The main conflict of ideas in the play Antigone is between the law of man and the law of gods. The character performs the burial rights on her brother despite it being forbidden to be done, even though according to the gods everyone should receive proper burial rights. To examine this philosophically, we can say that the conflict is concerning obeying a law that is unjust. If we obey an unjust law, are we being unjust, or is it simply the law that is unjust or are we being unjust as well? If we break an unjust law, should we consider ourselves to then be unjust? If we ourselves are breaking law and being unjust, then who are we at any point to be able to state that some law is unjust in the first place? These are just a few of the questions that the play forces us to consider. Upon examining the play, I have chosen to make the argument that it is not only just to stand in defiance of an unjust law, but it is unjust to allow an unjust law to continue to exist by passively following the law.
First, we should consider the counterargument. This would state that a law is a law, and we cannot arbitrarily choose which laws which find to be just and unjust and follow them accordingly. By doing this, we are undermining the entire system of having laws set up in the first place. The problem that we are confronted with is that we have set a precedent for other people to be able to pick and choose which laws should be obeyed and which laws do not have to be obeyed. Antigone’s sister Ismene states that “The law is strong, we must give in to the law” (I.I.48). The law is strong because people who break the law are subject to punishment. Without a fitting punishment, we do not have reasons to concern ourselves with whether or not we should break the law. As Ismene says to Antigone later in that scene, “I am so afraid for you” (I.I.64). She is afraid for Antigone obviously because she knows what consequences Antigone will be facing. This is the entire point of the law; we are supposed to be afraid of the law to the extent that we will not break it for the consequences. For these two reasons together, that the law will punish us and that the law can only be effective because of our choosing to follow all laws, is the law able to accomplish what it does.
However, this is not the end of the story in any extent. The laws, of course, are determined by people. Consider how it was stated that if one person chooses to break a law that is unjust, this would give free reign to the breaking of any law because people will always be able to find something unjust in one law or another. The aspect of this to consider is that laws are written by people in general, and because of this, a law might be passed which is intentionally unjust. What are we to do then? What if the unjustness is to the extent of segregation laws? In hindsight, we are able to realize the unjustness of these laws, and we recognize the justness of the actions of the people who intentionally broke the segregation laws in order to show how unjust they were. In this kind of situation, it would be difficult for any person to state that these people were unjust. Actually, most anyone would state that it would have been unjust to not do anything about these laws and to allow them to continue to exist. What we need to consider is that for us to be able to consider any sort of laws to be worth following, there cannot be glaringly unjust laws such as the example given. Having unjust laws like this followed undermines the entire system of laws to the extent of rendering it useless, more so than deciding to not follow a law because it is unjust.
However, just because a law is unjust doesn’t we should not expect to be punished for breaking. In fact, it is because we are accepting the punishment that we consider the unjust law worth breaking. It is making an example. Antigone claimed that the consequences did not concern her: “I am not afraid of the danger; if it means death,/ It will not be the worst of deaths–death without honor” (I.I.80-81). By showing other people that we are willfully accepting the consequences of breaking an unjust law, we are showing how unjust the law is. If we were to expect to not receive the consequences for breaking the unjust law, then this in particular would undermine the entire idea of a system of laws. To Antigone, the worse option is to allow an unjust law to continue to exist, and this is why she lacks the fear of the usual law system. Her lack of fear is justified in that she knows that even though she will be punished that she took the correct course of action. She was attempting to improve the current system of laws by breaking an unjust one because she knew that such an unjust law as not allowing for her brother to be buried would only undermine the entire system of laws in the first place. This is why and how we can justify breaking unjust laws. The breaking of an unjust law is far less detrimental than a person following an unjust law. If a person were to break a just law, we do not think twice at this, but when a person knowingly breaks a law because of a stated unjustness, this captures our attention because of the lack of fear, signaling the law unjust.
Sophocles, Antigone. Western Literature in World Context. New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1995.