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The trio of classic Greek texts, The Last Days of Socrates, Antigone, and The Eumenides all strike a contrast between public and private morality. In each work one person carries forth an unpopular action that he alone believes in, and must later justify the result that, while deemed unsatisfactory by the greater public, he feels was necessary for his own private conscience. For Socrates, philosophizing his version of the truth was his own private responsibility that was scorned by the public. Antigone’s loyalty lay with her brother rather than the state that decreed he not receive a proper burial. Orestes sought vengeance against his mother for killing his father, though that meant committing a heinous crime he knew would not be well received. Each hero challenged the absolutist notion of justice and shifted the public’s attention to a more relativist interpretation as he appealed to common sense rather than entrenched archaic tradition, and each one valued the word of the gods over the word of his human rulers.
In The Apology, Socrates defends himself against the charge of “…committing an injustice, in that he inquires into things below the earth and in the sky, and makes the weaker argument defeat the stronger, and teaches others to follow his example.” (19b) In other words, he is accused of delving into supernatural matters others rely upon the gods for, is a sophist, and corrupts the youth. To justify his role as philosopher, Socrates first reminds his accusers of the oracle’s proclamation that he is the wisest man alive. Though he erases some of the blatant immodesty from this statement by attesting that the oracle truly meant “The wisest of you men is he who has realized, like Socrates, that in respect of wisdom he is really worthless,” (23b) the appeal to the gods is a technique of justice that Socrates knows is infallible; no mortal can refute the opinion of deities.
Socrates furthers his claim for the necessity of his proselytism in his cross-examination of Meletus, a system in which he asks leading questions he knows the examined will agree to, thus allowing him to build up a counterpoint as he exposes the fallacious logic his opponent has employed. For Socrates, justice comes in the scientific form of deduction, not in random points thrown about haphazardly. Socrates asks Meletus “…who is it that makes the young good?” (24d) to which Meletus eventually concurs that everyone in “Athens has a refining effect upon the young, except [Socrates]; and [Socrates] alone corrupt[s] them.” (25a) This is an easy point for Socrates to refute as this time, instead of invoking a god’s statement, he uses an analogy of horse-trainers and horses to derive the logical statement “…that the ability to improve [horses] belongs to one person or to very few persons, who are horse-trainers, whereas most people, if they have to do with horses and make use of them, do them harm?” (25b) Syllogism is a staple of Socrates’s argument, because only through irrefutable logic, and not emotional appeal, can he exonerate himself.
After much more inference in hopes of acquittal, Socrates finally maintains that his allegiance is to God over his fellow mortals. He is a staunch believer in perseverance, as he claims “Where a man has once taken up his stand, either because it seems best to him or in obedience to his orders, there I believe he is bound to remain and face the danger…This being so, it would be shocking inconsistency on my part…when God appointed me…to the duty of leading the philosophic life…to desert my post.” (28d,e) He feels he is the chosen one and must continue his ways regardless of punishment. He would even deny the compromise of acquittal with the qualification that he cease philosophizing, for he reasons “I owe a greater obedience to God than to you…I shall never stop practising philosophy and exhorting you and indicating the truth…for I spend all my time going about trying persuade you…to make your first and chief concern…the highest welfare of your souls…” (29d,30b) This mulish sentiment is what eventually leads to Socrates’s punishment by death, but his point rings clear: justice should be interpreted logically, rather than emotionally, and the edicts of the gods and personal beliefs hold more substance than the orders of an unwise, unjustified public.
Sophocles’s Antigone begins with Oedipus’s two cursed daughters, Antigone and Ismene, discussing the public decree that forbids the burial of their brother Polyneices, who was a traitor to the state. Antigone sees the disobedience to this law as admirable, and tells the hesitant Ismene “soon you will show yourself as noble both in your nature and your birth, or yourself as base, although of noble parents.” (42-4) Antigone believes one’s actions form one’s character, and lineage plays no part. Ismene tries to soothe her sister’s anger in a self-subjugating monologue: “You ought to realize we are only women, not meant in nature to fight against men, and that we are ruled, by those who are stronger, to obedience in this and even more painful matters…I shall yield in this to the authorities.” (70-3,77) Ismene believes that justice is, in Thrasymachus’s words, the advantage of the stronger. Inferiors should bow to their leaders no matter how unfair the situation may seem. Antigone is a far more independent woman, and holds the immortal to a higher standard than the mortal: “The time in which I must please those that are dead is longer than I must please those of this world. For there I shall lie forever. You, if you like, can cast dishonor on what the gods have honored.” (86-9) Like Socrates, she values the gods and her personal beliefs more than the fickle orders of her rulers, and thus will perform proper death rites the gods would approve of for someone she loved, though that means certain death.
Creon soon enters the story as the leader who outlawed Polyneices’s burial. His philosophy as to the character of a man is outlined in a speech to the chorus: “It is impossible to know any man…until he shows his skill in rule and law. I think that a man supreme ruler of a whole city, if he does not reach for the best counsel for her, but through some fear, keeps his tongue under lock and key, him I judge the worst of any…” (195,97-201) He believes justice is that which aids the city the most; in this case, justice entails punishing a traitor and honoring a good citizen, as that encourages good behavior among his people. When Antigone is brought to him as the culprit of the burial, he cannot fully believe she would break his law, to which she replies “Yes, it was not Zeus that made the proclamation; nor did Justice…I did not believe your proclamation had such power to enable one who will someday die to override God’s ordinances…They are not of today and yesterday; they live forever…I know that I will die…But if I dared to leave the dead man…dead and unburied, that would have been real pain. The other is not.” (494-501, 504,510-2) Her reiteration of her convictions that the immortal and the personal prevail over the public does not phase Creon, who stubbornly sentences her to death, stating “I hate indeed the one that is caught in evil and then makes that evil look like good.” (538-40) His disdain for sophistry is apparent, but he refuses to see any point of view other than his own, even when the noted seer Teiresias explains that sacrificial rites are no longer accepted by the gods: “This is the city’s sickness?and your plans are the cause of it…So the gods will not take our prayers or sacrifice…All men can make mistakes; but, once mistaken, a man is no longer stupid nor accursed who, having fallen on ill, tries to cure that ill…It is obstinacy that convicts of folly.” (1072,6,80-5) Teiresias introduces here another element of justice, wisdom. Wisdom is the ability to select the right course of action, even if it means self-disavowal. Creon is steadfast in his opinion, though his desires conflict with the good of the city. It is only when his son kills himself in protestation that he admits “The mistakes of a blinded man are themselves rigid and laden with death.” (1339-40) He changes his mind only when motivated by personal emotion, not abstract theory, exactly what Antigone believed in when she disobeyed his command. Relativism has unseated absolutism even in the mind of the most headstrong, and once again common sense and obedience to the gods are given first order as the Chorus ends the play with the lines “Wisdom is far the chief element in happiness and, secondly, no irreverence towards the gods.” (1420-1)
Orestes, the matricidal hero of The Eumenides, explains his murder in a simple exposition to Athene: “It was my mother of the dark heart, who entangled [my father] in subtle gyves and cut him down…I came back and killed the woman who gave me birth. I plead guilty. My father was dear, and this was vengeance for his blood. Apollo shares responsibility for this. He counterspurred my heart and told me of pains to come if I should fail to act against the guilty ones.” (459-67) Since he valued the life of his father over that of his mother, he was just in killing her, and doubly so because of the encouragement he received from a god. The Chorus, the prosecution in his trial, believes, like Creon, in determent, and cries “Here is overthrow of all the young laws, if the claim of this matricide shall stand good, his crime be sustained. Should this be, every man will find a way to act at his own caprice…There are times when fear is good. It must keep its watchful place at the heart’s controls.” (490-5,517-9) Once again, private responsibility mixed with decrees of the gods conflict with the public good. Apollo, acting as Orestes’s lawyer, backs up Orestes’s previous statements, stating “Never…have I spoken a word, except that which Zeus…might command. This is justice. Recognize how great its strength…For not even the oath that binds you is more strong than Zeus is strong.” (616-21) He then goes on to minimize the importance of women: “The mother is no parent of that which is called her child, but only nurse of the new-planted seed that grows. The parent is he who mounts.” (658-60) It is this misogyny that swings the decision in Orestes’s favor, as Athene declares “…I am always for the male with all my heart…So, in a case where the wife has killed her husband…her death shall not mean most to me.” (737-40) Her vote breaks the jury’s tie, indicating the harsh divide among Greeks at the time concerning private versus public morality and its relations to justice.
Socrates, Antigone, and Orestes all contributed to the ever-evolving thrust of individualism and independent thought in ancient Greek. Using relativism and support from the gods (which was the Greek equivalent to the human psyche) to warrant their actions, they negated the prevailing sense of absolute acquiescence to the public that had previously hung over their states. Of course, tragedy was the result in all three cases, with the heroes themselves dying in two of them, so it is clear that acceptance of this newfound ideology was hard to come by. Still, public dominance was eroding as the Greeks could not avoid the strong rush of logic and personal commitment coming their way, a new blend of science and humanity, that would forever change the face of justice.
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