How are idealism, realism, and rationalism reflected in Sophocles' play, Antigone?  

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator| Certified Educator


Idealism is the pursuit of high or noble principles, purposes, or goals.  In Sophocles' play Antingone, the character Antigone exemplified idealism when she decided to disobey Creon’s orders and bury her brother Polynices.  According to the laws of Zeus, when a person dies, the women in the person’s immediate family are responsible for carrying out the burial rituals.  Without the burial rights, a person’s soul cannot be released from the body to join the other’s who are dead and rest in peace.  If the body is dishonored then the soul remains dishonored.  In choosing to obey Zeus’s law above Creon’s, Antigone has acted idealistically by choosing what she believes to be the nobler pursuit.  Antigone believes that the gods’ laws stand higher than the kings and it is not within the king’s rights to disobey the laws of the gods.


Realism is the tendency to view or represent things as they really are.  Ismene’s actions are a very good example of realism.  Ismene is completely against Antigone’s decision to bury their brother.  Ismene sees in her life that she has lost nearly her entire family—first she lost her mother and father, now she has lost both her brothers.  Ismene sees clearly the reality of the situation that if Antigone goes against Creon’s command, Antigone will be killed and Ismene will have lost her entire family.  For Ismene, preventing the certain death of what little remains of her family and not living life completely alone is a stronger motive than any idealistic reasoning about the importance of Zeus’s law over Creon’s.  All Ismene sees is the reality that if Antigone disobeys Creon, she will die, and Ismene doesn’t want that to happen.


Rationalism is the principle or habit of accepting reason as the supreme authority in matters of opinion, belief, or conduct.  New King Creon very clearly exemplifies rationalism.  After King Oedipus’s death, Eteocles inherited the throne.  Eteocles and Polynices were engaged in battle because Polynices challenged his brother’s rule.  When both brothers were killed, the throne was left to Creon, Antigone’s uncle.  Creon considered Polynices’ attack on Eteocles’ rule as high treason.  For that reason, he decreed that no one should give Polynices proper burial and that his body should be left to rot as a warning to other rebels.  Creon acted thusly solely out of interest of protecting his kingdom.  Creon gave no further thought to laws already decreed by the gods, but considered himself the sole authority.  Thus Creon acted solely out of rationalism.





davmor1973 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Antigone has an idealistic understanding of what's right and wrong. It doesn't matter that King Creon has expressly forbidden her from burying Polyneices; she answers to a higher law, the law of the gods. At the same time, there's no doubt that Antigone is behaving in a perfectly rational manner in paying homage to the gods. Why shouldn't she? Currying favor with the gods was thought essential for the ancient Greeks. So honoring the gods is undoubtedly a smart move on Antigone's part, irrespective of what consequences she might face.

To some extent, Creon's behavior could also be seen as rational, if rather stubborn. He is king, and the king's word is law. If he starts being selective about which laws to enforce, it would set a dangerous precedent, leading to potential instability within his realm. There's certainly a touch of realism to his actions, initially at any rate. However, as the plot develops, Creon's actions come to seem neither rational nor especially realistic. Realism only seems to hit home finally with the tragic deaths of his wife and son.

Ismene's realism is more, well, realistic. She's made the decision to obey Creon without question, leading her to be portrayed in a somewhat cowardly light, certainly in comparison with Antigone. The king is king, and what he says goes. That's all there is to it. Ismene's behavior is also perfectly rational in that defying the king will lead to unpleasant consequences for her. If we put ourselves in Ismene's shoes we'll realize just how difficult it is for her to defy Creon under the circumstances and why her actions make sense from a rationalistic as well as a realistic standpoint.