In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle denotes a mysterious class of folk which, he thinks, is more perfected than even those which he is prepared to label “virtuous.” This class is reserved for individuals who manifest what he labels “divine virtue”—for example, some of the great Homeric heroes.
Because on Aristotle’s view, an act is morally justified if it is what a virtuous person would (probably) do in the circumstances, a question that has interested me is: Who might Aristotle have in mind as a beacon of moral virtue? Achilles? Hector? Odysseus?
One candidate that comes to mind is Sophocles’ character Antigone. Interestingly, in Aristotle’s Poetics, he mentions Antigone only once, as an example of a second-rate tragedy. Patricia Lines, in her critical essay “Antigone’s Flaw” (Humanitas, 1999), suggests that Aristotle probably just missed the point here. Aristotle, who outlined what he took to be the recipe for good tragedy in his discussion of character and catharsis in the Poetics, found Antigone to be lacking in that Haemon’s “plot to kill his father” never came to fruition. Lines offers that, first, it’s not clear that such a plot was ever conspired; secondly, the tragically relevant aspect of the play surrounds the dilemma of Antigone, rather than Haeman.
Perhaps, if Aristotle had directed his attention more to Antigone than to Haeman, he would have come to the same conclusion that many critics of the play have reached: namely, that Antigone is one of the greatest paragons of moral virtue to be found in classic literature.
And, at the very least, Antigone is of a character more virtuous (and almost polarly opposite to) that of Creon, who orders her death. This is a popular view in contemporary interpretation.
I must admit, however, that I see no moral significance between either character that justifies praising one over the other.
This leaves me in closer alignment with Hegel’s interpretation of Antigone, which Walter Kaufmann describes as follows:
“He [Hegel] realized that at the center of the greatest tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles we find not a tragic hero but a tragic collision, and that the conflict is not between good and evil but between one-sided positions, each of which embodies some good” (Tragedy and Philosophy 201-202).
I think Hegel’s insight into Antigone’s character is more accurate because he identifies the “one-sided” positions, which each take, and I think importantly, for the same reason. By this I mean: Antigone’s motivation to offer burial rights to her brother Polynices is out of the motivation to do the will of the gods. She appears to take the normative force of divine law dogmatically, to such an extent that it would not be surprising if she obeyed any arbitrary divine law with similar resolve. Her clinging to a principle (namely, do the will of the gods, whatever it may be) mirrors Creon’s own position, which is to—with similar resolve—obey the force of the civic law, which forbade such a burial.
What I think is particularly interesting is that “burial” practices are great examples of customs that carry with them no moral import. This is a lesson learned when exploring the moral position of cultural relativism. The lesson is that, while mere customs’ being permissible (which side of the toast is buttered, whether the dead are buried or burned, etc.) is unproblematically left up to the dictates of a culture, conduct with moral import ought not be. And so, oddly, had either Antigone or Creon been appealing to principles that would guide their conduct as to how to proceed in an action that has obvious moral import (i.e. whether to rape a child), we would be in a better position to evaluate them from a moral standpoint. But given that burial rites are prima facie vapid of moral significance, we are left with simply:
Two characters, each embracing dogmatically principles that dictate incompatible conclusions about how to proceed with a matter (burial custom) that, it itself, is without moral significance.
To discern between who deserves merit between them, then, perhaps we should go a step deeper and consider reasons that each adheres to their respective dogmatic principles. (Perhaps, for example, one might adhere to a princple because she thought the principle was just; another might adhere to a principle because she thought doing so would be profitable, etc.) But even at this level (as I hinted to earlier) we again reach a stalemate. Neither Antigone nor Creon invoke “justice” or anything in the neighbor hood as a reason for following their respective maxims. Antigone, rather, offers plainly that it would be better to violate human law than divine law. Creon, on the other hand, offers simply that it is impermissible to violate human (his own) law, and does not voice a position as to whether, in fact, divine law is incompatible with the law he demands be followed.
It is not inconsistent with what the reasons Antigone gives that her motivation for burying Polynices is a self-interested one: she finds the expected consequences of violating Creon’s law (death) to be in her better long-term interest than would be the expected consequences of violating what she believed to be the divine law. I’m not suggesting that Sophocles ever intended this interpretation of her motivation, nor that it ought to be accepted; rather, I’m just offering that it’s a consistent explanation of her motivation. Prima facie, I think it’s a bad thing if such a motivation could even be consistent with that of a character whose course of action should lead us to identify her as a paragon of moral virtue.
Why, then, do folks so frequently apotheosize Antigone as a moral exemplar, and in the same breath, despise Creon when (as I’ve suggested) there is no morally relevant distinction between the principles to which they adhere or the reasons they have for adhereing to them? And additionally, why did I myself feel the sort of pity and fear for Antigone that characterizes Greek tragedy, and not feel this to a comparable extent for Creon?
I suspect the answer lies in something of the following: We use something like the “Principle of equitable evaluation” when coming to the conclusion about whether Antigone and Creon are moral equals. This principle suggests something like: We can justify a difference in moral evaluation between agents A and B only if there is some morally relevant factual difference between A and B that justifies such a difference in evaluation.
Because we cannot identify clearly any morally relevant factual difference, the conclusion seems to be that neither seems to be praised over the other as a moral superior. However, our willingness to embrace a principle like this is at odds with another tendency we have, which is to shun an analogous principle “The Principle of Equitable Treatment” when family members or loved ones are at issue. The “Principle of Equitable Treatment” goes something like: We can justify a difference in treatment of A and B only if there is a morally relevant factual difference between A and B that justifies a difference in treatment.
Clearly, there is no morally relevant difference between Polylnices and, for example, any other traitor who Antigone did not bury, that justifies her treating Polynices differently. And yet, we (the Antigone-praising, Creon loathing folk) are prepared to glorify Antigone for this difference in treatment, even though it violates the Principle of Equitable Treatment. Oddly, though, (and quite importantly) I see no reason why one who appeals to the principle of equitable evaluation when judging Antigone as morally superior to Creon should not also be bound by the principle of Equitable treatment (a principle which would importantly not reach the conclusion that Antigone’s treatment of Polynices is justified). What justifies an embracing of one principle and a rejection of the other?
At the end of the day, the result seems to be that most contemporary evaluations, which laud Antigone as virtuous and Creon as vicious, are mistaken for the reason of embracing a double standard: they evaluate Antigone as morally better than Creon because they take it that there is a moral difference between the two that justifies a difference in evaluation. However, what they take to be the moral difference is that Antigone behaves in a particularly morally justified way. However, at the end of the day, this way that Antigone behaves (namely, burying Polynices) is not itself justified unless Antigone would bury other traitors in the same fashion, an act she would not have engaged in given that her appeal is to a divine law that demands that decisively family members be buried.
And so, the mass of Antigone apotheosizers probably ought to praise her for reasons other than anything suggests she has any moral superiority over Creon. These reasons could include: praise her loyalty to family, or her adherence to what she believes the gods command—loyalties to which many of us feel sympathies, and perhaps, these feelings are what resonated in us and left us so empathetic with Antigone in the first place. We must be careful, though, not to conflate that to which we are empathetic to that which is morally good.