When a government acts against its people's interests, citizens must be allowed to use the legal system to make things right: Sophocles' play Antigone has modern relevance

Written by Sophocles, Antigone is part of a series of theatre plays exploring the tragic lives of Oedipus and his descendants. Here, the King of Thebes enacts a law which punishes with execution anyone who tries to bury the body of his nephew Polynice. However, the deceased's sister, Antigone, is determined to bury the body, risking her own life to follow what she believes to be a divine obligation. She is caught, brought to the King, and now must face her fate.

“What law of Heaven have I transgressed?” Antigone asks the King, suggesting that there are unwritten laws which demand that a dead body must be buried. The King, dismissing Antigone’s defence, condemns her to death. 

Is that the end of it? Of course not, because this is a Greek tragedy and there is more to come. Before the sentence is carried out, Antigone dies by suicide. Her lover, the King’s son, on finding her body, also kills himself; and then a broken-hearted Queen also kills herself. The King is left behind with both unbearable grief and state chaos.

All that Antigone wanted was to bury her brother's body, going against a law which she considered unfair and ungodly. The play is an illustration of a theory in law, which says that people have an inherent understanding of right and wrong, independently of what a piece of legislation prescribes. If we feel that a legal rule is unfair, then we can decide to do something about it to have things put right, and we can start by using the channels available to us, for example creating a petition.

Modern parallels

Here is a real-life story of a sister not being allowed to bury her brother’s body because of a government rule. In Scotland, the body of a murdered person must be released by the procurator fiscal before any funeral arrangements can take place. This is to allow the defence the opportunity for a separate post-mortem examination. In some cases, this may result in the body being kept for a long period. A sister, who cannot bury the body of her murdered brother, petitions the Scottish Parliament to have the rule changed. She understands that the procurator fiscal had a job to do, but considers it barbaric to allow a body to decompose in a mortuary for the right of the defence to have a post-mortem carried out. She asks, “Why can this not be carried out independently, as it would be in England, and allow the release of a body for burial or cremation?”

The rule of law expects everybody to be reasonable, and that people should never take the law into their own hands. At the same, legislation must be fair and clear in a way that any reasonable person can understand it. The essence of Antigone is also relevant in the current context of the COVID-19 pandemic, because governments need to introduce new laws at a pace, and there is a risk that people can be confused. The legislation still needs to be fair and clear, and things start becoming even more dangerous when lawmakers – who are expected to be reasonable people – also become confused about the rules which they are enacting. 

Besides petitions, governments must have other policies in place for citizens to be able to challenge laws which they think are unfair, including through the court system. In a recent webinar, a former President of the Supreme Court criticises proposed legislation by the UK Government intending to allow for breach of international treaties, and reminds us that we would be living in a tyranny if you were deprived of the right to challenge laws in court.

If citizens feel that they do not have a voice then, as per the lessons in Antigone, there is always the risk that people could decide to break rules, and chaos would follow.

Life imitating art?

Life feeds theatre, and theatre can teach about life. Brazilian drama theorist, August Boal, says that theatre is the most essential human language, used all the time, and by all of us, and everywhere – even in theatre buildings. Antigone itself is still a popular play. I was fortunate enough to see French actor Juliette Binoche play the title role in a recent adaptation in Edinburgh. When Binoche spoke to The Scotsman, she was asked whether she had ever been held in a position similar to that of Antigone, and she suggested that there are so many other types of rules which we need to follow besides legislation. 

She explained how in a filming project she disagreed with the director and held her ground because she felt strongly that she was right. Binoche was fired, but there was no tragedy for her; on the contrary, as she won an Oscar shortly afterwards. Tragedies such as Antigone make her feel happy, rather than sad, because she feels she learns things from them. 

Politicians also have a lot to learn from the play. So what follows is another real-life story, perhaps a key incident in the origins of the Arab Spring, in which you can find the essence of Antigone. As explained in The New York Times, a 26-year-old street fruit vendor in Tunisia, who earns only enough to support his mother, brothers and sisters, is slapped on the face during a dispute with a municipal inspector who confiscated his property. The dispute ends with the vendor feeling so irate that he soaks himself with solvent and then lights himself on fire. Magnified by social media, this story generates a wave of uprisings across Tunisia, causing the President to flee. 

A possible interpretation is that on learning details of what may have caused the suicide, citizens establish that the Tunisian state has become dangerously corrupt, and that they can no longer expect fairness from those in charge. The wave of riots carries on spreading across other Arab countries with similar outcomes.

Law and moral choice

The question in Antigone keeps coming back: in such circumstances, is it every citizen's duty to rebel and even help to bring down a government? Thinkers such as Socrates and Locke seem to have different approaches. In principle, they both seem to agree that we have a tacit contract with the state by which rulers ought to protect our interests and be fair to us, and our part in the agreement is to respect the laws. This is what makes a government legitimate in the first place. 

Socrates' ideas were committed to paper by his disciples, as in Crito, by Plato. Here, Socrates has been found guilty of corrupting the minds of young Athenians, and is in prison waiting to be executed when he receives a visit by Crito, a good friend. Crito has bribed prison staff and tells Socrates that he can help him to escape safely. Being reassured that nobody's life would be put at risk, and that public opinion would criticise Crito if he allowed the great philosopher to die, surely, Socrates would agree to escape, right? However, Socrates is not concerned at all with public opinion. The masses, Socrates says, would be as happy to bring a dead person back to life, if they were able to do that, as they would be happy to kill someone, and for no good enough reason in either case. 

Having always sought to have an honourable and just life, Socrates will not break the law by escaping. For him, we have an implicit contract with the state, by which we either must obey a law imposed on us, or try to convince the people making the laws that they have made a mistake. When we do not do either of these, we are not acting in an honourable way. Having had the opportunity to argue his case in court, Socrates was given the choice of either being executed or living in exile, and he had chosen death. It would be ridiculous now for him to escape. How could he give virtue lectures afterwards? That would be immoral, he argues. 

As for Locke, the ability to worship God is a human right that cannot be overruled by the state. For example, he argues that the Catholic absolutism of Louis XIV, which menaces the Protestant states in the name of inflexible religious uniformity, is a product of the corruption of human beings. It seems that Locke is on Antigone's side because, for him, the social contract ceases to exist if a government stops meeting its obligations of being fair to us. Locke endorses the people's right of revolution, as a last resort, against a government, when a ruler – even if a legitimate one – is grossly abusing his powers by interfering with a human right. 

As you can see from the above discussion, the themes of Antigone remain relevant in current times, illustrating that tragedy can occur when governments enact unfair laws and do not allow for these to be challenged by legal means.

The Author

Paulo Nunes de Moura, LLB, DPLP, MSc Social Justice

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