Thoughts on Civil Disobedience

Antigone by Sophocles is an ancient Greek play written around 442 BCE. It deals with Antigone’s burial of her brother Polynices in defiance of the city’s ruler Creon and state laws. The tragedy ends with tragic consequences not only for Antigone for her civil disobedience, but also for Creon for being a tyrannical ruler. The conflict of the play is especially interesting to me comparing to my experience growing up in a communist country. In addition, it also gives me great thoughts reflecting on my personal views and civil rights.

Eteocles and Polynices, the two brothers of Antigone, both die after fighting in the Theban civil war. While Eteocles was honored as a hero, Polynices receives a harsh punishment by Creon, the new king. Creon believes Polynices is a traitor, and does not deserve to have a proper burial. Despite the king’s proclamation, Antigone vows to bury her brother’s body. She disobeys the state laws, and is not afraid to speak up for her moral act. Creon is furious at her disobedience and decides to punish her to death. The main conflict revolves around the questions of natural laws versus human laws. Creon insists that everyone must listen to his orders. Being the king of the country, he makes the laws, and everyone must obey him. On the other hand, the citizens of Thebes also live up to god’s laws which have been embedded deeply in their culture. Not giving a proper burial to a person is immoral and against traditional beliefs.

To continue with the analysis, I will focus mainly on the topic of civil disobedience. My question is: should Antigone risk her life for her action? If she had not insisted on her belief and halted her actions, what could have been worse? Antigone is a heroine in the play. She has gone through so many family tragedies: losing her father, mother, and now her two brothers. Therefore, even before mentioning the laws of god, we should respect everyone’s wish to carry out a family member’s burial. Moreover, burial rituals are important in ancient Greek religion. It is the worst possible punishment not to give someone a proper burial. Punishing someone in such a way is not in accordance with god’s laws and is immoral. Antigone believes that the state laws should not override the god’s laws. Therefore, she is not afraid if people know she goes against Creon’s edict to bury her brother. She is aware of the consequences of her action – death. However, she has been through so much grief, so death might as well be her relief. If I was in her position, I would totally do the same. I believe the love for family’s members is the strongest motivation for her to risk her life.

Antigone is a brave character who speaks up to protect her rights. To stand up for one’s rights and disobey the state laws knowing there are consequences is not easy. She is also inferior in the society she lives in being a woman, which makes this even more difficult. Who would also stand up for her? Would anyone support and fight for her? When she asks Ismene to help her with the burial, she does not only want help. She wants Ismene to also raise her voice. We are living in a modern world and a liberal country where we could easily speak up for our own rights, knowing that we have supporters. If not, would you take the risk to go against the state laws? I personally think I could not do it. I was born and raised in a communist country where I did not have access to liberalism. The government controls most of the things we do, and hardly ever there could be a protest that goes against the state laws. The education system does not value personal opinions. Therefore, most of the time, I am afraid to speak up. Reading the play, I see myself in the same position of the chorus. They do not agree with Creon’s edict:

“but the city casts out

that man who weds himself to inhumanity

thanks to reckless daring. Never share my hearth

never think my thoughts, whoever does such things.”

However, not a single citizen dares to speak up to defend Antigone when she has to face the consequence of her action. They stand in the back making judgements. No one is brave is enough to raise a voice, because there will be consequences to disobey the ruler. They would rather stay silent and have a normal life. Reading this play causes me to reflect and ask myself what I would do as a citizen, would I ever go against the state laws? It depends on the situation. If it is something that I believe is immorally wrong and I consider the risk that is worth taking, I would speak up. If not, I would stay in the back and wait for someone to take actions. The play causes me to be more thoughtful, and perhaps, more brave and aware about civil rights. In my opinion, the ending suggests that silence will allow tyrants to override civil rights. If it was not for Antigone’s brave act, Creon would never consider himself to be wrong and keep misusing his authority to rule people. We need people like Antigone in today’s world to fight against tyranny. A ruler of a country must act and make decisions on behalf of his people. If we do not speak up, we automatically forgo our rights and let the rulers control how they want us to live.

In conclusion, Antigone is an ancient tragedy that raises a very good question about the conflict between human laws and natural laws. In any country, I believe this is still a major problem. To what extend people can stand up, disobey state laws, and address a tyrant ruler? We are living together in a society that have norms and values. We need a ruler to lead the country. However, being educated citizens means that we should raise our awareness for civil issues around us and take actions when it is necessary.

Tuong Vy Vo