Creon and Antigone: Origins of Conflict through the Concept of Relative Virtues

Dmitry A. Rakul

Ethics and Leadership

Dr. Frick

February 23, 2007

Creon and Antigone: Origins of Conflict through the Concept of Relative Virtues

One of the values of ancient literature is its reflections of fundamental societal realities on the most basic level, allowing for deeper interpretation of social rules and interactions. One example of these ancient texts, Sophocles’ Antigone, presents dilemmas between socially-constructed laws and sacred norms and the choice of individuals to overcome these constraints. Reactions of individuals when faced with situations constructed by Sophocles stem from the nature of their characters, and might be interpreted utilizing ethical theories. Particularly, conceptions of virtuous ethics might be superimposed upon two major characters of Sophocles’ text, Antigone and Creon, to uncover ethical foundations of their actions in origins and causes of the central conflict which indicates that the conception of virtues is relative.

            The basic foundation of virtuous ethical theory is an assumption that to be perceived as a virtuous person, there is a necessity for several factors to be present. Waller claims that a virtuous person “is one who consistently does right acts for the right motives” (98). However, a better classification of a virtuous person follows from Aristotle, who insists a virtuous agent should first possess the knowledge, then choose acts for their own sake, and lastly his actions must proceed from character (98). Nevertheless, despite the wide range of variations among virtue theories, two basic elements remain essential for considering virtue – consideration of character in conducting ethical judgments and the necessity for consistency of ethical actions. Strong emphasis on character of the person performing the act originates from the idea that ethical choices are not a product of chance, nor they are derived or calculated as a mere response to the particular situation. Instead, the final moral judgment is a result of the specific intention originating from a certain personal moral code – virtue, which consists of internally developed set of moral ideals that a person consistently strives to improve or at least to come as close as possible. Waller acknowledges that “one cannot be virtuous or perform good acts by accident… it requires deliberate practice and consistent effort at character building… we aren’t naturally virtuous, but we have the capacity to become virtuous by practice” (98).

Therefore, the idea of constant improvement of character in the quest for striving for ideal personal traits is vividly seen throughout the virtue theory. Nonetheless, similar accentuation is made on the consistency of performing good moral judgments and acts. This is the key to identify true virtuous character in a person; otherwise, if the person will be inconsistent, or willing to “give some slack” in particular situations (especially those who will satisfy egotistical desires), or otherwise refrain to follow set moral standards, he or she is not considered a virtuous person. Waller insists that inconsistency in moral decisions might lead to developing a habit, which suggests that a habit is a slippery slope towards acquiring vicious personal traits ultimately leading to vicious character. Thus, both considerations of character traits and consistency in making right acts for the right motives constitutes the backbone of virtuous theory, and thus are the principle criteria for identification of virtuous moral choices.

            However, the notions of virtuous character and consistency of actions are not given at birth, but rather developed in the process of moral growth and ethical coming of age. Moreover, how does one receive the notion of ethical standards which, according to virtuous theory, he or she should always strive to achieve by conducting ethical choices? The underlying answer to this question lies in the notion that the formation of ethical identity and personal moral ideals occurs during societal interaction under the influence of social roles and traditions. Since “we aren’t naturally virtuous” (Waller 98), and the achievement of virtuous characteristics occurs as a result of practice, there is a possibility of forming new virtues or the modification or total substitution of already existing ones. Besides, the actual practice of constant improvement of character entails change or initial formation of notions of what to strive for, and these ideas come from the formal and informal process of acquiring ethical knowledge from basic societal institutions of pedagogy – education, religion, personal experience, culture, time period, social surroundings, etc. Also, since virtues strictly exist in the personal realm and are a product of influences of different educations, social roles and personal experiences in the individual character development, the formation of variety of virtues are formed by social educational institutions, variety of virtues might be formed in a separate societal unit or a society in whole. Therefore, virtue and virtuous motives and character might vary on a societal and personal level, making virtue not absolute, but rather a relative concept.

            Sophocles brilliantly highlights this notion of relative virtue in the character of Antigone and the further portrayal of a clash of virtues resulting in her conflict with Creon. First of all, the formation of her virtues was accompanied by a series of quite dramatic events – Antigone witnessed the tragic fall of her father, who married his mother, and therefore Antigone and Ismene had to live with a stamp of being both daughters of their half-brother and granddaughters of their mother. These circumstances aligned Antigone’s internal ideals, assigning overriding values to extreme religious piety and inviolacy of laws prescribed by gods. This reliance on religion, fortified by her own personal family tragedy with time translated in the virtues of her character, where striving for an eternal afterlife with the dead became of greater value for Antigone then her present life: “I have longer to please the dead then please the living here… in the kingdom down below I’ll lie forever” (Fagles 63). Here, her value system is based upon her life after and thus “pleasing dead” becomes her dominant virtue.

            Although religious educations supported by factual examples from family experience were primary agents that shaped Antigone’s virtues, they were not the only influence. She also has numerous social roles, which also contributed to the development of her moral character and the shaping of her virtues. In the society described by Sophocles, she is the noble daughter of King Oedipus, a loving sister of Ismene and a fiancé of Haemon, a Greek and therefore she is under obligations of patriotism. She is a citizen of Thebes as well, and therefore she must conform to the laws of the land set by the King. Despite all of these factors that helped shape Antigone’s character, the greatest impact on the formation of her virtues is the fact that she is a woman, and therefore she has to be submissive to the rule of men. This concept, instilled by the norms and traditions of ancient Greek society, is best expressed by Ismene: “Remember we are women, we’re not born to contend with men… then too, we’re underlings, ruled by much stronger hands” (Sophocles 62).

The consideration of these values and their role in the formation of virtue of Antigone went to Creon’s calculations about his decision on the incident. Above all, Creon from his position of the highest royalty, has to be the ultimate embodiment of social arrangements: he has to defend societal norms, promote rules and show ability to enforce laws. As a man he has to defend the common notion of superiority of males over females, and as a father he has to demonstrate a will to teach and instruct his children. These moral obligations and societal traditions form the basis of Creon’s character, and also create a foundation for his virtues, where he always should strive to defend society and its traditions.

Therefore, because of the different origins of virtues and differences of the personal virtues themselves, there is a misalignment between Antigone’s notion of ideals and Creon’s personal standards. The rule of consistency as an important component to the existence of virtue makes both characters to act as their virtues dictate them, remain truthful to their values, and force making ethical decisions in sync with their moral codes. Therefore, when Antigone faces Creon, she refuses to even accept king’s laws as legitimate: “Nor did I think your edict had such force that you, a mere mortal, could override the gods, the great unwritten, unshakable traditions… these laws – I was not about to break them” (Sophocles 82). Here Antigone is displays strong commitment to achieve the ideal reputation of honoring the laws of gods and paying proper attention to the dead, refusing to be subjected to laws made by mortal, even if the mortal is a king. Since her virtue dictates her to choose actions which will bring satisfaction in the afterlife in addition to her belief that she should honor the sacred laws before the common laws, and in her understanding if the conflict emerge between these rules, the sacred laws always override man-made. Creon’s prohibition of burial is not seen by Antigone’s system of values as a legitimate law since it contradicts the holy tradition, but rather a blasphemous practice, and therefore her life-goal becomes to preserve the sacred law. Her system of believes does not differentiate the dead – her interpretation of the sacred law is in accordance to her value system – everybody deserves honor in death, especially if this person is a close relative. Thus her duty to defend this practice only reinforces the virtue to strive to religious ideals, and even allows dismissal of the very value of life, elevating death as not the discontinuation of living, but rather a prospect for reunification with loved ones.

However, Creon has a different perspective on the situation. Since his system of believes stem primarily from responsibilities of his social role as a king and a ruler, rather then from feelings generated from emotions, especially those coming out from the mouth of women. His virtues are based on law and the adherence to the rules, and the traditions of society; he accentuates that “we must defend the men who live by law” (Sophocles 94). On the contrary, his virtue denies actions that follow because of affections: “Never let some woman triumph over us… better to fall from power, if fall we must, at the hands of a man – never be rated inferior to a woman, never” (Sophocles 94). Because of these factors, the virtue of his character are totally contrary to virtues of Antigone, where he has an even greater aspiration to preservation of law, order and traditions of the society than the sacred laws or feelings of affection.

Therefore the central conflict of the play develops not simply between personalities of Creon and Antigone, but rather it emerges on basis of more profound belligerent dissidence between differences of perceptions, differences of moral ideals, and, most importantly, differences in virtues. Antigone’s virtue dictates her to see Creon’s actions as illegitimate and according to her a barrier to exercising her sacred moral duty, or even sacrilege of ancient sacred traditions. On the contrary, Creon sees Antigone’s views as a threat to the social stability and his order of the law, which he sees as a shortcut to change in the status of women, inevitably leading to anarchy. He simply sees her action as acts of insubordination, and attempts to grasp power out of men’s hands, which will result negatively. His personal justification of this view follows from his the conversation with only son Haemon: “…never loose your sense of judgment over woman…  worthless woman in your house, a misery in your bed…whoever steps out of line, violates the laws or presumes to hand out orders to his superiors, he’ll win no praise for me… anarchy – show me a greater crime in all the earth!” (Sophocles 93-94). Thus, his virtues largely based on duties of his social role as a king, polarize his life goals, transforming his perception toward one sided vision of the fulfillment of the law to the letter and enforcement at any cost. This virtue denies any argumentation of Antigone, Haemon and Tiresias identifying them as faulty and targeted only at undermining his authority, authority of the law and traditions. The dissonance between virtues of both characters and inability to accommodate for individual ideals and life goals ultimately leads to the tragic resolution of the conflict.

            Therefore, Sophocles’ Antigone provides a situation which may be interpreted utilizing views of virtue theory. In fact, it provides a clear stance on the nature of the concept of virtue, where, similar to the fact that there are no identical personalities Sophocles exemplifies that each individual possesses a unique set of virtues, which are different from set of virtues of other person. Although virtue theory does not specify whether virtues are universal or differentiate, Sophocles, by clever portrayal of the conflict between Antigone and Creon provides clear example of conflicting virtues and tragic events that follows. If the key players of the conflict recognized the concept of relative virtues and arrived at mutual understanding, the conflict might be less dramatic, or even might not arise at all.

Works Cited

Sophocles. The Three Thebian Plays. Translated by Robet Fagles. New York:

Penguin Publishing Group, 1984

Waller, Bruce. Consider Ethics. New York: Pearson Longman, 2005

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