the god’s will...
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