Rawls, Antigone and the tragic irony of norms

Is civil disobedience justified when it invokes a moral objection to target a law that has been enacted through a legitimate process? The reason societies seek to establish a legitimate process in law making is because they want to set up common rules and norms which people who disagree with them will still have to abide by. However, history shows us many instances in which, even in a democratic system, civil disobedience both triggered and animated a debate on legitimately enacted rules and, often, led to their revision as well as the reform of the procedural rules that allowed their enactment in the first place.

Rawls’ position on civil disobedience struggles with this question. His position is that, once society has set up principles of justice in an institutional setting, acts of civil disobedience are just insofar as they appeal to the sense of justice of the majority and should be willing to bear the consequences of their actions. We may read the Rawlsian perspective as follows: these acts are still of value because they re-launch a process of public reasoning regarding the law itself.

However, the implications from this statement are broader and baffling. First, we don’t know how far this revision can go. Will it be allowed to cast doubt on the basic principles of justice which society previously agreed to observe? Can it challenge the procedural source of legitimacy for the contested norms?

Second, civic disobedience cannot be reduced to appeals to a sense of justice demanding the revision of law through the same process. Instead, the rationale behind civil disobedience reminds us that there will always be competing conceptions of justice that go as far as challenging the source of legitimacy – what some have come to accept as the just process may no longer seen as just by others. A society’s prior decision at a single historical moment that this is a just process for law making does not end the debate over different perceptions of justice concerning both norms and processes.

Moreover, acts of civil disobedience appear in moments in which different moral norms clash and judgment should be passed regarding which one takes precedence over the other. Episodes in the US history, particularly regarding the civil rights of African Americans, epitomize the important role of acts of disobedience in invoking a higher moral ground against norms approved by the majority through the institutions of a democratic system. We have learnt from history that these moments spawned animosities and brought about new episodes of conflict. They were emotionally disturbing episodes.

This implies that social contract theories tend to adopt an a-historical approach to norm-building and a, strangely- a-social view of public reasoning. Norm-building is seen as cleansed of emotions and often dismissive of the idea that there will be unintended and unforeseen consequences. A reduced historical and social conception of justice is what acts of civil disobedience reminds us of. The process of defining justice as norms and as process remains an open turf for never-ending, reflective social interactions that no constitutional moment can capture, crystallise and entrench indefinitely.

These three elements – the historicity and sociability of norms, normative contradiction, and the emotional dimension in the conflict over norms – is manifested in Sophocles’ masterpiece, Antigone. Sophocles’ theatrical play on civil disobedience was written around 441 BC, about 2,400 years before Rawls’s work. It conveys a nuanced message on norms, normative debates, public deliberation and reasoning, and sees the social nature of all as a human tragedy.

The play is set in the aftermath of a civil war in Thebes and the final battle which Thebes survives the attack of seven exiled Theban generals. One of the generals, Polynices, son of King Oedipus, fights his own brother, Eteocles, a defender of the city. In that fight, the two brothers kill each other.

Creon, the legitimate King of Thebes and uncle of the two brothers, issues a public order for Eteocles to be buried with honours and for Polynices to be left outside the walls to rot unburied as punishment for his betrayal. Creon also orders that whoever tries to bury Polynices’s body shall be arrested and executed.

Polynices’s sister, Antigone, defies Creon’s order and secretly buries her brother in accordance with the religious tradition that demands that the dead must be buried. Soon after, Antigone gets arrested and is brought by guards before Creon and the city. She chooses not to apologize for her actions or claim ignorance of law. Instead, she confronts Creon by invoking that the law of the gods is superior to the law of men.

Creon sentences her to death, publicly stating that everyone should be treated equally before the law. He would make no exception for her niece. Creon presents himself as a just leader who firmly adheres to ‘equality before the law’ even if that means he would sentence to death one of closest family members. The law, he stresses, is above everyone.

Antigone’s public act with an emotional appeal to the law of gods initially fails to trigger sympathy from the people of Thebes and Creon insists on his sentence. Antigone is taken off stage to be buried alive in a cave.

Creon’s own son and Antigone’s fiancé, Haemon, rushes to defend Antigone but he too fails to convince his father to change his decision. Even against his son, Creon reiterates his conviction that the law takes precedence over personal relations. But gradually the people of Thebes, the chorus of the play, changes its stance and starts showing more sympathy to Antigone’s drama.

In the next scene, a respected prophet named Tiresias makes a public interference. He tells Creon and the city that their neglect of the moral law will displease the gods and will bring more sorrow and pain to Creon’s family and the city of Thebes. The leader of the chorus changes his mind and asks Creon to reconsider his decision and set Antigone free. We are witnessing here that public is changing its views following a morally charged debate triggered by an act of civil disobedience. Antigone disobeyed the law guided by her love for her brother, but she was also honouring the law of the gods. Creon decides to spare Antigone. Emotions and fears have a drastic effect on public perceptions political decision making.

But Creon’s decision came too late. Antigone committed suicide. So did Haemon and, following the news of his death, her mother and Creon’s wife, Eurydice. The play ends with Creon devastated, isolated, discredited and vulnerable, and the city of Thebes descending back into chaos.

Rather than a clear clash between a hero and a villain, the two protagonists are tragic figures and so is the city itself. Creon wants to demonstrate that he is a prudent ruler who obeys the law that he rightfully sets. But he has to listen to the people he commands. His confrontation with Antigone is his own public act in which he defends his decision. The chorus, representing the people, initially sides with Creon but turns against him after observing a human drama unfolding and after hearing the menacing words of a prophet about the incoming doom. Perceptions of justice are drastically reshaped through an interplay of feelings, reasons and fears. Deliberation is emotionally charged.

Unlike Rawls, Sophocles’ theatrical play presents us with a richer blend of public reasoning, emotions, emotive responses, and unforeseen and unintended consequences in a debate over clashing norms and perceptions of justice. Creon – the personification of equal rules for everyone including his own relatives – is the legitimate political authority but his decision creates a personal and civic catastrophe. Thebes descends into a spiral of death and civil unrest. A just act of disobedience triggers a spiral of turmoil and tragedy. Emotions and personal affections guide decisions that produce unforeseen dramatic developments for the protagonists and the city as a whole.

The Greek drama is purposefully presented as a morally inconclusive story. Antigone had no initial intentions to make her actions a public statement and did not wish to bring down the entire political system. But after her arrest she did make a dramatic public defence of her stance invoking the moral law. Creon was surprised and angered, torn between his adherence to the rule of law and his duty towards his family. The Theban public watches all this astounded, emotional and anxious. This is far from a society that can be equilibrated into an orderly state. It cannot even rest secure about its own convictions.

Sophocles grasped much of what political theory tends to shy away from: the complexity and ambiguity surrounding normative thinking in human societies that tends to bring about tragic or fatal results for every system of norms shaken by its own contradictions. In short, Sophocles lyrically presents us the tragic irony of norms creation. Rather than taking a nomothetic stance, his play helps us reflect on the tragedy of human interactions from a nearly anthropological viewpoint.  

Sophocles allows the audience to pass their own judgment through both logical and emotional engagement. The audience is baffled by the merits of each of the opposing viewpoints – Creon’s defence of formal equality before the law and Antigone’s defence of a higher moral ground. But it is also touched and distraught by how tragic the protagonists are, trapped in the consequences of their own moral standing and reasoning. In Sophocles’ play, society is watching and reflecting on behaviors and norms through pathos, ethos and logos. After each performance, the verdict is a flow of tears rather than a canonical judgment.

Please keep it civil

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s