Thinking about Capital Punishment with Sophocles’ Antigone

[trigger warning: suicide]

Sophocles’ Antigone unintentionally makes a strong case against the death penalty by implicitly portraying death as an escape from punishment.

The Antigone, briefly:

Kreon has taken over rule of Thebes and forbids the burial of his nephew who was killed in an assault on Thebes attempting to take the throne from his brother, also killed in the battle, thereby transferring power to their mother’s brother Kreon. The proclamation is a transgression against traditional burial practices maintained by the gods (because the gods abhor death and the ritual pollution of a corpse exposed to view). To leave a body unburied invited divine punishment on the whole city. Because Antigone knows this and she knows also that her duty as a surviving female relative is to bury her unburied brother, she defies the edict of Kreon, for which Kreon ultimately sentences her to an indirect death: she’s to be sealed up in a cave to die of natural causes, thereby removing polluting culpability from the community (he thinks).

In reality he has only doubled his transgression: a corpse that ought to be below ground is unburied, and now on top of that a living being has been locked in the earth. He has listened to literally none of the reasonable voices offering him urgent advice: not his chorus of Theban elders, not his defiant niece, not his uber-respectful son, not the will of the people of Thebes, nor nearly all of the advice of the infallible seer Teiresias—until, that is, Teiresias reveals that Kreon’s son will die in exchange (‘corpse for corpses’), if he doesn’t correct his egregious transgressions.

Convinced, finally, Kreon goes to the cave to free his niece, only to find that she’s already hung herself. Worse yet, his son Haemon is already there, grieving for Antigone, who was his fiancée. After lunging recklessly at his father with a sword, Haemon drives the sword into himself. The news reaches the palace ahead of Kreon, and when his wife hears what has happened to her niece and to her own son, she goes inside and also plunges a sword through her heart.

Suicide and Capital Punishment:

Denial of Suicide as Supreme Punishment

In the end, a man who set himself up above the gods, is forced not to die but to wish for death without fulfillment. That is his punishment, to go on living with the knowledge of what he did. That is the only punishment worthy of his crime. Allowing Kreon to die would not have been sufficient punishment in the eyes of the gods, whose vengeance is total, nor in the eyes of the Athenian audience, who understood that transgressions engender their own response and, according to Aristotle, loved to see the high humbled.

And on the other hand, Antigone did not wait long in the cave before committing suicide: she was granted an escape from a slow agonizing death.

As it happens I’ve sometimes heard people talk of suicide in similar terms, as an easy way out, an escape, from a difficult situation.

Furthermore, we typically employ extraordinary means to ensure that incarcerated individuals cannot kill themselves. Why would we do that, when a suicidal inmate could be seen as merely a volunteer for capital punishment? By the logic of capital punishment, there is no greater punishment; yet we would forbid a person from punishing themselves…?* To be clear I am calling out the failed logic of the death penalty, not supporting inmate suicide.

*. An argument could be made that the issue with suicide is precisely that it is a transgression of the state’s monopoly on violence, so that a suicidal prisoner has doubly erred.

Why should anyone be administered an easy escape who actually deserves the worst punishment? Kreon was neither allowed to die nor granted death. He had to live with the knowledge of what he had done because that is the worst possible punishment.

In fact, from a (rather pessimistic) ancient Greek perspective, death could be the greatest possible blessing, as with Kleobis and Biton, who were granted an instant death as the ultimate honor by Hera.

To carry on is punishment. To have to reckon with heinous crimes committed, and to have to do so day in and day out for life within a series of cages… What could be worse for a human being?

Supreme Punishment Today

Now why should the Parkland Shooter get to end his punishment so early?Why should anyone who commits murder get an easy way out?

No, no… Make them face themselves. Teach them. Make them acquire the emotional intelligence necessary to understand what they’ve done if they lack it. Make them face themselves.

In short: the Antigone shows us that the stakes in the debate over capital punishment are the reverse of how we have thought of them: the more awful punishment is life facing oneself every day; death is an escape.

image credit: Christian Michelides. “Antigone is burying her brother Polynices by throwing ashes in the air, with Aenne Schwarz as Antigone, Director: Jette Steckel, Burgtheater, Vienna 2015”

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