Sometimes the best way to understand a person’s philosophy is to attempt to apply their thinking to an outside situation or event. There is a catch to the process, though, in that if one is not careful to apply this mode of thinking to another individual within that same society, there can be unexpected conflicts of beliefs, cultures, traditions and values. This makes things difficult when one is attempting to experience the ideas of ancient philosophers such as Socrates. While his teaching method has been explored in numerous ways and is still used in parts of the world today, his basic philosophy has become the foundation of so many other concepts that it is easy to confuse it. At the same time, there are few people alive today who could accurately apply Socrates’ philosophy to lifetime events of someone they know so as to gain a better understanding of his ideas. Fortunately, there are other means of accomplishing the same goal. The ancient Greeks wrote numerous plays intended to instruct and assert basic cultural ideas. One such playwright was Sophocles, who wrote a series of plays including one entitled “Antigone.” Enough detail is provided in this play to determine whether Socrates would have approved of Antigone’s defiant behavior in defense of her conscience.
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This play tells the story of Oedipus’ daughter and opens shortly after the death of her two brothers, who have killed each other in a battle to see who would be king of Thebes. While one brother was buried with all honors, the other was left to rot in the sun under punishment of King Creon if any should attempt burial procedures. Antigone, outraged at the dishonor shown her family regardless of the outside circumstances, also expresses her deep-seated belief that it is against the wishes of the gods to leave any of their subjects unburied. In her open defiance of the king, going to perform burial rites over the body of her brother in full daylight and careless of whether she was in view of guards placed to prevent just such doings, Antigone remains fiercely loyal to her own conscience. Eventually she takes her own life rather than waiting to suffocate in the tomb where she has been sealed up by Creon as punishment for disobeying his orders and willfully questioning his right to dictate her actions. By doing this, she prevents him from having much direct control over her life and thus is still fiercely defending her right to make her own decisions. While several people have condemned her for this, I believe Socrates would have applauded her.
Socrates didn’t write anything down during his lifetime, but his followers, like Plato, did what they could to preserve his memory. In Apology, Plato presents Socrates’ defense in the trial for his life. In those days, the jury was a congregation of whoever decided to show up and ‘lawyers’ were allowed to say anything they wanted to say, including bringing in family members to play on the jury’s pity. This might have worked for Socrates, but he decided instead to make a stand for his beliefs. He is able to prove to history, if not to the jurors, that he has consistently acted in ways that he deems to be in the right, in support of the laws and in the best interests of the people. In accepting his punishment, he is able to prove the depth of his convictions and continue to stand for those ideals he has stood for in the past. In his calm acceptance of the death penalty, Socrates expresses a deeper concern for the welfare of men living without an example of how to properly examine whether what they know as truth is actually truthful or merely the platitudes of a dominant leadership. Rather than bend to the will of the ‘information police’, Socrates decides to act on his own beliefs in order to provide an example to his fellow man that some things are more important than life, wealth or reputation.
In many ways, Socrates and Antigone stand for the same thing. Socrates believed that the most important pursuit in life was a search for the truth while Antigone felt that it was adherence to the moralities passed down to people by the gods, but both felt that one’s convictions were essential to the development of their soul. For both individuals, the fact that they were on trial for their lives was not sufficient to keep them from speaking out about their convictions, not expecting to change anyone’s mind but more concerned about taking the right action. Regardless of what the court decided regarding their future, neither Antigone nor Socrates could have kept themselves from engaging in those activities that got them into trouble to begin with. Neither one could bring themselves to beg for mercy when they were sentenced to death, instead opting to restate their case before execution was carried out. Finally, both Socrates and Antigone both opted to take their own lives, Socrates by swallowing poison and Antigone by hanging herself. These many similarities between historical figure and fictional character would seem to suggest kindred spirits, almost forcing Socrates to approve of Antigone’s actions because they are more or less the same as his.