Absolutism and Power in Sophocles’ Antigone

In the Greek tragedy, Antigone, by Sophocles, the King of Thebes, Creon, fails tragically as a leader due to his absolutism in three forms: ignorance, paranoia, and hubris. These same characteristics seem shockingly similar to those of the current US President.

The play, Antigone, is the last of the trilogy following the tragedies of the family of Oedipus in the kingdom of Thebes. Antigone concerns Oedipus’s daughter/sister, for whom the play is named. It takes place shortly after Antigone’s brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, meet in battle, one brother fighting for Thebes, the other brother fighting against. In the midst of battle, they dealt each other the fatal blow simultaneously. The King of Thebes, Creon, Antigone’s uncle, has declared an edict, stating that one brother will be treated as hero with a soldier’s funeral and the other brother who fought against Thebes, will be treated as a traitor: left in a field, uncovered, to be devoured by carrion birds and wild dogs. Antigone is loyal to both her brothers and subverts the king by covering her dead brother, allowing him travel into the underworld. Creon discovers this fact and orders her to be executed for disobeying him. Creon’s son, Haimon, betrothed to Antigone, argues with his father, stating that his people disagree with him and fear his temper. Creon decides to not kill Antigone directly, but imprison her within a cave without sustenance. Tiresias, a blind prophet, warns Creon of his pride. Creon changes his mind and marched down to Antigone’s cell. He arrives to see Haimon clutching Antigone’s body, wrung on a noose after she committed suicide. Haimon then stabs himself. The queen then commits suicide due to her son’s death. With his immediate family dead, Creon suffers in his overwhelming grief.

The King, Creon, first fails as a leader by being ignorant to the wishes of his people. In Scene I, as Creon declares his intentions to differ the burial rituals for the traitor, Polyneices, in a portly speech addressed to the chorus, swimming in pretentious declarations. He states, “As long as I am King, no traitor is going to be honored with the loyal man”(Sophocles 193). This reveals a great deal about the King’s definitive stance. He has set his objective and thus his values. In doing so, by forming his own hardy opinions, he disregards the rituals of the people he has promised to rule. He holds this viewpoint, without the consultation of his people, as law, as if the entire of Thebes is behind him. This blatant ignorance is a determining factor in the rigid absolutism of his rule, which led to Creon’s downfall. In relation to President Trump, Trump has continually been ignorant of the wishes of the United States in terms of immigration: imposing harsh immigration laws and generating the continuing tragedy of family separation, thus disregarding the tradition of immigration in all American families.

Not only is Creon ignorant to the wishes of his people, but he fails to comprehend how deeply important the beliefs and customs of his people are. When Antigone is brought victoriously in by the sentry to meet the King in full admittance of her supposed crimes, Creon questions why she dared to defy the law. She retorts, “Your edict, King, was strong, but all your strength is weakness itself against the immortal unrecorded laws of God. They are not merely now: they were, and shall be operative forever, beyond man utterly”(Sophocles 208). The king possesses a startling ignorance of the rituals and gods of his people in making laws that contradict them and then being unwilling to change them. Within a religious society, such as Thebes, being cognizant to practices of his people, especially in regard to important matters like death and burial in a society that believes in an afterlife. The absolute quality of his ignorance, as shows little knowledge of how he disrupted traditions, ends up guiding his downfall. Likewise, President Trump not only opposes immigration, but fails to understand how this country was made by immigrants, and how important immigrants are to the economy and the continued well-being of this country. In addition, he acts ignorant of the mutual benefits of trade with other countries and proceeds to install steep tariffs, tarnishing the relationship with these important countries and partners. Additionally, President Trump has repeatedly attacked the press, seemingly unaware that the idea of free press is a hallmark in this country.

Third, the King is ignorant, because he does not realize he rules out of fear. During the confrontation between father, Creon, and son, Haimon, Haimon spits out, “All these men here would praise me were their lips not frozen shut in fear of you. Ah the good fortune of kings, licensed to say and do whatever they please!”(Sophocles 210). Before this, Creon is convinced he rules as a strong, disciplined leader, but Haimon reveals a flaw in Creon’s leadership. He governs through a system of fear, as no one would dare disagree with him. When this is plainly spoken to him, as only a son could convey, the absolutism of his ignorance is dismantled. But the damage of his previous absolutist stance has already affected his leadership, leading ultimately to his downfall. Similarly, President Trump rules his administration unsteadily, because people are fearful of his temperamental absolutist decisions and tweets. He has proven in the past to selectively pick out what he decides is true. When a declaration is declared false, he refuses to admit his falsehood. For example, President Trump still stands by his declaration that he had the largest crowd at his inauguration, although it has been thoroughly rebuffed by several sources,

The second way Creon blunders is through a bumbling paranoia. After Creon finds out, a mysterious stranger covered Polyneices’s body within the swell of night, he catapults into a rage, wringing his words left and right at the Sentry, sent to notify him of the disturbance. He belligerently states, “No, from the very beginning there have been those who have whispered together, stiff-necked anarchists, putting their heads together, scheming against me in alleys. These are the men and they have bribed my own guard to this thing”(Sophocles 201). This demonstrates the dangerous paranoia the King possess. His paranoia presents itself by immediately accusing his own men of disobeying him. His words declare that he does not trust in his own men. He holds an absolutist view that others in the castle have conspired against him, unable to be convinced otherwise, thus he fails by being an absolutist leader who distrusts his own people. The recent anonymous Op-Ed in the New York Times declaring a resistance in the White House for the purpose of barring the President from disastrous decisions sent President Trump into a fury. According to his son, President Trump has been unable to sleep due to his anxiety over the identity of the anonymous person. In this way, President Trump, unlike Creon, may be justified in his paranoia of his own staff, but the discombobulation of both of their administrations is tied together by a paranoid lack of trust.

When Creon is faced before both of the sisters, Ismene and Antigone, his nieces/sisters. Antigone having plead guilty to the previously stated crime. He turns to Ismene next, accusing her of partaking in the illegal burial. She is, however, innocent, but he persists in accusing her. Then states, “And all this time I never knew that these two sisters were aiming at my throne!” The King’s paranoia causes him to suspect mutiny in any act. He spouts unfounded conspiracies, convinced that people are colluding against him, trying to usurp him. This precarious idea that it is the King, himself, is the only one he can trust, does not bode well for a well-machined kingdom. The King’s inability to trust anyone is an absolutist stance. President Trump has shown an analogous inability to trust beyond his own family. There is a frequent overturn of high ranking officials in the West Wing, unprecedented among other administrations, from Tillerson to Hicks to Bannon to Priebus to Comey to Scaramucci, often coupled with furious tweets by Trump.

During Scene III, when Haimon enters, Creon launches into a tirade, compelling his son to turn away from Antigone and be to subordinate to his will. He then leads into a tangent, proclaiming: “Anarchy, anarchy! Show me a greater evil! This is why cities tumble and the great houses rain down...no, no: good lives are made so by discipline”(Sophocles 218). The swell of this outburst reveals Creon’s underlying paranoia and insecurity. He holds his kingship so tightly in his fist, the notion of something as dastardly as anarchy startles him, requiring an emotional outburst. Without government, Creon believes society falls completely apart. He demonstrates the weight of the responsibility he feels, as a leader, to make sure the city will not “tumble” on his watch. This image has clearly taunted him from afar. He is wary of his citizens as if they might want to spark anarchy, therefore imposing discipline to staunch the wound of anarchy. His own liability in possibly inducing anarchy strengthens his resolve, which results in a fervent paranoia of any of those pressing to rebel. This strong, absolutist stance translates into seeing no greyscale between obedience and anarchy. His paranoia, fueled by distrust and insecurity, guides him to convict Antigone, resulting in his ruin. Likewise, President Trump has frequently demonstrated to have shown anger at any protest. At a rally, he declared, “These radical Democrat protesters really want anarchy, but the only response they will find from our government is very strong law and order”, a statement eerily similar to that of King Creon. In response to legitimate protest, Trump is quick to label it anarchy.

The third way, Creon is weakened by his substantial hubris. In the beginning of a heated discussion between father and his son, Haimon. Creon is affronted by any insinuation that Haimon would desire him to change his mind on the issue of Antigone. “Do you want to show myself weak before the people? Or to break my sworn word? No, and I will not. The woman dies”(Sophocles 217). This quote depicts Creon’s pride in its hefty glory. He is set on these absolutist idea that to change your mind is to be seen as weak as he aligns weakness with breaking his word in the same thought. He stubbornly refuses to change his mind, lest he appear vulnerable in the eyes of his subjects. This unwieldy mixture of hubris and absolutism makes him a dangerous, headstrong leader, doomed to suffer because of his pride. Similarly, one crowning point of Trump’s campaign was his much talked about border wall. The fallacies in the various promises he declared have since been brought to light, but Trump has refused to change his mind. More so, when his Chief of Staff, John F. Kelly, spoke to the Hispanic Caucus and told them Trump had “evolved his idea of a border wall, Trump proceeded to publicly renounce his statement, declaring he had not evolved his wall in a tweet. Trump, like Creon, is offended by the suggestion that he had changed his mind.

The King’s pride also manifests in a reluctance to alter his decisions is reckoned by his kin. In an impassioned speech from son to father on the subject of the fate of Antigone, Haimon pleads with his father, “I beg you, do no be unchangeable: do not believe that you alone can be right. The man who thinks that, the man who maintains that only he has the power to reason correctly, the gift to speak, the soul-a man like that, when you know him, turns out empty. It is not reason never to yield to reason”(Sophocles 219). Haimon highlights the main motive of this essay. Haimon is begging the King to not be commanded by his pride: by thinking his words, his opinions are absolute. This is the most fatal characteristic of Creon. Creon’s pride governs over his reason. Haimon succinctly points this out. On the subject of Antigone, this trait rears as people come to Creon trying to wheedle doubt into his mind, but he is still blind to reason. Once he has made a decision, he is unable to reconsider. President Trump has demonstrated this same characteristic again and again. For Creon there is no pulling him off his course, until it is too late. The hubris and absolutism lead to the death of his entire immediate family.

The King flounders by being too proud to realize he is not the only voice worth considering in the city. This occurs during a fierce conversation between the King Creon and his son, Haimon, where Haimon proposes that the city would deny that Antigone was a criminal, thus wrong for her actions. Creon fights by by saying: “And the city proposes to teach me how to rule?...My voice is the one voice giving orders in this city? [Haimon] It is no city if it takes orders from one voice. [Creon] The state is the King! [Haimon] Yes, if the State is a desert”(Sophocles 220-221). This illustrates a telling difference in opinions between father and son. As the son is convinced that a multiplicity of voices should be heard, whereas the King sternly believes that his voice is the only one to be considered and thus obeyed. President Trump has assailed the press numerous times, suppressing the other voices within American society, especially the voices who have publicly disagreed with Trump. When an opinion is the only one spoken in a repressed society, it leads to a tyranny of thought that imposes an absolute monarchy upon its subjects.

Absolutism is the belief in a set of absolute principles in regard to political, philosophical, ethical or theological matters. Creon believes in absolutism: the absolutism of his status as King, the absolutism of submission, from all subjects including from his own son, the absolutism of his edicts, and thus his unwillingness to change these absolute principles, which results in his then inevitable downfall. In 2018, absolutism is on the rise in American politics, as politicians cling to their respective party lines, unwilling to change their opinions. The attributes of Creon are epitomized in the current President’s administration, his ignorance lies in the importance of trade, immigration, and the truth, his hubris is displayed in trade wars with Canada, Mexico, China and Europe, his disparaging of the Mueller Probe, and the president has grown increasingly paranoid with the anonymous Op-Ed threatening opposition in his midst, and his distrust results in the frequent overturn of high ranking officials. Creon and President Trump share several ruinous similarities, their personal failings and insecurities echoing at a national level. For Creon, they led to his downfall, for Trump, it is too soon to call. In conclusion, the King Creon failed tragically as a leader because he practiced absolutism in the form of: a detrimental paranoia, a resounding ignorance and a rampant pride.


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