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Guide to Sophocles)

Defense of the Unwritten Laws

A Student Edition with Commentary,

Grammatical Notes, & Vocabulary INTRODUCTION

SOPH. WROTE THIS PLAY in an age much like our own, when
the traditional respect for law, so ingrained in the Hellenic psyche,
was under assault especially from the new advocates of reason and

JOAN V. O'BRIEN from the researches of his friend, the historian Herodotos. The

/rsarn e. 6 :b. ('~r-cI

following age would echo with debates on nomos, "custom," "law."
"convention"; and Ph}JS1S: "nature," "character." The poet doubtless
heard such debates. And An. is the earliest~play that brings
C/O, 11,/2,13 such philosophical argument onto the stage.
In origin, nomos is a deeply religious concept. 2 As early as Hesiod,
it designated divine revelations through oracles, rites ordained by
the gods, moral rules imposed by them, and the divine world-order.
Southern Illinois University Press Traditionally in Athens, only the ancient laws of Solon and Draco
were called nomoI; the ordinary decrees of the ekklesta, the assembly,
CARBONDALE AND EDWARDSVILLE were only pseph.smata (see 60 n.) and lacked the stature of lIomo•.
The philosopher Heraclitus (fl. 500 B.C.), who may have been a

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major influence on Soph. 's understanding or law. stated that all
human Iaws are nourished by one law the divine nomo~t.~u.5ioil1'~

By mid-fifth century, however, the word nomos had become the 1/ 'J
loNDON AND AMSTERDAM rallying point for Athens' belief in the Integrity of her system of
law in her struggle against Persian tyranny; it stood for the particu-
larly Athenian fusion of the ideal of order (whether conceived in
Guide to Sophocles' ANTIGONE /
religious or nonreligious terms) with the practical observances of
the laws of the city-state. But the fusion did not last long. The meaning of nomos, Ut~di~on" or "reli ious ISlam." ThF phrase
historical studies of Herodotos, showing how vastly different the agrapta nomina, "unwrtrrei1laws," ay ave been a traditional"
laws and customs of other peoples were from those of the Hellenic one-Pericles uses it a deca e later l~· e famous Funeral Ora-
world, precipitated the deterioration and relativization of the con- tion-but An. uses it here in its earliest extant occurrence. Pericles
cept that became prevalent with the ~movement. Thus, gives it a secular context, but for Soph. it connotes the timelessly
eventually nomos. "law," i.e., the artificial, conventional, and some- (lrtJ\l,valid law of Zeus and 0; nature in distinction from positive decrees,
times false, was devalued in favor of PhYSIS. "nature," i.e.• the U i\6 'owhether oral (as In Cr. s case) or written (as, e.g., in contemporary
natural and true. 'vJflJ~b, &\JI~thenS}4 ItJ1refers to eternal laws as distlDct from the temporally
Only the first signs of this deterioration were evident when .,/{> and spatIally limned decrees of mere men. An. is thus asserting
Soph. wrote this play. For An. and presumably for Soph., there J that there IS a dimenSiOn of life over which the decrees or Hlawsll
is only one nomos and it is in harmony with the heroine's deepest (~rt~~ polis and ItS kIng have no jurisdictIOn. Cr. has gone beyond
human instincts, her PhYSIS. her nature, which is to join in loving his sphere in legislating fQr one who is In the domain of Hades
and not in hating, as she later (523) puts it. In the lines considered (seerin. on 3UI -62 and 450 ff.).
here (450-70), the heroine gives her formal defense of her' act in l. An. fully comprehends the COSI of her defiance (460): her inevi-
terms of the law of Zeus. . ~\' ~<;t~bl~death is a profitable exchange (note the twist ofCr.'s monetary
However, this is not the first introduc~lOn. of nomos into the f';k, \l.~)\:qJ i~age):> wI:er:..~~ml?~~ed.~.i~.~ t?C sinful compromise that is its
play. An., Isrn., and Cr. early defend their diverse posinons by (,'fI ~\.\. ~llernatJye He~Jlf.!:~1 remarks in the passa.Ee return to two themes
using nomos with different meanings. In the Prologue, An. urgesyM. " cP
of. the P,:-ologu,,", .paln(64) an.E..LoJ!y (95)· S~e defines intolerable
pain as the compromise involved In living by Cr.ts "Law." And
her nomos (i.e., her principle) on her sister, namely that one must (\,..oD(I.
revere the rights of family and nature above all. Ism., however, l ) -: ..\) ina sharp thrust at the king, her triple useof miiros/mima, "fool/folly,"
takes /lomos as merely synonymous with the king's decree, and so, £
despite her great love of family, she chooses to obey Cr.'s no~os. 12- f)DIf\!
leaves no doubt about her conviction: "But if I seem to you to
do foolish things now, perhaps it is a fool who convicts me of folly"
In the First Episode, while An. is putting her nomos into action 0' 6
(4 9- 70 ) .
Off.stage with the symbolic burial, Cr. promulgates his nom. Olt:(}.~g~~ ~ In their desire to show the depth of An.'s religious convictions
of conduct" (19 t), in his opening address. There, too, heJi:;hows 0 Y\ herej crrncs sometimes picture her as putting divine law in opposi-
. . . .!
hiS distrust for the custom (nomos) of ordinary Citizens, accusm tion to human law) That is not what is at srake.t she sees no
them of habItual gree In IS use of nomlsma 296), a word which di§c~ancy between thelaws of Zeus and hiiToyalty to hurnanifv.];
means bothcurrent coin an ordinary practice. Finally, the Cho. She doesnot'seeTierseIrfaced"\v,tn a Kierkegaardian choice between
(38 1":82)'-and 'Cr.'(449) 'precipitate An.'s discourse here on the God and man) In her e e l is not a nomos
unwritten laws when each accuses her of transgressing Cr. IS "laws. n precisely because itiB at ~;ar!2nce"W{th hu~an decency and t ere ore
She expresses her thought in these lines with uunost-sirnplicitv. a~~o with Zeus'laws In An.ts language, Cr. IS proclamation IS always
Zeus is not the author of Cr.'s decree, and no mortal can override called a me-;'e'decree, kerygma (see 452 n.), not a nomos. Her love
(hyperdrameziJithe' unwrTii~n"-;;nd unchanging laws of Zeus, laws ercelves that the burial of her brother must be in harmon with
of infinite age and-mysterious origin (450-55). Cr. has gone beyond eus' laws Zeus is present to her in the dishonored corpse of her
his sphene (see -4-55'n:) of influence, beyond the marker (dike) of -brother. J5he comes to understand the divine not in abstract terms
-'--'-' .".- ._~ .• _-" ,.>., -._/-.

ine7;;'T{s: She uses noma? derivative, nomlmon, a word less s~llied b~!. thrQ1Jl:A .ildeeply. felt human experience. For An" !!.iYine law
by popular devaluation and thus better able to convey the original

is embodied in phitia. concern for those she loves. She reveals her
on'enes's- of Ze'usi" law (true nomos)
. . . . . . -.~
Defense of the Unumtten Laws
GUIde to Sophocles' ANTIGONE /
and of her lovmg nature (Physls). ~~s_t~~s concrete religious convic-
.t.iQ!> that makes her both a. nobl." -"nd l'_.b~l~evable character. ph'ySlJ, since its very ongln IS in one's natural rights, not in the
Cr. answers her defense of the agrapta nomzma, t...he unwritten rights of posrtive law. That this union of pl!YSlS and 1lOmos was a
laws, With a neatly balanced response that shows not only hIs ability,. deep Sophoclean convrcuon is clear from the plavwrighr's rcasscr-
to handle rhetorical debate in the fashion of contemporary oratorY tion of It at the end of the Oedipus at Kolonos (1381-82)" He may
15iJl also his utter failure to comprehend her argument. He proceeds very well owe this insight to Heraclitus," but it has become the
from thc·general to the particular, lectunng on the just deserts cornerstone of his rcl igious edifice.
awaiting iron-stiff spirits (473) and overly spirited horses (477-78),
and then specifically accusmg An. of insolence in her transgression
(hyperbamem) of the established laws, nomous tous prokeimenous
(48 1).
He fails to hear that there may be a law transcending his decree.
He sees and hears only thc evidence of thc senses: a female threatens
to take Qv~r ~h~_:nan~s rightful mastery (484). This leads ~im to ....-\,,(f\.
the..tyran!1!.f"Ul!Qgic..oLcQndcmning the other girl. Ism., WIthout .Y-'
any evidence or her involvement. In so doing) he cle~~~y'_!.~ects
the legltlma.\e.delIlands of physu, nature, and of phi Iia, family, not
0':'!Y3_~LlliJL"Iso by statement: "Even if she were closer in
kinship than any who worship Zeus at our family al tar, she and
her sister (xynounos, Iit., 'one of common blood') shall not escape
the heinous fate of death" (486-89). Cr. thus links Zeus and family
and rejects both.
--- ---
"Tlic debate between /lomos and PhyS1S resonates throughout the
play: It~.:~nc:I_T~!':.Csias ~oth try in vain to warn ,the king of his D~ >
~.i.~~.5e ~f_ nomo~ through. Images: ~r the sea and d~sease. Cr. onh'Cr t .
harden~_ his.,posltlOn, addIng to hIS nomOl the subservlence?f females v~ r I>
and the unassailable position of th.e J:uler..whe.tl1C~ h." IS n ht or
wrong( 59 5. ~ o. reproaches An. WIth t e epithet autonomos,
"follower of one's own law" (821).6 The-odes keep returning to
the role of nomos (e.g., 368-69, 613-(4). Especially notable is the
Ode on Eros, where if Goheen 's Interpretation IS correct," "the
great laws" (i.e., the unwritten laws) with Eros sitting alongside
are in conflict with the lesser written laws (i.e. of Cr. and the
po/is). Only the androgynous hero, able to revere both Eros and
the agrapta /lOm1rna of Zeus, faithfully fuses /lomos and PhySlS. For
An., /lornos stands for these ancient laws implanted in the human
psyche by Zeus. They include basic human rights (e.g., respect
for family and for burial). This /lO"IOS cannot be in conflict with