I recently picked up Sophocles’s Antigone. Sophocles wrote more than 100 plays in his lifetime but only seven complete tragedies remain.
In Antigone, Polynices, son of Oedipus, went to war with his brother, Eteocles, the ruler of Thebes, for control of the city. These two kill each other and their uncle, Creon, assumes control of the city.
Creon regards Polynices as a traitor. Accordingly, he denies his body a decent burial. He warns that anyone ignoring this edict shall be put to death.
Creon’s position is understandable. He’s trying to establish order, punish a traitor, and gain political authority. Yet he proceeds in ignorance, in the sense that he does not see the possible outcomes that may arise from his edict.
Antigone is the sister of Polynices and Eteocles. She’s clearly upset with this and defies Creon’s order to give her brother a proper burial. Antigone is convinced that Creon is wrong. To her he’s defying the authority of the gods and overstepping.
Antigone is arrested and confesses. Creon orders her death by sealing her in a cave, entombed alive.
Tiresias, the blind prophet, warns Creon. “Think, thou dost walk on fortune’s razor-edge.” He predicts that if Creon doesn’t change his mind and permit the burial of Polynices, the gods will curse Thebes. Disaster, of course, will naturally follow.
Creon recognizes the error of his ways and realizes he made a mistake. He orders Antigone to be freed and Polynices a proper burial.
Alas, this wouldn’t quite be a tragedy if things worked out so neatly.
Antigone has already hung herself. Her fiancé, who also happens to be Creon’s son, blames his father for her death. He tries to kill his father but accidentally ends up killing himself. Creon’s wife, Eurydice, hears of her son’s death and commits suicide.
So what exactly can we learn from all of this?
Creon is reluctant to change from the status quo. While he may not have foreseen Antigone’s reaction or its consequences as warned by the prophet, he refuses, until it is too late, to change his mind. He’s powerful. He’s the ruler. He needs to be seen as decisive and he likely views changing his mind as a loss of status rather than a gain of compassion. Yet it is more complicated than this.
“Should Creon change his stance and lose authority and influence,” he would have committed an error of commission, weighted more heavily, ceteris paribus, than doing nothing, and having bad things happen,” explain Devjani Roy and Richard Zeckhauser in their paper Ignorance: Lessons from the Laboratory of Literature.
If you’re curious, I’d recommend you give Antigone a read. It’s short, only 50 pages or so.