Opinion: Seeking wisdom in literature

Statue of ancient Greek poet Sophocles is pictured on the opera of Hanover, northern Germany.

Statue of ancient Greek poet Sophocles is pictured on the opera of Hanover, northern Germany. Joerg Sarbach / AP


Published: 05-05-2024 4:00 PM

Gib West lives in Concord.

Many pieces of great literature explore the themes of power and hubris, and thus can be revisited to examine how we, as members of a community, can question ourselves or our leaders and in so doing seek a just path.

It is abundantly clear that the choice the Concord School Board made on Dec.6, 2023, is very concerning and has resulted in significant angst among members of our community as well as ongoing rebukes through letters to the editor.

Many have urged that the school board revisit their decision in order to clarify their vote, hoping for change. The school board’s unwillingness to do so, despite the public’s outcry, can be viewed as an act of hubris.

In the 5th century BCE, Sophocles, in a number of his most famous plays, considers acts of hubris and the abuse of power committed by the main characters and the impacts of those acts on themselves and the communities as a whole. I’d like to explore how the play Antigone, which depicts an eleven-year-old girl confronting the edict of King Creon, informs the context of our current debate regarding the rebuilding of Rundlett Middle School.

Antigone, the play’s heroine, violates King Creon’s law forbidding anyone from burying her brother, who is an enemy of the state having brought an army against Thebes. She defies Creon and buries her brother because she believes it is the will of the gods. King Creon sentences her to death, and in the third scene Haimon, his son and Antigone’s fiance, enters.

Creon speaks to him at length about the importance of being a dutiful son, “Each one hating his father’s enemies, Honoring his father’s friends.” He goes on to explain that, “Whoever is chosen to govern should be obeyed — Must be obeyed, in all things, great and small, Just and unjust!”

It is Haimon’s response that offers us an opportunity to reflect on the current Rundlett decision, the concerns that have been expressed in many letters published in the Concord Monitor, and the many conversations across the city. While it is well worth reading all forty lines of Haimon’s rebuttal to his father’s position, I will share those lines that most clearly illuminate our current circumstances.

One of the more salient arguments that he offers addresses the issue of being rigid. Haimon shares:

“I beg you, do not be unchangeable:/Do not believe that you alone can be right./The man who thinks that,/The man who maintains that only he has the power/To reason correctly, the gift to speak, to soul —/A man like that, when you know him, turns out empty.”

The second argument asserts:

“The ideal condition/Would be, I admit, that men should be right by instinct;/But since we are all too likely to go astray,/The reasonable thing is to learn from those who can teach.

And so I urge the members of Concord’s School Board to consider the words of Sophocles through Haimon’s arguments and to engage the community at large in a dialogue about this significant and enduring decision. This is fundamental to our democratic process, and by doing so you will regain the trust of the public and may appease those who are seeking to rewrite the charter which affords the power you now have.