Positive and Natural Law in Antigone

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St Thomas Aquinas has undoubtedly been known for his principle work, the Summa Theologiae. Thomas Aquinas worked steadily on this writing for many years between the years of 1265 and 1273, and the writing was intended to be a guide for beginners in theology to organise a collection and assist with Christian doctrine and philosophy. The Summa eventually became ‘one of the most influential works of Western literature’ and this established Aquinas as a leading theorist of the natural law. Throughout the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas developed the contrast between human law (combined with positive law) and that of natural law, evidently the themes which have been explored and produced throughout the Sophocles play Antigone. Antigone was written approximately 1700 years prior to the introduction of Summa, and the philosophical perspectives that Aquinas wrote about can be seen through the characters of Antigone and Creon throughout this play. Importantly, this play poses two fundamental questions which will be examined in relation to concepts of law established by Aquinas. The questions involve establishing what is the foundation of law, and to what extent should we be required to be obedient to the law? These questions are obviously posed throughout the play which establishes the link between human law and natural law as can be seen through the tension between the characters of Antigone and Creon. Further, as a minor point, consideration will be given as to whether the themes or lessons which were emerged throughout Antigone have any relevance to the legal issue of abortion in Australia today.

The Foundation of Law

The Summa is structured into three distinct parts: God, Man and Christ, and consists of questions, articles, objections, sed contra and replies. For the purpose of this essay, Part II(i) Question 91 will be examined which includes articles, and references to Aristotle.

Contained in Questions 90 – 108 of the Summa, Aquinas’ concept of law is introduced which is commonly known as his principle treatise on law. Beginning at Question 90, Aquinas explores and introduces the principle, or nature of law and continues this discussion through four articles which evidently leads to the definition of law according to Aquinas as being ‘an order of reason for the common good, by one who has care of the community, and promulgated’.

Eternal and Natural Law

In examining Question 91, Aquinas poses four different kinds of law: eternal, natural, human and divine law. He recognises that although natural, human and divine law are all different, they all form part divisions of eternal law in different ways. The first Article in Question 91 is in relation to eternal law. Aquinas explains the definition of external law as being the law enacted by God himself which evidently governs the entire community of the universe. Further, the second Article in Question 91 focuses upon natural law where Aquinas has the view that every man should understand what is good and evil, without the need for reassessment or actual written law, and further implies that the light of God is enshrined in us, making reference to ‘the light of natural reason whereby we discern good and evil’ is a result of this as referred to in Psalm 4:6. Thus, Aquinas concludes in this article that you can not have one without the other, stating that the natural law is merely a rational creature’s participation in the eternal law.

Human Law

Following eternal and natural law, Aquinas moves towards human law in the third Article of Summa and portrays a clear indication of the influence Aristotle had on him. As seen in reply to obj. 1, Aquinas states that although humans know general principles of human law, humans don’t necessarily know every truth, as God’s wisdom does and thus, ‘human reason needs to proceed further to determine the particular prescriptions of human law’.

Evidently, ‘Aquinas asserts that natural law is the same in all men, while in particular conclusions drawn from these principles there is room for differences of opinion and exceptions’. This is where the ideas of Aristotle are introduced throughout Aquinas’ reading as he incorporates two particular ideas that were established by Aristotle. Firstly, Aquinas incorporates the idea of theoretical wisdom, also known as theoria, and secondly, practical reason, also known as phronesis. In doing so, Aquinas determines that human law can be seen as a re-working of the natural law to differing contexts. Therefore, punishment for particular crimes will be determinative of these differing contexts.

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Divine Law

Finally, Aquinas refers to divine law in Articles 4 and 5 of his text. In Article 4, Aquinas states that the natural law is our sharing in the eternal law. Yet, eternal law is divine law and thus according to Aquinas, there is no need for another divine law ‘besides the natural law and the human laws derived from natural law. Aquinas outlines four reasons as to why divine law is necessary to give direction to human life: (1) ‘God needed to lay down a law superior to the natural law and human laws to direct human beings to their end’, (2) the uncertainty of human judgement obliged the requirement for divine law to direct human beings in their actions, (3) divine law is needed to enhanced human law in relation to matters of hidden internal acts, (4) divine law was needed to forbid all sins. Throughout Article 5, Aquinas also makes reference to divine law in two separate ways. Divine law according to Aquinas is separated into Old Law (Old Testament) and New Law (New Testament).

Aquinas in Antigone

The underlying issue that was portrayed in Antigone was the question of which law is greater: the gods’ or the mans, which can be answered differently according to the characters of Antigone and Creon. It can be seen throughout this play that Antigone clearly follows the basis of natural law and thus the views of Aquinas, however it is clear that Creon opposes this and follows a positive law view. Thus, this is where the conflict between the two characters can be seen and shows that there is consistently conflict between the two well-known theories of natural law and positive law.

Natural Law in Antigone – Character of Antigone

The overarching debate throughout Antigone was in relation to the burial of her brother. Antigone’s view was that the gods have commanded that each dead person deserved a proper burial. In this way, Antigone portrayed greater loyalty to her brother in performing his burial rites and thus went against the law of the city of Thebes that evidently banned her from performing this burial. Because of this, it is clear that the theory of natural law is evident throughout Sophocles as Antigone’s sense of duty for her brother and respecting the wishes of the gods outweighs any man-made law which prevents her from doing so.

To further this argument, it must be noted that Antigone believes that citizenship is not contract-orientated and thus the Polyneices’ assault on Thebes does not invalidate him of his citizenship as ‘death longs for the same rights for all’ meaning Polynices should be given a proper burial which has been commanded by the Gods. Whilst the view that the law of the gods outweighs any man-made law, Antigone does recognise the authority that Creon has as king, though does not regard his authority as Antigone states ‘Nor did I think your edict had such force that you, a mere mortal, could override the gods, the great unwritten, unshakable traditions” seeming to confirm the superiority natural law has over that of positive law or man-made law.

In this way, Antigone follows natural law over positive law in the same way that Aquinas does. Aquinas believes that when the law of the state contradicts the law of the heavens or the gods, it can be broken through civil disobedience, as in his view, the authority of God outweighs the authority given by Creon in Antigone.

Positive Law in Antigone – Character of Creon

In the alternative however, evident throughout Antigone, the foundation of law according to Creon is his belief that disciplinary measures are needed in order for social order to be achieved, and thus positive law is portrayed through his character. As Antigone was scripted in Ancient Greek times, the burial of citizens was a duty that was sacred to polis and thus must be followed. However, Creon states “A proclamation has forbidden the city to dignify him with burial, mourn him at all. No he must be left unburied” believing that the attack on the city was an abandonment of citizenship and thus burial rites be taken from him. Creon had strong views of fearing anarchy and the chaos if the citizens of the state did not obey by the law, and therefore his beliefs were that citizenship is a social contract which evidently is based on loyalty.

The loyalty aspect can be seen through Antigone’s sister. Ismene remained loyal to the authority, which was given by Creon, even though it was her own brother’s burial rights in question. Unlike Antigone, Ismene is hesitated to bury her brother Polyneices as she feared what punishment would come from going against the law of Creon. These contrasting views can be linked with Aquinas’ Old and New Laws. Whilst in Aquinas’ view, Ismene incorrectly connects Creon and God, her view can be seen in Aquinas’ Old Laws. In the alternative, Antigone’s views can be seen through Aquinas’ New Laws as she is motivated to obey a higher, natural or divine law and evidently goes against Creon’s law notwithstanding knowing that there are consequences which come from not obeying his law.


  1. Gelinas, Elmer, ‘The Natural Law according to Thomas Aquinas’ (2011) 16 Trinity Law Review 13.
  2. Davies, Brian, ‘Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae: A Guide and Commentary (Oxford University Press, 2014) 7.
  3. Ross, James, ‘Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae (ca. 1273), Christian Wisdom Explained Philosophically’ in Jorge J E Garcia, Gregory M Reichberg and Bernard N Shumacher (eds), The Classics of Western Philosophy: A Readers Guide (Wiley, 2003).
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Positive and Natural Law in Antigone. (2022, July 08). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 25, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/positive-and-natural-law-in-antigone/
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