Antigone and Civil Disobedience
by Beth Doggett (posted by permission of the writer, 12/20/05
In the quest to examine and define the term civil disobedience, history provides numerous examples to look at throughout time and across various cultures. Almost certainly one of the earliest portrayals of civil disobedience comes at the hands of Antigone, in the play of the same name written by Sophocles in the fifth century B.C.
In order to relate Antigone and her actions to civil disobedience, we must first understand what it is. In its “modern” sense, the phrase civil disobedience first originated over 150 years ago in an essay by American author and theorist Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau was prompted to compose what would become his most well-known writing in response to being incarcerated for one night for refusing to make payment of his taxes. This refusal, a blatant breach of the law of the time, was Thoreau’s way of showing his opposition to the war with Mexico and the delay in abolishing slavery (Henry). In his essay, Thoreau makes the opening statement “That government is best which governs least.” With this declaration, comes the idea that citizens have the right to exercise resistance against laws they see as unjust or morally wrong; essentially civil disobedience or “Resistance to Government”, as the essay was originally titled. Thoreau said “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.” (Beck, Abolitionists).
Over 2000 years before Thoreau, Antigone exhibits that same kind of defiance toward the rule of her time. She, in an ancient act of civil disobedience, directly disobeys an edict put forth by Creon, King of Thebes, ordering that her brother Polyneices not be given a proper burial, or any burial at all for that matter. Polyneices body as it is told by Antigone to her sister Ismene, is to “lie in the fields, a sweet treasure for carrion birds to find as they search for food.” (Schmidt et al. 1095). Creon further declares that the punishment for this crime shall be death. Antigone believes so strongly that she is morally justified and bound by family duty to bury Polynieces, that she boldly breaks the law knowing she will face the ultimate consequence for her actions (Gardner). When caught in the act and confronted by Creon, Antigone tells him “This death of mine is of no importance; but if I had left my brother lying in death unburied, I should have suffered. Now I do not.” (Schmidt et al. 1103). Although Antigone must surely have struggled with the internal fight between her conscience and following the law, she remained strong and steadfast in her defiance to Creon. In doing so, she not only gave us possibly the first recorded instance of civil disobedience, but also an early example of a woman challenging political authority (Beck, Greek).
So, it seems that the concept of civil disobedience is an enduring one. Antigone was faced with the struggle between individual and family allegiance and her duty as a citizen of the kingdom of Thebes (Nunn). This is not unlike some of the struggles that face us today; such as those who protest the United States current war with Iraq. These modern day protesters are standing up for what they believe is personally right and in direct disagreement with the policies of the current political administration. This shows us how Antigone is a play, although written two millennia ago, that still applies to a current theme in our society; the conflict between the liberties of the citizen and the interests of the land (Gardner).
Beck, Sanderson. "Abolitionists, Emerson, and Thoreau." Literary Works of Sanderson Beck. 18 Oct. 2005.
Beck, Sanderson. "Greek Theatre." Literary Works of Sanderson Beck. 18 Oct. 2005.
Gardner, Lyn. "Antigone: Gone but not Forgotten." The Guardian 10 Sept 2005 Factiva. J. Sargeant Reynolds CC. 18 Oct 2005.
"Henry D(avid) Thoreau (1817-1862)." Pegasos. 2000. 18 Oct. 2005.
Nunn, Michael. "Antigone by Sophocles." Virtual Lancaster. 20 March 2004. 19 Oct. 2005 .
This instructional web was made in July, 2002, by Prof. Eric Hibbison, who is solely responsible for its content.