Thematic Synopsis of Antigone

My philosophical thesis is that this thematic presentation - the choice of quotes - is 1) an accurate account of the philosophical content of the play, and 2) well said.

From Antigone, by Sophocles (translated by Robert Fagles):

* lines 194... - [b]Creon[/b]: Of course you cannot know a man completely, / his character, his principles, sense of judgment, / not till he's shown his colors, ruling the people, / making laws. Experience, there's the test.

* lines 366... - [b]Sentry[/b]: Oh it's terrible when the one who does the judging / judges things all wrong. // [b]Creon[/b]: Well now, / you just be clever about your judgments - / if you fail to produce the criminals for me, / you'll swear your dirty money brought you pain.

* lines 429... - [b]Sentry[/b]: My king, / there's nothing you can swear you'll never do - / second thoughts make liars of us all.

* lines 626... - [b]Antigone[/b]: You chose to live, I chose to die. // [b]Ismene[/b]: Not, at least, / without every kind of caution I could voice. // [b]Antigone[/b]: Your wisdom appealed to one world - mine, another. // [b]Ismene[/b]: But look, we're both guilty, both condemned to death. // [b]Antigone[/b]: Courage! Live your life....

* lines 804... - [b]Haemon[/b]: Oh give way. Relax your anger - change! / I'm young, I know, but let me offer this: / it would be best by far, I admit, / if a man were born infallible, right by nature. / If not - and things don't often go that way, / it's best to learn from those with good advice.

* lines 1161... - [b]Tiresias[/b]: Oh god, is there a man alive / who knows, who actually believes... // [b]Creon[/b]: What now? / What earth-shattering truth are you about to utter? // [b]Tiresias[/b]: ...just how much a sense of judgment, wisdom is the greatest gift we have?

* lines 1274... - [b]Messenger[/b]: ...there's not a thing in this mortal life of ours / I'd praise or blame as settled once for all. / Fortune lifts and Fortune fells the lucky / and unlucky every day. No prophet on earth / can tell a man his fate....

* lines 1284... - [b]Messenger[/b]: Believe me, / when a man has squandered his true joys, / he's good as dead, I tell you, a living corpse. / Pile up riches in your house, as much as you like - / live like a king with a huge show of pomp, / but if real delight is missing from the lot, / I wouldn't give you a wisp of smoke for it, / not compared with joy.

* lines 1372... - [b]Messenger[/b]: Creon shows the world that of all the ills / afflicting men the worst is lack of judgment.

* lines 1466... - [b]Chorus[/b]: Wisdom is by far the greatest part of joy, / and reverence toward the gods must be safeguarded. / The mighty words of the proud are paid in full / with mighty blows of fate, and at long last / those blows will teach us wisdom. [i](This is the final line of the play.)[/i]

anon,there are more philosophic themes in Antigone, but I’ll let that go for now. (BTW, I played Anouilh’s Antigone–she’s a fascinating character.)

Which do you want to talk about–That the only way one can really know someone is through his/her actions–or that wisdom is the most important thing to strive for, even when, if, wisdom comes with pain?

For me at least, the theme as I presented it is the backbone, from which secondary themes are supported. To clarify (since all I did was quote), I think the theme is the importance of wisdom, specifically in producing a stable source of joy. At first, I thought to sum up the theme with just these two quotes, before deciding to expand things a bit:

  • lines 1284… - Messenger: Believe me, / when a man has squandered his true joys, / he’s good as dead, I tell you, a living corpse. / Pile up riches in your house, as much as you like - / live like a king with a huge show of pomp, / but if real delight is missing from the lot, / I wouldn’t give you a wisp of smoke for it, / not compared with joy.

  • lines 1466… - Chorus: Wisdom is by far the greatest part of joy, / and reverence toward the gods must be safeguarded. / The mighty words of the proud are paid in full / with mighty blows of fate, and at long last / those blows will teach us wisdom.

Wisdom is the capacity for good judgment; good judgment produces joy. So I included more lines from the play, specifically dealing with judgment. Good judgment is proved in action, and it is difficult if not impossible to judge somebody’s judgment prior to action. Experience is the proof of good judgment, so wise elders (such as Tiresias) are judged so by the trustworthiness of their advice, as proved through collective experience.

One interesting thing for me reading this play is that near the beginning, being a foreigner to the ancient Greek culture, I honestly couldn’t tell right away which course was the wisest. Creon gives a speech expressing his own logic as to why any honors to or burial of Polynices should not be allowed, and it makes sense. He eloquently makes a case for the rule of law, its necessity in allowing friendship to flourish, and the need to overcome attachment to family. But this logic apparently contradicts the natural order approved by the gods, where people owe their family members proper respect, and reverence in death. Antigone even makes it clear that the role of the family member is more important than the particular person – she gives a speech where she says something like other husbands are available, other children, but there can be no other brothers or sisters, since her parents are dead. There seems to be some indication that Creon’s choices and actions are poor judgment simply because of the intensity of belief of the population in the latter approach – that his actions are unwise because they are at too much odds with the beliefs of those he rules. Somewhere, somebody in the play basically says Creon would make a good ruler of a desert island (I can’t quite remember the exact quote). Creon mistakenly thinks at the time that being the ruler, he should be able to simply rule. But this is clearly not the case. A ruler can’t rule without also being a servant. For such a misguided ruler, the “blows” of fate may help teach this basic truth – if he’s not too stubborn, unwilling to listen and change.

I’m trying not to stay with the play, itself, anon, but I think a couple of things need to be mentioned. Creon, by making his proclamation regarding Polynices’ burial, was declaring himself a despot, greater than the gods. His pride is his ‘fatal flaw.’ His hubris is his downfall, but it takes losing everything that brought him joy for him to realize that.

Antigone also shows pride, but it’s acceptable because she’s following the gods’ laws in performing the burial rituals for her brother even though she knows she’s condemning herself in so doing. Can a corollary be drawn between a play written in 400BC and today’s world? I think so, but I’d have to ponder the question for awhile before coming up with one. :question: :smiley:

What do you mean by “declaring himself a despot”? I believe he was simply valuing life over death, just as Ismene was. His speech was eloquent - it made sense. Would you make the same harsh judgment of Prometheus, for instance? Did Prometheus consider himself greater than Zeus, and if so, was this a bad thing? I think it’s important that we are directly involved in the question of whether his judgment is good or not. It’s thematically consistent that good judgment is proved through hindsight. It is only as the play progresses that Creon’s logic causes him to dig a deeper and deeper hole, where his decisions become more obviously out of control. It’s not always easy to discern good judgment from bad judgment. That’s why we should listen to people like Tiresias, who have proven themselves adept at such things.

Antigone’s judgment can’t be proved to be bad. I do think the play presents her life as exemplary. But her otherworldly rewards are never displayed, the naturalism of the play means that we must remain uncertain about the situation. She simply follows her logic to its natural end. Creon on the other hand changes, becomes wiser. Too late, if we take the worldly view, but if Antigone’s life is exemplary, then the wisdom Creon develops is likewise exemplary.

I wonder if it makes sense to consider this play as a two-tier morality lesson. For the general population, stick to what you’ve been taught is right and wrong. For the elite rulers, don’t become too out of touch with the people. Together, it’s a recipe for conservatism - to not make sudden changes that disrupt the harmony and strength of the community.

I disagree with you somewhat, anon. Remember, I’m working from a slightly different pov–Anouilh’s Antigone and my second undergraduate major, theater. What’s the difference between Creon’s hubris and Antigone’s? And why is the play calledAntigone and not Creon?

Your interpretation, to me, just doesn’t go deeply enough. It’s true that wisdom should be a part of knowledge and it’s true that, without wisdom, there’s no true knowledge and that’s one of the themes–we agree with that, kinda. But that raises the question of what’s wisdom, doesn’t it?

Is Mo correct that wisdom is prudence, or have I misinterpreted him?

By the way, in the play, there’s some question about Creon’s right to the throne. When he made his proclamation, he went against the gods–he therefore, declared himself a despot–a Supreme and Only Ruler–above even the rule of the gods–another theme of the play.


It’s hard for me to know what kinds of differences you bring to this discussion by working from Anouilh’s version (adaptation?). I’ve never seen (or acted in!) either play; I’ve never read Anouilh’s.

I think Creon and Antigone both believe they are doing the right thing. At the end of the play, Creon changes his views, while Antigone dies. Creon experienced the results of his hubris and changed, while the quality of Antigone’s afterlife can only be speculated about. Antigone’s life is exemplary – it is like a pillar in a desert. It is a life lived so “authentically” that it compels people to come to terms with its meaning. It is not necessarily how we all ought to live.

No idea about Mo. But as basic as it is, and ok, it doesn’t go deeply enough, I think I’ve given a fair account of what wisdom is. Wisdom is the capacity for good judgment; good judgment leads to joy (I’d add that joy is an aid to the ability to make good judgments – so joy is an aspect of wisdom). This process must work socially rather than in an individualistic (atomic) way, and it must prove stable over time (over lifetimes).

There’s plenty of question about Creon’s right to the throne in the play! But his “right” to the throne isn’t a matter purely of legalistic legitimacy, it’s a matter of whether he is proven fit or not. The gods aren’t some unified power, making legitimate the rule of anyone aligned with them as a whole. The gods bicker with each other, fight with each other, raise up certain humans and crush others - for arbitrary, egoistic reasons. It isn’t possible to know, just by following some set of rules given at birth, what to do to stay on the winning side of such conflicts. This is why we have tragedy. Sometimes two people, both doing what they think is right (both doing what in fact is right, even), must be adversaries, even to the death. Again, Prometheus (If I’m fixated, it’s because I just read Prometheus Bound, right before Antigone). Prometheus helped Zeus to overthrow Cronus, thus changing everything – changing the very rules concerning right and wrong. Overthrowing authority is part of the natural order of things, and Prometheus’ humanistic intentions strike me as similar in many ways in attitude to Creon’s (despite Creon’s authoritarianism), at least as Creon’s intentions originally presented in his first speech of the play. I disagree that Creon went against the gods when he made his proclamation. Our introduction to Creon is as follows: First, we hear about his rule secondhand. He has declared martial law after a war, and announced that no honors, including burial, should be shown to Polynices on punishment of death. Those are the facts. Then, we are presented with Creon’s speech, explaining his position. In it, he aligns himself with Zeus, and makes a straightforward case for the role of strong authority in allowing freedom and friendship to flourish (“For I know well our country is a ship which keeps us safe, and only when it sails its proper course do we make friends.”). The following quote came from Yahoo Answers, but it looks accurate to me:

Men, after much tossing of our ship of state,
the gods have safely set things right again.
Of all the citizens I’ve summoned you,
because I know how well you showed respect
for the eternal power of the throne,
first with Laius and again with Oedipus,
once he restored our city.* When he died,
you stood by his children, firm in loyalty.
Now his sons have perished in a single day,
killing each other with their own two hands,
a double slaughter, stained with brother’s blood.
And so I have the throne, all royal power,
for I’m the one most closely linked by blood
to those who have been killed. It’s impossible
to really know a man, to know his soul,
his mind and will, before one witnesses
his skill in governing and making laws.
For me, a man who rules the entire state
and does not take the best advice there is,
but through fear keeps his mouth forever shut,
such a man is the very worst of men—
and always will be. And a man who thinks
more highly of a friend than of his country,
well, he means nothing to me. Let Zeus know,
the god who always watches everything,
I would not stay silent if I saw disaster
moving here against the citizens,
a threat to their security. For anyone
who acts against the state, its enemy,
I’d never make my friend. For I know well
our country is a ship which keeps us safe,
and only when it sails its proper course
do we make friends. These are the principles
I’ll use in order to protect our state.
That’s why I’ve announced to all citizens
my orders for the sons of Oedipus—
Eteocles, who perished in the fight
to save our city, the best and bravest
of our spearmen, will have his burial,
with all those purifying rituals
which accompany the noblest corpses,
as they move below. As for his brother—
that Polynices, who returned from exile,
eager to wipe out in all-consuming fire
his ancestral city and its native gods,
keen to seize upon his family’s blood
and lead men into slavery—for him,
the proclamation in the state declares
he’ll have no burial mound, no funeral rites,
and no lament. He’ll be left unburied,
his body there for birds and dogs to eat,
a clear reminder of his shameful fate.
That’s my decision. For I’ll never act
to respect an evil man with honours
in preference to a man who’s acted well.
Anyone who’s well disposed towards our state,
alive or dead, that man I will respect.

Thanks for discussing this with me, Lizbeth. I’m really pleased that someone here was up to it.

On one hand we have Creon who wants Polynices body to be left out for the dogs unburied. He wants this because Polynices wanted to take over the kingdom. On the other hand we have a sister who wants to bury her dead greek brother. Which takes precedence?

To put this in another light, we have a king who wants to defile a souls chance to go into the underworld. Then we have a sister who wants her brother to go to the underworld.

Here is my opinion: Antigone is defending something cthonic. The powers that give her allegiance to kings is rooted in the allegience a sister has to her brother. For Creon to undermine a sister’s love for her brother is to undermine the very grounds for which he rules anything at all. Furthermore, he has no grounds to determine someone’s afterlife, that’s for the gods. Again, little Antigone’s courage is paragon here, because she follows a natural law that defends the natural love a sister has for her brother. This is the difference between nomos and phyusis law. Custom man-made laws and natural laws handed down from gods or nature herself. The question is which comes first. I believe the answer is natural laws, at least if one wants to rule justly.

I assume you mean to say that we should follow the laws of whichever god happens to be in power? That seems sensible, but Ismene displays that kind of sensibility - it’s a worldly sensibility, whether or not gods are involved. There’s nothing special about Zeus, other than that he overthrew Cronus. What is the specific content of this “natural law”? And how does Prometheus fare - do we judge him as harshly as we judge Creon? If not, why not?

You’re welcome, anon. It’s a pleasure talking with you.

FYI, Anouilh’s Atigone is very like Sophocles’, thematically. It substitutes the German occupation of France for ‘the gods’ and Antigone’s defiance of Creon’s edict for the French resistance movement. Plus, it isn’t written in verse.

Creon is a despot (tyrant), a collaborator, and the German occupiers; Antigone is the French Resistance; Ismene is France after it’s fall to the German’s; Polynises is France before the fall.

There is no joy in either play and there really is no search for knowledge or wisdom–It’s only at the end that Creon realizes he, himself, is the cause of his suffering–he’s the true ‘tragic hero.’ But what he learned came too late and was the result of circumstances he’d created. He never benefited from his knowledge.

So, do we seek knowledge, accept and use that knowledge to gain understanding and wisdom, in order to find joy in everything we’ve learned?

I think that’s a very good question. :slight_smile:

I love this but have in the course of my life never had the opportunity to study. When reading “Care of the Soul” by Thomas Moore, I noticed he references many Greek plays and figures to explain certain aspects of his book. My heart jumped each time. Do you have a suggestion how I should start reading Greek literature, perhaps a book or internet-site. What should I start with?


Liz and Bob, I’ll write more when I have some more time - in the meantime, I’m no Greek scholar - at all - but the Iliad seems like a great place to start, Bob. Liz and Frankenstein are probably more well read than I am, so maybe they have more insight on this than I do.

Bob, I think I’d start with Ancient Greek history, mythology, and religion. Get a background there and then go to the plays and poetry of, or about, the time. Any good encyclopedia will do. If you’re German, go to your local library and ask a librarian what s/he recommends. If you’re in the US military, I don’t really know what kind of library facilities you have, but I’d recommend the same to you–ask a librarian.

I really do recommend starting with the background, so you can learn the names and get a feel for the times. In some cases, the poem was written much later than the events it describes and should be taken as a story embroidered by time. (Epic poetry was often oral history and was sung rather than recited.) Anyway, that’s the best I can tell you for now.

Enjoy. :smiley:

Yes. Is it a trick question? :slight_smile:

Bob - Greek verse makes my heart jump each time I read it as well! I hate to contradict Liz, and there’s probably no need to anyway, but I can’t imagine getting into anything by reading bits and pieces in an encyclopedia. I say dive right into something, and make it something great. Get something of the whole, all at once. Then, gradually fill in the bits and pieces as it becomes necessary to fill in your gaps in knowledge. Follow your bliss!

My own experience: I read the Iliad first, then the Odyssey - both many years ago. Just recently, Alisdair MacIntyre, in After Virtue, made Sophocles sound like something I’d want to read. I got three plays by Sophocles from the library, and Prometheus Bound as well. I read that one first, then Antigone. That’s the whole of my experience with this, other than some Greek philosophy (not much, some Plato and Aristotle, a little Stoicism, etc. Nothing in very much depth).

What is Moore’s angle? I’ve never read him.

Only if you ask trick questions, since that’s how I’ve interpreted your posts.

Btw, you may disagree, contradict, whatever–just please don’t call me names. It’s all a matter of preference–you jump into the pool while I sit on the edge and dabble my feet. I like background first or, at least. concurrently, and, if I get that from encyclopedias, it helps my understanding. Plus, I come up with name pronunciations so I don’t have to blip over them when I read the texts. :slight_smile:

Liz, I think you might have misunderstood me about the trick question. That, or I’ve misunderstood you here. But I can’t think of any way to try and sort it out without writing a book - it’s like trying to explain a joke, lol. Anyway, I just mean to say that wisdom, good judgment, and joy are good things.