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Sophocles' Antigone Notes

Classics Notes > Greek Literature of the 5th Century BC Notes

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The State and the Individual What, if anything, does burial have to do with being a good citizen?
Sophocles' Antigone presents two conflicting views as to whether a person is still subject to his city and ruler after death or whether, once dead, he becomes a matter for his family and the gods alone. Common practises and laws from contemporary Athens and Greece in general support both sides of the argument. The view of Antigone herself is that no matter how bad a citizen her brother may have been in the eyes of Creon it is still right that he is buried with all the proper rituals. For her burial is matter for the dead man's family and Creon does not have the authority to take that away from her, as she says, "he has no right to keep me from my own!" This was very relevant to contemporary Attica where it was improper for a man to be buried by someone not in his immediate family, so in this case Antigone is merely following established practise. Her extreme devotion to her brother's burial in the face of considerable adversity supports strongly the fact that this was a deeply rooted belief in the Greek psyche. "Anyone who does any of these things death in the city is ordained", to which Antigone simply but firmly states, "I will bury my brother, I will not be caught betraying him". This raises the question of what right a ruler has to rule his citizens after their death and whether he still has any authority over them. Antigone's case is that he does not, "nor do I think your proclamations strong enough to have power to overrule, mortal as they were, the unwritten and unfailing ordinances of the gods." Haemon later supports this claim, "There is no city that belongs to a single man! Is not the city thought to belong to its ruler? You would be a fine ruler over a deserted city!" Also the classical definition of a citizen is someone who has a joint share in public responsibilities and decision making, so surely a good citizen would be someone who exercises these rights. According to Ober "the real strength of Athenian democracy lay not in its constitutional forms but in the ability of the mass of citizens to define the terms of social and political discourse." The people of Thebes want the burial to go ahead, it is only Creon that does not, "this people of Thebes that shares our city does not say so [that Antigone is an evil doer.]" Therefore Antigone is carrying out the will of people and so is by definition a good citizen and burial in this case is inextricably linked to good citizenship. Furthermore Creon, by denying Polynices a burial, is not just overstepping the rights of the family, much more importantly he is overstepping the rights of the Gods. Burial in ancient Greece was the transitory process by which people left the realm of the citizen and entered the world of the gods. By attempting to control and alter this process Creon is committing blasphemy. Antigone says it was "not Zeus that made this proclamation" and so she believes she has "committed a crime that is holy" Haemon states the same fact in even clearer terms, "You show no regard when you trample on the honours due to the gods!" However the most explicit and graphic portrayal of the gods' disgust at this action comes with Tiresias's description of the carrion birds which drop pieces of Polynices' flesh on the altar, "for they have eaten fat compounded with a dead man's blood", and so stop any converse between the gods and men. The pollution created by the lack of burial

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