Antigone by Sophocles stands as a literary classic that highlights issues relevant to the human condition since the very beginning of humanity. A part of this human condition is the sense of dissatisfaction. Because dissatisfaction is nearly second nature to a species devoted to striving for progress, any sort of change brings with it the question of how to deal with such discordances. It becomes difficult or altogether impossible to distinguish the better, or more proper, of two alternatives. Right and wrong cease to hold definite meaning. In Antigone, we see the eponymous heroine challenging a royal edict as a way of upholding her self-imposed standards, her belief in absolute duty to the gods and to her family, even at the cost of her own life. We will examine the significance of Antigone’s actions, and discuss her moral viewpoint and actions from a philosophic point of view with the aim of understanding morality, the categorical imperative, and civil disobedience and the triangulation between these three key concepts.
In Antigone, Sophocles asks a very blunt question: what is right? Of course, he supplies his own opinion on the matter as the plot unfolds, shaping events in such a way that would resonate with his contemporaries. In ancient Athens, a singular democracy that stood amidst dozens of monarchic city-states, the dramatized concept of defying a tyrant ruler would have found a wide audience. But even today, we find Antigone to be relevant. We understand that what the heroine did was right, not as an act of civil disobedience, but in and of itself. On an empathic level, we know that burying her brother and performing funeral rites was the right thing to do, regardless of the king’s decree. With this in mind, few among us could actually explain why we see it as the right thing to do, other than a vague notion of respect for the dead. The German philosopher, Emmanuel Kant, provides something of an answer through the idea of the categorical imperative.
The phrase “categorical imperative” gives us some clue as to its meaning. Categorically, here being read as universally, combined with the definition of imperative as something that must be done, allows us to understand that a categorical imperative is an action that must be undertaken under all circumstances, in all conditions (Class notes). The logic behind a categorical imperative is somewhat convoluted, but follows the pattern we see plainly in Antigone. Antigone has the choice between doing what is “right” and serving her own self-interests, and she chooses to do what she knows to be “right.” It is “right” because it is an end in and of itself, for the simple reason that it serves no other purpose. This concept of imperatives is based on what Kant called “pure practical reason,” or reasoning undertaken without concern for related factors, for cases like self-interest or actions that might benefit others. As stated by Barry Sandwell, “Unlike the rules of practice or technical efficiency, the imperatives of morality determine what an agent must do, without reference to ends or consequences” (Sandwell 1). Antigone stands to gain nothing from disobeying Creon; in fact, she openly condemns herself by doing so. By contrast, the audience knows that Creon issues his edict for the purpose of backing his son Haemon, and as a way of establishing his authority as the new ruler of Thebes. So here, we see Antigone’s actions as an exercise in pure practical reason, and therefore inherently morally correct. According to Kant, we believe Antigone’s actions to be morally correct because pure practical reason is universal. Any situation examined by any number of people with pure practical reason will yield the same outcome, what Kant believes to be the “right” outcome.
Furthermore, Kant argues that this categorical imperative is the driving force behind free will, which in turn leads to what he calls moral autonomy, or the situation where free will becomes a sort of law in and of itself. Specifically, he writes “Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 10). In other words, carry out actions you would only be satisfied seeing every other human do. Using this perspective, we can understand what drove Antigone to act as she did. Ergo, this explains why Antigone defied Creon, and even why Creon acted as he did: they both believed themselves to be following a sort of law. Creon himself believed his actions to be “right.” While the Chorus and the audience possessed knowledge that Creon was acting wrongfully, Creon truly saw himself as taking the proper course of action at the outset of the play. He realized his folly after losing his son and his wife, but he “knew” himself to be in the right, nonetheless.
Kant’s hypothesis is, for all intents and purposes, universally valid. Acting in a manner you deem to be best without regard to extenuating circumstances can also be loosely related to civil disobedience, though they are not always the same thing. Kant argued that exercising pure practical reasoning in every instance may lead to perpetual peace and entirely invalidate the need for civil disobedience, but that is another matter. Civil disobedience carries the meaning of defying a society’s prescribed laws as a way of demonstrating dissatisfaction with them, much like Antigone did. But there is an important distinction to be made. As stated, civil disobedience is not, by necessity, following a categorical imperative. Had Antigone acted not out of a sense of duty, but say, as a way of paying respect to the Polynices rebellion, it would still be classified as civil disobedience, and there may have been many others who supported her actions, but her behavior would not have been following a categorical imperative.
Now that we have a solid grasp of what Kant has determined to be universally right, it becomes important to draw the line between the categorical imperative and morality in general. They are two very different concepts. From an etymological standpoint, at the root of morality is the word mor, also found in the word “mores”. This alone tells us that morality is a shifting concept, based upon the societal norms of any given culture. The line between morality and immorality is blurred by any number of factors, and lacks the clear-cut simplicity of Kant’s definition of the categorical imperative. Understanding morality does not help us to understand what is right and wrong, but what is thought to be right and wrong. In other words, what might be morally correct in one culture may be morally incorrect in a different culture. Additionally, what may have been morally appropriate at one point in time in a culture may be entirely inappropriate at a secondary point in time in the same culture. In a way, morality is the bridge between Kant’s idealistic understanding of ethical behavior and a practicable, layman’s interaction with the world.
As stated by B.S. Turner, “notions of autonomy and self-government … are crucial to morality” (Turner 2). This means that morality serves to bridge the gap between the guiding values society imposes on its citizens and the inherent desires we have as individuals. Antigone demonstrates this concept quite well. On the one hand, it could be argued that it was morally appropriate for Antigone to follow Creon’s orders. After all, society itself does dictate what is morally right. But Antigone’s own moral compass pointed her down a different path, one that was also determined to be morally right by the standards of her society. It was a long-established custom to tend to the dead, a moral tradition she chose to follow. Antigone does, therefore, teach a small lesson about the relativity of morality, and its complicated relationship with politics and government. In current democracies—and even in the ancient Athens that served as the contemporary audience for Antigone—laws are shaped and approved by the masses as a way of assuring that cultural standards are accepted by the majority. That the majority believe that it is proper to act in a specific way, and that the majority believe it is proper to impose certain restrictions for some specific reason.
The fundamental flaw of morality, however, is its lack of universality. Any reader of Antigone could agree that Antigone acted outside her bounds as a citizen, and that she was entirely responsible for her own fate when she chose to disobey Creon’s command. Any reader of Antigone could also argue that she did the “right” thing, compelled by her own sense of justice. So, who is right? How do you formulate a proper argument to disagree with the laws that you, yourself, as a functioning member of society, have agreed to uphold? This is where civil disobedience comes into its own. Civil disobedience, the primary underlying message of Antigone, exists as a unique intermediary between the categorical imperative and morality. If morality is the person’s guide to proper societal behavior and the categorical imperative is the person’s guide to proper personal behavior, then civil disobedience is the person’s solution when morality and the categorical imperative clash. All too often, the needs of the self and the wishes of the state clash. The categorical imperative demands an individual must take action against a system allowed to dictate our sense of right and wrong. And not specifically against the system as a whole, but with a particular point that seems categorically wrong, though it may be morally right. This concept could also be explained by Kim Townsend, as she reflects in her document “Civil Disobedience: A Question of Institutional Involvement”: “[Nixon] had acted unconditionally; his administration was ignoring the people whom it existed to serve. ‘But a minority refuses to abdicate its judgement; it will not grant automatic obedience….’ To have been obedient would have meant the end of democracy, not conformity to its moral principles….” (Townsend 3). In other words, a government of a democratic society contradicts its main concept when it does not ‘listen’ to the popular idea of what is wrong and right, which therefore, goes beyond governmental rights of a democratic society.
So what is civil disobedience, in its own right? “…And you still had the gall to break this law? ….Of course I did” (Sophocles 665). What this means is that Antigone chooses to actively violate Creon’s decree as a way of placating her conscience, choosing to obey that rather than a human law. It is the deliberate breaking of a law as a way of seeking and demanding reform. Native to civil disobedience is the idea of moral responsibility. As Turner puts it, “morality becomes problematic when focused upon the state. It could be argued that it is difficult to see how the state can act morally when its distinctive attribute is the use of force to tackle conflicts of interest. The ‘morality’ of the state is of a distinctively propagandist quality, designed to bully and coerce people into compliance” (1). Ergo, people tend to close an eye when tackled with a paucity of morality because of the potential oppression they might face from the government. An instance of such a phenomenon is Ismene. She, the foil to Antigone’s heroine, provides us with the perfect view of a law-abiding citizen oppressed into compliance. But, furthermore, Antigone shows us that a person can feel responsible towards herself and even towards others, and choose to act against society’s prescribed proper behavior to voice her dissatisfaction and fulfill her responsibility.
In the end, Antigone attempts to teach us quite a few lessons, demonstrating the concept of the categorical imperative, the nuances of morality, and the difficulty, all of which combined, inevitably necessitate civil disobedience. The namesake heroine sacrifices her own life as a way of demonstrating her dedication to the categorical imperative, to the idea of justice and universal correctness, a decision that has immeasurable relevance to the firestorm of our modern, fundamentally discontented society.
Class Notes. ENGL 210. RIT Kosovo. Spring Semester 2017. Sandwell, Barry. "Object of Discourse." Dictionary of Visual Discourse: A Dialectical Lexicon of Terms. Ashgate Publishing, 2011. Credo Reference, http://ezproxy.rit.edu/login?url=http://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/ashgtvd/object_of_discourse/0. Accessed 16 Feb 2017.
Sophocles. Antigone. Ed. Martin Puchner. Norton Anthology of World Literature, Volume 1. W.W. Norton and Co. Inc. New York, 2017. https://mthoyibi.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/antigone_2.pdf
Townsend, Kim. "Civil Disobedience." The Massachusetts Review 53.4 (2012): 701,716,721. ProQuest. http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.rit.edu/docview/1269158174?pq-origsite=summon Accessed in 15 Feb 2017.
Turner, Bryan S., editor. Cambridge Dictionary of Sociology, Cambridge University Press, 2006. Credo Reference, http://ezproxy.rit.edu/login?url=http://search.credoreference.com. Accessed 15 Feb 2017.