The Ideal of Justice in the Greek νόμος (‘nómos’)

The Sacra Flameno has published this article for the benefit of the Sandum people to understand the social and cultural parameters of Greek religion and the laws of states in Sophocles’s play Antigone.

The Ideal of Justice in the Greek nomos

Sophocles’s Antigone, performed at the Great Dionysia of 443 BCE,[1] displays the conflict between state and religious law in the context of ancient Thebes, conceived as seven centuries before the radically democratic Athenian audience would have seen the play. For the Athenians, the conflict between religious law and state or human law would be controversial at a time of great philosophical discourse between Sophists and traditionalists,[2] as it is now between liberals and conservatives. For the Sophists, human law was the only applicable law for humans in a world void of gods; however, for the tradition-bound Athenian, religious obligations were imperative for a just world which the gods took part in. Similar links can be drawn to our society, where a similar debate is on-going between religious fundamentalists who follow their interpretation of god’s law and social liberals who perpetuate human liberty. This modern dilemma is extended to the issue of civil strife in a democratic society, where citizens must be flexible and humble in respect to others’ liberties. However, it goes without saying that the relationship between both our predominately monotheist society and the Greek polytheist society is not so simple.

In the society of the play, however, both individuals face a right versus right ethical dilemma, which is based on two different religious interpretations. Whereas Creon interprets the rule of human law – therefore, in his tyranny, the rule of his law – as the supreme form of the gods’ will,[3] Antigone interprets the religious traditions of the polis as imperative and superseding human law.[4] Sophocles used his tragic storyline and moment of recognition to express his traditionalist message, warning the audience against arrogance in the face of the gods – certainly a message that was important for increasingly imperialistic Athens under the de facto leadership of Pericles. To a traditionalist such as Sophocles, the gods’ collective justice was to be both feared and revered, and should be the guiding spirit of the law; to be irreverent to the gods and the spirits of the dead, as Creon is in the play, is to be illiberal – thus, undemocratic – and to undermine the gods’ support of the polis. Sophocles would argue that all citizens possessed a moderate capability determining the laws in the democratic polis of Athens and a humility that one’s beliefs may be wrong, a view synonymous with the flexible and polytheist religious tenets found in Antigone; whereas, Sophists of the time – such as Plato – would have accepted the efficiency of the oligarchical system of Sparta, whose constitution bears similarities with that of Creon and the Elders in Antigone.[5]

Creon’s response to whether citizens should follow an unjust law for the sake of human peace is two sided, reflecting the character development in Antigone. Before his point of recognition, Creon would agree that citizens should follow a law for the sake of human peace, as he decrees with the interdiction of proper religious rites for Polynices. He would, however, argue that his law was just, as he decrees “Never, while I rule, Will a criminal be honored higher than a man of justice” (207-208) before the Elders. As a result of Polynices’s treasonous betrayal of Thebes, Creon certainly believes that such criminals deserve no just burial or honour worthy of the city’s consideration. Furthermore, because of the religiosity of his reign, Creon would argue that his law reflects the divine nature of the polis, and all citizens must recognise the sanctity of its laws.[6] When Creon addresses the council of Elders, he invokes and calls the witness of all-seeing Zeus that he “will never hold [his] tongue […] when ruin is afoot or the city is not safe” (184-186), thereby linking the Zeus’s rule over humanity to his own rule over Thebes. Later, when Creon speaks to the Elders following the first instance that Antigone performs the sacred burial rites, the Elders believe the gods are “behind this piece of work” (279). Creon responds with rhetoric and a philosophical approach that no gods could have buried Polynices, for they would never devote their care for a man who came to burn the altars and shrines of the gods (282-288). Later in the same scene, Creon invokes Zeus once more in speaking of his oath he vowed before the council of Thebes’s elders by promulgating the law to not allow Polynices’s burial. In sum, the treason and sacrilegious intents of Polynices, as well as Creon’s vow to Zeus that Polynices’s corpse shall suffer dishonor by remaining unburied, convince Creon of the justice of his law’s interdiction of Polynices’s burial. For Creon to break his vow later would mean Creon would have broken a sacred vow to the gods, thereby making him unjust alongside Polynices.

However, Creon eventually begins to acknowledge his fault after the prophet Tiresias threatens Creon with the prophecy that Haemon shall perish because of his arrogance. Tiresias rebukes Creon’s arrogance, after trying to reason with him, by telling him Furies sent by Hades shall ambush Creon (1068-1076). Creon recognizes his fault, allowing him to realize the injustice of his law and the strife it has caused with the violence he has “committed against [the gods]” (1073). Creon rushes to reconcile his faults by burying Polynices and freeing Antigone, before he discovers she has killed herself – thus leading to Haemon’s death and, in turn, his wife’s. Therefore, after his recognition, Creon would respond to the statement that an unjust law does not keep peace, but instead causes violent strife and Dysnomia.[7] When this unjust law is established on a bed of arrogance, as in Creon’s case, the law risks violating the liberty needed in supplicating the many gods, whose practices and rites are not as simple and straight-forward as Creon’s decree. Violent anarchy erupts when an unjust law can not bend to the flexible needs of the people, as the chorus of elders speaks at the end of the play: “Great words, sprung from the head of arrogance, are punished by great blows” (1351-1352).

Antigone would undoubtedly respond to Creon’s second answer in much the same way. To her, justice is more important than the law and the law must respect the justice of the gods. When she was apprehended and brought before Creon, she responded to his queries that she “never heard it was Zeus Who made that announcement [of the law]” (450-451), that Creon’s law was not justice (452), and that Creon was incapable of trampling the “gods’ unfailing, Unwritten laws” (454-457). Creon’s final, flexible answer concerning the individual’s liberty in revering the gods is magnified in Antigone’s reaction to the conflict of justice versus law. Antigone would reason that obedience to the law is not necessarily the securer of peace but, rather, that peace is secured when the rights and liberties of others are respected, especially concerning the right to worship and to supplicate the gods freely. As a result, an individual’s reverence to the gods and the art of rituals necessary for important familial events, such as the death of a brother, are an individual’s concerns, and not those of the state. As such traditions and rites vary from family to family and god to god, what appears to the modern audience is the stern belief in the liberty of individual religious practices which are untouchable by human laws. Creon breaks the fragile peace after the civil war by refusing to respect and acknowledge Antigone’s right to perform the proper funerary practices, perhaps due to his misogyny manifest in his argument with Haemon (677-680). While at a glance for the modern audience, it appears that Antigone seeks to reconcile human law to the gods’ law,[8] thus violate the liberty of others’ freedom of choice.[9] Antigone’s reconciliation to the gods is a reconciliation to liberty, however. As discussed above, it appears that Antigone desires both to legislate according to religious law and to respect the religious rights of others. The Greeks, such as Antigone, would not have seen our modern contradictory dilemma. They believed in many gods with many epithets, whose worship and whose cults differed. In a sense, by legislating according to the gods’ justice, Antigone’s reverence acknowledges that the gods’ justice, which appears in many forms and rituals, is an ideal that seeks to respect the right to worship freely. Therefore, each individual possesses an ability to interpret the gods according to their own faith. This belief in the rights of individuals over their religious practices is subversive in a tyrannical system that Antigone lived in, as even a lowly woman can trump the autocratic authority of a tyrant. Antigone’s free expression of her faith in the gods leads to her death in tyrannical Thebes, but the Athenian audience would have understood well the rights and liberties of other Athenian citizens in the realm of worship. In response to Creon’s assertion that Antigone glories in her crime, Antigone points out that the Elders “would tell you they’re rejoicing Over that [burial for Polynices], if [Creon the tyrant] hadn’t locked their tongues with fear” (504-506). Thus, Antigone believes it the duty of all good citizen to obey proper laws, those which are just in the many interpretations of the divine.

As a traditionalist, Sophocles would agree. Sophocles lived at a time when the Sophists were questioning religious institutions by using rhetoric and held private discussions for those who paid. During his life, those intellectuals and the tyrants who still ruled poleis were undermining traditional reverence to the gods.[10] The attacks of philosophers on traditional reverence hardened Sophocles into a traditionalist who would have sided with Antigone in arguing that laws must be just by allowing for greater flexibility in religion and society. The Athenian playwright appears to be staunchly anti-tyranny, as one can see with the way in which his tyrants are eventually toppled by their own fates.[11] Sophocles would agree that the law is subservient to liberty, especially in a democratic society, and that the citizens should be able to rebel against unjust laws as Antigone does. Sophocles also disdains the works of Sophists in his play and argues that their use of rhetoric can undermine the protection of individual liberties and, instead, can enforce an inflexible obedience to the law. Before Creon comes to the point of recognition, he argues before the elders using rhetoric, which makes him arrogant and leads to his downfall.[12] By linking rhetoric with tyranny, Sophocles would certainly disagree that unjust laws – which, in democracies, would be overturned – lead to peace, but instead lead to civil 4

strife and dysnomia. Although the law is a human creation, Sophocles would assert that laws can work to reflect the gods’ law and acknowledge the competence and rights of each individual citizen. Sophocles argues that those who strive to follow the gods’ laws and to correct or overturn unjust and inflexible laws through democratic means are just and the perfect citizens for a democracy.

Through Antigone, Sophocles raises a key conclusion for democratic, liberal, and multicultural societies. Much as Creon is destroyed by his own arrogance because of violating others’ religious expression, Sophocles presents the eternal democratic conflict of possessing flexibility in the law by defending the rights of citizens. The two major characters that Sophocles presents both conclude at the same place: that the gods’ justice is uninterpretable except for the individual, and that the law should respect the individual interpretations of that divine justice in a cohesive, democratic manner. For Sophocles, this was an important argument to make at a time when Athenian philosophers argued against democracy and for a laconic obedience to the law; for us, in our modern age, this is an important argument to make when we must reconcile multiculturalism and our liberties with religious fundamentalists who, in our sense of “religious traditionalism”, seek to impose their interpretations of divine justice upon us, as Creon imposed human law – or human interpretation of divine justice – on Antigone. Antigone provides an argument for respecting others’ interpretations of the gods and their justice – a respect that is manifested in the flexibility of democratic societies. Sophocles completes this argument by considering dysnomia, which is represented by Creon’s inflexibility and Thebes’s civil strife in the play. Sophocles’s argument is vital for understanding our own society’s dysnomia by considering the turning point between flexibility in individual rights and civil society, and the inflexibility of tyrants in regards to other citizens’ liberties. In sum, Sophocles’s Antigone provides an argument and a framework for the democratic value of flexibility and humility in civil society – a value which can not be manipulated by tyrants or fundamentalists alike.


Sophocles. Antigone. Trans. Paul Woodruff. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2003. Print.

Woodruff, Paul, and Peter Meineck. Introduction. Theban Plays. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2003. Print.

Hollister, Charles Warren, and Guy MacLean Rogers. Roots of the Western Tradition: A Short History of the Ancient World. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008. Print. 8th ed.

Plutarch. “Life of Lycurgus”. On Sparta. Trans. Richard J. A. Talbert. New York: Penguin Classics, 2005. Revised ed.

Hale, John. R. The Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy. New York: Penguin Group, 2009.

[1] Eckstein, pg. 24

[2] Hollister, pg. 141 & 123-124.

[3] Eckstein, lecture on 10/9, noted in “The Chorus in Praise of Man” on pg. 24 of Course Packet.

[4] Sophocles, 450-460.

[5] Plutarch explains the Spartan constitution in his Life of Lycurgus, where the two kings reign as a part of the Spartan Gerousia which is comprised of 28 other elders; such is a similar constitution in Sophocles’s Antigone.

[6] I owe this point to Professor Eckstein, who noted the sanctity of the polis and of its politics having been guided by the Fates and by the gods on 10/9 on the topic of “The Chorus in Praise of Man” (see note 4).

[7] Dysnomia, or personified “bad order”, is the opposite of Eunomia, the goddess of the Good Order of a polis; Plutarch speaks of Eunomia and Dysnomia in his Life of Lycurgus (chapter 2) and certainly the audience would have understood the two goddesses’ role in the difference between Creon’s initial stance and his final one.

[8] That is, that Antigone wishes Creon to legislate according to the gods’ law. To the modern audience, it may appear that Antigone would be proponent of theocratic rule under the tyrants.

[9] This is a modern perception – that legislating according to religion is illiberal or inflexible.

[10] Introduction, pg. ix of Theban Plays, see bibliography.

[11] As is the case with Oedipus and Creon.

[12] I owe this point to the authors of the Introduction, who note that those who use rhetoric in Sophocles’s plays are not good and eventually fail.

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