Volume 40 - Issue 2

Can Antigone Work in a Secularist Society?

By Michael J. Ovey

No doubt about it, the British Broadcasting Corporation is plain quirky. Excellent sports coverage, but the most depressing soap opera ever. Then it covers itself with glory by broadcasting Sophocles’s great tragedy Antigone, but has it introduced by someone (a sort of current affairs journalist) who misses Sophocles’s point by a couple of parsecs. But then I reflect that for a secularist institution like the BBC the true nature of the Antigone tragedy simply does not exist. You have to make the play say something different. Let me explain.

Sophocles’s play from the Athens of the 5th century BC is set in mythical Thebes. Before the play starts the king, Oedipus, has left power after discovering he has killed his father and married his mother. He has had several children by her and after his fall, two of his sons have fought each other for the rule of Thebes. One had allied with foreign powers in order to seize the throne. Both sons have died fighting each other and a new king, their uncle Creon now reigns. At the start of the play Creon has decreed that no one is to bury the body of the son of Oedipus who invaded his own homeland. For his crime against his country he is to lie unburied, a horrific breach of the law that says relatives owe a duty to bury their kinsfolk. The young woman Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, decides to defy Creon’s law and bury her brother in obedience to the laws of the gods. This means her own death, and Creon’s own son Haemon, her betrothed, kills himself in grief. Creon’s wife, Eurydice kills herself at this turn of events, leaving the grieving, lonely, isolated figure of Creon lamenting ‘Now I believe it is by the laws of heaven that man must live.’ The Chorus concludes the play saying that the law we learn when we are old, as we see ‘the stricken heart of pride brought down’, is the wisdom to hold the gods in awe, which Creon in his arrogance has not. This is certainly tragedy—but for both Antigone and Creon. In fact, you could argue the real tragedy is finally Creon’s.

Now, the BBC voiceover makes this a play about the individual versus the state; individual liberty as against state oppression. In other words, it makes this a contest purely at the human level between human nodes of authority, individual rights and collective responsibility. This airbrushes out the true nature of the tragedy.

Sophocles is not opposing two human claims, individual versus collective. He is seeing how the laws of the gods and the laws of human beings can intersect and conflict, and in particular the tragic act of hubris or arrogance by which a human knowingly makes a claim that contradicts the laws of the gods, albeit with the best of motives. In this, Sophocles is reflecting the great Sophist debate of 5th century BC Greece as the Sophists contrasted the claims or laws of Nature (phusis) against the claims or laws of human convention (nomos). We humans set the laws of nomos but we cannot make or alter the laws of phusis.

Now the difficulty of the BBC’s presentation is that it makes the play Antigone a tragedy about the conflict between two types of nomos, two human-originated claims, one collective, the other individual. It is not a conflict between nomos and phusis, between the laws we humans set and the laws above us of the gods that we do not set. It is, for the BBC, not a divine-human conflict, but only a human-human conflict. This airbrushes out several things.

First, it airbrushes out quite how right the young woman Antigone is. She is not right because she is a courageous individual (although she certainly is that). She is right because she has elected to obey the laws of the gods. In terms of character, Sophocles portrays her as difficult, angular and stubborn, but as right. Her rightness is not her rugged individualism and her defiance. Her rightness is her obedience. You would never guess that from the BBC’s commentary.

Second, it airbrushes the true wrongness of Creon. If we think of things purely at the human level, Creon has an excellent case. Oedipus’s son has betrayed his country. Levied war against it for his own selfish power-interests. Why then should he be interred in the earth of the homeland he betrayed? He does not deserve it, and this serves as an excellent deterrent against future coup leaders. But in fact, Creon has lifted his hand against the gods by daring to make a human decree (nomos) which he knows conflicts with the laws of the gods (phusis). At that point he is not merely a heavy-handed ruler, he is a human arrogantly setting himself against the gods—he has forgotten what he is. He is guilty of hubris, setting himself against heaven, not just guilty of oppressing other humans.

Third, as it airbrushes out the hubris of Creon, it airbrushes out the extent to which this is Creon’s tragedy as much as Antigone’s. Creon is brought down by his hubris: he is judged by the gods for it. We are not just being told by Sophocles that some human power claims are hubristic, Sophocles is also warning us that this does not work, and not because Creon will be overthrown by popular acclaim. He is brought low by the gods. Sophocles tells us that we disdain phusis, the laws of heaven, at our peril.

Why does this matter? After all, it is not very surprising that a secularist institution cannot see this as a divine-human conflict rather than a human-human conflict. And the BBC message of ‘beware of oppressive state claims’ is well worth hearing.

It matters because it reveals what a secularist society cannot see, where its blind spots are. A secularist society simply cannot have the framework to comprehend truly Antigone’s actions as actions of obedience to God rather than of rugged individualism. Antigone is emphatically not anti-social, but she does want Thebes to be a society based not on Creon’s laws, nor indeed her human laws, but on divine laws. She does, however, appear to Creon (and to the BBC) as though she simply puts the individual before the collective. So too with us. As Christian Antigones we will look like selfish individualists to a secular society that has no vocabulary for obedience to God. If we do defy the state over various matters (such as public preaching of the uniqueness of Christ), we will, unfortunately, not look like heroes.

There again a secular society cannot see Creon’s actions for what they are. In a secularist culture hubris is simply impossible because there is no heaven against which to rail and in practice no God whom we displace by our power-claims. To state the obvious, the hubris of Genesis 3 is impossible in this secularist setting. There is no framework within which to express it or understand it. In this sense sin as hubris becomes a nameless crime within a secularist society. Such a society can recognise arrogance towards other humans, but not in its primary form, which is towards God. As a nameless crime, hubris will instead have a certain aura of terrible innocence. A secularist culture will literally see nothing wrong with hubris in its most basic sense. This in turn means that secularist analysis of what is wrong with the human condition is condemned to being superficial, always looking to the human-human level, rather than the divine-human conflict from which our human-human problems ultimately spring. This does not mean such analysis (or its treatments) will be altogether useless. But it does mean it can only look at symptoms and not causes.

This brings us to a final dreadful irony. In a secularist, individualist society we will reverse Antigone and Creon. For we will think the person who sets up their own laws in defiance of others is expressing an Antigone-spirit, that they are a free-spirited individual, whereas in fact the spirit is that of Creon, deciding what is right in their own eyes, no matter what anyone else says, including God. Sophocles meant his play to humble our Creon-like spirits with our hubris and to warn his audience that divine judgment brings people like Creon low. The BBC’s take in our secularist individualist culture unconsciously tends to endorse just that Creon-spirit of hubris, but adds to it the sanctifying sense that we are heroic figures like Antigone. We will think we are righteous when we have committed a crime for which we no longer have a name. We will certainly have no fear that our hubris brings down judgment, for who could condemn such Antigone-like people as us? And there we have reached one of the most characteristic and spiritually troubling aspects of our secularist society: our invincible self-righteousness. No wonder we think we do not need God. And no wonder we have to re-write Antigone.

Michael J. Ovey

Mike Ovey is principal of Oak Hill College in London and consulting editor of Themelios.

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