The ancient Greeks, with their pantheon of gods, had deep religious convictions that reinforced many values we continue to hold sacred today, such as honor and loyalty to family and loved ones. Bravery was typically measured by one’s performance in battle or their ability to stand up to strange mythological monsters. However, there remains a great deal of surviving literature that illustrates how bravery might have been demonstrated in other ways. One shining example of this type of writing can be found in the works of Sophocles in his play Antigone. At the opening of the play, the audience immediately learns that Antigone’s brothers have killed each other in a fight to determine who will be the next king of Thebes. Now that they are dead, their uncle, Creon, has become king and decrees that one brother should be buried with honor and ceremony and the other brothers will be left to the elements. To enforce his law, he has posted guards around the body and has set death as the punishment for disobedience if anyone tries to bury him. Antigone’s anger regarding this law is based on both her loyalty to her family, her love for both brothers, and her understanding of her religion, which teaches that all dead bodies should be consecrated into the ground. She bravely defies the orders of the king in full acknowledgment and acceptance of his orders because she believes she is answering to a higher edict. Through her action and speech, Antigone epitomizes the higher purpose taught by Socrates and Aristotle’s ideas regarding what constitutes a courageous individual, making their ideas more accessible to the common masses.
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One of the world’s most influential philosophers was the ancient Greek Socrates. Throughout his life, Socrates sought truth and higher morality. This is arguably most apparent in his actions at the end of his life, as related in Plato’s Apology. As related in this book, Socrates continued to act in a way that might threaten his life but was in the greater interest of the world’s population by questioning those individuals he had always considered wiser than himself. “Then I went to one man after another, being not unconscious of the enmity which I provoked, and I lamented and feared this” (Apology: 946). The anger he causes by making these wise men appear foolish eventually brings him before a criminal court where he is charged with corrupted the youth of Athens. He tells the jurors, “I am called wise, for my hearers always imagine that I myself possess the wisdom which I find in others: but the truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise; and by his answer, he intends to show that the wisdom of men is worth little or nothing” (Apology: 947). While he could escape the death penalty by a variety of tricks, Socrates chooses instead to be judged by history based upon his own merits rather than attempt to win over a group of individuals who are already disposed against him. 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. Finally, in accepting his punishment, he is able to prove the depth of his convictions and continue to stand for those ideals he has purported to stand for thus far. 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.
Aristotle’s discussion of courage begins with a description of courage as a state that exists somewhere between fear and recklessness. While a courageous man is one who “will face them as he ought and as the rule directs, for honor’s sake; for this is the end of virtue” (Book 3, Chapter 7), Aristotle makes a distinction between the courageous man who faces true danger and the one who simply faces imagined concerns. “For the brave man feels and acts according to the merits of the case and in whatever way the rule directs” (Book 3, Chapter 7). In order to be truly courageous, then, a man must be individuals willing to face the fearful evils of life, which works out to be primarily death, toward a noble outcome by his own choosing rather than being forced to confront with less fearful things. Through this description, Aristotle highlights that the courageous man is someone who knows what to fear, when to fear it and how to face it, but is also someone who knows when to have no fear and what it feels like to fear. The chief concern is to do what is noble. “Courage is noble. Therefore the end also is noble; for each thing is defined by its end. Therefore it is for a noble end that the brave man endures and acts as courage directs” (Book 3, Chapter 7). In describing the actions of the courageous man, Aristotle begins to define his concept of a noble cause when he indicates that the man with courage walks a road of moderation; he “holds the middle, which is the right, position” (Book 3, Chapter 7). The reckless individual who has no fear has a tendency to boast and bluster, quickly getting himself into unnecessary trouble and the cowardly man never stays around long enough to determine whether something is truly trouble or not. However, the courageous man will be led by his courage to adopt the middle road and face all issues frankly. He takes his time to evaluate trouble for himself before considering fear and then faces the fear as a matter of honor and nobility, which emerge as key aspects of a virtuous character. Through all of these attributes, both as expressed by Socrates and Aristotle and with the exception of the forethought which has clearly been conducted prior to the opening of the play, Antigone demonstrates true courage and nobility.
Antigone enters the first scene of the play already in a rage after learning that the new king, Creon, has forbidden to allow one of her brothers to be buried. “Creon is faced with establishing order after a dreadful war which pitted brother against brother, citizen against citizen. Something has to be done to restore order and security, settle the differences, and reunite the city. His duty is not to his family – for Antigone, Ismene, Polyneices, Eteocles – but to the city and its people” (Lathan, 2002), so he must remain adamant about the new laws he establishes or risk losing his newly acquired power. This introduces the central conflict of the play immediately and gives the initial impression that Antigone is simply reacting to the situation rather than having given it careful thought and consideration of the consequences. However, like Socrates, she decides to go against the king’s orders based on higher moral codes, arguing that burying the dead is the right thing to do. Rather than attempting to hide what she believes is the right action, Antigone faces the trials ahead straight on, as Socrates did in choosing not to use common tricks to escape punishment. This meets with Aristotle’s definition of courage in that she chooses to stand up to the despotic and morally wrong dictates of the king in support of a higher calling despite the very real dangers this poses for herself. It is clear she’s outraged that the king would tell her what to do when she is talking to her sister at the very beginning of the play: “What’s this they’re saying now, / something our general has had proclaimed / throughout the city? Do you know of it? / … / Dishonours which better fit our enemies / are now being piled up on the ones we love” (Johnston, 2005: 8-10, 12-13). She cannot believe someone would order her to go against the mandates of her community-held religious convictions or prevent her from performing the duties of the family toward the dead. When her sister tries to convince her to take a more prudent approach by simply obeying the rule of the king, Antigone defies her sister as well, knowing that she is working to uphold the beliefs of the greater community.
Antigone’s trial later in the play is conducted before the king himself. She angers the king when she taunts him with the idea that the only people who agree with his recent decision are those people who are afraid of the consequences should they tell the truth. This is again much like Socrates’ charge to the court that they are merely frightened of what might happen should the populace begin to think for themselves. To King Creon, as is evidenced by his actions, the primary duty of an individual is to demonstrate loyalty to the state that has provided him with the lifestyle he now enjoys. This was the motivating factor behind his decision to make the non-burial order, to begin with, as it was Polyneices, the younger brother left unburied, who marched upon the city with an army at his back. To Creon, it didn’t matter that Polyneices was simply trying to enforce the agreement made with Eteocles upon the desertion of Oedipus. According to Creon, “a man who thinks / more highly of a friend than of his country, / well, he means nothing to me” (Johnston, 2005: 206-208). However, Antigone insists that her community, regardless of who is leading it, should conform first to the dictates of the deities, which includes the directive that all of the dead should be buried as a means of preventing disease, if for no other reason.
As her sister reminds Antigone, women do not have any power in their culture, but Antigone bravely speaks out against what is wrong as well as works to carry out the necessary actions to make things right. She adheres to her inner convictions rather than her king’s orders in everything she does. Instead of adhering to the orders of the king, she brazenly sets out during daylight hours to give her brother the last rites necessary for his spirit to find its way to the next world and is inevitably caught in the act by the king’s soldiers. In the end, it doesn’t matter to Creon if her ideas were founded on trying to please the gods; she is put to death for bravely insisting on doing what she has determined is right in relation to her brothers regardless of what her uncle has decided. In acting on her beliefs, she openly defied Creon and openly admits that she is a traitor when she is caught: “I did not think / anything which you proclaimed strong enough / to let a mortal override the gods / and their unwritten and unchanging laws” (Johnston, 2005: 510-513) she says boldly to the king in response to why she disobeyed his law. When Creon carries out her sentence of death by entombing her alive, he does so under the understanding that he is fully supporting the rules of the state, but then has second thoughts as he finally realizes the importance of family and the overarching dictates of the religious convictions of the community. Yet even here, Antigone has acted to directly defy his wishes. Bolstering her courage once again, Antigone hangs herself within the tomb in order to put the exclamation point on Creon’s immoral rule over Thebes. Throughout the basic plot of the play, Antigone’s actions sharply mirror those of Socrates in attempting to stand up for what they believe is morally right and ethical.
While both loyalties to family and loyalty to the state were deemed honorable pursuits within the ancient Greek culture, as is evidenced in the treatment of these subjects throughout numerous plays produced in this time, conflicts did arise when one must make a choice between one or the other. By placing Antigone under a sentence of death at the end, Sophocles demonstrates that the balance of these priorities was very close, but the change of heart experienced by Creon when he rushes to un-entomb her illustrates the concept that family and the gods were more important, if only marginally. This gives Antigone the support she needed to identify her story as one of courage. Although she seems to have acted on a whim, which would not be considered courageous by philosophers such as Aristotle, the ensuing action reveals that she is well aware of the consequences of defying Creon and yet still holds herself responsible for adhering to a higher power. Her death, followed immediately by the death of Creon’s own son, further underscores this sense of priority, as loyalty to the state has cost Creon the family he had hoped to watch grow to succeed him.
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Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. 350 BC. W.D. Ross (Trans.). Web.
Johnston, Ian. “Fate, Freedom and the Tragic Experience: An Introductory Lecture on Sophocles’s Oedipus the King.” Malaspina University College. Web.
Lathan, Peter. “Dic Edwards, Pip Utton and Jean Anouilh.” Theatre in Wales. 2002. Web.
Plato. The Apology. Taken from Wilkie, Brian & Hurt, James. Literature of the Western World, Volume 1: The Ancient World Through the Renaissance. (4th Ed.). New York: Prentice Hall, 1997.