Below, I've written about "Antigone." If you remember the plot of the play—Antigone illegally buries her brother, who has been deemed a traitor—I think you can get quite a bit out of my remarks. I think I see something much clearer now, which is how we construct what we eventually believe. In the case of "Antigone," this does not seem to be a particularly humane process. The sacred is born of a denial which demands others suffer for telling the truth.
Line references are to Storr's 1912 translation.
"Antigone," or the Construction of the Divine
What's remarkable is that Creon fails. Plenty of crude tyrants desecrate the bodies of their enemies, rally their army, weaponize religious feeling, and command the populace. It's very easy, I've learned, to get preachers and prophets to ignore a God who was a child refugee in order to demonize refugees. So why doesn't Polyneices' body become mere "meat / For Dogs and carrion crows, a ghastly sight?" Why isn't it a forgotten incident in the life of a long dictatorship, a moment of enormous consequence to which an entire people blind themselves?
The obvious answer, because of Antigone, isn't good enough. Antigone is amazing—I'd give anything to have a thousandth of her devotion, strength, and resolve. She is a genuine titan. But we live in a world where sacrifices are continually unheeded, where martyrs have been drowned out by demagogues, snake-oil salesmen, or the public's panic, fear, or apathy. I submit that a critical look at Creon's failure is in order. He should be able to manipulate the sacred, but falls short, making Antigone's heroism effective. This does not mean Antigone is any less of a hero. What it does mean, I believe, takes some preparation to fully grasp.
To be sure, Creon does not neglect to mention the gods. But his mentions are only that much. When he orders his nephew's body not be buried, for example, this is how he condemns him:
...Polyneices, the miscreant exile who returned
Minded in flames and ashes to blot out
His father's city and his father's gods,
And glut his vengeance with his kinsmen's blood...
There's an implicit argument here for not burying Polyneices. Not only was he a traitor, but he wanted to murder his own family, destroy what his father built, and erase the sanctuaries of his father's gods. Creon believes what he has said to be enough. Someone was "minded" to be unholy and unjust, and therefore they should be denied sacred rites. This can be a plausible argument for those about to graduate kindergarten or who watch reruns of "Two and a Half Men" all day.
I know grown men who are ignorant enough to believe Creon's position has substance. Creon, though, ultimately cannot even win them. You can see why by thinking about what is sacred for more than 10 seconds. We baptize sinners; the Greek gods hold guests and strangers sacred; enemies were to be treated with respect. The reason for this isn't that the "sacred" is opposed to the interests of the city. Far from it: the point is that the city, in truth, cannot be betrayed. The city's gods will always claim you. You live in infamy, as one who attempted to destroy the city, because it not only nurtured you but buried you. The city comprehends your entire life through the sacred. Nothing is strange to the city's gods.
You can assert that this is too high a notion of the sacred. Dictators can scream "they're not us," agitate a crowd, and use the gods however they want. I have provided a contemporary example of this in my opening paragraph. In our case, what is sacred has been thoroughly debased by consumerism, nationalism, and an extremely ugly materialism. People believe they have the right to shoot whatever is on their property. Against that backdrop, it makes sense that our notion of a higher power can easily be manipulated.
In Creon's case, he needs to spell out the grounds of divine authority and convince others that he can speak credibly about the gods. This sounds ludicrous, until one thinks about the divine founders of Greek cities: Lycurgus, Hercules, Theseus, etc. Their connection to heroes and gods is far from accidental. He could mimic them, but is blind to their efforts—on this, Hegel's characterization of Creon is exactly correct. It's difficult to call Creon an advocate for secular rule because he is so ignorant of the sacred that he cannot properly distinguish what it is.
Creon's rhetoric about the gods can be characterized as defensive. This is what the gods do not want: to acknowledge a traitor (l. 282-288); to witness one shed a kinsman's blood directly (l. 882-890). The gods are defined negatively, and the culmination of Creon's rhetoric is seen in his cursing the prophet Teiresias: "No human defiler can assail the gods" (l. 1044). It is as if the gods do not exist except to tell people that they should not be traitors or kill their family. Or to tell people to remember their place. Creon may win an argument about the agency of the gods when bullying his family in private, but this is simply unserious for establishing a claim to rule. The city as conceived politically aspires to higher purpose. Its citizens must not only feel safe, but want to sacrifice for the greater good.
We know Creon fails to establish anything lasting because of the elders he depends on for his rule and a guard who seems like comic relief. The elders are the closest the play comes to having a tragic hero. When Teiresias scares them, they command Creon to free Antigone, destroying his basis for authority in the process. But before they are reminded they will be judged, they waver radically in their opinions, telling Creon one moment that he is right to believe he "must be obeyed in everything" (l. 666) and the very next moment saying that Haemon is correct in telling Creon to "repent of [his] wrath" (l. 718). It is tempting to think them unserious—a bunch of drunk old men frightened by a prophet's tales—but for two considerations. First, their cruel, unforgivable taunting of Antigone before she is led away to die (l. 807-875). They relish insulting her as full of hubris because she challenged Creon, which they themselves are too cowardly to do (l. 689-690).
The second consideration is stranger. Throughout much of their speech, they posit Antigone in confrontation with the divine. They do this even when attempting to humiliate her:
Overstepping the bounds of daring
You kicked the throne of Justice,
And there you have fallen, child.
But the price you pay is your father's debt.
One could read these lines as a conventional condemnation of hubris ("overstepping...daring") or an invocation of a family curse ("your father's debt"). But they also put Antigone right in front of Justice as personified. She's the one talking to or cursing at Justice directly, not them. The same elders call Antigone a mere mortal not much earlier (l. 831-836), but are willing to concede she is in a dialogue of sorts with the gods. We can assume the rhetoric she uses with Creon—saying he is a mere mortal, that he is violating Heaven's law—has affected the Chorus. They are only wed to their talk about her hubris because she looms larger in their imaginations.
I believe the following about the narrative of "Antigone." The elders are cowardly and will not stand up to Creon. They accept his rule, despite the fact he is clearly unfit to rule, because they are lazy. The problem of getting a government Thebes can use then falls to the young. But the elders are not going to admit they made a mistake unless they are scared of something more than Creon. What they will do is pretend the larger problem is insoluble. You can imagine what they tell themselves: The power of man and the gods are always in conflict. We want the feeling of order, we're tired of war, so we accept the rule of a man who leads his own family to destruction. We accept that this means those who protest us make claims about what is divine, some of which are true.
When this purposeful alienation of divine matters is added to their misogyny, something remarkable happens. Antigone is not seen as a woman by the elders. To them, she is a divine force. They pretend not to be aware of this even as they make her a martyr, even as they link her to amazing events. There may not be a more prominent example of this than the mode of execution. They plan on shutting her inside a rock, recalling a story of a woman of divine birth whose boasts provoked the gods. She was transformed into a mountain. Antigone notes that she, too, will become the mountain: "Drenched by the pelting rain and whirling snow, / Left there to pine, / While on her frozen breast the tears aye flow; / Her fate is mine." (It is, as Teiresias points out, the murder of a kinsman which they endorse. Creon still will be in violation of the most elemental of duties, i.e. "don't kill your family.") They consciously bury her alive with knowledge of their own hubris; they know the sacred story, they know they are imitating the gods in their cruelty. They know their arguments are the equivalent of YouTube or Reddit comments, name-calling meant to distract from the weakness of their position. Yet they persist on building the idea of Antigone as a martyr.
Allusions to Antigone herself being larger-than-life are plentiful. It is the clueless, useless guard Creon tasks with overseeing Polyneices who provides a story which builds Antigone's legend for the ages. Below, note how Antigone does not just begin to perform a ritual. There's a "whirlwind" which terrifies the guards and which she seems to emerge from; she emits a "piercing" cry, like a bird who has lost all her children; she curses all of Thebes:
A sudden whirlwind then upraised
A cloud of dust that blotted out the sky,
And swept the plain, and stripped the woodlands bare,
And shook the firmament. We closed our eyes
And waited till the heaven-sent plague should pass.
At last it ceased, and lo! there stood this girl.
A piercing cry she uttered, sad and shrill,
As when the mother bird beholds her nest
Robbed of its nestlings; even so the girl
Wailed as she saw the body stripped and bare,
And cursed the ruffians who had done this deed.
The guard and the elders create the space for Antigone to become a divine figure well before her martyrdom. The only question is if this is done consciously or unconsciously. I hold this is conscious, as denial is a conscious process too. One cannot actually deny a valid moral critique because someone else has power. What happens is that excuses are made, more or less believable to those doing the denying. A funny thing happens with those excuses, though. They create a moral realm, where the wrong things are set right, where the people out of power do exercise power. And the more excuses we make, the more we build that realm.
The construction of the divine, then, can be a cruel and cynical process on the part of a body politic. We make martyrs because we refuse to confront what is wrong. We build their myth through our denial. It's deeply wrong to do this to people, to make others shoulder a moral burden we could reasonably carry together. In the case of the elders and Creon, Creon's failure to address divine matters sufficiently in any way should have ended his rule at the moment he proclaimed it. But they let the lie he was capable fester, and it became the myth of Antigone.
Turning a person into a myth has its consequences. It breaks Antigone. Her final speech about how she only did what she did because of her brother makes no sense:
Yet am I justified in wisdom's eyes.
For even had it been some child of mine,
Or husband mouldering in death's decay,
I had not wrought this deed despite the State.
What is the law I call in aid? 'Tis thus
I argue. Had it been a husband dead
I might have wed another, and have home
Another child, to take the dead child's place.
But, now my sire and mother both are dead,
No second brother can be born for me.
Antigone's stated motivations differ, depending on her audience. With Ismene outside the gates, she emphasizes the family being dishonored. With Creon in front of the palace, she speaks of the divine and natural laws he violates. And then there's this: she can always have another husband or another child, but never another brother. A similar story occurs in Herodotus, where it seems to be a dark joke about the basis of the sacred. Here, what's at stake is that Polyneices is irreplaceable. That's not just any coincidence, that's the basis of the sacred. The sacred is contingent upon unique things that make life what it is and command some devotion. For example, family members with whom we grow up, seeing our own fate as connected with theirs. In miracles, those unique things are made more obvious. But in order for the sacred to have a complete claim on our everyday lives, the unique must be exaggerated. Polyneices might have killed the whole city and ruled ruins. The unique here is exaggerated even at the expense of other family members, as Ismene and Eteocles are not considered family.
Antigone breaks apart before our eyes. She is deconstructed as a human being in order to be made into a symbol. She has nothing left other than the burial of Polyneices. I can't remember who said it—I think it might have been Benardete or one of his circle—but you could imagine Antigone's hair and garments in the wildest state before she dies. She uses her clothes to hang herself. She is a natural law, inasmuch as our cruelty hides both in our ignorance and invocation of piety.