Between 400 and 500 years before Christ, Sophocles was a great playwright in Athens. He was born into a wealthy family and was a major figure in Athenian life in several important areas. He was a general, a priest, and arguably the greatest playwright of his times. His tragedies won many prizes in the annual drama festivals of Athens and it was Sophocles who introduced the full use of a third actor into the plays which allowed for more dramatic complexity. It is reported that he wrote 123 plays in his long life that probably lasted 90 years (496?-406 B.C.) His last play was Oedipus at Colonus which was written when he was almost 90. Unfortunately only seven of his many plays survive including the one we are going to discuss.
You may remember his play Oedipus the King, especially if you are aware of the Oedipus complex which is named after the play. Antigone is one of Oedipus’ daughters and the play is named after her. When the play opens, Oedipus’ two sons have just died in battle against one another. The new King of Thebes, Creon, passes a law saying that anyone that attempts to bury the son of Oedipus that has led the troops against the Thebes, will be sentenced to death. The other son, who defended Thebes against his own brother, is buried with full honors.
This decision by King Creon is intolerable to Antigone who can’t stand the idea of her brother’s body rotting on the battle field. Antigone’s sister, Ismene says that there is nothing they can do about it.
Ismene: “The law is strong, we must give in to the law…I must yield to those in authority.”
Her sister Antigone strongly disagrees. She feels that there is a higher law than any law of the state. That if a law goes against the orders of God, then you are required to obey God’s law, not the law of the state.
Antigone says to her sister Ismene: “You have made your choice, you can be what you want to be. But I will bury him; and if I must die, I say that this crime is holy.”
Before Creon knows what Antigone is up to, he states what to him are the basics that a great ruler must follow. They are words that I often wish our own governmental leaders would pay attention to as they are indeed wise.
Creon: “I say to you at the very outset that I have nothing but contempt for the kind of Governor who is afraid, for whatever reason, to follow the course that he knows is best for the State; and as for the man who sets private friendship above the public welfare,---I have not use for him, either.” Creon later states that: “There’s nothing in the world so demoralizing as money. The dearest profit is sometimes all too dear: That depends on the source. Do you understand me? A fortune won is often misfortune.” Clearly this is a man worthy of the title of King. He is thoughtful, willing to act in the best interests of others no matter the cost, recognizing that money corrupts.
When Creon finds out that someone has violated the law and buried the body, he is furious. When he finds out that Antigone is accused of so doing, he thoughtfully makes sure she understood what she was doing.
Creon: “Tell me, tell me briefly: Had you heard my proclamation touching this matter?”
Antigone: “It was public. Could I help hearing it?”
Creon: “And yet you dared defy the law.”
Antigone: “I dared. It was not God’s proclamation. That final Justice that rules the world below makes no such laws..The immortal unrecorded laws of God, they are not merely now: they were, and shall be, operative for ever, beyond man utterly.” She later states: “I should have praise and honor for what I have done.” But Creon disagrees and declares her guilty. Antigone’s response is: “There is no guilt in reverence for the dead.”
Her position is clear. The King has two alternatives. To sentence her to death for violating the law or reconsidering the situation. Perhaps he was hasty establishing the law in the first place? However, Antigone’s brother did commit a grave crime against the state by attacking it and the only way, now that he has died in battle, he can be punished is to deny him a decent burial.
Antigone: “There is honors due all the dead.”
Creon: “But not the same for the wicked as for the just.”
Antigone: “Ah Creon, Creon, Which of us can say what the gods hold wicked?”
Creon: “An enemy is an enemy, even dead.”
Antigone: “It is my nature to join in love, not hate.”
To complicate matters considerably, Sophocles has Antigone married to King Creon’s only surviving child, Haimon. Therefore, he is condemning to death his own daughter in law, the royal daughter of the former Kind Oedipus, for honoring her own brother. But, like he proclaimed earlier, a good ruler does what is best no matter what the cost to him.
What should he do? What would you have him do?
They are both right. Neither of them is wrong. Both are behaving logically and rationally according to what they deem is best. What should they do? Haimon comes to his father and presents an alternative.
Haimon: “Father: Reason is God’s crowning gift to man, and you are right….I cannot say---I hope that I shall never want to say!---that you have reasoned badly. Yet there are other men who can reason, too; and their opinions might be helpful…I beg you, do not be unchangeable: Do not believe that you alone can be right. The man who thinks that, the man who maintains that only he has the power to reason correctly, the gift to speak, the soul---a man like that, when you know him, turns out empty. It is not reason never to yield to reason!”
Now matters are even more complex. Haimon, Creon, and Antigone are all correct. They all are right! Creon is right that the laws must be obeyed. The state will fall into anarchy is the laws are not followed. And, if he changes the law to please his son because it is his daughter-in-law that has violated the law, this is a terrible precedent and would undermine the position of the King. But then again, Antigone is right. God’s law is the higher law. But then again, Haimon is right, people can be wrong and make mistakes. We should consult other opinions.
Creon refuses to listen to his son and orders Antigone sealed up in a tomb of stone. Later he finally realizes he has made a mistake and starts to rectify things. But it is too late. Antigone commits suicide in her tomb before Creon can get to her and set her free. His son, discovering what his beloved Antigone has done, also commits suicide, and when Creon’s wife, the Queen hears the news, she also commits suicide. Not a very good outcome for Creon, to say the least.
The final lines of the play are delivered by Choragos, the leader of the Greek Chorus, who says: “There is no happiness where there is no wisdom; no wisdom but in submission to the gods. Big words are always punished, and proud men in old age learn to be wise.”
Thus, Sophocles, over 2,400 years ago, has clearly documented for all the ages the importance of:
Those timeless principles are constantly ignored and those who do ignore them cause great harm. The price, as Sophocles clearly states, is horrendous when you act without concern for these basic principles.
Remember, these are not some vague philosophical principles. They apply to everyday life. Your life and my life are either enhanced or undermined according to whether we pay attention to them. If your professional life is to be effective, then it is required that you apply these principles to the work that you perform.
For example, the following quotes are from Evidence-Based Practice for the Helping Professions by Leonard E. Gibbs (Brooks/Cole: Pacific Grove, CA, 2003).
“Always look first for that which disconfirms your beliefs; then look for that which supports them. Look with equal diligence for both. Doing so will make the difference between scientific honesty and artfully supported propaganda. Be prepared to pay a price for such intellectual honesty. Your commitment to truth seeking does not always win friends and arguments…” (p. 89).
“There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man (or woman) in everlasting ignorance---that principle is contempt prior to investigation” (Attributed to Herbert Spencer, p. 88).
We all violate these basic principles at times. If you don’t think that of yourself, then most likely it is due to your being blind to your own behavior. Think about how these ideas apply to you. Do you have “contempt” prior to investigation? The most common form of this amongst members of one religion is the way they relate to the ideas of another religion. If you are going to understand how others have created their spiritual belief system and decide if it has values that you could learn from, then you have to approach that other system WITHOUT contempt. Have you tried that? Are you capable of doing that?
Let us now assume that you are in agreement with Sophocles---and remember, that he just was the first Western playwright to proclaim these basics and that they have been reconfirmed as extremely important over and over again by just about every great writer and spiritual leader ever since.
To live according to them is indeed challenging for us all. I would like to focus now on the conscientious objector part of the principles. Antigone was a conscientious objector. She said, I cannot follow the law, my conscious forbids me to do so.
We often use the term “conscientious objector” in reference to those who refuse to fight in wars. Some of these individuals will enter the combat zone, but only as a medic, not as a combatant. Our laws accommodate such individuals. During the period when we had the draft and everyone was expected to take their turn serving in the military, those who were conscientious objectors were not forced to fight.
These days, with an all volunteer military system, this is not a major consideration anymore. But, things are happening in our country and throughout the world that we need to protest about. We need more conscientious objectors saying: “Stop!”
What do you think we should shop? How can you conscientiously object and try to stop those things from happening? Was not Christ a conscientious objector? When they were about to stone Mary to death, didn’t he say: “Stop!” Figuratively, millions are being stoned to death every year throughout the world. They are dying in wars, they are starving to death, they die from the lack of clean water. What are you doing to object to this? Does not our God want us to object? Does not our God want us to love one another, to love everyone deeply and profoundly? In a very profound sense, those who are dying are your brothers and sisters.
Brecht (1898-1956) was born in Germany, studied medicine and worked as an orderly in a military hospital during World War I. He then became a radical critic of war and nationalism. He wrote poems and stories, but concentrated on drama. With the rise of Hitler, he left Germany in 1933 and eventually went to California in 1941. There he worked with Charlie Chaplin and others in the film industry. He settled in East Berlin in the late 1940s. You should read his plays such as The Threepenny Opera and Mother Courage and Her Children. The following is from his poem A Worker Reads History:
“Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?”
The poem goes on, but the point is basically repeated, which is that it is the workers who do the work, not the Kings, not the leaders, not the so called “captains” of industry. They get the glory, they get the riches, thanks to the workers.
I believe that much of the world’s problems stem from the fact that a few at the top reap the wealth that the many at the bottom create. I believe that this is a violation of one of the most important laws of God: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I believe God has made it abundantly clear that the rich are a big part of the problem. I believe that we are being called to conscientiously object to what is happening in the world of work.
Traven (1890?-1969) was probably born is Chicago in 1890, but then again he may have been born in Germany in 1882. His life is a mystery as he spent much of it as a recluse in Mexico. The best guess is that he had little schooling, worked as a sailor, and jumped ship in Mexico where he spent most of this life and wrote often about the oppression of the indigenous Mexican workers by the elite. One short story he wrote is entitled Assembly Line.
In it a man visiting Mexico sees that a native is making wonderfully crafted baskets and he wants to buy them and export them to America and make a lot of money off of them. He has calculated his profits based on the very small sum the man charges for his beautiful handiwork. The extremely poor peasant is more than willing to sell his items to the man. However, the man has to have lots and lots of them in order to make a profit worth his time and trouble. Also, when buying large quantities, he assumes that he will get a better price from the peasant. But just the opposite occurs. The peasant explains that the more he wants the higher the price will be.
What the man fails to understand is that the peasant “at heart…was an artist, a true and accomplished artist.” If the peasant had gone along with the deal, then he would have had to give up being an artist. “He had little if any knowledge of the outside world or he would have known that what happened to him was happening every hour of every day to every artist all over the world.” Traven is warning us all that if we give in to the lure of greater profits, we will not be able to satisfy our souls, we will no longer be artists. All of us are, at our best, artists. We sell out to the system and lose our artistry and in so doing lose our soul. The peasant explains to the businessman that he can’t do what the man wants him to do. “If I were to make them in great numbers there would no longer be my soul in each, or my songs. Each would look like the other with no difference whatever and such a thing would slowly eat up my heart.”
How are you letting the system “eat up” your heart? What are you dong with your life to protect your artistry and your soul?