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The next point to be considered is, In what sense,
The edict in its political aspect.
and how far, does Creon, in this edict, represent the State? He is the lawful king of Thebes. His royal power is conceived as having no definite limit. The words of the Chorus testify that he is acting within the letter of his right; ‘thou hast power, I ween, to take what order thou wilt, both for the dead, and for all us who live’ (211 f.). On the other hand, he is acting against the unanimous, though silent, sense of Thebes, which, as his son Haemon tells him, held that Antigone had done a glorious deed (695). Creon replies: ‘Shall Thebes prescribe to me how I shall rule?’ His son rejoins: ‘That is no city (“πόλις”), which belongs to one man’ (737). Where the unanimous opinion of the community was ignored, the Athenians of the poet's day would feel that, as Haemon says, there was no ‘city’ at all. Indeed, when Creon summoned ‘the conference of elders,’ that summons was itself an admission that he was morally bound to take account of other judgments besides his own. We may often notice in the Attic drama that the constitutional monarchy of the legendary heroic age is made to act in the spirit, and speak in the tone, of the unconstitutional tyrannus, as the historical age knew it. This was most natural; it gave an opening for points sure to tell with a ‘tyrant-hating’ Athenian audience, and it was perfectly safe from objection on the ground of anachronism,—an objection which was about the last that Athenian spectators were likely to raise, if we may judge by the practice of the dramatists. Now, the Creon of the Antigone, though nominally a monarch of the heroic age, has been created by the Attic poet in the essential image of the historical tyrannus. The Attic audience would mentally compare him, not to an Agamemnon or an Alcinous, but to a Hippias or a Periander. He resembles the ruler whose absolutism, imposed on the citizens by force, is devoid of any properly political sanction. [Antigone can certainly be described, with technical correctness, as acting ‘in despite of the State,’ since Creon is the State, so far as a State exists.] But the Greeks for whom Sophocles wrote would not regard Creon's edict as having a constitutional character, in the sense in which that character belonged to laws sanctioned (for instance) by the Athenian Ecclesia. They would liken it rather to some of the arbitrary and violent acts done by Hippias in the later period of his ‘tyranny.’ To take a modern illustration, they would view it in a quite different light from that in which we should regard the disobedience of a Russian subject to a ukase of the Czar.

If, then, we endeavour to interpret Creon's action by the standards which the poet's contemporaries would apply, we find, first, that he is doing a monstrous act; secondly, that, in doing it, he cannot, indeed, be said to exceed his prerogative, since this is indefinite; but he is exceeding his moral right in such a manner that he becomes the counterpart of the tyrannus who makes a cruel use of an unconstitutional power.

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  • Cross-references from this page (3):
    • Sophocles, Antigone, 211
    • Sophocles, Antigone, 695
    • Sophocles, Antigone, 737
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