In the ancient Greek play Antigone, written by Sophocles in the mid-fifth century BC, we see how the lead character Antigone feels compelled to break the law in order to give her brother Polyneices a proper burial. Polyneices has been killed in a battle against his brother and fellow citizens, and, as he is considered a traitor to the kingdom, the king decrees that no-one is to bury him or mourn him. As his sister, however, Antigone feels that she is under an obligation to give him some minimal burial rites, and in fact does so, leading to her being condemned, as illustrated above.
In this story, we see that Antigone is caught between two clashing norms of right behaviour that she has in virtue of who she is in the wider social context. On one hand, she is a citizen of Thebes, with certain obligations to abide by the law of the city, and in particular, a civic duty to stand together with her fellow citizens against traitors. On the other hand, she is a sister with certain duties owing to family ties and family loyalty. The development of the drama turns on how she chooses to act on one of these two norms, which are irreconcilable with each other.
This conflict between different rules of behaviour is dramatized in the following exchange between Antigone and King Creon, where Antigone contrasts the human laws made by a king with the eternal laws of the gods –
“CREON – And thou didst indeed dare to transgress that law?
ANTIGONE – Yes; for it was not Zeus that had published me that edict; not such are the laws set among men by the justice who dwells with the gods below; nor deemed I that thy decrees were of such force, that a mortal could override the unwritten and unfailing statutes of heaven. For their life is not of to-day or yesterday, but from all time, and no man knows when they were first put forth.”[from Antigone, trans. Prof. R.C. Jebb, Internet Classics Archive]
This play perhaps also reflects the two competing forms of social organization that prevailed in ancient Greece, the domestic institution of family and the corporate institution of the city. The authority of family and clan was based on the domestic sphere of familial relations, shared ancestors, and shared domestic gods. By contrast, the authority of the polity or state took the shape of civic laws that applied in a more abstract and generic way.
This idea of conflict owing to clashing norms of right behaviour may have been a prominent theme in the ancient world. Thus we can see a similar plot development based on clashing norms in the Indian epic Rāmāyaṇa, when Rāma is suddenly deprived of the status of heir to the Ayodhya. This occurs because Kaikeyī, was given two boons by her husband, King Daśaratha –
“Remember, King, what happened before in that battle of gods and demons. There the enemy almost took away your life. And in that situation, Lord, when you were totally protected by me watching over [you], [you] gave me two boons. And [now] in you presence, I seek the two boons that were pledged.”[Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki, Ayodhyākāṇḍa, Canto XI verses 17-20; my own translation]
She accordingly makes the following two requests –
“I will just tell you them now. Listen to my words. Preparations have been made for the coronation ceremony for Rāma. Crown my Bharata [as heir to the throne] with this coronation ceremony. Lord, the time has come for the second boon which was given by you to me through affection at that time, in the battle of gods and demons. Retreating to the Daṇḍaka forest for nine plus five years, wearing bark-cloth and animal-skin, let the wise Rāma become a hermit. Let Bharata freely get the right of succession today.”[Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki, Ayodhyākāṇḍa, Canto XI verses 24-27; my own translation]
As he owes her his life, he is incapable of refusing these requests. In fact, Rāma willingly accepts his fate, reasoning in terms of his obligation to follow a norm of right behaviour, as follows –
“Know that I am determined to stick to the words of my parents, for this is the true path of good people.”[Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki, Ayodhyākāṇḍa, Canto XXIII verse 41cd; my own translation]
Further, as I wrote about earlier, various attempts are made to persuade Rāma to fight back and assert his right to the kingship. Interestingly, these are again broadly ethical arguments, about what is the right thing for him to do, as the eldest son of the previous king, that is, what norm of right behaviour should govern his conduct. His response is to reiterate the above alternative norm of right behaviour, in accordance with which he will act.
“To explain, let that which King Daśaratha, the father who has begot me, has commanded me not become false.”[Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki, Ayodhyākāṇḍa, Canto CXI verse 11; my own translation]
In modern Western societies, our ethical ideas often take the shape of highly abstract and theoretical ethical conceptions, such as justice and human rights. However, what these concepts gain in universal reach, they perhaps lose in terms of specific applicability to a given person in a given role and a given situation.
In many ancient societies, by contrast, the idea of a single, universal human nature to which such generic ethical concepts could be applied may not have been so prominent. As such, ethics was perhaps conceived of through notions that applied differently to different people in different roles in society, as a family relation, as a member of a society, as a ruler of a state etc. Thus in the Indian philosophical context, the concept of dharma, which is a concept that guided people’s behaviour from an ethical perspective, amounted to sva-dharma, or the person’s own dharma, according to their actual role in some larger social context.
In the contemporary world, we see that different systems of moral value and social norms of different global populations or ideologies can come into tension or conflict, and how cultural change leads to a degree of anomie or loss of stable norms emerging in some parts of society. In this light, it can be instructive to reflect on how ancient peoples may have thought about the difficulties of resolving norms of right behaviour, and how they and dramatized the implications and outcomes when such norms conflict.