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Generalizing Force: The Breakdown of Creon’s Authority in Sophocles’ Antigone

Lucy Van Essen-Fishman

In moments of tension, tragic characters generalize. Different figures employ general statements in different ways, and, similarly, different figures react differently to the generalizations of others; some characters use gnomic statements to process changing circumstances, while others use gnomic statements in an attempt to establish or maintain their authority. In this paper, I will be taking Creon’s use of gnomic statements in Antigone as a metric for assessing his ability to retain control in Thebes; although Creon initially defines his civic role in gnomic terms, his ability to generalize effectively gradually breaks down. In particular, I will argue that Creon’s use and abuse of generalization in his confrontations with Haemon and Teiresias represent the final collapse of his authority; throughout the play Creon has bolstered his own status with gnomic statements, but, in these last confrontations, Creon finds himself faced with figures who are better able to generalize from the matter at hand.

Both proverbs and general statements of traditional form are associated in most cultures with a degree of socially sanctioned authority; by tapping into a store of collective wisdom, a speaker makes a claim both to have understood that wisdom, and to be in a position to reinterpret it for others (Abrahams 1972; Seitel 1981). Among the Apache, for example, general statements with a traditional form are the exclusive rhetorical property of men and women of advanced years and an established reputation for wisdom and understanding, while, in his study of characterization through gnomai in the Iliad, Lardinois has noted that gnomai containing advice for their direct addressee—are usually spoken by characters who have some degree of political or moral authority (Basso 1976, Lardinois 2000). The act of speaking in gnomai thus has implications for the identities of both speaker and audience as well as for the presumed relationship between speaker and audience. In Greek tragedy, gnomic statements, as pieces of collective wisdom, are often the rhetorical property of the chorus. When named characters generalize, their use of the traditional rhetorical medium of gnomic statement can have important implications for their ability to interact successfully with other figures in the play.

The Creon who appears in Antigone is a prolific user of gnomai, and his general statements have been variously received. In his opening speech, Creon delivers a series of general statements about the proper government of a city; while many modern scholars have taken these generalizations as empty bluster, Demosthenes famously approved of his sentiments (Dem. 19.247; cf. Winnington-Ingram 1980, Halliwell 1997, Griffith 1999). At the beginning of the play, Creon’s gnomic statements can be seen as an attempt to justify his new civic authority. As the play continues, however, Creon’s authority is questioned from a variety of angles, and his use of gnomai grows increasingly problematic as it becomes clear that his mode of leadership depends in large part on his ability to generalize for those in his power.

Over the course of the play, Creon has a series of confrontations with figures whose views are increasingly difficult for him to discount.  His interactions with Haemon and Teiresias are particularly problematic; not only do both Haemon and Teiresias claim to be acting in Creon’s interest, but they also both speak to Creon in a language which he ought to understand, the language of general statements. Their attempt to teach Creon how the world works, however, results in a total breakdown of communication; after building his authority out of the ability to dictate general truths, Creon can no longer hear the gnomai of others as anything but subversive. It is only after the furious exit of Teiresias that Creon finally turns to the chorus for advice; having failed to force others to accept his assessment of the way of the world, he must now learn to live by a new kind of general truth, one which accepts that his authority is not absolute.

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Discourses of Greek Tragedy: Music, Natural Science, Statecraft, Ethics

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