Physis vs. Nomos in Sophocles’ Antigone
Known today as the “Nature versus Nurture” debate, the question of human social conduct and character development has remained a topic of interest for many philosophical discussions. Centered around the natural and socially constructed, ancient Greeks referred to this debate as physis versus nomos ? is individual behavior a primary product of custom and convention or absolute natural fact? Greek mythology addresses this dichotomy of mankind through scenarios of interaction between man and the supernatural.
The juxtaposition and/or separation of physis and nomos in this way is found in many myths, an overt strategy that is used to convey Greek ideas of inherent moral responsibility. Sophocles addresses the question of physis versus nomos ? in essence, right versus wrong ? in his rebellion-inspiring tragedy Antigone. Among others, his main characters, Antigone and Creon, are representative of the two ideologies in contrast.
In regards to the burial, or rather, non-burial, of Antigone’s slain brother Polyneices, they are constantly battling over polar positions: state against individual citizen, law against conscience, and human nature against divine nature. Ultimately, in following her conscience and sacrificing her life in defiance of nomos, Antigone is validated as a martyr and hero, while Creon is left alone in sorrow and despair. Given the fates of these two characters, is the fate of man subjective to acting solely on what is morally righteous, essentially upholding physis over nomos?
In Antigone’s very famous choral ode, the Chorus tributes man’s accomplishments and mastery over sea and sky but also emphasizes human inferiority to divine powers: “only against Death shall he call for aid in vain; but from baffling maladies he hath devised escapes. ” The physis-nomos dichotomy, however, is not addressed in any part of the ode; instead, it is grouped together, leaving fate at the hands of obedience of both land’s law and “that justice which he hath sworn by the gods to uphold. 1 Though the Chorus means to unify and connect both physis and nomos to emphasize a proud and happy citizen, we find that the juxtaposition of these two completely different concepts proves problematic for the opposing characters in this tragedy. The human struggle to defy what is intrinsically wrong but established as permissible is openly apparent in the initial scenes of the play ? strong-willed and brave-hearted Antigone reveals her plan to unlawfully bury her brother, only to be rejected and dismantled by cautious and law-abiding Ismene.
Although Ismene is saddened by her brother’s fate, nomos renders her helpless; social constructs have influenced her belief that their standings as women and individual citizens are no match for state law. Consequently, she is appalled that Antigone would even think of defying Creon, believing their brother’s fate is out of their hands. She even warns her sister, “tis witless to be over busy. “1 Her chance to rightfully bury Polyneices, and more importantly, to realize her innate responsibility to her kin, is temporarily barred by human-allotted law and practice.
Defiant Antigone, on the other hand, draws solely on the laws of physis to justify her worldly crime, a “sinless” act in comparison to Ismene’s inaction. Because Ismene remains reliant on her pardoning prayers to the gods, Antigone accuses her of dishonoring the divine laws they have created for man to follow. Antigone’s constant decision to obey physis and act on love and compassion for her brother is portrayed as blameless and forgivable by the supernatural, because although she illegally honored an enemy of the state, her true allegiance is to the divinities.
Confident her actions are orderly, Antigone advises Ismene to “guide thine own fate aright,”1 as it is she who is in need of counsel and discourse, but even when Ismene chooses to take partial blame for the burial of Polyneices, Antigone refuses to accept her sudden change of heart as worthy of the burial’s due glorification ? having a guilty conscience is not the same as acting out of nobility and justice. Creon’s desire to exert and establish authority in his new land, however, provides a stronger and more consistent argument for the prevalence of nomos over physis.
When the Chorus suggests Polyneices’ burial may be the work of the gods, Creon erupts angrily, arguing the gods would never honor a traitor like Polyneices. In fact, any mention of divine interference in stately matters greatly frustrates the king, causing him to act tyrannically. The initial ideas he voiced to the Chorus about loyalty and nationalism are taken to an extreme when he threatens to hang the disobedient. His inability to remain collected when challenged reveals the proud and egotistical spects of his nomos viewpoint; in trying to create and maintain the superiority of human law, more so his law, over natural law, he has a hard time incorporating moral reasoning and thought into his decisions. When Antigone and Creon finally go head to head in their argument of physis versus nomos, Creon struggles to separate personal feelings against Antigone from fair jurisdiction. Her defiance of state laws are considered disrespect towards Creon and the state, a crime awaiting dire retribution.
In equating Antigone’s crime with not only unlawful behavior, but an insult to his own character, Creon is unable to dissociate between his two identities, self and state, a harmful consequence of the prevalence of human law. Since nomos is individually and/or culturally defined, it is always changing. There are never any absolutes or universals ? what is good and correct is dependent on one’s own beliefs. Though Antigone too acts on her own beliefs, she cites the “unwritten” law of Zeus and the deities as her moral and conscious guide.
Creon’s social constructs and nomos ideals, however, are immoral, egotistical, and self-centered, built solely around what is beneficial for self and state: man’s responsibility to what is right and lawful is not taken into consideration in nomos. Through Teiresias’ prophecy, we find Sophocles makes a connection between the human conscience and divine law. Antigone herself had to discern what was morally right based on physis, as she did not receive a direct supernatural edict or order.
Fully aware of the worldly consequences she must face as punishment for her right-doing, Antigone lends herself to the mercy of the state. She counts her death as a gain, an example of what the gods feel is inherently right and just. By defying those unwritten natural laws, however, Creon is subjected to ill fate and divine castigation. His ignorance and disrespect towards what is fundamentally correct hinders his ability to realize man’s inherent moral responsibility.
Antigone is thus deemed the hero, her self-willed death a justifiable leap of faith. She is celebrated and accepted by the gods as a martyr and a do-gooder, while Creon’s belated reaction to and realization of his own power-hungry, self-sufficient attitude are the ultimate causes of his world’s downfall. Through the ideals and fates of these two opposing characters we dissect the physis-nomos dichotomy ? that is, we see the union of the two is impossible and incorrect. Rather, they are used to define and separate what is right from what is wrong.
Man’s fate is indeed reliant on the obedience of divine law, the law that is moral and righteous. Sophocles’ use of physis and nomos in Antigone suggests Greek ideologies of a world order, a world that is ruled by powers greater than man, a power that generates an unexplainable moral code that governs the actions of mankind. In studying the inherent moral code through character actions in Antigone, we find that physis is considered ethically correct, as natural law upholds honorable behavioral expectations.
In comparison, acting through nomos is considered ethically incorrect because of its subjectivity to its lawmaker; there are no moral constants to follow: to each his own. Perhaps the Greeks believed man itself was inherently evil, as they cannot be trusted to create behavioral codes for themselves. Mankind must rely on a greater power to tell them what is wrong and what is right; they must be given constants and universals to act as a guide for proper behavior.
For example, Creon’s evident concern for his own well-being and identity influences his tendency to defy natural law; he cares for no one but himself and equates his own beliefs with those that the gods deem acceptable. In doing so, he becomes his own god and neglects his moral responsibility, a crime punishable by the deities. Antigone suggests that mankind is far too self-involved to construct social universals and comparatively, physis, which which is naturally established, is the only effective example of what is right.