One of the most important political and moral terms in the civilized word is justice. By definition, the word means right or law according to its Latin roots. Philosophers and law makers have debated about the actual meaning of the term justice for centuries. Some believe it means treating everyone the same, while others argue that it means treating each individual differently based upon individual circumstances. Plato deemed justice as establishing rational order in the world.
In other words, each member of society has a role and remains within the constraints of that role without interfering with any other members’ role. Nonetheless, who should decide what role is played by whom? As a result, one could say that civil disobedience plays a dominant role in justice. The short play, Antigone, conveys to its readers that civil disobedience is an inherent right of every individual in order to fight unjust laws.
Antigone is faced with a great moral dilemma. Creon has decreed the burial of Polyneices is against the law. Creon is aware of the burial customs of the Greeks, but does this to spite Antigone and her sister, Ismene. Antigone must decide if she will passively accept her father’s rule although she believes it goes against the gods and her own personal morals. Antigone has gained her steadfastness and unwillingness to compromise when she feels she is morally right from her father. For example, “Like father like daughter,
passionate, wild…she hasn’t learned to bend before adversity” (lines 525-527).
Early on, Antigone makes her choice clear to the reader. In lines 69-77, she conveys that she is willing to commit a “crime of piety” in order to avoid upsetting the gods. She obviously believes that honoring the gods and Polyneices is more important than following an unjust law set by Creon. For example, she says, “I’ll bury him myself. And even if I die in the act, that death will be a glory. I’ll lie with the one I love and loved by him- an outrage sacred to the gods! I have longer to please the dead than please the living here: in the kingdom down below I’ll live forever.
Do as you like, dishonor the laws – the gods hold in honor” (lines 85-92). Antigone is willing to take great risk to bury Polyneices, but she is willing to accept the punishment, which will most likely be death in some form. In line 443, she says “I don’t deny it; I admit the deed was mine”. This very idea conveys the definition of civil disobedience. Antigone suffers internally with the choice she has made because she knows that she will die an unmarried woman. For example, “I go thus cursed, unmarried, to dwell without a home” (line 867). She is willing to sacrifice herself for what she believes in. Consequently, one can deduce that living a life against what she morally believed is worse to her than death itself.
To determine if true justice has been served on Antigone, one must decide what type of justice is being referred to-man’s justice or moral justice. Although Antigone commits suicide by the end of the play, many people believe her death helps to serve true justice on Creon. Antigone was willing to die for her act of civil disobedience from the very beginning.
Similarly, one may ponder if true justice has been served in the case of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Both Dr. King and Antigone were faced with similar circumstances. Dr. King made it known that he, too, was willing to die for what he felt was morally right. He practiced civil disobedience in order to bring attention to laws he felt were unjust. Unlike Antigone, Dr. King had many followers and supporters, but often conveyed that he felt more alone than he had ever felt before when he was in the Birmingham jail. In his letter, Dr. King conveys that it is impossible to sit idly by when injustice is occurring to one’s fellow man.
He went on to state that although he was not from Birmingham, he came there to meet injustice head on because it would only be a matter of time before injustice spilled over into other areas. For example, he says, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. In other words, Dr. King was warning stand byers that they were at risk of losing their freedoms when they stood by and watched others fight for their freedoms.
Dr. King goes on to write that he was “mindful of the difficulties involved”, but was willing to take the risk because to him, it outweighed living a life being denied human freedoms. Dr. King is murdered in Memphis Tennessee sometime after his release from the Birmingham jail. Again, it is inherent that his death served to hand out true justice to his oppressors. After the death of Dr. King, African Americans in the South gained equality.
Some people feel that the written law of a land is above all else. Many people will argue that because Antigone and Dr. King both broke the laws of their land, they should have been dealt with accordingly. Nonetheless, Antigone felt she had no other choice than to give her brother a proper burial. Some laws have their roots in injustice.
The particular law that Antigone broke was proclaimed in an effort to cause dismay to her and her sister. Likewise, Dr. King acknowledged that proper protocol must be followed before civil disobedience is practiced. For example, in his letter from the Birmingham jail he stated that four basic steps had to be followed before a person should exercise civil disobedience. Any person who exercises civil disobedience and is willing to face losing his life for the cause understands that some injustices are just intolerable.
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