What role does religion play in government, as seen in Sophocles' Antigone?
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While it is true that religion does not factor into Creon's initial governing decisions, by the end of the play, he relents and does govern through the gods' laws instead of just his own. Creon, as the tragic hero of the story, proves to have the character flaws of being stubborn and tyrannical. It is especially Tiresias who finally convinces Creon to give up his stubborn and tyrannical nature and bend to the gods' will, proving that the play does consider religion an important factor in Ancient Greek rule. The play strives to show that, not only is Creon's line of thinking wrong and tyrannical, the laws of the gods stand on a far higher plane than man's laws.
It is Creon's son Haemon who first points out to Creon that he is acting tyrannically. Haemon argues that the whole city of Thebes believes it is unjust for Antigone to die in such a horrible way for such a noble deed. Creon, like a tyrant, then asks his son, "The city will tell me how I ought to rule it?" followed by the equally tyrannical, rhetorical question, "Isn't the city thought to be her ruler's?" (745, 749). In both instances, Haemon replies that his father is acting foolishly and that "this city does not belong to one man!" (748). In other words, the city of Thebes was not meant to be governed by a tyrannical ruler; rather, the ruler should pay attention to the city's wants and needs.
Later, even Tiresias argues that Creon is behaving foolishly and tyrannically by failing to honor the dead in the way that the gods command. As Tiresias phrases it, "Obstinacy brings the charge of stupidity. Yield to the dead, don't kick a fallen man!" (1031-33). Tiresias further prophecies that because Creon has disrespected the dead, the gods will seek revenge by first killing every one Creon holds dear and then torturing him in the underworld. Sophocles' point is to assert that it is a tyrannical ruler who believes no law stands above his own, not even the gods'. The chorus underscores this point perfectly in its final lines, saying, "Knowledge truly is by far the most important part of happiness, but one must neglect nothing that the gods demand" (1348-50). Hence, Sophocles is indeed making the point that a ruler must take all things into consideration when governing, even religion, as man's laws are certainly not the highest laws.
Religion plays a thematic role in Creon's government and is a tool to demonstrate his power. Religion is important to the play as it helps define the central conflict, but religion's role in the government is not central.
By making the decree that no one is to bury Polynices, he is dismissing the religious obligations of the remaining family members, specifically Antigone and Ismene. Ismene declares she is not strong enough to oppose the laws of man, but Antigone considers it her moral obligation to defy the state (embodied by Creon).
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