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a Public Affairs katabasis by
The Greek tragedian Sophocles (497 BC-406 BC) is known to
us. But he did more than just make people laugh. No less than
Aristophanes, he considered himself a teacher (didaskalos) of
his Athenian audiences, commenting upon and forcing them
to think seriously about public affairs issues. In Antigone,
Sophocles explores though the heroine’s character the
essential quality of ethical leadership.
Tragedy is drama about human beings being forced to make
life changing decisions based on incomplete information
which they are bound to misinterpret anyway, seeing that
they are only human beings equipped with human brains. All
too often, these decisions involve two equally lousy choices.
The ancient Greeks did not invent situations like this. They just
found a dramatic form which handled them so well that
everything that came afterward was a refinement.
It’s an especially tight spot in Thebes, the city the ancient
Greek deities loved to hate. Oedipus has just pok’d out his
eyes and left town. In his absence, his sons Eteocles and
Polynices agree to take turns being king in alternating years.
Eteocles goes first, but decides he should keep being king.
This provokes a civil war in Thebes. After the brothers
successfully kill each other, Creon becomes king. Creon needs
to ensure that this never happens to Thebes again!
Eteocles is supposedly the “good” brother. After Oedipus
leaves Thebes, Eteocles and Polynices decided to alternate as
king of Thebes on a yearly basis. Eteocles went first, but then
reneged after his year was up.
Therefore Polynices raised an army to drive Eteocles out of
Thebes. The brothers killed each other in battle. Since
Eteocles died defending Thebes, he receives honorable burial.
Since Polynices died invading Thebes, his corpse is left to rot.
Is this right?
Brother of Jocasta, brother-in-law and uncle of Oedipus, et
cetera. He has already been interim king once, and was happy
to pass the job to Oedipus.
Now he is permanent king (once more against his wishes) and
feels that he must lay down the law. The brave Eteocles, who
died defending Thebes, is to be buried honorably. The body of
the evil Polynices, who invaded Thebes, must be left to rot
and be eaten by wild beasts.
Daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta, sister of the late Eteocles
and the late Polynices, and of Ismene. As the fiancee of
Creon’s son Haemon, she can look forward to a luxurious life
as Queen of Thebes.
She dissents from Creon’s decree forbidding the burial of
Polynices because she believes there is a higher law dictating
that she must ensure both of her brothers are properly
buried. She sees it as a matter of justice and a family
responsibility; her name Ἀντιγόνη means “worthy of her
parents” in Ancient Greek.
Daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta, et cetera. Sister of the late
Eteocles and the late Polynices, and of the individualist
Antigone. She is not a go-getter like Antigone.
She obeys Creon’s decree forbidding the burial of Polynices
because 1) Creon is the king
Son of Creon and Eurydice. Cousin of Antigone and Ismene;
engaged to marry Antigone. The plan is for them to have a
long, happy reign as King and Queen of Thebes.
Haemon is respectful of his father, but not uncritically so. He
turns out to have a good sense of popular opinion in Thebes,
and tries to mention this to Creon. He, too, is faced by an
ethical dilemma. Father or fiancee?
His name, Αἵμων, means “bloody” in Ancient Greek.
This play is very much a katabasis story. Antigone’s liminal
experience is not physical. Rather, it is more similar to Lucius’s
dystopic experiences as an Ass in The Golden Ass. Once a
pampered little princess, Antigone becomes a criminal from
the moment she buries her brother Polynices.
It literally ends with Antigone’s descent into the grave, from
which she does not return. I would argue that Thebes itself
experiences a katabasis, as the two wisdom figures Antigone
and Creon duke it out over the concept of ethical leadership.
Or perhaps it is Creon himself? Let’s talk about this some, ok?
Is Antigone correct in her decision to bury the remains of the
deceas’d Polynices regardless of the personal consequences?
Is there a possibility that Creon’s actions are in fact every bit
as justifiable as Antigone’s actions? Which of the two relatives
does a better job of exemplifying ethical leadership in your
ETHICS (simple version)
The basic concepts and fundamental principles of decent
human conduct.
Ethics includes study of universal values such as the essential
equality of all men and women, human or natural rights,
obedience to the law of land, concern for health and safety
and, increasingly, also for the natural environment. See also
ETHICS (complex version)
First, ethics refers to well-founded standards of right and wrong
that prescribe what humans ought to do, usually in terms of
rights, obligations, benefits to society, fairness, or specific
virtues. Ethics, for example, refers to those standards that
impose the reasonable obligations to refrain from rape, stealing,
murder, assault, slander, and fraud. Ethical standards also
include those that enjoin virtues of honesty, compassion, and
loyalty. And, ethical standards include standards relating to
rights, such as the right to life, the right to freedom from injury,
and the right to privacy. Such standards are adequate standards
of ethics because they are supported by consistent and wellfounded reasons.
ETHICS (complex version)
Secondly, ethics refers to the study and development of one's
ethical standards. As mentioned above, feelings, laws, and social
norms can deviate from what is ethical. So it is necessary to
constantly examine one's standards to ensure that they are
reasonable and well-founded. Ethics also means, then, the
continuous effort of studying our own moral beliefs and our
moral conduct, and striving to ensure that we, and the
institutions we help to shape, live up to standards that are
reasonable and solidly-based.
See more at: "What is Ethics?" at Santa Clara University
Goal: Students will articulate their value systems, act ethically
within the context of a democratic society and demonstrate
engaged and principled leadership. (Adapted from the Center for
Ethical Leadership)
Missouri State is preparing students for the future by helping
them understand the ethical dimensions of leadership and take
what they learn in the classrooms and use it to help solve
problems and bring about change.
The concepts and practices of ethics and ethical citizenship have
been elusive and contested notions throughout documented
human history. The mere mention of the word “ethical” conjures
a complicated web of questions and socio-cultural
considerations. Additionally, many would argue that, in recent
years, considerations of ethical citizenship have grown even
more complicated, notably as our world has grown “smaller” and
an eternally expanding roux of perspectives are being integrated
into the pot of global communication.
That’s what people say the noble Creon
has announced to you and me—I mean to me—
and now he’s coming to proclaim the fact,
to state it clearly to those who have not heard.
For Creon this matter’s really serious.
Anyone who acts against the order
will be stoned to death before the city.
Now you know, and you’ll quickly demonstrate
whether you are nobly born, or else a girl unworthy of her splendid
Think how we’ll die far worse than all the rest,
if we defy the law and move against
the king’s decree, against his royal power.
We must remember that by birth we’re women,
and, as such, we shouldn’t fight with men.
Since those who rule are much more powerful,
we must obey in this and in events
which bring us even harsher agonies.
So I’ll ask those underground for pardon—
since I’m being compelled, I will obey those in control.
That’s what I’m forced to do.
It makes no sense to try to do too much.
For me, a man who rules the entire state
and does not take the best advice there is,
but through fear keeps his mouth forever shut,
such a man is the very worst of men—
and always will be. And a man who thinks
more highly of a friend than of his country,
well, he means nothing to me. Let Zeus know,
the god who always watches everything,
I would not stay silent if I saw disaster
moving here against the citizens…
The qualities of his inventive skills
bring arts beyond his dreams and lead him on,
sometimes to evil and sometimes to good.
If he treats his country’s laws with due respect
and honours justice by swearing on the gods,
he wins high honours in his
But when he grows bold and turns to
then he has no city. A man like that—
let him not share my home or know my mind.
Yes. Zeus did not announce those laws to me.
And Justice living with the gods below
sent no such laws for men. I did not think
anything which you proclaimed strong enough
to let a mortal override the gods
and their unwritten and unchanging laws.
They’re not just for today or yesterday,
but exist forever, and no one knows
where they first appeared. So I did not mean
to let a fear of any human will
lead to my punishment among the gods.
Goal: Students will recognize and respect multiple perspectives
and cultures.
Missouri State helps students develop cultural knowledge in
several ways. Study abroad programs, interactions with
international students and opportunities to study different
languages, histories and religions, help students broaden their
horizons, build relationships and bring about better competition
for the future.
This girl here was already very insolent
in contravening laws we had proclaimed.
Here she again displays her proud contempt—
having done the act, she now boasts of it.
She laughs at what she’s done. Well, in this case,
if she gets her way and goes unpunished,
then she’s the man here, not me. No. She may be
my sister’s child, closer to me by blood
than anyone belonging to my house
who worships Zeus Herkeios in my home,
but she’ll not escape my harshest punishment—
Hope ranging far and wide brings comfort
to many men—but then hope can deceive,
delusions born of volatile desire.
It comes upon the man who’s ignorant
until his foot is seared in burning fire.
Someone’s wisdom has revealed to us
this famous saying—sometimes the gods
lure a man’s mind forward to disaster,
and he thinks evil’s something good.
But then he lives only the briefest time
free of catastrophe.
Goal: Students will recognize the importance of contributing
their knowledge and experiences to their own community and
the broader society.
Goal: Students will recognize the importance of scientific
principles in the generation of sound public policy.
Community engagement lets students branch out and see how
the world is working through a different lens, giving them the
opportunity to work with their communities and build up their
ability to lead in their careers.
Your gaze makes citizens afraid—they can’t
say anything you would not like to hear.
But in the darkness I can hear them talk—
the city is upset about the girl.
They say of all women here she least deserves
the worst of deaths for her most glorious act.
When in the slaughter her own brother died,
she did not just leave him there unburied,
to be ripped apart by carrion dogs or birds.
Surely she deserves some golden honour?
That’s the dark secret rumour people speak.
My lord, if what he’s said is relevant,
it seems appropriate to learn from him,
and you too, Haemon, listen to the king.
The things which you both said were excellent.
And men my age—are we then going to school to learn what’s wise from
men as young as him?
There’s nothing wrong in that. And if I’m young, don’t think about my
age—look at what I do.
I’ll take her on a path no people use,
and hide her in a cavern in the rocks,
while still alive. I’ll set out provisions,
as much as piety requires, to make sure
the city is not totally corrupted.
Then she can speak her prayers to Hades,
the only god she worships, for success
avoiding death—or else, at least, she’ll learn,
although too late, how it’s a waste of time
to work to honour those whom Hades holds.
To be piously devout shows reverence,
but powerful men, who in their persons
incorporate authority, cannot bear
anyone to break their rules. Hence, you die
because of your own selfish will.
Without lament, without a friend,
and with no marriage song, I’m being led
in this miserable state, along my final road.
So wretched that I no longer have the right
to look upon the sun, that sacred eye.
In my wretchedness, why should I still look
up to the gods? Which one can I invoke
to bring me help, when for my reverence
they charge me with impiety? Well, then,
if this is something fine among the gods,
I’ll come to recognize that I’ve done wrong.
But if these people here are being unjust
may they endure no greater punishment…
The same storm blasts continue to attack
the mind in this young girl.
…The lucky and unlucky rise or fall
by chance day after day—and how these things
are fixed for men no one can prophesy.
For Creon, in my view, was once a man
we all looked up to. For he saved the state,
this land of Cadmus, from its enemies.
He took control and reigned as its sole king—
and prospered with the birth of noble children.
Now all is gone. For when a man has lost
what gives him pleasure, I don’t include him
among the living—he’s a breathing corpse.
…Creon saw him, let out a fearful groan,
then went inside and called out anxiously,
"You unhappy boy, what have you done?
What are you thinking? Have you lost your mind?
Come out, my child—I’m begging you—please come."
But the boy just stared at him with savage eyes,
spat in his face and, without saying a word,
drew his two-edged sword. Creon moved away,
Angry at himself, the ill-fated lad
right then and there leaned into his own sword,
driving half the blade between his ribs.
I killed you, my son, without intending to,
and you, as well, my wife. How useless I am now.
I don’t know where to look or find support.
Everything I touch goes wrong, and on my head
fate climbs up with its overwhelming load.
The most important part of true success
is wisdom—not to act impiously
towards the gods, for boasts of arrogant men
bring on great blows of punishment—
so in old age men can discover wisdom.

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