The Public Humanist

Antigone in Boston

I was a Creon until I realized that it put me against Antigone. Now I’m not so sure. Last week, listening to public radio, I heard about the protests against the burial of Tamerlan Tsarnaev. I nodded in agreement as various voices denounced the alleged Boston Marathon bomber and felt disgust at the thought that his corpse would pollute our state. Then, an undertaker was interviewed and he did not argue that Tsarnaev deserved any special treatment, but said that we debased our own humanity by denying his body burial rites.

That’s when I realized that I was living through Antigone, the classical Greek play by Sophocles and first performed around the time the Parthenon was being built in Athens. As the Academic Director of the Clemente Course in Dorchester, I work to provide college-level instruction in the humanities to a couple dozen low-income adults every year. Antigone is one text that we read regularly, either with our professor of Literature or with our professor of Moral Philosophy.

To review: Antigone’s brother had tried to overthrow the ruler of Thebes, Creon. Creon declares that the traitor should not be honored with burial — and anyone who attempts burial will suffer capital punishment; Antigone disagrees with this edict and disobeys Creon, her fiance’s father. Like any great Greek tragedy, various characters commit suicide and Creon is left feeling miserable.

In class, the students raise and discuss many questions, among them: Is a decent burial really that important? When a moral law is in conflict with a political decree, which should take precedence?

Often the discussion is somewhat abstract, but last week analogies became unnecessary. On Monday night, at the very end of class, I threw out the idea to a few students, “This argument about burying the bomber reminds me of…”

“Antigone!” W finished.

On Wednesday we continued the conversation as a group. Students were already pretty entrenched in their feelings. The continuum ran from M who was totally against burial, through B who thought burial was all right — but not in the US — to L who said we should show mercy and let God judge Tsarnaev.

In the middle was W. He had discussed the case with his co-workers and had been thinking a lot about the parallels with Antigone. It sounded like W’s thinking followed my own path.

I was firmly on Creon’s side, until I thought more about Antigone. Because when I read the play, I’m incensed with Creon for taking things too far, for wanting the state to act inhumanely to satisfy his own emotional needs. I’m glad Tsarnaev received a burial, because of what it says about our society that we can treat even the hated dead with dignity.

And next year, when we read Antigone, I’ll have more empathy for Creon’s position, even if I still disagree with it.

When people learn about the Clemente Course, they often ask me why our course values the humanities over more “practical” subjects. What relevance does moral philosophy or literature or history have for our students today?

Turns out our students have a leg up on the discussion everyone has been having this past week. Or to put it another way, we study the humanities to review and affirm our common humanity.

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