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A Study of Sophocles’ Antigone

In  the Light of Different Western Theories of Justice

By Asha Viswas

 The noun “justice” and the adjective “just” come from two Greek words – “dikaiosune” ( justice) and “dikaion” (just) . The dictionary meaning of a just person is one who does “what is morally right and gives “everyone his or her due”.

The Sophists believed that the laws of justice involve serving the good of others and obeying the laws of justice often renders us victims. Justice is advantageous to the politically stronger people. This concept sees the politically powerful people exploiting the weaker people for their selfish gains.

It is this view of the Sophists, which is refuted by Plato in his Republic Book II. Here two characters – Glaucone and Adeimantus represent the Sophists’ views of justice. Glaucon argues that justice is merely a conventional compromise agreed to by people for their own selfish good. (This was later on developed as the social contract theory of justice in Hobbes). The other character in Plato’s Republic is Adeimantus who adds that religious teachings are ineffective in avoiding injustice because the gods may not even exist. Such a point of view gives no space to Natural justice.

Plato rejects these views of the Sophists . For him, justice is an essential virtue of a Political state and of a good human being. He even argues for equal opportunities for women. It is Aristotle who, in Book V of his Nicomachean Ethics, deals with the moral and political virtues of justice. He specifies what is lawful and fair. The law of the state should be conducive to the common good and the citizens should obey such law to be just. For him justice is both “distributive”  (which divides benefits and duties amongst the members of a community) and “corrective”(which requires a balance in interpersonal relations ).

The opposite of justice is injustice which can be either disproportionate excess or disproportionate deficiency. Aristotle makes a clear distinction between Natural justice or injustice and conventional justice or injustice. He accepts sexual inequality and defends slavery. He believes that the  Greeks are born for free self rule while the Barbarians are naturally inferior. He fails to respect all human beings as free and thus fails to provide a space for natural justice.

From Aristotle we  come to Medieval thinkers, like Augustine and Aquinas. Their theories of justice are based on Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Augustine makes a difference between the temporal and the divine law of God. A civil law of the state that violates Eternal law of God is not binding and can be disobeyed. Unlike the Greeks, Augustine propagates universal equality but accepts slavery as a punishment for sin. Thomas Aquinas, like Aristotle, makes a clear distinction between natural justice and human conventions. Natural right comes from the Eternal will of God and it must take precedence over the agreement of human conventions. He accepts slavery and justifies the persecution of heretics. He also considers it just that women should, politically and economically, be subject to men.

In the 17th century, the protestant Reformation challenged the authority of the Roman Catholic church. There was no need now to accept orthodoxy. This affected moral and political theories of justice. While Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas offered alternatives to the sophists, Hobbes, an empiricist, resurrected their views. In Leviathan he takes the position of materialistic monism which negates divine laws. He, like the Sophists, believes that man is driven by instincts and self interest. He calls this self interest ethical egoism. In Ch. Xiii of leviathan he depicts a society living in a state of nature beyond the conventional order of a civil society. In such a society there would be no trust and people would look at others as threats to their self interests and there would be war –  everyone against everyone – people would not survive for a long time . Thus our own fears and hopes want us to escape from such a state. By reciprocal agreement we establish social contract. This is the basis of civilized society.

When a covenant is made, it is unjust to break it. We need laws which should be enforced by absolute political power and no one should violate these laws for the sake of justice. Any such violation of civil law is a crime.

 Kant rejects Hobbes’ empirical approach of justice in favour of rationalistic one and regards it as an absolute value. In his book Metaphysical Elements of Justice, he propagates the doctrine of law which is also the doctrine of justice. Kant distinguishes between natural justice and civil or public justice. For Kant women and servants are passive creatures and they have no right to resistance against oppression.

For Mill justice is needed for the greatest good of the greatest number of people. He advocates equal opportunities for women.

Amongst the contemporary thinkers. Rawls, an American, who believes that all persons are free and equal, morally autonomous, rational agents . In his Theory of Justice (1971) he advocates the right to freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, right to own private property, right to vote, and freedom from arbitrary arrest. He also talks about civil disobedience. For him, no society is just and even a just society can have unjust laws. If the laws are greatly unjust, the citizens have a moral right to engage in civil disobedience. For him, civil disobedience is a public, non-violent, conscientious political act contrary to law. It aims at bringing a change in a particular law. It also aims at violations of equal civil liberties. which is one of the principles of justice. People should be civil disobedient only after appeals to the political majority have failed and it should achieve more good than harm to social justice.

After a cursory glance at all these Western theories of justice we find that justice is closely linked to law. Perhaps, this is the reason that the Oxford English Dictionary defines law as a “system of justice” or “the exercise of authority or power in the maintenance of right.” The words “right” and “justice” contain a moral element. Thus, a law is the command of a Sovereign upheld by the courts and enforced by the state. But a law which is contrary to justice cannot be called a law.

In Sophocles’ play, Antigone, we are faced with the problem of a just or unjust law. In fact, in all his three Theban plays he deals with a distinct problem in the family of Oedipus. In Antigone, Creon, brother of Jocasta, (wife and mother of Oedipus) after Oedipus’ two sons Polynices and Eteocles have killed each other,   the king is in full responsibility of state affairs.

While the younger brother Eteocles has been buried “with all honourable observances due to the dead”, Polynices is not to be buried. Antigone tells her sister, Ismane : “the order says he is not to be buried , not to be mourned; to be left unburied, unwept, a feast of flesh for keen eyed carrion birds ” (p.127). Whosoever would disobey the order of the King and would bury him, would be stoned to death.

For Creon, his commands are law and law must be obeyed otherwise there would be anarchy. For Antigone, the king’s order violates the law of justice and the unwritten laws of heaven. Thus Antigone stands for the natural law while Creon represents legal positivism. Ismane represents the common obedient masses, especially women. She warns Antigone not to disobey the law: If we transgress the law and defy our king, O think, Antigone; we are women; it is not for us to fight against men; our rulers are stronger than we, and we must obey in this, or in worse than this . . . I can do no other but as I am commanded. (p.128)

When Antigone taunts her to live and “defy the holiest laws of heaven”, Ismane’s answer is “ I do not defy them, but I cannot act against the state”. The same views are echoed by the chorus who also  tells the king “ you have given your judgement … your will is law .”

When Antigone is caught and brought before the king, she defies and disobeys him. Her bold defense of Natural law as against positive law is noteworthy: that order did not come from god. Justice, that dwells with the gods below, knows no such law. I did not think your edicts strong enough to overrule the unwritten unalterable laws of God and heaven,you being only a man. They are not of yesterday or today, but everlasting, though where they came from, none of us can tell.  Guilty of their transgression before God I cannot be, for any man on earth. (p. 138)

In answer, Creon expresses his views supporting legal positivism. For him, positive law is the only genuine law and it should always be obeyed.  How  if I tolerate a traitor at home, shall I rule those abroad? … To transgress or twist the law to one’s own pleasure…is sinful and I will have none of it. He whom the state appoints must be obeyed to the smallest, be it right-or wrong . (p.144)

For Creon, positive law is the only genuine law and it should always be obeyed. People have no right to disobey a law of the state. When his son Haemon comes to him, he teaches him the rules of the statecraft: There is no more deadly peril than disobedience; States are devoured by it, homes laid in ruins, armies defeated, victory turned to rout. While simple obedience saves the lives of hundreds of honest folk. Therefore I hold to the law, and will never betray it- least of all for a woman. Better be beaten, if need be, by a man, than let a woman get the better of us. (p. 144)

This bias against women can be traced back to almost all the Western thinkers except Plato, Mill and Rawls. Between these two antagonists who stand for two different, seemingly correct positions, there is a third point of view and that is of the Prince Haemon, the son of Creon. He is betrothed to the woman who is condemned to death. Haemon respects the king not only because the king is his father but also because his  father is also the head of the state. For the sake of justice he wants to be a sort of middleman between the king and the masses.

Since the common people, out of fear, will not open their lips against the orders of temporal authority , the Prince wants to make the king acquainted with their views : . . . all men might not think the same as you do . . . I hear whispers spoken in the dark; on every side I hear voices of pity for this poor girl, doomed to the cruelest death and the most unjust that ever a woman suffered for an honourable action – burying a brother who was killed in battle, rather than leave him naked for dogs to maul and carrion birds to peck at. Has she not earned a crown of gold? Such is the secret talk of the town. (pp . 144- 145)  Like a wise old man, the young Prince advises his father that it is his frown which is the greatest silencer. A king should listen to the voice of the masses without thinking that his is the only wisdom, his is the only word and the only will and such thinking betrays a “shallow spirit ,an empty heart”.

When the king tells him that he is not going to take advice from such a young person, the Prince tells his father that it is not a “question of age, but of right and wrong”. He tells the king that the people of Thebes do not think that Antigone’s act was an act of dishonourable disobedience. The king’s answer to this is “ since when do I take orders from the people of Thebes . . . I am king and responsible only to myself”.

It is towards the end of the play when Antigone, the Prince and his mother have committed suicide, Creon realizes that “it is by the laws of heaven that man must live.” The chorus too, at the very end of the play, appeals to believe in God’s law: the chiefest part is wisdom and to hold the gods in awe. This is the law. (p. 162)  

Antigone thus posits that positive law has the sanction of force while the natural law has the authority of morality and when the two coincide that law will have authority of both force and morality. Both the positive as well as natural laws should be based on the demand of justice.


Sophocles. 1947. The Theban Plays .Trans. E.F.Watling. Harmondsworth : Penguin Books ( Antigone ) pp. 127-162.

Plato . 1992 . Republic. Trans. G.M.A. Grube . Indianapolis :

Hackett. Aristotle. 1999 . Nicomachean Ethics . Trans. Terrence Irwin .

Indianapolis: Hackett. Augustine. 1984. The City of God . Trans. Henry Bettenson. London: Penguin Books.

Aquinas, T. 194. Summa Theologica. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. New York: Benziger Brothers.

Hobbes, T. 1994. Leviathan. ed. Edwin Curley.

Indianapolis: Hackett. Kant, I. 1991. Metaphysical Elements of Justice. Trans. John Ladd.

Indianapolis: Hackett. Rawls , J. 1971. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press.




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