In Sophocles’ fifth century BCE tragedy Antigone, it is ultimately Creon’s stubbornness that does him in. From the moment he makes up his mind in his first monologue that Polyneices, the son of Oedipus who fought against Thebes, must remain unburied, he stands by that assertion until that tragic flaw ruins him and leaves him praying for death.
Creon is undoubtedly a flawed character. Misogynistic, violent, and cynical, he wields his power aggressively against those around him. But his stubbornness is treated as the one trait which spirals out of control and leads to his undoing. Teiresias tells Creon that men are “no longer foolish / or subject to bad luck if they try to fix / the evil into which they’ve fallen,” encouraging him to abandon his destructive path.
But what exactly is that evil into which Creon has fallen? The script seems to suggest it is not his stubbornness in and of itself, but his secularism, his assertion that the law has precedence over religious morality. Through this lens, Antigone takes on a new relevance as a narrative of the separation of church and state, proving that the questions raised by the tragedy truly are timeless to the human experience.
When Antigone is caught in the act of burying her brother against the king’s commands, Creon questions her on her motive, and her answer is simple: “I did not think / anything which you proclaimed strong enough / to let a mortal override the gods / and their unwritten and unchanging laws.” Antigone claims that she buried Polyneices out of familial respect, but also frequently claims that to do otherwise would violate the laws of the gods. She is willing to accept the punishment for her actions because she believes in a higher morality than the law.
Both Antigone and Creon are stubborn, but only Creon is singled out for divine punishment. Antigone is executed, but dies with her morals intact, and the injustice of her execution leads to a series of suicides. Creon, on the other hand, is warned against being stubborn, is told that his stubbornness has caused the gods to ignore the city’s prayers, and sits alone, hoping to die, at the play’s conclusion.
At first, it is easy to sympathize with Antigone in this situation. She is a young woman who is standing up to the powers that be and Creon is an old man who has been lurking in the shadows of power for Antigone’s entire life. Antigone’s act of civil disobedience is an act of love for her brother, opposing nationalist sentiments in the process. Creon’s assertion that the law must be the highest morality is also awfully convenient for him as head of state, and his cynicism only adds to the idea that he is corrupt.
Antigone’s act of rebellion, however, is inherently a religious one. She repeatedly describes it as such, and the chorus closes the play by saying that the lesson Creon has learned is “not to act impiously / towards the gods.” Essentially, the play teaches that Creon has suffered because he sought to override religious law with his secular law.
In this context, Antigone becomes the story of a conflict between competing viewpoints and those who hold them. Creon is a secularist, and despite believing in the gods, he seeks to keep their laws separate from the state’s. Antigone is a theocrat, who believes that worldly laws are only valid insofar as they conform to divine laws.
When the play attacks its protagonist for being stubborn in refusing to accept the divine righteousness of Antigone’s argument, it argues that his stubbornness is a flaw and Antigone’s is not. Creon, the play claims, should have conceded. He should have tried to fix the evil into which he had fallen.
But as arguments of societal weight, Antigone’s crumbles first.
In the universe of the play, Antigone is correct because her religion is correct. Creon is wrong because Antigone’s morality actually is the superior morality, and the gods enforce it by punishing the king. Antigone is elevated to prophetic status.
Today, however, Antigone is no prophet. She is Joseph Kennedy, who made players on his high school football team feel pressured to pray with him. She is Jack Phillips, who refused to serve a gay couple at his cakeshop, or Kim Davis, who refused to grant a gay couple a marriage certificate. All three of those individuals sought to have secular law conform to their personal religious law. They too could claim, as Antigone did, that they “did not mean / to let a fear of any human will / lead to [their] punishment.”
Civil disobedience in the United States obviously has a far longer and more nuanced history than that presented here. Religion drove many abolitionists in the nineteenth century and pacifists in the twentieth. But religion drove the slavers and the war hawks as well. To accept that Antigone is more justified than Creon is to lend credence to the causes of Davis and Phillips and Kennedy, with no secular law to distinguish between the two when it has already been discarded as subservient to some external moral code.
And none of this is to say that Creon, or his argument, is inherently correct. It is, however, worthy of further discussion. The conflict in Antigone is quite black and white; Antigone’s clear perception of a higher morality leads her to act with empathy and compassion. But were the conflict not so neatly engineered, Creon’s cause would seem much more agreeable.
Here in the real world, our conflicts are not nearly as clear-cut, and there is no one “correct” morality which we can use as a guide. Allowing room for Antigone means allowing room for those whose perception of a higher morality leads them to act in any number of ways, so long as they are following that higher morality in the process.
Antigone therefore represents a useful thought experiment, a test case in the debate over the separation of church and state. It is a thought-provoking and deeply compelling play, one whose relevance is not likely to fade anytime soon.
But perhaps there is comfort in knowing that the ancient Greeks were asking the same questions about how they wanted to be governed two and a half millennia ago. And when we challenge ourselves to interrogate both sides of its most pressing questions, perhaps we can better recognize the Antigones and Creons in our own time and evaluate their merits for ourselves.
Aidan Scully is a college student currently studying and writing about the intersections of religion, politics, and the ancient world.