A stands for Antigone

Antigone is a hero of mine, featuring in one of my favourite tragedies (well, and the only one I have in its entirety). Only, classical tragedies generally lack heroes as we generally understand them in modern popular culture. Antigone is not portrayed as moral example to be followed, neither is she the classic villain. She is also never been not a classical hero or the object of any official cultus as far as I am aware. Yet, I think she has a lot to teach us, about life, and on what may provide a basis for a Pagan ethics.

Marie Stillman – Antigone from ‘Antigone’ by Sophocles

Antigone’s dilemma

In Sophocles’ Antigone a dilemma presents itself, and whatever path is taken, human suffering seems unavoidable. The play deals with the aftermath of civil war. Two brothers – Polyneices and Eteocles – have died fighting each other for the throne of Thebes. Creon, their uncle, now sits on the throne and needs to secure his authority and state. The two remaining siblings, Antigone and her sister Ismene, are under Creon’s control, but haven not forgotten their brother Polyneices who is now branded as a traitor and remains unburied. The question is than arises which ethical claim is the most important.

  1. The duty to the gods and family, for every man should be buried
  2. The duty to the state, for the man killed is a designated traitor

Or, more modernly interpreted:

  1. The right of the individual (including civil disobedience)
  2. Obedience to the law / good citizenship

Antigone chooses the first value and completes the burial ritual for her traitor brother and is subsequently buried alive by her uncle the king, who represents the state and must uphold the civic laws. Neither of the two parties is faultless, as Martha Nüsbaum (2001) explains in explains in her her master piece The Fragility of Goodness. Antigone may defend the right to proper burial, but is willing to risk upsetting the civil institutions without which her religious aims cannot be fulfilled. Creon defends the law that prevents the burial of traitors and has no eye for the human aspect of it all, even when it concerns his own family.

The reason why I admire Antigone is not just that she has picked the right value to defend, even if she represents the more modern view that all individual life is sacred and that sometimes loyalty to one’s conscious trumps following the letter of the (faulty) law. I admire Antigone because in the end she recognizes the many conflicting values that are at work, whilst Creon only accepts one supreme good to which all other virtues are subject. In Creon’s world, Nüsbaum claims, tragedy cannot enter and insoluble conflicts cannot arise, whilst Antigone is torn by the conflict. It is Antigone’s recognition of the vulnerability of virtue, that virtue will always be constrained by the world, which makes her the more sympathetic of the two characters.

Human fragility as a basis of a Pagan ethics

Within Paganism there seems to be little discussion on ethics.  In Wicca, there is the hand-on-approach of  ‘if it harms none’, but this hardly an unproblematic approach. Not only because one needs to consider what exactly constitutes harm, but also whether humans are capable of avoiding any harm in the first place. Then there is the Hávamal and the Delphic Maxisms, and ADF’s nine virtues are often quoted. I am in full support of virtue ethics as the basis of Pagan ethics, as they are positive qualities to aspire to rather than specific rules that may or may not be applicable to a certain situation. Yet what to do when some of these virtues come into conflict in the real world. As Jaime Lannister states in HBO’s Game of Thrones:

“So many vows. They make you swear and swear. Defend the king, obey the king, obey your father, protect the innocent, defend the weak. But what if your fathers despises the king? What if the king massacres the innocent. It’s too much. No matter what you do, you’re forsaking one vow on another.”

Nüsbaum illustrates how even individuals strongly committed to justice, determined to do good, are nevertheless vulnerable to external factors that may deeply compromise their intentions. Now, one can argue about Jaime’s commitment to good, but as actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau explains in a recent interview, in the very first scene of the show, the honourable Ned Stark cuts off the hand of a quite innocent scared deserter, yet the viewers are not apt to question his action. So why don’t we?

At first sight, Ned seems more of a Creon than an Antigone. He kills the boy knowing full well that he is not a criminal and just frightened out of his wits. Duty prevails over mercy. Yet during the series, the viewer learns that Ned Stark allows for mercy when he is able to and, arguably, mercy is what gets him killed in the end. So, it is his strength of character which makes him more sympathetic than Jaime. What matter most though, is that Ned does not shrink from taking responsibility for his actions and finally recognizes the multiplicity of ethical claims. At first all he talks of is duty and honour, making him seem quite outlandish and similar to Creon in its simplicity, but in the end he realises that the duty to the kingdom, and the duty to his family are not always the same. His bastard son Jon faces a similar choice, and the young Bran is also susceptible to this when he asks: “”Family, Duty, Honor“. Honor”. Is that the right order? I think it is this understanding of the fragility of goodness that forms the basis of living an ethical life (and watching / reading Game of Thrones of course 😉 ). This is the ethical pluralism I would like to see recognized in the Pagan community, not the cliché ethical relativism which usually sounds like “all paths are all equally true, all moral imperatives are equally valuable”.

Sometimes, there seems to be so much modern Pagan writing on what constitutes an ethical magical practice, and so little on ethical living. This surprises me since not al Pagan practice magic, and we all have to live in this world. It is good to see that this seems to be changing. Leithin Cluan for example wrote an interesting piece on Being Virtuous. Just identifying the virtues is not enough, we have to discuss what it means to be virtuous in real life. I wish I had a religious community in which I could talk about these personal struggles and their meaning, as we tend not to do so in the public blogosphere. I belief  Theo Bishop’s referred to the same feeling when he said that he longs back to the sermon, to provide context to what we belief in on paper.

Maybe, that would have helped Antigone and Creon too …


2 thoughts on “A stands for Antigone

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