We trust those in power to govern in ways that reflect our collective values and beliefs. So what happens when those in power administer laws in a way that is completely out-of-balance with the moral compass of a community? This is one of the questions that arises from Sophocle’s Greek tragedy Antigone.
Antigone dates back to around 441 BC. In it, two brothers lead opposite sides in Thebes’ civil war. The losing brother, Polyneices, dies on the battlefield. The King decrees that as punishment for his rebellion, Polyneices’ body shall be left unburied on the battlefield, without being given last rites.
Polyneices’ sister, Antigone, objects to this punishment. She goes to the battlefield and buries her brother. When the King learns of Antigone’s actions, he orders her to be entombed alive in a cave. Following unrest by the people, the prophets, and the gods for what they see as an unjust punishment, the King reverses his decision. However, it is too late. Antigone has already killed herself, and the King’s son—who is engaged to Antigone—kills himself out of sorrow. The play closes with the King a broken though now wiser man.
The disharmony that the King created could be seen as a reflection of what happens when justice lacks balance. Would there have been a better approach to ensure justice was served?
Restorative justice recognizes that everything is connected, and a crime disturbs the harmony of these connections. When a crime takes place, its remedy should be determined by the needs of victims, the community, and the offender. This restoration is meant to heal victims and communities, while encouraging offenders to confront the consequences of their action. Such an approach is believed to lead to restoration for all.
None of these concepts were present in the King’s harsh punishment of Antigone. It cannot be denied that Antigone acted contrary to the King’s decree when she buried her brother’s body. Yet, in punishing Antigone, the King failed to balance the needs of everyone involved.
Consequently, it is not surprising that the end result was the exacerbation of the disharmony in Thebes. Had the King approached justice with balance, the entire community would have been better.