Are people still reading the classics? Are the great thoughts of humankind that have endured for thousands of years still relevant? Antigone is a play written by Sophocles in 441 BCE, or 2,463 years ago. I read it a couple decades ago, and never forgot its core message.
I find it odd that there is such great thought before the birth of Christ. This is just a byproduct of my passive education via the media and dominant culture, whereby I generally think of the Greeks, and the great philosopher Socrates (who died in 399 BC), as having more advanced ideas, and as coming later. While I did manage to earn an “A” in my college level year of history, I found the instruction deadly boring, and mostly rote memorized facts that I promptly forgot the day after whichever exam. Fortunately, I greatly appreciated literature, and learned a thing or two from the classics.
Let me tell you about Antigone, in a nutshell. Antigone was the daughter of the king of Thebes, Oedipus Rex (and his mother, but that’s another play). After his death, her two brothers Eteocles and Polynices came to jointly rule Thebes, but quarreled, and Eteocles expelled Polynices from the city, refusing to share the throne. Polynices in turn amassed an army and launched an attack on Thebes. Both brothers died in the ensuing battle. The new king, Creon, who was their uncle, hosted an elaborate funeral service for Eteocles, but declared that because Polynices had attacked Thebes, and was hence a traitor, his body should not be buried, he should not be mourned, and violation of this ordinance would result in death by stoning. This was the law of the land.
Antigone, having her wits about her and a solid kernel of wisdom, rejected the law, appealed to a higher authority — “divine law” — and secretly buried her brother.
The story illustrates that law can just be a rule which is not necessarily just or ethical at all. Antigone was able to see through it, ascertain for herself that leaving her brother’s body to rot unattended was a greater crime against what it is to be human than was not following the edict set down by her uncle. This is a great lesson. What is morally or ethically right should triumph over laws which present themselves as enforcing morality, when in actuality they are the antithesis.
I find today that truth-tellers, whether they are whistleblowers or just people who feel compelled to set the record straight on an issue with which they are familiar, are no longer heroes, but villains. Compliance is becoming increasingly mandatory, and human populaces are easier to monitor than ever before. Video cameras in the street recognize faces, phones track our whereabouts, we can be denied travel based on our politics, and our bank accounts can be frozen. If anyone wanted to use technology in order to enforce authoritarianism, better tools never existed, or even were imaginable merely a decade ago.
Antigone is no longer our hero or role model. Rather, it is King Creon, because rich and powerful. Thousands of years later, and we are no longer good if we appeal to a greater morality [which need not be divine, but only better argued, and with better examples and evidence]. Today, to be good is to not rock the boat, and to know our place. It is to espouse the beliefs we are spoon fed, and do as we are told. This is what bosses expect of temp workers, and generals of privates in the military. We are to do our job and follow orders.
It is an entirely subordinate position for the vast majority of humankind. We must defer to the powerful, as a good child obeys their parents. Like the grunt on the front line of battle, rushing into the roaring slaughter, our lives must be sacrificed for the benefit of the powerful. But when you’ve been an adult for a couple decades (if not much sooner), these powerful people fart and burp and have unsightly moles, bad breath, and otherwise are just other flawed humans, and if anything highly prone to the weakness of corruption. We may find that we don’t respect the intellects of some our superiors. They can become to us no different than another child when we were in kindergarten. What separates them from us is power and station, and not inherent superiority. Sometimes, the blind lead the seeing.
When I first read Antigone, it seemed like an individual could fight for a cause they believed in, and even win by appealing to a more elevated, sound, and convincing understanding. That has quickly eroded. Truth, honesty, decency? These are the enemies of the edifice propping up a bankrupt ruling elite. We might see today that the crime of telling the truth is a greater offense than murder. You may have noticed on social media that we are certainly more outraged by people saying the wrong thing than we are about violent crimes. Violent crime doesn’t threaten the powerful. Challenging its right to rule, or they way it rules, does. We are required to believe what we are told to believe.
Corruption and the temptation of abusing authority come hand in hand with power, and especially excess power. Technology now affords people in positions of authority formerly unimaginable power: the ability to easily monitor, silence and punish its critics. While this is painfully obvious to us when we think of some other countries and cultures than our own, we like to think that we, and our own, are well above that. This is not proving to be the case. On the contrary, the leaders of more egalitarian systems are now taking clues from the more oppressive ones because those systems benefit those in power infinitely above the mass of second class citizens toiling below.
We’ve lost equal footing. A person is no longer fundamentally equal to another, regardless of rank, wealth, or station, even in theory. A “good” person is no longer a strong, independent, responsible, intelligent, free-thinking, reasoning, and self-directed individual. That person is a threat. Today, the good person is someone who follows the latest rules, believes and shares what they are instructed, and does what they are told. We are grateful for table scraps, and will not object if we don’t get enough, for fear of getting less.
It’s no coincidence that when Pol Pot launched his revolutionary overthrow of Cambodia, he declared that it was the year zero, and had artists, intellectuals, the educated, and people who merely wore glasses killed. History provides great rejoinders to bogus arguments, and the intelligent and competent are the most difficult to brainwash into believing a new and spurious account of reality.
An intelligent adult today will probably admit to themselves that they have to “choose their battles”, and will go along with various violations of justice or the common good because there are far too many of them, there’s little or nothing much we can do, and there may be serious repercussions if we stick our necks out. We can only try to carve out a space for ourselves and loved ones where we can have as much dignity and independence as possible, while being lorded over by others, and as the walls are closing in. Do you feel this way to some significant degree?
I can confidently say that I do not feel pressured to ascend Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” to attain self-realization.
I feel the need to be careful what I say, to be obedient, docile, and fulfill the role that is dictated to me from above.
I read Antigone at a time when I wholeheartedly believed that the reason to go to college was to expand my horizons, to gain knowledge and wisdom, to be cultured, to be inspired, and to consequently have a more meaningful and productive life. Now people go to college to make money.
Socrates said, thousands of years ago, that “the unexamined life is not worth living”. And THAT is another zinger I never forgot. Is there anything more tragic then to be on your death bed and have to admit, “Well, life is over, and I missed the point”? At the very end, does anyone say, “My only regret is that I didn’t amass more money”?
Is there any reason to presume that you or I understand more about reality — get the picture of human existence — than did Sophocles, who died in 405/6 BC, at the age of 90-92? Sure, we know facts that he didn’t, but where does that mountain of facts lead, and what vision does it coalesce into? It may even be that the inverse is true, that the more technology provides a buffer of comfort between ourselves and existence, the less we get the big picture. I think we could all agree that we don’t get as much from the experience of flying a passenger jet to the other side of the Earth than people who spent months at sea in a sailing ship to cover the same distance. We’ve learned how to drive cars, but forgot how to ride horses. We watch more films streaming on Netflix, but we read less classic novels, if we read any at all.
At present, we may be losing the understanding and appreciation of what an adult, ethical, strong and independent human being is, which Sophocles clearly defined 2,463 years ago. The least we can do is even remember why people used to go to college, and entertain the abstract concept of what it might mean to be self-actualized, while we swipe our digital identification cards, and try to blend in as good, non-questioning, moderately hard working consumers: cattle who will be milked for all we are worth and go to slaughter without kicking up a fuss.