Is America experiencing inevitable decline? A nervous breakdown?
Recently I looked over Sophocles’ fifth-century play Antigone, and I was again impressed with a deep truth in it. So were my students.
Here is the background first. The eponymous character, Antigone, decides to bury her dead brother Polynices, even though he attacked Thebes. The new king, Creon, their uncle, decreed that Polynices, for his treachery, shouldn’t be buried, on pain of death.
However, she reasoned that Creon couldn’t overstep his mortal bounds and forbid her brother’s rightful place in the underworld—not even the gods of heaven do that—regardless of the dead man’s crimes.
A sentry guarding the rotting body caught Antigone ritually sprinkling dirt over it and hauled her into the king’s presence. Creon asks her why she broke his new law.
She replies that natural justice transcends human edicts:
It wasn’t Zeus, not in the least, who made this proclamation—not to me. Nor did that Justice, dwelling with the gods beneath the earth, ordain such laws for men. Nor did I think your edict had such force that you, a mere mortal, could override the gods, the great unwritten, unshakable traditions. They are alive, not just today or yesterday: they live forever, from the first of time, and no one knows when they first saw the light.
This is the classic statement on moral or natural law. Humans cannot override the “great unwritten, unshakable traditions … [that] live forever, from the first of time.” If people do, they will crack and break.
This made me think about longstanding issues in America that we can’t seem to get straight.
1. In the same-sex marriage issue, the great unwritten, unshakable traditions teach us that a man and a woman, whether artificially or in person, are the only way for humankind to reproduce. Therefore nature has always favored the opposite-sex couple—humans didn’t irrationally favor them. Nature did. Humans just used reason and followed what nature taught them. Homosexuality in ancient Greece? Yes, but they also knew where babies came from and arranged conjugal marriages accordingly. Now, however, an unwise committee of neo-monarchs on the Supreme Court has broken everlasting, living wisdom.
2. The great unwritten, unshakable traditions teach us that if all the people on planet earth were to remain virgins before marriage and stay faithful within heterosexual marriage, STD’s would virtually disappear. The number of abortions would also decrease significantly. And less heartache and confusion all around. But who are the ones who are mocked? The True Love Waits campaign. Virginity is openly derided in pop culture.
3. The great unwritten, unshakable traditions teach us that if humans take in even one joint of marijuana day after day, then the body, especially the brain, will sooner or later break down. Yet, to get more users and therefore more money, Big Marijuana has worked its smoky magic on the minds of people with half-truths and lies. So people have unwisely voted to legalize its recreational use in two states already.
4. The great unwritten, unshakable traditions teach us—by psychologically and sociologically positive outcomes—that a man and woman who produce children and stay together in harmony are the best ones to raise their children. Faithfulness and functionality produce those positive results. However, divorce damages the family and hence the larger society. And yet we pass no-fault divorce laws. We pay government money to women who have children outside of wedlock—more children, more money. And we wonder why the family is breaking down.
5. The great unwritten, unshakable traditions teach us that abortion is a violent act that can hurt the psychology of the woman. Whether we call the “entity” in the womb a human being or a person or a baby or a fetus or a mere life, in a short time after conception it will be viable before the nine months are up. All the mother has to do is feed herself, and nature grows it to be viable. A growing “entity” with human DNA is alive. So we have a choice between life or death. The great unwritten, unshakable traditions teach me (at least) to choose life. And in a choice between a woman’s right to choose for nine months is weighed against a baby’s right to live for eighty years, that is not a close call. But the neo-monarchs on the Supreme Court found a constitutional right to an abortion. Fifty million dead, and counting. Fortunately, the number of abortions is at an all-time low.
6. The great unwritten, unshakable traditions teach us that we need each other to survive, so we form a society and live in harmony to raise the next generation in security and freedom—a social contract. However, our national debt that we hand on to the next generation will break them. And the politicians who blew it up tell us deficit spending on steroids is fiscally healthy. More social brokenness: Social harmony is cracking up in the inner city—every weekend. Yet the media yawn.
7. Let’s switch to foreign affairs. World history teaches us that from the ancient Sumerians to the Assyrians, Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines … skipping to more recent times … to the dominance of the West and Great Britain’s place in the world for three or four centuries when our nation was founded—all of this teaches us that a great power arises and imposes some kind of order on the world (though that order varies in quality).
Now it’s our turn—the Pax Americana. Though we have not achieved moral perfection (and never will), our presence in the world brings more peace, while our withdrawal from the world brings chaos. So are we the police of the world? Obviously yes. Like it or not, that’s just the way the world seems to work, throughout time. Yet, politicians on the right (libertarians) and left advocate for withdrawal. We did that in Iraq, and ISIS filled the void the size of Indiana.
So what happened to Creon when he refused to submit to the law of the gods?
Tiresias, the blind prophet, announces that the gods will not be mocked, and Creon will reap the pain of loss, as his punishment. That’s when Creon repents, but it is too late. He had run roughshod over the great unwritten, unshakable traditions, crossing the point of no return. His wife and remaining son committed suicide. So did Antigone, walled up in a cave.
The play ends, showing him an empty, lonely, broken man.
Is our country likewise broken? Or merely cracking up?
I believe in redemption. I don’t believe that we have (yet) gone past the point of no return—though you’re certainly free to disagree. Some say we have improved in all of the seven categories. Positive. But in whose sight ultimately? God’s or man’s?
We better be careful, for unwise “activists,” particularly politicians of the left, who smile while breaking moral law, will eventually break our country—not that the “great unwritten, unshakable traditions … [that] live forever from the first of time” will ever crack or bend or break.
It is we humans who do.