The Tragic Quest for Autonomy

*** Note: The work below is solely that of Elizabeth Jordan.  Any attempt to copy it without permission of the author is plagiarism and not worth it since you will be caught.***

The Tragic Quest for Autonomy
Written for History of Ancient Western Philosophy
Freshman Year - Fall 1997

In Sophocles’ play, Antigone, the battle of divine law versus conventional law is portrayed through the conflict between two main characters, Antigone and Creon. It appears at first that Antigone and Creon stand only for the divine law and conventional law, respectively. However, it becomes obvious throughout the play that the only cause they stand for is themselves. And, although their purposes differ slightly, their ultimate goals, their motivation to reach those goals as well as the problems they encounter along the way are remarkably similar. Antigone and Creon, on the surface, appear to have nothing in common. However, Sophocles shows us that they are in fact extraordinarily alike.

Antigone believes that she stands for the divine law. She justifies her disobedience of Creon by saying that the gods dictate that she give her brother the rites of burial. However, throughout the play, Antigone gives away her true motivation for burying her brother through her actions and words. She says to Ismene, in line 55: "It is not for him [Creon] to keep me from my own." She does not mention divine law in this reasoning but hints at the fact that she is burying this man because he is "her own" and not because the gods instruct her to do so. It becomes clear that Antigone’s motives go beyond pleasing the gods; she has a self-serving motive.

Creon claims to stand on the side of political law and patriotism. However, he, too, gives away his true motives in the course of the play. Creon feels that it is right for him to deny the burial of Polyneices because he was an enemy of the state and enemies of the state should be punished. Creon tells the citizens that he could not see "the gods honoring criminals" and thus, justifies his punishment of Polyneices. But Creon, in his attempt to control his citizens in life as well as in death shows that he also has a self-serving motive.

Antigone and Creon both desire a sort of self-sufficiency. Antigone desires autonomy from the conventions of life, whereas, Creon desires autonomy for the city. Both characters discover certain obstacles to achieving this autonomy and believe to find ways around them. However, they soon discover that the very way to achieve their autonomy undermines that autonomy.

In Antigone’s case, she hopes to achieve complete self-sufficiency for herself. Her name means "anti-woman." Antigone despises her womanhood because she feels that it makes her incomplete. The fact that we are sexed undermines our ability to acquire completeness. There will always be something missing if the distinction of the sexes remains. There will always be things experienced by people of one sex that cannot be experienced by people of the other; childbirth, for example.

Antigone also has problems with the concept of childbirth. Part of this is because it reminds her of her womanhood (her incompleteness). However, I believe this also is because Antigone views birth as a death sentence. Death is the one obstacle in life that stops Antigone from achieving her autonomy. She cannot rule death. It is the one obstacle in life over which man has no control. The Chorus says in lines 396-397: "Only against death can he [man] call on no means of escape." It doesn’t matter how many technological advances man makes; he will never conquer death. Therefore, the only way to become autonomous is to become immortal.

There are two ways in which people believe they can become immortal. One of these is death. For, in death, you are achieve "life everlasting" in the underworld. However, this immortality only comes at the onset of death; the very obstacle to immortality. Therefore, the means to achieve this autonomy actually undermine the autonomy. Another path to immortality is through childbirth. People tend to have children to have "little versions of themselves" running around. However, there lies a problem in this type of immortality as well. The "little version" of you has to be just as much a "little version" of someone else. So, in having children you have not become self-sufficient since you need another person in order to achieve this type of immortality.

In this play, Antigone explores both of these options to achieve autonomy. I believe that her original intention was to achieve immortality through childbirth but in an incestuous relationship with one of her brothers. This intention is clear through the sexual language she uses to describe her brother, saying that she shall "lie by his side; friend with friend." (lines 83-84). She always describes her brother as a "man" rather than a brother. And whenever she mentions being in the underworld with him she speaks of a "bridal chamber." Antigone knows that having a child would give her immortality but that it would not be only a version of her. So, she decides that the only way to achieve true self-sufficiency is to be both a mother and father to a child. The closest she can come to this is having a child with her brother. I don’t believe that Antigone was particular about which brother she had a child with, either would most likely have been fine with her; but, when they both died on the same day, it robbed her of an opportunity to achieve this immortality.

However, the deaths of her brothers extends to Antigone an opportunity to control her own death. Creon issues an edict that says that no citizen of the city shall bury Polyneices as punishment for his offense against the state. "For whoever breaks this edict, death is prescribed." (line 40). I believe that Antigone took on the task of burying her brother not because she felt it was the right thing to do but to serve her own task of achieving autonomy. I believe this because she took on the task even when there was no need to do it. She came back to the site where her brother lie and repeated the task that had already been accomplished. Someone had already buried Polyneices and yet Antigone did it again. She knew that if she were caught she would be killed, thus, achieving immortality. It was her belief that by choosing to disobey Creon she was mastering her own death. Antigone could not just kill herself to achieve this immortality because if she took her own life she could not pass to the underworld. However, Antigone failed to take into account the fact that she, too, as a criminal, would not receive the rites necessary to pass to the underworld. So, she ultimately failed in her attempt to achieve autonomy.

Creon, on the other hand, desires autonomy not for himself but for the city. He wants the city to be entirely self-sufficient. He wants all the citizens to turn to him, and only him, for guidance. His greatest desire is to be able to control his citizens in both life and death. To achieve this autonomy, the city must find a way to conquer death. There are many obstacles to this autonomy, however. These obstacles are anything that takes power away from Creon or the state; things such as: family, love, and the gods.

Creon despises family ties and ties of love because they exhibit a devotion to something besides the city. He believes that a human’s highest regard should be for his city. He says in lines 203-205: "anyone thinking another man more a friend than his own country, I rate him nowhere." So, in order to achieve autonomy for the city, Creon must reject family ties. However, Creon uses these ties to claim his throne saying: "Now here I am, holding all authority and the throne, in virtue of kinship with the dead." (lines 191-192). So, if Creon rids the city of family ties he has, in essence, rid himself of the throne and not succeeded in making the city autonomous.

The gods especially are a problem for Creon. He uses the gods to justify his rule and yet despises their power over his citizens. Creon defends his rule by telling the citizens that what he does is supported by the gods; but, this belief in the gods undermines his power. It shows the citizens that there is a power higher than Creon and keeps the city from gaining autonomy.

However, Creon knows that the best way for the city to become autonomous is for it to find a way to conquer death. He believes that the best way for him to accomplish this is to be able to control his citizens in death as well as in life. Therefore, he makes rules that govern who can reach the underworld and who cannot so that the citizens will look to him instead of the gods. He attempts to control everything in the city, above the city, and below the city. However, in order to initiate his rule he must utilize all the things (family ties and the gods) that undermine his rule and thus, the autonomy of the city. So, the means for achieving the city’s autonomy undermine the autonomy.

Both Creon and Antigone are tragic characters. They both make errors that result in their not reaching the goal of autonomy. Although Antigone rejects the conventional law, she forgets about her dependence on it in order to achieve her autonomy. Creon, in rejecting the divine law, forgets about his dependence on it in order to maintain his rule. Both of these characters are self-serving in their motives to such an extent that they become blind to anything besides their ultimate goal: self-sufficiency. Sophocles uses these characters to show the self-interest present in all aspects of society from the divine to the conventional and lets them represent man’s desire for autonomy and the tragic irony of trying to achieve that autonomy.

 

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