This paper will primarily concern itself with the comparison of the two approaches to politics from Creon in Sophocles’ play Antigone and Aristotle in his Politics. The basic argument here is that Creon and Aristotle have very little in common in terms of basic political ideas, especially in terms of the role and power of the state in the moral lives of the population. In terms of political ideas, the Antigone concerns itself primarily with the distinction between the state and the unwritten law of custom.
The argument of the play itself is that Antigone has every right to bury her slain brother in that it is an ancient custom to please the gods by burying the dead and showing them respect. The central concept here is the rule of tradition and religion, represented by Antigone herself. On the other hand, Creon, who has just emerged victorious in a civil war where Polynices, the true heir, and Eteocles killed each other, leaving Creon as sole ruler of Thebes. Hence, without a real claim to power, Creon stresses the power and interests of the state over all.
The written law is central. For Aristotle, the nature of politics is far more complex than the simple state-centered ideas of Creon. For Aristotle, property, classes and the relations between the sexes all have a law and custom of their own, which, when followed, lead to virtue and the good life. Ultimately for Aristotle, to flourish in the intellectual arts is the key to happiness, while for Creon, obedience to a well-ordered state, based solely on written codes, is the key to order and hence, to social peace. In Antigone, there are two ways of looking at the dead Polynices.
The first is Creon’s view, that of a dead traitor that deserves nothing but humiliation in order to justify Creon’s own claim to power as well as prevent any further warfare (Sophocles, 585). Second, which is Antigone’s view, that Polynices is a dead Thebian, regardless of the politics involved. Ultimately, the chorus at (Sophocles, 673) holds that Creon is making a major mistake since he is basing his policy on a passing political struggle, while Zeus is immortal and hence, transcends all this politics. Creon, in other words, is letting the specifics of political power interfere with his duty as monarch of Thebes.
The smaller picture of the civil war has blurred the more general vision of the nature of political power, that is, the reverence of custom as the ultimate in democracy: Thebians have “voted” for generations to maintain the old traditions, not to worship the state (Sophocles, 745-750). On the other hand Aristotle writes: “When several villages are united in a single complete community, large enough to be nearly or quite self-sufficing, the state comes into existence, originating in the bare needs of life, and continuing in existence for the sake of a good life” (Aristotle, bk I, pt 1) Several things are important here.
First, that the smaller villages predate the state, and as a consequence, have a certain precedence over the state itself. Putting this differently, the state is the product of already existing villages and other communal organizations, and hence, is dependent upon them. Therefore, Aristotle, early on in the Politics, is arguing for a decentralized political regime where the building blocks of the polity, the villages (or a group of “households”), maintain their autonomy under the general guidance of the state.
Second, Aristotle is clear that the state exists not for itself, but for a further end, that of the good life, the life devoted to the intellectual virtues. The state, in other words, exists in order to maintain the customs of the villages–the traditions of the people–so long as they lead to virtue, the good life itself, the end of all political activity, the end that exists in and for itself. The state is merely an instrument, contra Creon, that sees it as an end in itself, ore more accurately, that his own power exists as an end in and for itself.
The very act of deliberation in Greek thought is itself an end, in that it assists in the mental development and contemplative abilities of the individuals involved. The good life, it can be argued, is manifest in political life in that it is essentially an intellectual form of work, the highest that a man can consider. Hence, deliberation is central to the good life and therefore, is beyond the purview of the state. If Aristotle is going to argue that the state is “according to nature,” then he must also hold that the villages, the ancient customs of the people that go into creating the state, also exist by nature.
While Aristotle holds in Part II that the state is “prior to” the family and individual on the logical basis of self-sufficiency, this is hardly holding to a monolithic state in the sense that Creon holds. The state has no control over such customs, represented by Antigone and the blind prophet in the play. The basic argument then, is that the state comes into existence in order to create a certain level of self-sufficiency, not to destroy the customs of the more ancient forms of village life. Aristotle, in short, would have sided with Antigone.
Even more, the question of precedence of the villages vis-a-vis the state shows that the state, though logically prior, must take into consideration the ideas and history of its component parts. Hence, Aristotle has deliberation at the center of his state’s idea. It should be noted that the main source of friction here is the concept of political deliberation. The Antigone sees a number of intelligent and well meaning people, such as Creon’s son, Haemon and his wife, all seeking to reason with Creon over the question of the fate of Antigone and the nature of the civil war in general.
But since Creon holds that the monarch is the state, and the state is the monarch, deliberation would be a sign of weakness. Aristotle holds clearly that the citizens of the Greek state, regardless of its location, must be engaged in deliberation and discussion. This is the more practical sense of his state, in that it is an aggregate of pre-existing parts. These pre-existing parts, such as families or individuals, do not disappear when the state is formed, but take their rightful place as parts of the state, and hence, need to be involved in political discussion.
The blind prophet Tiresias is, like Antigone, the voice of the “villages,” the ancient tradition of a people upon which the authority of the state rests. Among other things, Tiresias holds that Creon is “living in a tomb. ” What he means is that Creon has become so obsessed with political power that he has forgotten the purpose of this power. Even more, this power has become radically personalized, centering on Creon himself, rejecting the testimony of his own son, and now, the prophet, the voice of the gods, who has never been wrong.
He holds that Creon has placed himself in grave danger in his behavior. Worst of all, none of this will assist Creon in holding on to power or convincing the population that he deserves this power. His approach to politics is contradictory and self defeating (Sophocles, 1185-1205). It is contradictory because he refuses to see the state, as Aristotle did, as a series of component parts united for the good life under the ruler. Creon sees the state in purely personal, and hence, non-deliberative, terms.
By the time the blind prophet has left Creon’s presence, politics has ceased to be institutional and now has become personal and autocratic in the literal sense of the word. Creon is the state, and is the power of Thebes, Creon says “What? The city is the king’s–that’s the law” (Sophocles, 825). This is precisely what Tiresias warned him of. For Creon to listen to the prophet, a man who he clearly respects, would be a sign of weakness. In his confusion, Creon decides to set Antigone free, yet, by the time this is done, she is already dead, as well as his own son Haemon.
Creon has listened to nothing but his own insecurity, and now he is paying the price. When Creon says “the city is the king’s,” he is rejecting the concept of deliberation and democratic discussion. He is placing his interests and possible illegitimacy at the center of law, revealing its weaknesses. What are the major issues, therefore, of contrast? This is a struggle precisely with the question of precedence as Aristotle has stated it: tradition and custom over the “prior nature” of the state. Aristotle leaves the exact nature of this precedence vague.
The state is the first by nature, but this is not a chronological movement, but a logical one. The whole must be prior to its parts, but Aristotle is not thereby claiming that the state existed prior to the family or individual. He is just holding that the only way families can reach true happiness is in a well-ordered state aiming at self-sufficiency. Therefore, Aristotle leaves the exact power of the state rather vague. For Aristotle, the scientist, he is not going to impose a blueprint for happiness for every society, but will show the bare outlines of the nature of the good life. The key passage can be found here:
For man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all; since armed injustice is the more dangerous, and he is equipped at birth with arms, meant to be used by intelligence and virtue, which he may use for the worst ends. Wherefore, if he have not virtue, he is the most unholy and the most savage of animals, and the most full of lust and gluttony. But justice is the bond of men in states, for the administration of justice, which is the determination of what is just, is the principle of order in political society (Aristotle, bk 1, pt 2).
The fact is that the state exists to promote virtue and hence, must give way to it. Virtue is not abstract, but can be found in the customs of the Hellenes, as Antigone herself holds. Justice comes into existence when the various parts of the society come together in harmonious relations, not when the state stamps its demands upon all. What Sophocles might be holding is that the polis only has its legitimacy insofar as it protects the customs and moral foundation of the Greek people. Without this, there can be no virtue and hence, no good life.
But where Sophocles and Aristotle differ is in the nature of the state in terms of security. It seems that Sophocles holds that the traditional life of the Greek family is true and right. It brings security in the ancient customs of an elite people. It is the state that provides insecurity, especially when severed from its moral foundations. There is not a moment where Antigone doubts the correctness of her actions, yet Creon exists in a storm of confusion. State power is parasitic on the traditions of a people according to Sophocles.
Aristotle might agree with this with strong reservations, but still concede that the state must have a moral foundation on the one hand, and a purpose beyond itself, on the other (Davis, 1996, 27-28, an excellent discussion on the relation between the household and the state). Creon cannot see either. Even more, Sophocles is making the more general point between the two different kinds of order, the cosmic and the human. He holds that it is the former where truth and happiness are to be found.
The human order is insecure and based on chance, the outcomes of wars, political factions, etc. (this is the whole thesis of Book 5 in The Politics, cf. Davis, 1996, 102). The cosmic order is permanent, even superior to the gods, the gods themselves are subject to it. The human order is what Creon demands, namely, his order over and above the divine one. Sophocles is holding to an early version of natural law. The customs of the Greeks are not arbitrary, but they are part of a cosmic order. Creon is arbitrary in his decisions, and even the very basis of his power is based on chance.
The human order can never be the basis of society, and certainly the state as the supreme (but not only) power in society. The law, to conclude, as it is promulgated by human beings at any time, is a highly limited instrument. It does not change the order of nature, or even the traditions of the Greek mind, which are based on nature, the law of the cosmos, held by all Greek peoples. The citizens must be engaged in deliberating not what the natural law is, but how it can be best manifested under present conditions. Antigone holds to the eternal, while Creon holds to the temporary.
Politics is an inferior state of mind than that of the eternal law of the cosmos. Death and the order of the gods will always trump the merely human law, and hence, the human law must partake of the divine order or it is an arbitrary decree, the very essence of Creon’s world. Bibliography: Aristotle (250 BC). The Politics. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. Internet Classics Archive (http://classics. mit. edu/Aristotle/politics. html) Davis, Michael. (1996) The Politics of Philosophy. Rowman and Littlefield Sophocles (442 BC). Antigone. Trans. Robert Fagles. Penguin Classics
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