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The Utility of the Liberal Arts: Antigone and the Making of a Lawyer

03/24/2015 07:35 pm ET | Updated May 24, 2015

I have never believed that liberal arts education needed defending, but I am persuaded that it increasingly needs promoting. Twenty-five years ago, when I was in law school, I was honored to take a core course -- criminal law -- with a great scholar who literally wrote the book on law and literature. There was grumbling about his assignments, which included Greek drama, being less than practical. Yet his insistence on the amaranthine themes has become only more important to me over time as I continue to learn about the abiding value of the rule of law as well as its limits.

I was reminded of student skepticism when I watched two of the three productions of Sophocles' Antigone running in the San Francisco Bay Area. (The Cutting Ball in the city, Shotgun Players in Berkeley, and the African American Shakespeare Company, also of the city, all have tried their hand at the script this spring.)

This concluding work of the Oedipus trilogy continues to be staged because it challenges us with the conflict between moral principles and governmental authority. Celebrated as the original representation of civil disobedience, it confirms for me that we must teach and learn about more than formal rules if we are to be and to create responsible citizens.

Oedipus the King is known (or should be) to anyone who has attended college. Fleeing his home because of a prophecy that he is doomed to kill his father and marry his mother, he encounters a stranger at a crossroads. In a dispute over the right of way, he kills the older man. Continuing his journey, he arrives at Thebes. Solving the riddle of the sphinx, he wins the hand of the widowed queen.

Later, attempting to determine who killed the former king, he realizes that he is the man he is searching for. The people he believed were his father and mother, whom he was trying to avoid, were adoptive; his true father was the man he killed, and his real mother the woman he married. Upon that revelation, Jocasta, the queen and mother-wife, kills herself; Oedipus uses a brooch from her dress to blind himself.

The events of Antigone, the conclusion of this definitive cycle of violence, concern the two sons of Oedipus and Jocasta, who were to share the throne. Following a civil war in which each killed the other, their successor, Creon (brother of Jocasta), orders the loyal nephew buried and the disloyal nephew left to rot in the field.

It is this royal decree, which hardens into a spiteful dictate to be punished by death, that one of the two sisters to the brothers, the title character, defies. She does so because it would be wrong to allow his body to be defiled. She is apprehended, to be entombed in a cave, where she hangs herself before she would waste away. The other sister, who has tried to mediate the conflict, is the only survivor of the family. Creon's son, bethrothed to Antigone, impales himself on his sword in front of Creon; Creon's wife, learning of the loss, also commits suicide.

There are two different reasons for us to care about this canonical work: the intrinsic and the instrumental. Part of the point of education, a genuine education in not only knowledge but wisdom, is to give us the ability to appreciate this distinction. What is intrinsically worthwhile is valuable for its own sake. What is instrumentally useful is what serves as a means to an end.

These days, higher education seems to be regarded not as intrinsically worthwhile but as instrumentally useful at best. Those of us who feel compelled to lead a life of the mind, even to sustain a community dedicated to intellectual inquiry, may lament these trends. It seems self-evident that it would be devastating to forsake our cultural heritage. On another occasion I will address the inherent benefit of studying the canon and assert that in America anyway all of us can claim that canon.

For now I would like to try the easier proposition: Even for someone like the students who wondered about the relevance of what antiquity has bequeathed us (of whom I no doubt was one), there is much to be gained from an introduction to literature. The rationale is straightforward: If all we acquire is technical expertise, a knowledge of the law as a set of rules and nothing else, we will have lost our purpose, to be judicious about what constitutes justice. It is possible to imagine an education that is deliberately limited to what has obvious value. A lawyer trained in such a manner would be capable of the greatest crimes. She would have been prepared by the pedagogy of memorization for the practice of compliance.

Through Antigone we can see abstract concepts made real: whether a law must be followed, and how a leader abuses authority. The benefit of this example, however, is that it is far enough removed in time and place that we can deliberate about it both as it presents enduring issues on its own terms and with its parallels within our own society. We empathize with Antigone against Creon. She wishes to do what any of us would as decent; he mistakes the imposition of his own will with the duty to uphold a code of conduct.

This moment in San Francisco exemplifies how creativity is integral to progress. Technological innovation and artistic imagination flourish together. Neither functions in isolation.

The magic of theater has adapted by blending the timeless and the contemporary. The Cutting Ball and the Shotgun Players versions of Antigone were athletic and musical, with spare sets: The action of the former was visceral; the design of the latter featured a midcentury-modernist background of bent veneer planking. Each displayed the deceased brother who usually is absent. The Cutting Ball projected oversize photographs of the favored and disfavored siblings on opposite walls. The Shotgun Players featured a silent figure in white dancing, a ghost amidst the action

As the chorus said in one of the shows, they resemble a lawyer. They are searching for a precedent or an analogy, a means of coping with the circumstances.

I am not sure my peers and I, as students, were ready to esteem an education in ethics. Yet today as a teacher, I am determined to offer more than a passing reference to ideals.