Power, Hubris, and Hamartia in Sophocles ‘s Antigone
Lord Acton, a well-known British historian, writer, and politician, resonated the repercussions of power and dominance by stating that ‘All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely” (Moreell, ‘Power Corrupts’). This is just one of the themes covered in Sophocles ‘s Antigone. Within this dramatic play, Sophocles questions the conventions of hubris, hamartia, and power. They all play a role in the narrative where Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, vows to pay respects to her dead brother, Polyneices, as he laid dead in the battlefield outside Thebes. At the same time, the ruler of Thebes, Creon, issues an edict against the burial of Polyneices ‘s body since he was the man responsible for trying to invade and destroy Thebes. In Creon ‘s mind, he sees Polyneices as a traitor and deserves no respect from anyone in Thebes. For Antigone, a question arises on whether she must follow the law or provide rest and comfort to her late brother in a dignified manner? Within the play Antigone, Sophocles expresses that hubris and the hunger for power and control can lead anyone to their ends, without regard to original motive. Sophocles uses Antigone and Creon serve as examples of the interaction of the themes of hubris, hamartia, and power.
To start, the foundations of law and power are questioned when Antigone is in a heated argument with Creon. Antigone tells Creon that his laws are unjustified because it goes against the laws of heaven and of the gods. She states that “Naturally! Since Zeus never promulgated such a law, Nor will you find that justice, mistress of the world below, publishes such laws to humankind. I never thought your mortal edicts had such force they nullified the laws of heaven, which unwritten not proclaimed, can boast a currency that everlastingly is valid, an origin beyond the birth of man. And I, whom no man’s frown can frighten’ (Sophocles 210). Antigone makes a point to Creon that his laws are going against the laws of ‘heaven’ by not allowing her to bury and honor her late brother. Antigone makes a valid argument in this quest for power against Creon because she is justifying her actions and show her dominance within this controversy. She mentions the notion that the laws from humans hold no weight to overthrow the laws of heaven. In many respects, she was following the laws of oikos, which are to respect and hold your familial obligations to a high esteem. Antigone ‘s only crime was breaking the edict by honoring her treacherous brother, an action known as malum prohibitum. Antigone did not do something immoral in her actions. She only did a deed that did not agree with the statute set by Creon. In many respects, her action with Polyneices was correct. According to an article, it stated that ‘it is Antigone who is proved right (if not in means than in consequences), for Creon’s edict, by diverging from true polis ideals, has polluted the polis instead of purging it’ (Mark Shields, ‘A Sacrifice to Athena: Oikos and Polis in Sophoclean Drama’). Through this piece, Antigone was right for burying her brother, and Creon was actually diverging from his polis ideals by not acknowledging the rule of oikos in his decision. Even though Antigone ‘s actions were justified, she was still killed because she committed a malum prohibitum violation. Sophocles invokes from this point that these two foundations of Greek culture—polis and oikos—are coequal in their powers and should work jointly. He doesn ‘t want one foundation to be greater in power over another because it would lead to tyranny and eventual undoing of a city-state.
Sophocles shows how power can be corrupted through hubris and invokes the limits of power of a ruler. Also, Sophocles exposes how the presence of dominance can Antigone continues to argue with Creon over the justification of her harsh sentence. Within the heated debate, Antigone says to Creon that “Not a man here would say the opposite, were his tongue not locked in fear. Unfortunately, tyranny (blessed in so much else besides) can lay down the law down any way it wants” (Sophocles 212). Within the argument, Antigone is saying to Creon that he should let her go because if the people were to speak liberally, they would agree with her on letting her go since she was doing what she needed to do as family. Sophocles uses this didactic quote in order to teach us how a one-man state or autocratic ruler tends to become corrupt by showing how Creon ‘s pride made him unaware from the opinions of his people. Through his blindness, he was able to expand his power because any sort of restraint from the Thebans would have been seen as treason from his own perspective. Sophocles shows through this experience that absolute power—perpetuated by a person’s hubris—can only lead to a corrupt state where no one is able to put a restraint on power. It could be expanded that Sophocles is advocating for democracy because he lived in Athens at a time when democracy was at its infancy. All that Sophocles is invoking to the reader is that if the power of the king was to be limited by the choice of the people (through democracy), the tragedy that occurred within the play might not have happened. In addition, the quote exposes Antigone wanting to gain power and control in the situation. She uses the people and their opinion of how he is reigning Thebes as justification that his choice to kill her is not in line with what his subjects are saying. She wants to gain dominance over the controversy of her burying her dead brother, Polyneices. By doing so, she makes Creon appear to be dim-witted and stubborn to the audience while he tries to defend his reasons for execution. Sophocles wants to make set a parallel situation where the more hubris a person has within himself/herself, the more tyrannical and corrupt the power of the individual will be.
Within the epic, it is evident that Creon ‘s hubris is his hamartia that will lead him to his end. While speaking to his son Haemon about the fate of Antigone, he makes a statement that resonates with his ruling of the law. While conversing, he says that, “Why, I ‘ve just caught her in an open act of treasons—he alone of all the city. I will not break my word to Thebes’ (Sophocles 220). From this statement, it is revealed that Creon believes that his decision is what is best for Thebes. He makes the decision to execute Antigone solely on the account that she broke the law. Creon is basing his decision mainly on what is best for the city-state based on a variety of rules and customs, a concept known as polis. He is not a bad character within the play. He was only following his duties and responsibilities as ruler of Thebes. However, his hubris was his ‘fatal flaw ‘ because it made him unaware of the consequences that followed after making his decision. His hubris made him inevitable to the fate of having his niece, son, and wife killed. He felt that as ruler, he must be resolute with his power in order to show strength and vitality of his reign as to show the legitimacy of his rule. On the other hand, his resolute nature made him ‘blind’ from seeing the repercussions of his deeds. His pride made him resolute, and fate would put Creon and his family on course for tragedy.
Sophocles exposes Creon’s hubris and how it can be negative to his reign of Thebes. Within the play, Haemon speaks to his father on how he should pass judgement to his wife and first cousin, Antigone. As both of them discuss, Haemon makes a point that, “ The kind of man who always thinks that he is right that his opinions, his pronouncement are the final word, usually as hollow as they come… In sailing too, when the fresh weather blows, a skipper who will not slaken sail, turns turtle, finishes his voyage beam ends-up” (Sophocles 222). In these quotes, Haemon is explaining that a person (referring to his father) who always thinks that his opinions are right and never sways to the opinions of others is not “wise.” However, Haemon explains on in his conversation that a man who’s “wise” would be “flexible” to the opinions of others. Through this quote, Sophocles reveals an irony by showing that even though Creon should be the wise person in this situation, he is unwilling to take the advice of his son, who makes a valid point about his father’s rule. This scene shows that Creon is not being “flexible” to the ideas of everyone else. In addition, Sophocles makes an analogy to a “sail” and that if he doesn’t bend to the whims of others, the results will become tragic for him. Sophocles uses this point in order to show Creon’s hubris because Haemon is responding back to his father on how he’s acting within the conversation. The tone that Haemon gets from his father is that of arrogance because Creon thinks that he is always right in his decision of killing Antigone in order to preserve law and order and that as king.
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