Sophocles’ Creon and the illusion of polis
By Julia Ongchoco
One of the most salient binaries in Sophocles’ Antigone is the distinction between polis (or state) and oikos (or family). In this tragedy, Antigone, the main character, goes against Creon, the king and her uncle, out of the desire to properly bury her brother. Her persistence in the name of family cascades into all sorts of problems for Creon, who continued until the end to resist her plea. Creon is typically associated with polis, while many of the other characters (like Antigone herself) stand in contrast, representing oikos. Here I argue instead that this “polis” front is really an illusion. It seems to me that no matter how Creon might on the surface be for polis, the opposite concept of oikos was inescapable in his story and far more defining of his tendencies, actions, and ultimate ending. This illusion of polis masked how Creon saw himself as a leader and father, and across the play, this illusion is slowly challenged, causing Creon himself to waiver and concede to the inescapability of oikos. Oikos, not polis, becomes the source of his grief in the end.
Creon views himself as the leader of the city, as he says explicitly in line 738, “The king is lord and master of his city.” This self-perception dominates our image of Creon, and ties him to polis. But even in this primary self-identity, the primacy of polis already begins to unravel. For instance, one might imagine that a “true” polis leader would obtain his power from the city and the people. With Creon though, he draws his power from oikos, which he himself acknowledges in lines 171 to 174: “Upon a single day, two brothers each killing the other with polluted sword, I now possess the throne and royal power by right of nearest kinship with the dead.” In this excerpt, the key part is the last, where Creon states that he has obtained his power by “right of nearest kinship,” which is grounded in oikos. Of course, Creon follows this in line 175 by insisting still on polis, saying that, “There is no art that teaches us to know the temper, mind or spirit of any man until he has been proved by government and lawgiving.” These lines side-by-side capture the masking act in itself, where Creon believes his identity (i.e. how we can “know any man”) must be grounded in polis, even if he might have obtained his power from oikos. Thus, when it comes to Creon’s identity, polis is the front to the power that is ultimately drawn from oikos.
Beyond being king, Creon is a husband and father. In this role in the household, it is easy to again associate Creon with polis. He constantly thinks about events in his family as threatening not his oikos, but rather his position in polis. We see this in line 532: “Nor did I know that I was cherishing two fiends, subverters of my throne.” In a single line, he not only portrays a disdain for oikos, referring to his nieces as “fiends,” but he also sees them as “subverters” of his polis status or throne. But his strong language does not ring through in his later dialogues with his family members. In fact, over time in the play, we see the illusion of polis start to waiver. For example, at this same scene of the play, across just three lines, Creon begins by talking about oikos and what he would hate for his son—after which he, almost like a reflex, resumes an oikos-indifferent front, saying that he’s heard enough of the marriage:
(Beginning line 571 to 573)
CREON. I hate a son to have an evil wife.
ANTIGONE. O my dear Haemon! How your father wrongs you!
CREON. I hear too much of you and your marriage.
Here, he speaks on one hand of being motivated by arguably a love for his son, but on another, he claims that he’s heard too much of the marriage of Antigone and attempts to mask these familial ties from the argument and stick to his judgement. The dance between oikos and polis now starts to call into question how strongly Creon is tied to his polis position. We can see this further as we move on in the play. In line 661, he tells Haemon, “No man can rule a city uprightly who is not just in ruling his own household.” This quote was initially deceiving. On the one hand, we might interpret it as a support for the primacy of polis in Creon’s thinking. Creon values justice as a leader, whether of his city or of his family—and one can argue that justice may be an inherently polis concept. On the other hand though, the structure of the sentence can also suggest a different interpretation, one of the primacy of oikos, such that to be a good leader means first to be a good father.
We see this illusion come out more clearly in his entire dialogue with his son in the following scene:
(Beginning line 725 to 732)
CREON. What? Men of our age go to school again and take a lesson from a very boy?
HAEMON. If it is worth the taking. I am young, but think what should be done, not of my age.
CREON. What should be done! To honor disobedience!
HAEMON. I would not have you honor criminals.
CREON. And is this girl then not a criminal?
The key bits to focus on in this dialogue are the references to youth and boyhood. From a first pass, we might interpret this as highlighting a distinction between young and old, boy and man, Haemon and Creon. But I argue that a different way we might interpret this is via the distinction between son and father. This is also why I have included the whole dialogue in the first place, instead of just a line. It is the tone and rhythm of the dialogue that makes it clear this is not a formal conversation that Creon is having with, for example, an advisor. With the rhetorical questions “What? […] Take a lesson from a very boy?” at the start, and “To honor disobedience!” we hear a father lecturing or telling off his son—and with Haemon’s direct and curt reply, “If it is worth taking,” we hear a son answering back. The back and forth lends to the imagery of a typical oikos fight that we are familiar with. But why does this father and son relationship matter? It matters for how we can classify Creon’s reasoning—and here the polis illusion starts to become unmasked. Creon’s decision to ignore the wisdom of his son to let Antigone go may be rooted in his position as a father rather than as a leader, with him unwilling to listen to his son by virtue of being the father. If Creon’s thinking was more of a polis reasoning, then he should not have to default to a stance of “I am the father, therefore anything you say as the son does not count.” The unmasking continues as Haemon provokes Creon’s position in the city or polis:
(Beginning line 733 to 736)
HAEMON. The city with a single voice denies it.
CREON. Must I give orders then by their permission?
HAEMON. If youth is folly, this is childishness.
CREON. Am I to rule for them, not for myself?
This is a critical moment where Creon seems to get confused! Haemon invoked polis, to which Creon then responded not by siding with his city, but rather by turning inward to himself. This line “Am I to rule for them, not for myself?” is not obviously oikos in the sense that it doesn’t refer to home or family—but I will argue that it is an important turning point in Creon’s view of himself as a leader and a father. We see this waivering culminate in line 742: “Villain! Do you oppose your father’s will?” He did not speak of being king and being opposed as a leader, but as a father being opposed by his son. Thus, Creon seems to default to the superiority of his wisdom by virtue of being a father, and this is what ultimately makes him more oikos than polis.
So far, we have argued that Creon may not be the embodiment of polis, and the illusion of polis crumbles for Creon especially towards the end of the play. Creon discovers the inescapable nature of oikos: no matter what the case or how much we try to ignore it, oikos will always be there. This is no better put than in the words of the chorus:
(Lines 788 to 792)
CHORUS For no one can escape love’s domination,
Man, no, nor immortal god.
Love’s prey is possessed by madness.
So here: It is love that stirred up
This quarrel of son with father.
The kindling light of love in the soft
Eye of a bride conquers, for
Love sits on his throne, one of the great Powers;
Nought else can prevail against
Oikos is inescapable. We can go back to when Creon tried to appear as if he were unbounded by oikos, as in lines 486 to 489: “But though she be my niece or closer still than all our family, she shall not escape the direst penalty; no, nor shall her sister: I judge her guilty too.” Compare this to later in the play in line 171 where the same familial ties that gave Creon his power and position in polis is what ends up bringing the downfall of the two brothers: “Upon a single day, two brothers each killing the other with polluted sword.” It is oikos under the illusion of polis that becomes Creon’s eventual downfall and source of profound grief. It is also the same familial ties to his son that causes him great grief in the end when Haemon chooses to kill himself. Lastly, in the ultimate end of the story, it is the death of his wife that proves to Creon this blindness from oikos that the illusion of polis may have caused. In lines 1339 to 1342 he says, “Lead me away, a rash, a misguided man, whose blindness has killed a wife and a son. O where can I look? What strength can I find? On me has fallen a doom greater than I can bear.” Here he sees that how he saw himself as a leader, as a father, and as a man as a whole was flawed. This self-illusion led him to make decisions that left him without an oikos—and ironically, this is when he finally accepts oikos. A truly tragic end to bring the story to a full circle.
Sophocles, H. D. F Kitto, and Edith Hall. Antigone: Oedipus the King ; Electra, Oxford University Press, 2017.
Julia Ongchoco (College ’23) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania studying Cognitive Science.
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