by Anna Northrop
It is the dark hour of midnight in the city of Thebes. Civil war has rocked the land, leaving a new ruler named Creon in charge. In the bloodshed, Creon’s niece Antigone has lost two brothers—each to the other’s sword; one in the name of the city and the other as a traitor to the people. The first brother has been given a proper burial, while Creon has established an edict threatening death to any man who tries to bury the second. The victim of loss and misfortune, Antigone, as a young unmarried woman is especially susceptible to external forces, desperately needing something to ground her. Unable to recognize her own distraught state of being, Antigone instead draws deeply upon what she has always depended—her gods. Born into a ‘doomed’ family, Antigone has never known a life of free thought. Rather, for the entirety of her existence, she has been anchored to a destiny she feels is predetermined and beyond her control. The death of her brothers exacerbates this circumstance, thrusting Antigone into a state of complete, reckless dependence upon gods whose designs on human experience are anything but generous.
Free will is the ability to make choices independent of external pressures. That is to say, man exercises free will in the public sphere only when his actions reflect a process of reasoning that is unobstructed, deliberate, and unique to him. The act of burying her brother Polynices, the traitor, against Creon’s edict shows not a carefully reasoned act of free will on Antigone’s part, but is rather a display of blind loyalty, presupposed obligation, and thoughtlessness.
Antigone’s unwavering devotion to the gods of underworld renders her unable to create unique ideas and instead, causes her to subconsciously filter every thought through a set of constrictive, predetermined values. Making matters worse, Antigone is cognitively unaware that she has given up her freedom and believes herself to be acting of her own accord. In reality, the gods are acting through the passive medium that is Antigone, and as the French anthropologist Jean-Pierre Vernant writes in his essay on Imitations of Will in Greek Tragedy, “these religious powers are not only present outside the subject; they also intervene at the heart of his decision, subjecting him to constraint even in what were claimed to be his ‘choices’” (Vernant 52). Antigone exemplifies just this: under the guise of a choice she gives Polynices burial rights. However free-thinking this action may seem, the thought process that delivered her at that decision was highly pressured and entirely influenced by a set of un-written, presupposed expectations set forth by her gods. Antigone’s mind is so deeply engrained with a need to appease her immortal superiors that in her mind, she would have seen no option other than to lay her brother to rest. This inability to conceive of an alternative shows that Antigone’s actions are completely unreasoned and are likely preformed based on an innate feeling implanted within her by the gods; rather than on a process of careful, unguided internal deliberation.
Though on the large scale Antigone is unaware of the extent to which she is controlled by the gods, she does assume mortal inferiority to them. Antigone embraces the notion that the immortal—including both the gods and the dead—are superior to all mortal beings. In believing so, Antigone slips into a submissive role in which the gods are free to manipulate her in any manner they so desire. Amidst the stress of loss, Antigone regresses more deeply into this condition and assumes the role of a wholly passive agent. In speaking to Creon Antigone says, “Nor did I think your edict has such force that you, a mere mortal, could override the gods, the great unwritten, unshakable traditions. They are alive, not just today or yesterday: they live forever, from the first of time, and no one knows when they first saw the light. Their laws—I was not about to break them, not out of fear of some man’s wounded pride, and face the retribution of the gods” (Sophocles 503-11). Antigone’s display of intense devotion to the gods in this passage emphasizes her perceived status of inferiority and also highlights the corruption of her capacity for thought and judgement. To Antigone, Creon’s edict is trivial because he—like her—is a mortal and therefore holds no power in the hierarchy of the supreme. The quote makes evident the fact that Antigone will stop at nothing to uphold her duties to her ancestral laws and bury Polynices; suggesting that her actions may actually be those of a supreme power that has overtaken and perverted her rational mind. It is thus proven that she is unable to exercise free will because not only do external pressures influence her thoughts, but because external pressures are the only influence on her thoughts. In fact, in being so entirely influenced Antigone should be considered a possessed—rather than a dynamic, thinking—individual.
Antigone believes that any consequences her mortal body may endure in disobeying Creon are irrelevant so long as she pleases the gods. Her flagrant disregard for her own life is so extreme that it cannot be informed by logic, but instead must be derived from crazed, blinding passion. A mad, insatiable desire to please the gods sits at the epicenter of Antigone’s thoughts and is the locus from which all of her actions emanate. Early in the play she declares to her more practical sister, Ismene, who refuses to disobey Creon’s edict:
I will bury him myself. And even if I die in the act, that death will be a glory. I will lie with the one I love and loved by him—an outrage sacred to the gods! I have longer to please the dead than please the living here: in the kingdom down below I’ll lie forever. Do as you like, dishonor the laws the gods hold in honor (Sophocles 86-90).
In this instant, Antigone’s lack of free will is crystallized. She cannot fathom that anyone would dare upset the gods simply to please a mortal. Antigone’s diction illuminates her inflamed mindset: she interrupts herself with a burst of fury exclaiming mid-thought, “an outrage sacred to the gods!” She is so enraged by circumstance and so enraptured by the supreme that she cannot even formulate simple rational speech. Antigone is incapable of developing any thought that deviates from the rigid mental path formed by the gods within her. Antigone is thus not the author of her actions: it not a conscious nor free choice to bury Polynices. Rather, Antigone acts as if in a trance—her will is entirely vacant from her person. She does, without having consciously deliberated or weighed the consequences in her own mind.
Antigone is helpless: she is a tragic character caught in a web of divine actions that are beyond her understanding. Vernant writes on the nature of the tragic character’s action, “Because his actions take place within a temporal order over which he has no control and to which he must submit passively, his actions elude him; they are beyond his understanding” (Vernant 82). Antigone exemplifies this idea. She believes, on some level, that it is her choice to give Polynices burial rights. Rather, powerless to the gods and her ancestral deities, Antigone is an unconsciously self-destructive medium through which the divine are exercising a higher order. The chorus attempts to explain this to Antigone in her final moments in saying, “Your own blind will, your passion has destroyed you” (Sophocles 962). They attempt to show Antigone that the principles and unwritten laws of the gods have taken possession of her mind. In effect, the gods prayed upon her in a moment of crisis and weakness—like a parasite—transforming her into a surrogate through which they operate. Antigone becomes entirely engulfed in the flame of an intangible and indiscernible passion that both blinds and silences her rational being. In essence, so consumed is Antigone by the supernatural, that through the denial of her free will she ultimately ceases even to be.
Antigone is a prisoner to the gods. Her every thought and action is shackled to the ideals of her deities, rendering her completely incapable of unique personal thought. She is chained to the obligations of her ancestors; born into a world and mindset in which free will is impossible for her to attain or exercise. She is captive to her desire to please the gods and therefore blind to the concept of a world in which she an independent agent whose actions are the result of unmediated, original thought.
Sophocles. The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus. New York: Penguin Books, 1984. Print.
Vernant, Jean-Pierre and Pierre Vidal-Naquet. Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece. Trans. Janet Lloyd. New York: Zone Books, 1990. Print.