Citizenship and Civil Disobedience According to Aristotle and Sophocles

In setting forth his ideas regarding what makes a good citizen, Aristotle illustrates the difficulties involved in simply defining who might be a citizen and who might not be. In terms of being a citizen of a particular country or nation, he indicates that anyone is a citizen who is qualified to hold office within that country’s government. However, there are also the women, children, and elders who might be considered citizens even though they didn’t have the ability to participate in office because of their relationship to others (men) who did hold that ability. Thus, the definition quickly becomes confusing and only becomes more complicated with further investigation. Once the question is settled, however, the next question is how does one become a good citizen, and how does this compare with being a good person? Summarizing Aristotle’s ideas on this issue and applying them to a well-known play, “Antigone” by Sophocles, helps bring these concepts into clearer focus.

According to Aristotle, a citizen was an individual who was capable of holding public office within a particular regime. Because he is a part of a working team, all attempting to keep the regime running smoothly and towards a general concept of what it should be, the virtuous citizen is an individual who can devote him or herself completely to the ideals of the state to the greatest of his or her ability within the capacities and functions he or she has been assigned. He or she is both capable of ruling and of being ruled as they suppress their own interests and beliefs to fall into line with the ideals and beliefs of the state. However, the virtuous individual is the individual who does not let their beliefs or ethics be ruled by others. Instead, this person is capable of leading others along the right and good path through their unwavering dedication to their own beliefs and morals regardless of what the regime dictates.

In the play, “Antigone” by Sophocles, the main character, Antigone, defies the state in the form of her Uncle Creon by attempting to perform the final burial rights for one of her dead brothers. The brother died fighting her other brother, who also died, over the right to rule the state that is now governed by Creon. Creon decreed that the brother defending the city should be buried with all honor but that the one who was attempting to assert his right to rule based on a prior agreement should be left in the sun for his flesh to feed the pecking birds and his bones to be scattered by the wild animals. Antigone, however, loved both brothers and understood the reason why they were fighting. Within her belief system, it is sacrilegious to leave dead bodies lying around, partially because of the diseases they can bring and partially because she feels it is upsetting to the gods to have humans treated so poorly. While she is a virtuous individual because she refuses to sacrifice her beliefs on the dictates of an arbitrary rule decreed by the state, she is not necessarily a virtuous citizen because she does not follow the rules of her uncle. While this position can be argued because Antigone is a virtuous citizen according to the rules of the old regime under which she was born and which has just been replaced by Creon, it is equally clear that everyone else in the city has switched to being citizens of Creon and it is by this standard that Antigone and her actions must be judged.