…on heroism without Δίκη: Antigone versus Emerson

Gethyn and I have enjoyed some of our best discourse at the dinner table (is there a food correlation here?); and recently, we briefly discussed Emerson’s essay Heroism, wherein he (Emerson; not Geth!) observed that he had not witnessed, in literature, a person “so earnest and cordial and on such deep grounds of character” as Sophocles, who had only to ask Martius to spare the lives of he and his wife, Dorigen, following the conquest of Athens; he did not beg, and both were executed.

Here, was I obliged to dissent, and also immediately drew upon Classical literature (a love I share with my hero); Sophocles’ heroism was hardly unique in Classical literature; and my archetype: Antigone. Why did Emerson not extol the virtue of this woman: was Antigone under-appreciated owing to the irredeemably sexist sentiments of 19th century America and Europe; at the very least sexist: and possibly misogynistic?

And what is Emerson’s heroism? Succinctly, it is inherent, rather than schooled, it is not complacent, it is inexhaustible, it is persistent and above all, the hero must be true to him or herself and his or her beliefs (because this heroism speaks directly to the individual) and prepared to risk his or her own life for these ideals.  To wit: “The characteristic of a genuine heroism is its persistency.”  “Times of heroism are generally times of terror.”

Δίκη; or dike, or justice, along with an extensive collection of values, was prevalent in Greek tragedy; and is illustrated in this dialogue between sisters, Antigone and Ismene:

Ant: Look—what’s Creon doing with our two brothers?
He’s honouring one with a full funeral
and treating the other one disgracefully!
Eteocles, they say, has had his burial
according to our customary rites,
to win him honour with the dead below.
But as for Polyneices, who perished
so miserably, an order has gone out
throughout the city—that’s what people say.
He’s to have no funeral or lament,
but to be left unburied and unwept,
a sweet treasure for the birds to look at,
for them to feed on to their heart’s content.
That’s what people say the noble Creon
has announced to you and me—I mean to me—
and now he’s coming to proclaim the fact,
to state it clearly to those who have not heard.
For Creon this matter’s really serious.
Anyone who acts against the order
will be stoned to death before the city.
Now you know, and you’ll quickly demonstrate
whether you are nobly born, or else
a girl unworthy of her splendid ancestors.
Ism: Oh my poor sister, if that’s what’s happening,
what can I say that would be any help
to ease the situation or resolve it?
Ant: Think whether you will work with me in this
and act together.
Ism: In what kind of work?
What do you mean?
Ant: Will you help these hands
take up Polyneices’ corpse and bury it?
Ism: What? You’re going to bury Polyneices,
when that’s been made a crime for all in Thebes?
Ant: Yes. I’ll do my duty to my brother—
and yours as well, if you’re not prepared to.
I won’t be caught betraying him.
Ism: You’re too rash.
Has Creon not expressly banned that act?
Ant: Yes. But he’s no right to keep me from what’s mine.
Ism: O dear. Think, Antigone. Consider
how our father died, hated and disgraced,
when those mistakes which his own search revealed
forced him to turn his hand against himself
and stab out both his eyes. Then that woman,
his mother and his wife—her double role—
destroyed her own life in a twisted noose.
Then there’s our own two brothers, both butchered
in a single day—that ill-fated pair
with their own hands slaughtered one another
and brought about their common doom.
Now, the two of us are left here quite alone.
Think how we’ll die far worse than all the rest,
if we defy the law and move against
the king’s decree, against his royal power.
We must remember that by birth we’re women,
and, as such, we shouldn’t fight with men.
Since those who rule are much more powerful,
we must obey in this and in events
which bring us even harsher agonies.
So I’ll ask those underground for pardon—
since I’m being compelled, I will obey
those in control. That’s what I’m forced to do.
It makes no sense to try to do too much.
Ant: I wouldn’t urge you to. No. Not even
if you were keen to act. Doing this with you
would bring me no joy. So be what you want.
I’ll still bury him. It would be fine to die
while doing that. I’ll lie there with him,
with a man I love, pure and innocent,
for all my crime. My honours for the dead
must last much longer than for those up here.
I’ll lie down there forever. As for you,
well, if you wish, you can show contempt
for those laws the gods all hold in honour.
Ism: I’m not disrespecting them. But I can’t act
against the state. That’s not in my nature.

In a broad sense, dike had myriad connotations, depending upon the conditions to which it was applied. The ancient Greeks were of the belief that good and moral — heroic? — acts were rewarded by the gods in much the same way as immoral acts were subject to retribution; the ancient Greek notion of justice was rather expansive and encompassed both reward and punishment.

Antigone is adamant in championing her intended actions to Ismene; and that the disposal of Polyneices’s body sans internment expected justice; that being provoking Creon by interring Polyneices. Ismene’s vision of justice differs from Antigone’s; she is true to herself in her utterance in this context; and their loss, as his sisters, is equally profound.

σοφός; or sophós, or wisdom, is another value present in this dialogue; the two (wisdom and justice) are frequently interwoven in discourse in tragedies and specifically this between Antigone and Ismene: wisdom versus foolishness, in either the quest for vengeance or the choice to remain silent and accept the current condition; not defying the State and Creon. Antigone further petitions Ismene’s senses of justice and goodness — ἐσθλός, and ξένος — loyalty to kin/guest-friends, and that action reaps godly rewards.

In The Politics, Aristotle avers that justice is relative to individuals; therefore, Antigone’s and Ismene’s senses of justice will inevitably diverge; and he further insinuates that justice should be perfectly corresponding. Given the structure of ancient Greek society, its philosophy and mindset towards women, would Antigone and Ismene — as Polyneices’ sisters who carried out different actions — be equal under the gaze of justice?

Antigone’s impassioned plea to her sister may be interpreted as reminiscent of Homeric monologues, which were noted to have engaged in the art of reason; if Ismene is nobly born and worthy of her ancestors, she will assist Antigone.

Antigone invokes the gods; a concept called ἄτη; or ate, or delusional behaviour: the notion of belief in divine intervention; and one may decipher this as Antigone proffering the gods also require justice. By the fifth century, humans in lyric poetry were possessed of the capacity to form and be chargeable for their own actions and self-determination; therefore, acceptance of this argument nullifies the probability of Antigone’s confidence in divine reward. Another worthwhile question: does Antigone experience vindication because her act was ultimately successful?

Ancient Greek values associated with Antigone’s beliefs and actions notwithstanding, her very beliefs and actions belie Emerson’s assertion of the absence of heroes in literature worthy of Sophocles; and furthermore, her heroism satisfies all criteria established by Emerson: it is in her nature, is unwavering, unconceited, speaks to her and she risks her life for justice.

And now I must away to order my Antigone tribute

Antigone by Sophocles directed by Ivo van Hove

“Antigone” at the Barbican, 2015

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