The Alliance of Spears by Creon in Antigone
In Sophocles’ Antigone, Creon makes reference to an “alliance of spears” as a metaphor pertaining to the necessary allegiance a society has to its ruler. Initially he feels his authority must be proven as absolute and in an act of hubris he attempts to prohibit the appropriate burial of an enemy. In so doing Creon oversteps his bounds from the world of nomos to the realm of physis and is confronted with the naturally occurring limitations of political authority. Creon’s “alliance of spears” then adopts a new significance from an enlightened position.
In order to gain a full understanding of the issues that exist in Antigone one must first become aware of the circumstances that have placed Creon in his position of power. Creon ascended to the throne by contested birthright and has limited experience as a leader. As a result, Creon is an insecure leader conscious of the image he projects. He makes this known to his chorus: “No man has a mind that can be fully known, in character of judgment, till he rules and makes law; only then can he be tested in the public eye.” His decision to forbid an honorable burial for Polyneices was made hastily but demanded enforcement, as any recanting of his decree would display weakness and indecision. As the Watchman suggests, “Second thoughts make any plan look bad.” Creon is endorsing a hard-line, tyrannical type of politics in an attempt to demonstrate his authority over Thebes. Unfortunately, Creon ventured beyond the area of human law that he was entitled to rule and stepped into the area of natural law; an area dictated only by the gods.
The spheres of natural law and human law appear to be known and respected in Thebes, but some people still contest it. The initial discourse between Antigone and Ismene reveals this ambiguity. In a vain attempt to dissuade Antigone from defying Creon’s decree, Ismene states, “We are women and we do not fight with men. We’re subject to them because they’re stronger, and we must obey this order, even if it hurts us more.” This statement indicates that Ismene believes her patriarchal society is a result of natural law that cannot be broken; she represents the typical citizen who grudgingly accepts the whims of a dictator. Antigone, on the other hand, is aware of the “deep shame and dishonor” her parents left her; feeling she has little to lose, she is willing to defy the law.
At first glance it appears that the main conflict in the play is between Creon and Antigone, but Creon’s decision to interfere with Polyneices’ burial puts him in direct conflict with the unwritten law of nature. So in actuality the main conflict in the play involves Creon and his own position on the depth of his political authority. Antigone is simply a voice of righteousness that is unwilling to concede to Creon’s unjust proclamation. Antigone represents the subconscious or repressed opinions of the average citizens in Thebes. This image of Antigone as a repressed individual is only compounded by the fact that she is a woman in a deeply patriarchal society.
Though Creon holds the necessary power to demand anything he wishes he cannot influence anything beyond human control. An example of this can be seen in the area of general social opinions. It is not a requisite for Creon to consider any of his citizens’ opinions in a dictatorship like Thebes; Creon’s “alliance of spears” maintains its efficacy as long as all follow the will of one. Despite this hindrance it is obvious that common social opinion exists. The Watchman offers an apt example when he generalizes, “No one loves the man who brings bad news.” This statement supports the notion that social opinions exist independently of political control. Creon may tell citizens they must respect a messenger who carries bad news, but has no way to ensure wholehearted adherence to a decree that directly opposes natural law.
Similarly, Creon’s mandate that no one honor Polyneices’ death contradicts the natural emotions that cannot be ruled. A mortal leader who tries to dictate who can and cannot pass to the next life is performing the duties of a god, transcending the sphere of human law. Antigone recognizes this trespass against “what the gods hold dear,” arguing that she “never heard it was Zeus who made that announcement” and that Creon’s pronouncements did not give him “power to trample the gods’ unfailing, unwritten laws.” .
Antigone tries to tell Creon that others share her opinion but Creon perceives her insubordination as an aberration from the fragile “alliance of spears” he has fashioned from the citizens of Thebes. He feels threatened by Antigone’s assertions and is wary of the fact that she is closer to the “household shrine for Zeus” than he is. Creon knows that Antigone’s dissent could cause the “alliance” to deviate from his intended course, so he sentences Antigone to death. Meanwhile, general social opinion supports Antigone’s claim. Haemon states that “The entire city is grieving over [Antigone]” and wonders, “Hasn’t she earned glory bright as gold?” Creon’s certainty is shaken by this news but he remains unmoved. He tells Haemon, “A city belongs to its master. Isn’t that the rule?”
Only after his discussion with Tiresias does Creon begins to understand the implications of his ruling over the natural world: “Giving in would be terrible. But standing firm invites disaster!” After soliciting the chorus’ advice, Creon decides to overturn his condemnations – but by then it is too late.
The “alliance of spears” ultimately assumes new meaning for Creon. What was once a metaphor for society’s allegiance to its ruler has evolved into recognition that the alliance can only be controlled as far as general social consensus allows. In this sense the ‘alliance’ is an entity unto itself; it possesses strength that even a tyrant must respect in the end. When Creon imposed restrictions on natural law it was he who broke from the alliance, whereas Antigone had the fortitude to act upon the latent social consensus that Creon had gone too far.
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