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ANTIGONE. a Public Affairs katabasis by SOPHOCLES. SOPHOCLES.

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a Public Affairs katabasis by



The Greek tragedian Sophocles (497 BC-406 BC) is known to usBut he did more than just make people laugh. No less than Aristophanes, he considered himself a teacher (didaskalos) of his Athenian audiences, commenting upon and forcing them to think seriously about public affairs issues. In Antigone, Sophocles explores though the heroine’s character the essential quality of ethical leadership.


The humanities are disciplines which study the human condition – that is, those behaviors and traits which distinguish us from the animals. The Humanities seldom yield the intellectual certainty or the financial benefits which other majors across campus can promise. Still, we humans cannot become what we dream of becoming unless we already know who and what we already are, which is impossible without the knowledge of who and what we have already been.


The humanities cannot be explored through scholarship alone. Sometimes the Humanities have to be sung, or danced, or painted or sculpted – or some combination of the above. In Antigone, Sophocles presents a classical examination of ethical leadership, as seen through the eyes of a young woman from a noble family.


Rightly judged the lesser of the two dramatic arts. It’s so easy to laugh, it’s so easy to hate. It takes guts to be gentle and kind. Laughter is in itself an invaluable defense mechanism but one can not construct an actual value system on jokes and general buffoonery. As much as the DYT personally adores jokes and general buffoonery. By demanding a tragic poet, Aristophanes implicitly acknowledges his limitations as a teacher of the Athenian people.


Tragedy is drama about human beings being forced to make life changing decisions based on incomplete information which they are bound to misinterpret anyway, seeing that they are only human beings equipped with human brains. All too often, these decisions involve two equally lousy choices. The ancient Greeks did not invent situations like this. They just found a dramatic form which handled them so well that everything that came afterward was a refinement.

a tight spot

It’s an especially tight spot in Thebes, the city the ancient Greek deities loved to hate. Oedipus has just pok’d out his eyes and left town. In his absence, his sons Eteocles and Polynices agree to take turns being king in alternating years. Eteocles goes first, but decides he should keep being king. This provokes a civil war in Thebes. After the brothers successfully kill each other, Creon becomes king. Creon needs to ensure that this never happens to Thebes again!

theban civil war

Eteocles is supposedly the “good” brother. After Oedipus leaves, Eteocles and Polynices decided to alternate as king of Thebes on a yearly basis. Eteocles went first, but then reneged after his year was up. Therefore Polynices raised an army to drive Eteocles out of Thebes. The brothers killed each other in battle. Since Eteocles died defending Thebes, he receives honorable burial. Since Polynices died invading Thebes, his corpse is left to rot. Is this right?


Brother of Jocasta, brother-in-law and uncle of Oedipus, et cetera. He has already been interim king once, and was happy to pass the job to Oedipus. Now he is permanent king (once more against his wishes) and feels that he must lay down the law. The brave Eteocles, who died defending Thebes, is to be buried honorably. The body of the evil Polynices, who invaded Thebes, must be left to rot and be eaten by wild beasts.


Daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta, et cetera. Sister of the late Eteocles and the late Polynices, and of the somewhat dippy Ismene. She is not impressed with Creon’s decree forbidding the burial of Polynices because she believes there is a higher law. This higher law dictates that she is obliged to make sure both of her dead brothers are properly buried. She considers this a matter of justice and also a family responsibility, as part of the Theban royal family.


This play is very much a katabasis story. It literally ends with Antigone’s descent into the grave, from which she does not return. I would argue that Thebes itself experiences a katabasis, as the two wisdom figures Antigone and Creon duke it out over the concept of ethical leadership. Or perhaps it is Creon himself? Let’s talk about this some, ok?

the big qvestion

Is Antigone correct in her decision to bury the remains of the deceas’d Polynices regardless of the personal consequences? Is there a possibility that Creon’s actions are in fact every bit as justifiable as Antigone’s actions? Which of the two relatives does a better job of exemplifying ethical leadership in your opinion?

ethical leadership


That’s what people say the noble Creonhas announced to you and me—I mean to me—and now he’s coming to proclaim the fact,                                    40to state it clearly to those who have not heard.For Creon this matter’s really serious.Anyone who acts against the orderwill be stoned to death before the city.Now you know, and you’ll quickly demonstratewhether you are nobly born, or else a girl unworthy of her splendid ancestors.

ethical leadership1

ISMENE:Think how we’ll die far worse than all the rest,if we defy the law and move against                                                      [60]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                                               80which 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.

ethical leadership2

CREON:For me, a man who rules the entire stateand does not take the best advice there is,but through fear keeps his mouth forever shut, [180]such a man is the very worst of men—and always will be. And a man who thinksmore highly of a friend than of his country,well, he means nothing to me. Let Zeus know,the god who always watches everything,I would not stay silent if I saw disaster 210moving here against the citizens…

ethical leadership3

CHORUS:The qualities of his inventive skillsbring arts beyond his dreams and lead him on,sometimes to evil and sometimes to good.If he treats his country’s laws with due respectand honours justice by swearing on the gods,he wins high honours in his city.                                                   420But when he grows bold and turns to evil,                                             [370]then he has no city. A man like that—let him not share my home or know my mind.

cultural competence

ANTIGONE:Yes. Zeus did not announce those laws to me.                                      [450]And Justice living with the gods belowsent no such laws for men. I did not think                                    510anything which you proclaimed strong enoughto let a mortal override the godsand their unwritten and unchanging laws.They’re not just for today or yesterday,but exist forever, and no one knowswhere they first appeared. So I did not meanto let a fear of any human willlead to my punishment among the gods.

cultural competence1

CREON:This girl here was already very insolent                                                  [480]in contravening laws we had proclaimed.Here she again displays her proud contempt—having done the act, she now boasts of it.She laughs at what she’s done. Well, in this case,if she gets her way and goes unpunished,then she’s the man here, not me. No. She may be                        550my sister’s child, closer to me by bloodthan anyone belonging to my housewho worships Zeus Herkeios in my home,but she’ll not escape my harshest punishment—

cultural competence2

CHORUS:Hope ranging far and wide brings comfort                                    700to many men—but then hope can deceive,delusions born of volatile desire.It comes upon the man who’s ignorantuntil his foot is seared in burning fire.Someone’s wisdom has revealed to us                                                    [620]this famous saying—sometimes the godslure a man’s mind forward to disaster,and he thinks evil’s something good.But then he lives only the briefest timefree of catastrophe.

civic engagement

HAEMON:Your gaze makes citizens afraid—they can’t                                          [690]say anything you would not like to hear.But in the darkness I can hear them talk—the city is upset about the girl.They say of all women here she least deservesthe worst of deaths for her most glorious act.When in the slaughter her own brother died,she did not just leave him there unburied,                                    790to be ripped apart by carrion dogs or birds.Surely she deserves some golden honour?That’s the dark secret rumour people speak.

civic engagement1


My lord, if what he’s said is relevant, 820

it seems appropriate to learn from him,

and you too, Haemon, listen to the king.

The things which you both said were excellent.


And men my age—are we then going to school

to learn what’s wise from men as young as him?


There’s nothing wrong in that. And if I’m young,

don’t think about my age—look at what I do.

plausible deniability

CREON:I’ll take her on a path no people use,and hide her in a cavern in the rocks,while still alive. I’ll set out provisions,as much as piety requires, to make surethe city is not totally corrupted.Then she can speak her prayers to Hades,the only god she worships, for success 890avoiding death—or else, at least, she’ll learn,although too late, how it’s a waste of timeto work to honour those whom Hades holds.

drama princess

CHORUSTo be piously devout shows reverence,but powerful men, who in their personsincorporate authority, cannot bearanyone to break their rules. Hence, you die 980because of your own selfish will.

ANTIGONEWithout lament, without a friend,and with no marriage song, I’m being ledin this miserable state, along my final road.So wretched that I no longer have the right [880]to look upon the sun, that sacred eye.

drama princess1

ANTIGONEIn my wretchedness, why should I still lookup to the gods? Which one can I invoketo bring me help, when for my reverencethey charge me with impiety? Well, then,if this is something fine among the gods,I’ll come to recognize that I’ve done wrong.But if these people here are being unjust 1040may they endure no greater punishment…

CHORUS LEADERThe same storm blasts continue to attackthe mind in this young girl.

drama princess2

ANTIGONEIn my wretchedness, why should I still lookup to the gods? Which one can I invoketo bring me help, when for my reverencethey charge me with impiety? Well, then,if this is something fine among the gods,I’ll come to recognize that I’ve done wrong.But if these people here are being unjust 1040may they endure no greater punishment…

CHORUS LEADERThe same storm blasts continue to attackthe mind in this young girl.

arti manthano

MESSENGER…The lucky and unlucky rise or fallby chance day after day—and how these thingsare fixed for men no one can prophesy. 1290 [1160]For Creon, in my view, was once a manwe all looked up to. For he saved the state,this land of Cadmus, from its enemies.He took control and reigned as its sole king—and prospered with the birth of noble children.Now all is gone. For when a man has lostwhat gives him pleasure, I don’t include himamong the living—he’s a breathing corpse.

arti manthano1

MESSENGER…Creon saw him, let out a fearful groan,then went inside and called out anxiously,"You unhappy boy, what have you done?What are you thinking? Have you lost your mind?Come out, my child—I’m begging you—please come." 1370 [1230]But the boy just stared at him with savage eyes,spat in his face and, without saying a word,drew his two-edged sword. Creon moved away,Angry at himself, the ill-fated ladright then and there leaned into his own sword,driving half the blade between his ribs.

arti manthano2

CREONI killed you, my son, without intending to,                                            [1340]and you, as well, my wife. How useless I am now.I don’t know where to look or find support.Everything I touch goes wrong, and on my headfate climbs up with its overwhelming load.                                 1490

CHORUSThe most important part of true successis wisdom—not to act impiouslytowards the gods, for boasts of arrogant men                                        [1350]bring on great blows of punishment—so in old age men can discover wisdom.