One of the subjects that will always preoccupy the literary imagination is what it means to be a good, productive, and moral member assisting in the construction of a meaningful society. This theme can be traced across the entire span of the Western literary canon, extending at least as far back as Plato’s Trial and Death of Socratesand Sophocles’ master plays, Antigone and Oedipus the King. In each of these three classic works, the reader can identify a unique template that offers an alternative for the reader who wants to be a model citizen, though each of these model citizens shares at least one trait in common. In Plato’s text, Socrates is portrayed as a philosophical teacher who is so sure of his views and their rightness that he is willing to sacrifice his very life to defend them. His act of self-sacrifice is not a stubborn insistence of his views for his own sake, but rather for the sake of his society. Socrates believes that his death can serve as a lesson that will endure and inspire future generations, not in some sort of self-congratulatory or iconic way; it is the lesson, not the image of the individual, that will endure. Antigone is another role model for the righteous citizen, and her example is particularly powerful because of her gender. She resists cultural, social, sexual, and political norms, as well as family ties, to act in a way that is congruent with her beliefs. Finally, there is the example of Oedipus, who by the end of his life has achieved a measure of understanding about his role in society only after acting decisively but thoughtlessly, stubbornly, and arrogantly. The similarity that is observed in all three of these model citizen heroes is that they are willing to sacrifice themselves for their beliefs. While it is not mandatory for the model citizen to give up his or her life as these three characters ultimately do, it is thewillingness to do so that sets a model citizen apart from an ordinary one. These ideas about model citizenry, drawn from classic literature, are so powerful that they endure as a criterion of good citizenship in our own society.
Socrates as a Model Citizen
Of the three model citizens examined here, it is Socrates who was the most likely candidate for this titular position. For instance, above the others discussed in this study, it was Socrates who spent the entirety of his life questioning and meditating upon what it means to be a member of a society, and more so, what it means to be a contributing and ethical member of a society. Once he is sure of his conclusions, he spends his life transmitting his ideas to his students by means of philosophical teachings and the model of his own life as an example. This position as a teacher and constant questioner was not an easy one for a man to hold in ancient culture. Socrates attracted criticism, ridicule, accusations and general scorn because of his beliefs, as so many people ahead of their time so often do, but he persisted calmly and with an air of self-assurance, unwavering in his beliefs and unflagging in his efforts. When he is brought to trial and the threat of death hangs over him, Socrates remains completely unfazed and continues to stand up for his beliefs and his practices of teaching and putting tough questions to the citizens of his society. In fact, the trial and his defense provide the most appropriate opportunity for him to demonstrate his beliefs and to substantiate them with action. He does so deliberately, with each phase of the trial exploited for the optimal transmittal of his most important ideas about what it means to be a human being in a moral society.
During the trial, as Socrates is accused of a number of crimes, Plato reports that Socrates offered an impassioned speech in which he confronts his accusers directly, again offering forth a number of perplexing questions rather than direct answers to his assumed “crimes" against his society. He is defiant, but not for the sake of saving himself; rather, he is deeply concerned about the preservation of his ideas and his philosophy, not because they are his, but because he believes they are fundamentally sound principles for guiding human beings in living a moral and just life that is meaningful. Socrates begins his defense by summarizing what he believes to be his accusers’ condemnations of him: “‘Socrates is an evil-doer, who meddles with inquiries into things beneath the earth, and in heaven, and who makes the worse ‘appear the better reason’ and who teaches others these same things’" (38). He acknowledges his curiosities, and insists that curiosity, the desire to acquire, understand, and apply knowledge, is a virtue that is necessary for the healthy society. “Who understands the excellence which belongs to men and citizens?" he asks (39). As the trial proceeds, it becomes increasingly clear that it is only he who understands such excellence, and who embodies it in the hope of inspiring others to live in the same way. More importantly, Socrates, despite the rather inflammatory way he chooses to go about teaching his ideas of moral and social righteousness, is so committed to relating these crucial ideas about what constitutes a just society that he is willing to make large sacrifices for what he believes in.
Does Socrates want to live? Of course he does; very few people of sound mind want to die, even if it is for a just cause that one fervently believes in. Yet the reason, Socrates wants to live is not for his own sake, but because he believes that his life is an instrument of the gods and that he can be of continued use despite his old age. At the same time, as one who is upholding many of the same personal and societal values he presents, he is willing to accept and even embrace a death sentence, which he does, because he knows that death can be as powerful a lesson as life, especially when that death was rendered unjustly. He does not feel that the same ends can be served by serving a prison sentence; by being isolated, society will forget him. By dying, however, Socrates’ disciples will honor him with their memory and their own actions, propagating Socrates’ ideas about what it means to be a model citizen. In many ways then, Socrates is a martyr for these causes and although this is not always an admirable or “model" quality for all situations, in this case it is noble as he calmly and quietly accepts the fate handed to him by the decision-makers of his flawed society.
The Character of Antigone as a Model Citizen
Like Socrates, Antigone is headstrong and determined, but she does not fail to understand that the structure and organization of society is such that she will be punished, and ultimately executed, for defending her beliefs. In spite of this knowledge, indeed, because of it, she adheres to her convictions because she is convinced that doing so is a social responsibility and that following her sense of moral certitude is far more important than adhering to or playing to societal norms or expectations. Unfortunately, for several reasons, Antigone cannot live inside the law, not because she wants to flout the law as a rebel, but because she interprets it as arbitrary and unjust. She is committed to the idea that such subjectivities must be contested, no matter what the penalty might be for taking such actions. Like all martyred model citizens who preceded her, and those, both literary and real, who descended from her example, Antigone acknowledges the limits of human and societal law. She chooses, however, to live according to a higher law, and that law is defined by her cultural and moral beliefs about what is right and just. From the opening of the play to the end, she has a clear sense of purpose and defends her belief in what is right, even when it means alienation and rejection from her family and society, and even when it portends death. For these reasons Antigone is, like Socrates, a noble and quiet martyr—one who chooses death because it is a last resort instead of choosing it to wittingly become a martyr.