Creon as Dictator and Our Desire for Order

Creon's fantasy is centered on who he's scared to be, as he doesn't want to feel like someone who failed to act when he had the chance.

Creon as Dictator and Our Desire for Order

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Below, I've written nearly 2,000 words on "Antigone," spelling out Creon's repugnance at length. I do not think most defenses of Creon nowadays are good for us. There are those who talk too much, accusing everyone of everything, in order to maintain power. There are those who insist on absolute loyalty as a precondition for accepting others. And there are those who use others as symbols for everything that's wrong in the world. Teaching that these practices are in any way acceptable is dangerous. We should be realistic, but we should not encourage people to think demagoguery can be ignored and will magically disappear.

I'd like to share two links which you will find of interest. Parker Molloy does an excellent job of detailing the twists and turns of the wrong headline screaming that people flooded hospitals on account of Ivermectin (they didn't, Rolling Stone was wrong, people are flooding hospitals because of COVID): "The 'it's about ethics in horse paste journalism' phase of the discourse." I especially appreciated her round-up of right-wing media on this topic. They had a point in their critique—the headline was wrong—but that point was used for other purposes.

Danielle Tcholakian's account of how a teacher changed her life and 9/11 is one of the most moving and thoughtful things you'll ever read: memory. The line that resonates with me, toward the end of her piece: "I’d like to be someone who doesn’t walk away." As someone who has had to walk away at times—you don't really know how you're being exploited, until you realize you're not remotely allowed to be you—it's something to which I still aspire.

As always, if you find my work helpful, please spread the word, encourage people to subscribe, write recommendations and give the facebook page likes. I can't thank you enough for being here.

Creon as Dictator and Our Desire for Order

In the following remarks, I want to argue against a specific overreading of "Antigone." Some believe that the principle Creon attempts to establish his rule upon is simply "good," and should be contrasted with the simplistic view that Creon acts horribly throughout the play. Francisco Gonzalez's essay has much to recommend it, including this defense of the necessity of Creon:

...what Hegel in the Phenomenology of Spirit sees in the opposition between Antigone and Creon are two equally legitimate and inseparable aspects of what the calls the same “ethical substance”: on the one hand, unconscious, immediate, individual spirit (nature, family, and the “unwritten laws”); on the other, self-conscious, mediated (reflective), and universal spirit (the state and its written laws).

The trouble with this argument is worth exploring in detail. Does Creon strike you as "self-conscious" or "reflective?" He's much more of a crude plotter with no sensitivity to the needs of others. This is seen most dramatically in his dismissal of his own son, who after fighting with Creon kills himself by Antigone's side. Below, I want to focus on Creon's opening remarks, his introduction to the elders and to all of us. There are many episodes which demonstrate Creon's unfitness to rule—his abuse of guards, messengers, even a prophet; his unacceptable talk to his own son—but his first words help illustrate the largeness of the problem he represents. That problem, I submit, is not that Creon is "good" but that he is held to be a precondition for anything good.


After telling the elders he personally summoned that he appreciates their loyalty to the royal family, Creon declares himself the ruler. We can imagine some of his men near the elders, armed:

By right of kinship to the Princes dead,
I claim and hold the throne and sovereignty.
Yet, it is no easy matter to discern
The temper of a man, his mind and character,  
Till he be proved by exercise of power;
And in my case, if one who reigns supreme
Swerve from the highest policy, tongue-tied
By fear of consequence, that man I hold,  
And ever held, the basest of the base.

(l. 172-181, Storr translation)

Creon's choice of words is interesting. "The temper of a man, his mind and character" is best seen through "exercise of power." It's not untrue, but why it is true demands further explanation. Let's address a contemporary, related case: how the rhetoric America uses to demonize those who should receive social services dehumanizes on multiple levels. We say "you should be willing to do anything to survive" and yell at homeless people who are clearly struggling. Our rhetoric and behavior is so abusive that it actually affects us immediately. It injures those of us lucky to be employed. Since we equate the right to exist with doing any sort of work, no matter what it costs personally, we effectively prevent ourselves from critiquing jobs which are a scam or looking to maximally exploit us. We have trouble understanding that a job with real responsibilities or requiring leadership is not merely "being in charge" so as to avoid petty conflicts. That in exercising power, we demonstrate who we are is completely lost on us. Think of all the bad bosses you've had and how you remember them. Now think what a wasted opportunity that was for both you and them. Significant amounts of life are thrown away because of the crude assertion "employment is good." Substantially more has to be said and understood to make that notion more than an attack on the poor.

I had several encounters with homeless people in Seattle. I spoke to men who had hit rock bottom with alcoholism and other addictions.
Photo by Steve Knutson / Unsplash

So on the one hand, it is a good thing to give people power. But note that Creon hasn't been given power; he's taken it in a rather direct way. "By right of kinship to the Princes dead, I claim and hold the throne and sovereignty." He does not have to declare himself the ruler straightaway. He could convene the elders, Antigone, Ismene, and other citizens in Thebes to ask what they do now. He could at least pretend to care that the city has gone through a protracted leadership struggle resulting in a war they were fortunate to survive. More than likely someone would say "you're in charge of the army, you should rule," and it would be difficult for others to muster opposition to that. Instead, he demonstrates no awareness of how to properly ground his legitimacy, i.e. appeal to people's concerns and present himself as the solution. He, not unlike those obsessed with cable-news, imagines what politics is: " my case, if one who reigns supreme  / Swerve from the highest policy, tongue-tied / By fear of consequence, that man I hold, / And ever held, the basest of the base."

Creon fantasizes that there are people who have power, but are "tongue-tied," scared to act "by fear of consequence." This is somewhat true in our world nowadays, but it is completely untrue for every political event Creon has witnessed in his life. Oedipus didn't kill his father, marry his mother, destroy the Sphinx, and blind himself because he was scared to act. Eteocles and Polyneices certainly were not scared to act: they impaled each other simultaneously. We could say Creon's fantasy is centered on who he's scared to be, as he doesn't want to feel like someone who failed to act when he had the chance. This could be assessed as "toxic masculinity," but there's a deeper aspect to consider. Creon's authority means, even though he does not demonstrate any particular aptitude, he can keep talking because no one will challenge him. In effect, he can govern through rambling. People will eventually do what he says, or something like it. If you give this sort of power to someone—and we do it all the time; note talk radio, your angry uncle, and a number of preachers have a lot to say—it is very difficult to get them to stop using it.


What could Creon possibly establish his rule upon that we deem necessary? Not order, but the idea of order. The feeling things might be more orderly, and out of that may arise a good.

The patriotism he espouses is not much more than bullying:

And I condemn the man who sets his friend
Before his country. For myself, I call
To witness Zeus, whose eyes are everywhere,
If I perceive some mischievous design  
To sap the State, I will not hold my tongue;
Nor would I reckon as my private friend
A public foe, well knowing that the State
Is the good ship that holds our fortunes,
And only by sailing straight are true friends made.

(l. 182-190)

It can be a profound moral struggle to be torn between your friends and your country, if you see both as dedicated to higher goods for everyone. Creon does not have this problem. The elders declared not too long before that they are looking forward to being drunk: "Now let feast and festal shout / Memories of war blot out" (l. 149-150). Creon, moreso than them, wonders where his legitimacy to claim the throne comes from. He resolves that loyalty to Thebes as a regime is his security. He speaks like so: "I condemn the man who sets his friend / Before his country." If I see something that looks like it might harm the government or traditions of Thebes, I will condemn that too. I never count as a friend someone who opposes me publicly, because I know I am loyal, and therefore they must be disloyal.

Photo by Casey Allen / Unsplash

This isn't anywhere close to a healthy love of country. It's paranoia in the service of power, an extraordinarily crude notion of order. Everything is a loyalty test, everything is suspicious, and citizens can be mocked, harassed, arrested and tried because they fall short of potentially being "true friends." The classics do see how rhetoric about virtue becomes totalitarian. I suspect that is not directly addressed in Plato and Aristotle because Sophocles couldn't possibly be any clearer. Creon loses nearly his entire family acting in the service of his own "State."

Moreover, Creon's "law" is not really law. Law, as Socrates in Plato's "Minos" points out, pretends to be reasonable and much more. It pretends to be wisdom, a product of science. When law is so obviously cruel and factional, it undermines itself:

For Polyneices it is ordained that none
Shall give him burial or make mourn for him,
But leave his corpse unburied, to be meat  
For Dogs and carrion crows, a ghastly sight.
So am I purposed; never by my will
Shall traitors take precedence over honest men,
But all good patriots, alive or dead,
Shall be by me preferred and honoured.

(l. 203-210)

Creon wants the corpse to be eaten by dogs and vultures. He wants people to see this. This use of law as public humiliation is something authoritarian regimes do, to be sure. They can be secure for a time doing this. But I'd hesitate to commit the resources of political science to further elaboration. Wittgenstein says explanations come to an end somewhere. At some point, politics is about the good life, about what we can do for everyone else. How we can do good things for others, even our opponents and enemies. Leaving a corpse unburied for the sake of desecration is certainly a sign of who is in charge. It's also an invitation to revolution: no one, not even Creon's own family, will put up with the possibility their name will be so dishonored.


The outstanding question: if Creon is so bad—a bad ruler with a tenuous claim to rule—why does the city back him?

I believe that's the central tragedy of the play, and it does come down to misogyny. Antigone is clearly right. She's also a woman. The city will accept her critique, that they yearn for order at too high a cost, but they will condemn her for it. She will be made into a holy symbol, denied her individuality and her own specific claim to justice. She will be tortured and killed on account of their intransigence.

Creon demonstrates a peculiarity about our ability to assess order. A body politic doesn't really have it. Sure, people can tell when things are complete chaos, when people are terrorizing and attacking each other. But Creon's rule is tumultuous, so say the least. It is mere prelude to an armed faction challenging him. If we are so bad at assessing order, then it would seem politics can only be judged with regards to ends. That is all well and good, but it means more than elders loudly bragging about binge drinking and a king by chance declaring war on his own citizenry (l. 157-158). Antigone is the only one in the play fit to rule.