Welcome Aysha Nasir, as she reflects upon the continued relevance of the wisdom of the ancients.
By Aysha Nasir
The Classics in 2016
Have you given any thought to the Classics recently? Your Plato, your Aristotle, your Sophocles? If the answer is a resounding no, you aren’t alone, and I certainly don’t blame you. Despite their influence on Western thought, the works of the ancient masters can at times seem as distant and as dated as the ages they were writing in. But I’m willing to bet that you have thought about the nature of love, the fallibility of the law, the relevance of art, the limits of democracy. As a species we have always had a great affinity for the weighty and the fundamental, and although humans have been asking questions for a long time, the answers are still shockingly elusive.
We like to think of progress in science and politics as a constant forward march, but we spend a lot of time spinning in circles, the same themes replaying again and again. That’s the thing about Classics—they never really go out of style.
Trial of Antigone reignites the discussion
Last month the National Hellenic Museum staged a mock trial in Chicago, in which the accused was Antigone, the titular character of Sophocles’ famous play. Real lawyers argued for and against her case, and real judges presided. Notable members of the community sat on the jury, and the audience participated in the vote as well. This fascinating event reignited a discussion about how things haven’t changed that much, thus proving that the Classics are still relevant today.
A quick refresher: Antigone is an Athenian play written around 441 BC, about a girl who, knowingly and with great pride, breaks a law. Acting in service of what she believes to be the greater good, she performs funeral rites on the body of her brother, despite her uncle the King decreeing that to do so is punishable by death.
The central debate in Antigone can be framed in multiple ways. It is positive law vs. natural law, man’s law vs. god’s law, legality vs. morality, all boiling down to this: there is a necessary difference between the laws imposed by a governing body and the self-evident laws imposed by nature and/or god. For instance, it is a positive law that you have to stop your car when the light turns red, but a natural law that all men are created equal. Positive laws are necessary to run an organized society, and natural laws tell a deeper truth about the human condition.
The play Antigone, as well as many Greek philosophers, ask: is one kind of law subordinate to the other?
Antigone is an ancient play, but not an ancient debate. When Antigone refuses to follow the King’s decree, is she calling into question the capricious whims of a tyrant, or is she just demonstrating blatant disregard for the law? According to the writings of the philosopher Plato, the only true laws are good laws; only good laws should be followed. In other words, citizens have not only the right but the duty to examine the choices of their leaders, and use their own judgment to decide whether or not the law should be followed. Ideally, this is what a democracy does; it examines the actions of its leaders and routinely holds them accountable.
Obviously, this can go too far. It would be impossible to run a society in which everyone picked and chose the laws they wanted to obey—that’s not democracy, that’s anarchy. But it does leave open a moral loophole for civil disobedience, the active refusal to obey a certain law or laws in an attempt to effect change. It was what Rosa Parks did when she refused to give up her seat on that bus. Sophocles wrote Antigone as part of a festival held to honor Dionysus, the god of theater, but also as a critique of totalitarian rule and an apathetic citizenry. Thoughtful societies, self-evaluating societies, are the ideal. And that still holds true today.
Ancient ideas not so ancient
The list of ancient Greek works still relevant to our modern time and situation by no means ends with Sophocles. Greek philosophy is still taught in universities because, with rare exception, all of it still deals with live questions. Humans have been interested in law, art, god, and love for a very long time.
In The Republic, Plato examines what it would mean to have a perfect society, and what its laws would entail. Utopia is still a subject we’re obsessed with today, along with its darker—but infinitely more marketable—cousin, dystopia. Homer’s epics encapsulate the hero’s journey, a narrative trope that is still in use today in everything from the Harry Potter series to Star Wars.
There is Aristotle’s Poetics, which examines what makes a successful piece of art, a question that no critic has been able to settle on in the intervening two thousand years. Plato’s Symposium delves into the nature and function of different sorts of love, and I can’t think of anything as universal as the question ‘what is love?’
The discussion continues
I’m not saying that the answers the ancients had for their questions are still staggeringly relevant today. Many of their moral virtues and beliefs don’t have any place in the modern age. But the asking, the questioning, the constant evaluation of the world around us; that hasn’t ceased to be valuable. Asking why is a long and proud human tradition, and it will continue to form us into better citizens, and better people.
Share your thoughts below.
Aysha Nasir holds a degree in philosophy from the University of Maryland at College Park. She currently lives in North Carolina, where she works as a freelance writer.