Creon in Seamus Heaney’s The Burial at Thebes is a complicated character that can be interpreted as anything from tragic figure to antagonist who gets what he deserves. When examined through the lens of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Creon is shown to be a flawed man who becomes more virtuous throughout the course of the play.
Creon is flawed according to Aristotle’s ethics because he is not acting with the virtue of courage. Aristotle describes virtue as “a kind of mean,” meaning that virtue is an intermediate between two extreme forms of action (Marino 73). A deficiency in courage leads to cowardice, and an excess in courage leads to rashness where a person fears “nothing at all” (Marino 68). Creon exhibits rash behavior by preventing the dead of the enemy to be buried. As Tiresias points out, “no earthly power…exerts authority over the dead,” since that is the prerogative of the god of the underworld and no one else (Heaney 61). If rashness is being afraid of nothing at all, Creon certainly is rash when he places his word above the god of the dead. This rashness is a significant excess of the virtue of courage, making it, according to Aristotle’s writing, not courage at all since it is not within the ethical mean.
Though Creon begins the play quite flawed, he reaches a turning point where he becomes more virtuous. This turning point comes when the prophet Tiresias tells Creon that a great tragedy will befall his people if he continues preventing the dead from being buried (Heaney 61). He is reluctant, but acknowledges that “fate has the upper hand” and knows in his “heart of hearts” that freeing Antigone and burying her brother is the right thing to do (Heaney 63). If he were still acting rashly and feared nothing, he would not have reversed his decree. He would have stayed on the path he was on. By admitting that fate has the upper hand and changing his actions because of it, he reveals he is at least somewhat afraid of what repercussions could come if he does not alter his actions. At the same time, he is not stirred into a frenzied panic at Tiresias’ words, which indicates he is not cowardly either. Creon’s change of heart does not come from cowardice, nor does it come from rashness. Instead, it comes from the courage to measuredly decide a course of action in the face of fear. According to the Nicomachean Ethics, “it is by doing just acts that the just man is produced,” and this is the same with the temperate person or the virtuous person in general (Marino 71). Following this line of reason, by Creon acting courageous, he himself becomes more of a courageous person. And since courage is a virtuous trait because it is a mean between the extremes of rashness and cowardice, Creon also becomes more virtuous.
Creon’s action is virtuous because it is voluntary as much as because it was a mean between two extremes. Aristotle’s work says that only voluntary actions are the ones which receive praise. If Creon is going to be praised for becoming more virtuous, it is important to show that his action was made of his own volition. The Nicomachean Ethics says that if something is done out of fear of a greater evil, like wrathful gods, it can be debated whether it is voluntary or not, but that they are more like voluntary actions if they “are worthy of choice at the time” and the “end of an action is relative to the occasion” (Marino 81). In Creon’s case, reversing a decree may not be a good thing for a king to do since it shows indecision, but relative to this occasion, it is the right thing for him to do to keep his people safe from godly retribution (Heaney 63). Because his action protects his people, it also worthy of choice at the time. Since Creon’s actions are relative to the occasion and worthy of choice at the time, this indicates that they were voluntary and therefore worthy of praise and truly virtuous.
Creon is certainly an imperfect person, but, in his defense, he takes clear steps towards virtue throughout The Burial at Thebes. He recognizes his error and ultimately tries to correct it. It is the nature of tragedies that he just arrives too late.
Heaney, Seamus, and Sophocles. The burial at Thebes: a version of Sophocles Antigone. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004.
Marino, Gordon Daniel. Ethics: The Essential Writings. Modern Library, 2010.
Edited by: Anna Grace Dulaney