What is the primary moral conflict in Antigone? Why does this qualify as the main moral conflict?
Antigone is a tragedy written by Sophocles in 441 BC. The tragic play revolves around the aftermath of the civil war. The plot revolves around the two sons of Oedipus, Eteocles, and Polyneices who were fighting for the throne and died on the battlefield. The moral conflict starts when King Creon states that Polyneices will not be given burial rights as a punishment. Antigone (fiancé of Creon’s Son Hemen) rebels against this action of Creon and buries her dead brother. This rebellious action incites Creon’s anger. He orders to bury Antigone in the cave alive. As a result, Antigone kills herself and Hemen follows her along. Upon hearing the death of her son, Creon’s wife kills herself leaving Creon alone in anguish and regret.
The primary moral conflict is based on God’s law (proper burial for Polyneices) and the state’s law (Creon’s punishment for Polyneices). The main conflict revolves around the inflexible moral actions and refusal to power by the protagonist Antigone. The main moral conflict is between Antigone and Creon. Antigone’s refusal to bow to Creon’s order is validated as she says, “I can say no to anything I say vile, and I don’t have to count the cost. But because you said yes, all that you can do, for all your crown and your trappings”. (Sophocles) Antigone’s refusal to accept Creon’s order reflects her overpowering morality which started the conflict. These were her morals that incited her to go to the battlefield and bury her dead brother Polyneices. On the other hand, Antigone’s sister Ismene follows Creon’s order and attempts to persuade Antigone to follow Creon. The character of Antigone resonates with the internal moral conflict of the play reflecting her rebellion against the state power.
Is the conflict resolved? If so, how? If not, how does the novel end with respect to the conflict?
The main conflict is between the State’s law (Creon) and God’s law (Antigone). The arrogant king Creon wants his power to be practiced in face of the state’s law. He says, “You have disobeyed my law. If I let you live, I will become a liar in the eyes of the city” (Sophocles). Hemen (Creon’s son) and Prophet Teiresias warn Creon to honor the Gods by leaving Antigone and Polyneices. This conflict persists throughout the play. Unfortunately, Creon does not pay attention to these warnings and loses his entire family to this conflict.
Millian Utilitarianism & Antigone
John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) is one of the prominent British philosophers of the moral theory of Utilitarianism. Mill’s theory of Utilitarianism is known as Millian Utilitarianism. The main stance of this theory is that the actions are justifiable when they provide happiness and pleasure and un-justifiable when they cause pain. The dominating paradigm of morality is happiness. Everyone’s happiness has equal importance.
In the tragic play Antigone, Creon must respect the rights of Polyneices and the happiness of Antigone. Creon not only gave pain to Antigone, but he also dishonored the Gods which resulted in a grave punishment. Creon should have given the burial rights to Polyineices. He should have listened to his son Hemen and Antigone. In this way, he would not have lost his wife and son to this tragic conflict of law.
Jebb, Richard C., and Evelyn Shirley Shuckburgh. The Antigone of Sophocles. CUP Archive, 1902.
Knapp, Charles. “A Point in the Interpretation of the Antigone of Sophocles.” American Journal of Philology (1916): 300-316.
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