Antigone's Civil Disobedience - The Obvious Injustice Of The Laws

From Ancient Kingdoms to modern day governments, laws have been in place to maintain order in society. For as long as there have been rulers, there has been disunity between rulers and ruled. People have always found ways to criticize government decisions and demand action. Approaching these situations in a non-violent manner is called “civil disobedience”.

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Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the most prominent activists of civil disobedience in the 1960s during the American civil rights movement. When people of color were not being treated equally in the South, Martin Luther King, Jr. used his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to show people how to peacefully protest without the use of violence. In MLK’s letter he outlines his theory of Civil Disobedience where he claims that there are four steps in a nonviolent campaign.The first step is collecting information and facts to confirm whether or not injustices exist in the law. MLK stated in the letter from Birmingham, “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” (King 13) The next step in King’s nonviolent campaign is negotiation, which is used to develop an understanding of the injustice. The third step is self-purification before direct action, which occurs when negotiation fails to trigger a positive change of the law which involves preparing oneself for the non-violent direct action. The fourth and final step of a nonviolent campaign is direct action. In MLK’s letter as well as in Antigone by Sophoceles, Martin Luther King Jr. and Antigone both saw the obvious injustice in the laws and they both had to engage in civil disobedience in order to fix an injustice for themselves and for others. Although Antigone and MLK are entirely different individuals for entirely different eras, she is considered to have followed Martin Luther King Jr’s nonviolent campaign because she participated in an act of civil disobedience that parallels King’s theory by establishing an injustice and dedicating herself to upholding justice at any cost.

The first step in MLK’s nonviolent campaign is collecting facts to determine whether injustices are present, which is what Antigone does when she hears about the death of both of her brothers. Antigone and her sister Iseme decide to return to Thebes, and when they arrive, the sisters learn that both of their brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, have died. Antigone’s Uncle, Creon, who inherited the throne as a King, gives Eteocles a proper burial but bans the burial of Polyneices. Antigone felt strongly that her brother, Polyneices was a good person and that banning a proper burial for him was unjust. She says to her sister, “Listen, Ismenê:/ Creon buried our brother Eteoclês./ With military honors, gave him a soldier’s funeral,/ And it was right that he should; but Polyneicês,/ They fought as bravely and died as miserably,–/They say that Creon has sworn./ No one shall bury him, no one mourn for him,/ But this body must lie in the fields, a sweet treasure/ For carrion birds to find as they search for food.” (Sophocles 15-20) MLK established proof of injustice towards black Americans in Birmingham, which was one of the most segregated cities in the United States at the time. Antigone, like MLK, was also able to differentiate between just and unjust laws and proved to her sister that there was an injustice occurring.

The second step in MLK’s theory of Civil Disobedience, is negotiation. After Antigone, tries to bury her brother’s corpse, Creon’s guards catch her and bring her to him where she attempts to negotiate with her uncle about Polyneices burial. She does not deny disobeying Creon’s edict and acknowledges that she buried her brother. “Because it was not Zeus who ordered it/ Nor Justice, dweller with the Nether Gods/Gave such a law to men; nor did I deem/ Your ordinance of so much binding force/ As that a mortal man could overbear/ The unchangeable unwritten code of Heaven;/ This is not of today and yesterday,/ But lives forever, having origin/ Whence no man knows: whose sanctions I were loath/ In Heaven’s sight to provoke, fearing will/ Of any man. I knew that I should die” (Sophocles 17-18) Antigone tells her uncle, Creon, why it was not for him to decide whether or not Polynices could be buried because was just a king and not a god. Antigone attempted to negotiated her reasons with Creon, but they did not agree on a simple answer at the end. Similarly, in MLK’s letter he explained how he and other negro leaders tried to negotiate with the city fathers, but ultimatly failed, resulting in moving on to the next step, “self purification”.

The third step is “self-purification”, where one must acknowledge that you have to make a personal sacrifice in order to make progress towards justice if negotiations fail. Antigone defied the law knowing Creon would be angry and would punish her. “I dared./ It was not God’s proclamation. That final Justice/ That rules the world below makes no such laws/Your edict, King, was strong,/But all your strength is weakness itself against/ The immortal unrecorded laws of God./They are not merely now: they were, and shall be,/Operative for ever, beyond man utterly./I knew I must die, even without your decree.” (Sophoceles 357-364) Antigone had reason for disobeying the law of her king and was prepared to accept the consequences, which in this case meant losing her own life. By standing up for her beliefs, Antigone purifies herself, because she would rather die than let her brother rot to death without a chance of an afterlife. When the negotiations in Birmingham failed, MLK and his organization participated in workshops to self-purify and prepare themselves for direct action.”We began a series of workshops on nonviolence, and we repeatedly asked ourselves: ‘Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?’ ‘Are you able to endure the ordeal of jail?’” (King 7) In doing this King accepted that his insubordination could result in consequence much like Antigone knew her insubordination would also result in consequence.

The fourth and final step of civil disobedience is direct action, which is meant to create more crisis and tension to facilitate further negotiation. Antigone’s first direct action was taking it upon herself to bury her brother, Polyneices, knowing that it could cost her her life. When the king Creon, decides that she must be punished by death, her final direct action was to kill herself rather than let him decide how she dies. Creon is deeply affected by Antigone’s direct action when he is all alone at the end of the play. He caused so much pain and suffering for his family, and led them all to suicide. At the end of the play he says, ”Lead me away. I have been rash and foolish./I have killed my son and my wife./ I look for comfort; my comfort lies here dead./Whatever my hands have touched has come to nothing./Fate has brought all my pride to a thought of dust.” (Sophocles 1034-1038)

In MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” as well as in Antigone by Sophoceles, Martin Luther King Jr. and Antigone both saw the obvious injustice in the laws of their government and had to engage in civil disobedience in order to fix an injustice for themselves and for others. Antigone and Martin Luther King, Jr. are two very different individuals. Antigone is a fictional, royal princess, while King is a real African- American preacher. They come from vastly different cultures with varying social status. Despite this, their responses to unjust man-made law reveal many similarities. Antigone, like MLK, was also able to differentiate between just and unjust laws and proved to her sister that there was an injustice occurring. MLK and Antigone’s direct actions both involved defying the law regardless of the consequences to promote positive change. It is very clear that Antigone by Sophocles and MLK’s letter, mirror one anothers process to fight for what is right, using civil disobedience.

07 September 2020

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