More than 2,000 Years Ago Sophocles Wrote About a Leader Who Contravenes Civil Norms

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Robert Garland is the Roy D. and Margaret B. Wooster Professor of the Classics at Colgate University.

Illustration by Wes Jenkins

A new leader takes charge after a bitter power struggle. He is untested and lacks any previous political experience. He is eager to impose his will upon the fractured citizen body in the belief that the answer to the country’s ills is strong leadership. Rather than seek the path of compromise, in his first days of office he signs an executive order that is divisive and highly inflammatory. To make matters worse, it offends a cherished principle that the state upholds. But he goes ahead with it anyway. The consequence is that he finds himself on a collision course with civil society. When his order is challenged, he merely digs his heels in deeper. A crisis ensues in which the executive branch is at loggerheads with an upholder of the law.

Sounds familiar? This in essence is the plot of Sophocles’ Antigone, a tragedy that was written and performed in Athens over two and a half thousand years ago.

It is remarkable how closely the political situation we are currently living through reflects the dilemma that Sophocles analyzed. The dramatist clearly understood the problem that Trump is facing and the forces he has taken on. Sophocles situated his tragedy in the distant past to give it timeless relevance. But he was clearly thinking of contemporary Athens, a democracy not unlike ours. Like ours, those who called the shots comprised a handful of powerful individuals, whereas the great mass of the citizenry merely listened and voted.

Creon, who has become king of Thebes after a bloody civil war, needs to prove that he is up to the challenge of uniting the country. He is incapable of tolerating any dissent, the whiff of which drives him into a paroxysm of rage. He decides that he must flex his muscles from the word go. So he issues a proclamation to make clear that he will punish Thebes’ enemies to the hilt. This he does by making an example of Polyneices, to whom he denies the right of burial. Polyneices died fighting for his re-instatement after being defrauded of the throne by his brother. In other words, he wasn’t a particularly appropriate target for Creon’s show of strength, any more than the seven countries affected by the Travel Ban are, given the fact that none of their nationals has committed a terrorist attack on American soil. And like Trump’s controversial Travel Ban, Creon’s highly controversial denial of burial becomes the first real test of his leadership.

As soon as his edict is disobeyed and the culprit is discovered to be a woman, Creon becomes all the more enraged. Antigone, the woman in question, is Polyneices’ sister. Under interrogation she claims that the proclamation contravenes Thebes’ relationship with the gods, rather like the opponents of the Travel Ban claim that it contravenes the US’s tradition of openness and hospitality.

No one, not even the most powerful man in the land, has the right to overrule either. The US’s openness to refugees and the due of burial are non-negotiable. They give each society its particular identity. They are what make both societies civilized.

Otherwise chaos will ensue, which is indeed what happens. The unburied corpse causes a plague to blight the country. Creon’s proclamation has disastrous consequences because it breaks religious law, offends the gods, and throws the state into turmoil.

Like Sophocles’ audience, we are witnessing a drama of unknown consequences unfolding before our eyes – a showdown between the executive and the judiciary. In Sophocles’ Thebes the showdown between Antigone and Creon is not just a personal battle of wills. It pits human law against divine law, male against female, family against state, and what is seen as homeland security against common decency. Creon’s decree, in other words, fractures the state.

Creon is not evil. He is acting in what he believes is the state’s best interests, truly believing his edict will make it more secure. And Antigone is no saint either. She is bull-headed and conflict-driven. Sophocles was not interested in passing judgment on either of them. What he was interested in doing was exploring the disastrous consequences of a divisive measure that, instead of healing wounds after a bitterly contested civil war, simply aggravated it. As Antigone is a tragedy, we should hardly expect a happy ending. Not only Antigone, but also Creon’s son and mother are dead at the end - their deaths the terrible consequence of a fatal misjudgment.

The final scene to our drama has yet to be written.