Resistance and dissent against established institutions have proven to be difficult throughout the history of organized societies. Even today, many parts of the world languish under the rule of autocrats, plutocrats and oligarchs, where opposition to authority is silenced by coercion or crushed by force. Even in the so-called democratic countries there have been political prisoners and radical rebels who are pressured in so many different ways to abide by the will of the ruling elite. For all its claims to be the ‘land of the free’, the United States had passed draconian laws under the PATRIOT Act, to take away hard won civil liberties from the general public. In effect the Bush Administration took advantage of the psychological fears of the general public in the aftermath of the 911 terror strikes and created a legal atmosphere that stifled dissident voices and undermined legitimate resistance campaigns.
But when we look at the history of human civilization, those in authority had always disliked resistance to their authority. Going back two millennia, we see in the real life of Socrates and the mythological one of Antigone, characters who ultimately succumb to the power of their rulers. Socrates lived during the 5th century A.D., nearly nine hundred years after the demise of Antigone. During Socrates’ lifetime the prominent city of Athens was noted for its democratic institutions. Long before modern democracies took centre stage, Athens was a model city-state that implemented democratic practices and granted its citizens several rights and liberties. The setting of Antigone is quite different though. The legend of Antigone comes to us through the interpretations of several playwrights, both old and recent. One such popular version of the play is scripted by Sophocles, who sets the play in Athens that was still ruled by monarchy. Though the series of events on which the plot is founded — the determination of Antigone to submit her life rather than forgo her customary duties appeals less forcibly to contemporary than to ancient sentiment, yet the general thrust of the play, the conflict between man-made civil law and the self-evident rights of the individual, is one of universal and profound importance.
With the tragic death of Antigone toward the end, the play lends itself to further reflection and analysis regarding the socio-political context in which the event takes place. Should Antigone, it is asked, be regarded as an innocent victim of her social class or a victim of unexpected circumstances? Are Creon and Antigone both deserving of their fate, the one for his disrespect for the divine laws, the other for her courage to defy established order? What we realize is that the issue of state authority verses the scope of individual expression has been evident from the pre-Christian society of Antigone to the democratic Athens of Socrates to contemporary liberal-democratic nations.
Furthermore, it is clear from Antigone’s interactions with Creon that she believed that human beings are endowed with inalienable rights and that the man-made laws that prevailed in Athens were secondary to it. Even when Antigone was informed of her impending fate, she refused to abandon her strongly held beliefs and as a consequence facilitated her own death. One can see the similarities between the deaths of Antigone and Socrates. Socrates believed that a commitment to moral reasoning is an essential condition of a well-lived life. An individual should base his actions upon the outcomes of such internal dialogues. The exercise of self-examination and introspection as a way of arriving at moral truths is of paramount importance to Socrates. So much so that he unequivocally declared that “an unexamined life is not worth living”. This commitment to truth by way of rational, critical enquiry would eventually cost Socrates his life. But, even when in sight of his impending death, Socrates calmly reasoned with his friends and supporters that accepting the judgment of the state is to follow the moral course of action and he refused to escape into exile.