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In Sophocles’ play Antigone, Kreon, the warrior King may overrule Antigone, a mere woman’s, struggle for political power, but can he match Antigone’s resistance in a fight for political authority? Political power in a state rises from the presence of a force that exerts dominance. The public’s need for self-preservation allows for obedience to the one who holds that power in the fear of the consequences of disobedience. Political authority however, results from a belief of the moral correctness of a situation. Laws are obeyed not because there is no alternative but because it is morally just. In order to make a judgement of both Kreon’s decrees and Antigone’s rebelliousness, we must understand how both characters draw their justifications from each definition.
Kreon, a General during the First Peloponnesian War, is the epitome of power. When he is handed the throne and heralded as the King of Thebes however, he stumbles because political power and military power are completely different games. Kings may not make good warriors and warriors may not make good kings because one is not the prerequisite of the other. Kreon may be a king but he thinks like a soldier. In an army, obedience is praised and questioning of an order is non-existent. Soldiers obey without a question orders from their General and for that they are valued. In battle, generals must make decisions that serve the greater good for the general populous: sacrificing lives to protect the state and its people. The soldiers are considered as a unit and there is little room for individual voices and even less room for dissent and such is the way Kreon wants to rule Thebes. To establish his power, he wants to use Antigone’s death as a harbinger to others who might break his law.
By the social construct of the times, Kreon is as powerful as one could be shy of being a God. But where does his power come from? Political power is an empty thing when you have no one to exert it over. This means that Kreon’s power comes from the people: he only has as much power as the people are willing to give him.
Political power, as we’ve established is blunt and forceful. Obedience of the people is established through fear of punishment. Kreon rules by inducing fear because that’s the only way he knows how. His subjects obey him out of fear of the consequences of disobedience and not because what he says is always just. This festers an environment where one would be willing to abandon their moral compass to save their own skin. The sentry would turn Antigone in to save his own skin rather than follow what he believes is right if it meant risking his life. The chorus also echoes the sentiment that to risk death because of what you believe is foolish.
But while Thebes is not a democracy like Athens, a king needs the support of his people. Kreon’s son, Haimon appeals to Kreon on the basis of power – he suggests that public opinion of Antigone’s ruling is against Kreon and alienating the people will only lead to his own demise. Haimon tries to convince his father to find a balance by letting go of some political power and showing some political authority. The trees that bend in the face of the wind, Haimon explains, are those that survive the storm. Haimon who believes wisdom supreme and that “second [opinions] are valuable” urges his father to listen to others. For, he argues “whenever a man supposes that he alone has intelligence or expression or feelings,/ he exposes himself and shows his emptiness.”
Kreon, uncomprehending his son’s wisdom, believes that Haimon is trying to undermine his power as King. His blindness to see his own faults until it is too late leads to his eventual undoing.
Without the love or respect of his people, Kreon holds little to no political authority. As defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, authority is the “power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behavior”. In this way, political authority is much more powerful than political power in gathering support. One could argue that a King could use his position to carry out laws that would influence his people’s behaviour. But what about thoughts and opinions? That begs the question; to what extent is Kreon’s power limited? In other words, where does his authority come from and how far can it go?
Kreon believes the state is supreme and that it is his duty to be a tough ruler to show his loyalty to Thebes. He summons the people to bless him as they did the king before him and announces to the public that “the state will thrive through [his principles]”. Therefore, since he represents Thebes as its king, his will is sovereign. He explains the decree against burying Polyneices to the elders, and they agree that “law and usage, as I see it,/ are totally at your disposal/ to apply both to the dead and to us survivors” . It is important to note that although they agree with his decree, they are hesitant to enforce it, telling Kreon to let the younger guards do the “dirty work”.
Ismene also warns Antigone that the burial is against the king’s law but Antigone reasons that the Divine Laws of the Gods hold more authority than a mere mortal King’s. It is not so much important as what she believes in, but the fact that she rejects the authority of Kreon in favour of her own belief. This act of defiance shows that Antigone is not afraid of Kreon’s so called political power as King and stands on her own authority to challenge Kreon’s views. She questions “What divine and just law [has she] evaded?” proclaiming that Kreon’s laws are not laws made in heaven and therefore she does not have to obey them if she believes they are unjust. Her willingness to die to do her duty to Polyneices is a testament to her belief and symbolic of her authority. She believes to her death that doing what is right to her and the right use of her individual power.
It is no surprise that Kreon sees Antigone as a threat to his political authority. He claims that “[he is] no man-/she is a man, she’s the king/if she gets away with this”. This is a fascinating reversal of power that may seem paradoxical at first: to claim that Antigone is more of a threat than a man would be. As a woman living in Thebes at time, Antigone’s social status is no higher than a slave’s. Even Ismene pleads for her sister to be sensible for “[they] are women, born unfit to battle man;/and [they] are subjects, while Kreon is King”. But it is in her worthlessness that the dilemma arises. If he gives in to her, he will be shamed. First, as she is his niece, doing so would seem like an act of favoritism. Secondly, she is a mere woman and yielding to her would make him seem weak.
There is something undeniably fresh about Antigone’s tragedy. As with many cases in Ancient Greek tragedies, the characters blame the prophecies for their misfortune and use it to excuse their actions. Antigone however, admits to her actions and therefore sets her own life in stone, quite literally. Although the chorus and many others call her foolish for asking for her own death, it is the only true brave act in the entire play and is also the only true example of a moment of political authority.
Antigone’s resistance to Kreon’s authority is an act of political heroism. Antigone says no to all she finds offensive and in this sense she is more powerful than the ruler beholden to his throne. Her staunch belief in what she believes is right proves to be more powerful than a ruler that depends on his throne to make his arguments. Antigone has more power of the mind, that is to say, she thinks for herself and therefore says her mind with more certainty and more authority. Despite all his titles of power, Kreon finds himself helpless, unable to act on his own. To have authority you must believe in what you are saying and it’s not hard to see whose resolve lasted the test of time.
Although Kreon is inexperienced as king, what’s important to remember is that he is not a villain. In fact, Kreon values peace, stability and unity and he also knows that a fair ruler should rule with judgement from others.
But most things are much easier said than done. Kreon has and always will put the state first, believing that “the state is safety. / [and when] she is steady, then we can steer./[and then] we can love . Kreon ill-thinks that he will lose his supporters and leadership and bring chaos if he gives in to the people. But those of us with the advantage of hindsight and greater knowledge knows that to give citizens of the state the freedom to express individual thoughts, ideas and opinions and have them heard to the best of the state’s ability is imperative to the stability and success in its unity. The fatal error in Kreon’s judgement is that he doesn’t see that the only way to hold political power over the people is to root it in political authority.
It may not come as a surprise that Plato rejected Kreon, a military man, for the power of the throne. Plato believed that only those who have higher knowledge should rule over others. As portrayed in his infamous cave-analogy, it is the philosopher that goes to seek the truth and finds it. Thus, Plato’s ideal king is a philosopher king. He creates Kreon’s character using traits of a Machiavellian: one who approaches politics as an art of power. As Machiavelli once said ‘it is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both’ and believed that ‘politics have no relation to morals’. The chief architect of his own demise, Kreon sacrifices morals to achieve power through a reign of fear. Plato paints Kreon in a negative light as an example of abuse of power because he believes that politics should be an art of justice.
The infuriating notion of the concept of justice is that there is no right or wrong. Kreon is not trying to become a dictator nor is Antigone trying to overthrow the State. Each is only doing what they think are right. The underpinning conflict between Antigone and Kreon lies in their opposing beliefs on how one should rule. Had Kreon slackened the reins on his hold of political power or had Antigone showed political authority in a different manner, their objectives might have reached a compromise. Antigone, stubborn until the end, literally hangs for her beliefs and Kreon, scared of losing his political power and authority if he gives in, ends up losing everything. In the play’s final verdict, it seems as if Kreon’s political power does manage to trump Antigone’s vie for political authority. But what we have left to ponder over is if Kreon came out on top then why is he left a broken man? If his laws are supreme then why is he the one left with bruises?
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