How Socrates, Martin Luther King, and Ronald Dworkin might judge Antigone

Socrates, King, and Dworkin would all agree with Antigone’s decision to bury her brother, as all of them believe the citizen has a moral imperative to place his conscience before the law.  However, they would disagree about the way Creon should address the situation.  I suspect that Socrates would agree with his decision to punish his niece.  King would not welcome it, but he would expect it and would expect Antigone to abide by it.  Dworkin would argue that Creon’s legalism would actually achieve the opposite of his stated intent (preservation of the law), and he should not prosecute Antigone at all.

The first principle that Socrates espouses in his conversation with Crito is that one must not do wrong under any circumstances.  Socrates claims that a “divine sign” counsels him on which actions he should take, and I interpret this sign as the equivalent of Antigone’s conscience.  Socrates acquiesced to his execution at the hands of the Athenians because his divine sign did not stop him, and he did not comprehend how respecting his sentence would harm anyone.  Given his interpretation of the social contract, I would expect Socrates to counsel Creon to punish Antigone and Antigone to accept this sentence.  Though the legitimacy of Creon’s regime is unsettled, he is the current representative of government and the laws, so his decisions must be respected in order to preserve the social contract.  The citizen of a state must be expected to follow the law at all times, just as Socrates respected the law of a corrupt Athens.

Martin Luther King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” uses the primacy of natural law as one of its premises, so I would expect him to sympathize with Antigone’s intentions: like him, she appeals to a “higher” and “more ancient” code.  King defines an unjust law as one which degrades personality and continues, referencing Aquinas, to say that it seems to be no law at all.  I doubt King would consider Creon’s law unjust by his Christian standards.  If he were to adopt or respect the Greek moral framework, though, he’d accept Antigone’s actions as unavoidable and necessary parts of changing an unjust law.  Because Creon made the decision by himself with little to no input from the citizens who must deal with the consequences, this law fits King’s standard of non-democracy.  Just as King accepted his stays in prison, though, Antigone would have to deal with her sentence.  Her example may inspire the public to repeal the law, but that notwithstanding, accepting punishment is integral to civil disobedience.

Dworkin also accepts the legitimacy of Antigone’s protest.  He strays from the other authors in his prescription for Creon.  If he were lord of Thebes, Dworkin would not have prosecuted Antigone because he would consider Creon’s edicts both draconian and constitutionally doubtful.  It impedes upon Polynices’s passage to the afterlife, and what’s more, the Chorus, which represents the will of the people, takes the side of Antigone.  Due to this sympathy, continuing to enforce this law would create unnecessary enmity between citizenry and state.  Thanks to the doubtful legitimacy of Eteocles’s accession to the throne, this case is specific enough that Creon’s mercy would not lead to legal chaos.

I find Dworkin’s position the most cogent because it addresses the responsibilities of both the citizen and the state rather than simply the former.  Few thinkers would exhort people to put the laws above their own consciences, so neither Socrates nor King contributes uniquely to this quarrel.  On the other hand, Dworkin’s argument that enforcement of an unjust law will harm the laws as a whole is especially apropos for this story: Creon, not Antigone, is the tragic hero of this story, and the former’s inflexibility is the tale’s tragic flaw.

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