“Think: all men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and he repairs the evil: the only crime is pride. ” Such was the admonition of the wise prophet Teiresias in Sophocles’ Antigone. In literature as in life, men often stubbornly hold on to their precious pride and reek havoc on those who least deserve it. Unfortunately, men rescind their mistakes too late. Their hubris does not make them evil, but it is dubious whether they can be considered good, honorable men.
Repenting for past wrongs does not erase mistakes, for the effects of these mistakes are not rescinded with an apology. In the play Antigone, the downfall of King Kreon was tragic in that his fatal flaw, hubris, caused not only his own downfall, but that of many others. Antigone, the noble heroine, just suffering the loss of her two brothers, defies her Uncle Kreon’s edict and buries Polyneices. She buried her dear brother out of familial love and duty to the gods. Kreon, who had previously stated that anyone who would dare defy his edict would suffer death, sentenced his own niece to death.
Everyone, it seems, was opposed to Kreon’s order. Referring to this fatal flaw, Sophocles notes that “Kreon has shown there is no greater evil than men’s failure to consult and to consider” (1438-1439). Kreon had earlier stated, “I believe that he who rules in a state and fails to embrace the best men’s counsels, but stays locked in silence and vague fear, is the worst man there” (217-220). Although Kreon voiced such lofty principles, his actions were to the contrary.
Haimon, his son and Antigone’s fianc, offered advice but, while Koryphaios was willing to listen, Kreon arrogantly questioned “Men our age, learn from him? ” (876). Haimon warned his father, “[t]hen she’ll die, and her death will destroy others” (908). His admonition, which foreshadowed the tragedy, was disregarded by his arrogant father. Even Teieresias warned Kreon against his planned course of action. Kreon initially rejecting the prophet’s advice to yield, subsequently conceded to the wise prophet’s advise, but it was too late.
Antigone had hung herself, Haimon had died of his own sword, and Eurydice, his wife, had killed herself out of grief. In attempting to prevent disorder, King Kreon bred disorder and became tyrannical. A destroyed man realizing his errors, Kreon lamented, “it’s my fault. I killed you. Me, really me…. I’m waiting for my doom. I don’t want to see another day” (507-519). Kreon’s tragic downfall was the result of his hubris; he was consequently forced to live through the plague that he caused.
The hubris demonstrated by Kreon is certainly not unique or wholly fictional. A plethora of historical examples also demonstrate that it does not take an evil man to make a mistake. The Catholic Church burned a nineteen year old girl at the stake for heresy. An amazing young lady, Joan of Arc led the French army in the Hundred Years War. She claimed to have heard the voice of God. The Church, however, was horrified that she could assume that God would speak to her, a lowly layman. God, apparently, only spoke to layman through priests.
Pious individuals of the Church felt threatened that there would be no need for their institution if people thought they could directly contact God. She was ordered to be burnt at the stake, the most gruesome death that this young girl could possibly imagine. The Catholic Church was certainly not evil. Their pride caused them to destroy an innocent. Hundreds of years later, the Church realized its mistake. They repented for the cruelty imposed on this girl and canonized her, but their repentance was too late. One cannot revive the young girl or undo her suffering.
Apologizing for past mistakes does not reparate what already occurred. An innocent girl’s life was unfairly taken; the Church’s crime was more than just hubris. And, such hubris is not unique to the long past. Just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 which forced the internment of 120,000 people of Japanese decent. Gripped by hysteria, the government, in a crime frighteningly similar to Nazi Germany, dehumanized thousands of Japanese. Our government did not intern Germans and Italian citizens along with the Japanese.
In a demonstration of ethnocentric pride, we interned only the Japanese. And this pride prevented us from attempting to reparate past wrongs until fifty years later. Surviving Japanese-Americans who were interned during WWII received twenty thousand dollars and an official apology from the United States government in 1988 for the violation of liberty and property. No apology or monetary sum, however, could possibly reparate the psychological trauma suffered by these innocent men, women, and children; and, by the time we officially apologized, half of the internees had already died.
All men do make mistakes, even the infallible Catholic Church and the exemplary democracy of the United States of America. It is always best to repair the suffering one’s pride has caused, but often times, the damage is irreparable and an apology is too little too late. Antigone ended tragically. Joan of Arc died at the early age of nineteen. And, Japanese-Americans were subjected to cruelty that parallels the Holocaust. Men may in retrospect realize that their past actions were wrong, but is it ever possible to repair an evil?