by Andrew Bingham, Simon Fraser University
The Antigone, a tragic drama unfolded by real people living and suffering before us, possesses and embraces what might be called 'theoretical philosophy' and - at the same time - moves beyond it, if it does not rise quite above what we normally think of as 'philosophy'. The primary sensibility of the play may be said to 'give us philosophies' and then to grind them into something else as a part of the play's revelation of what it means to be human and to participate in life, what it is to understand the tragedy of philosophy. The play may be said to mirror Hegel's idea of tragedy as a 'collision of ideas' in which both Creon and Antigone make of ideas rigid and destructive forces and the Chorus seeks to open the way to meaningful being, whether for the audience of Sophocles or for us, now.
The play is essentially an exploration of conflict. Antigone's brother Polyneices has turned against Thebes in an effort to become heir to its rule, and in battle against the current ruler - his uncle Creon - and his brother Eteocles, has fallen along with Eteocles on the battlefield. As a political traitor, Polyneices has been cast unburied outside of the city limits, while Creon has granted Eteocles full funeral rights. Antigone, feeling that her familial and religious duty is to bury her brother, has opted to rebel against Creon's edict and bury him herself, in the process bringing upon herself Creon's vindictive outrage at her transgression of political order.
Briefly put, the drama contrasts two ideologies, two firm ways of living and being in the world: the first is the metaphysical views of Creon and Antigone with all their richness, but also with their possibility to degenerate into frozen dogmatics - what Kundera calls a problematic 'whirlpool of reduction'; the second, the worldview suggested by the Chorus, capable of the poetic transfiguration of everyday being so that it possesses infinite but simple possibilities of an affirmation of life. The first stance entails life understood dogmatically in terms of total organization of meaning; the second gestures towards what John Tietz calls 'partial organization' and what Nietzsche calls 'perspectivism': it is an approach which realizes that life has its own mystery, that not all of life can be understood or even categorized. It is a stance that recognizes the fundamental finitude of all human enterprise, and is, in a word, tragic. Human beings enter life, live largely an incomplete attempt to cope and make sense of things, and then pass out of life into whatever comes next. Human effort towards meaning is tragically short-lived, and often the striving for immortality, for some account of life that transcends our own perspective and purpose, comes to nothing. Both of the main characters of the Antigone, Creon and Antigone herself, manifest the urge to order all of life in a vital way, and both gain our sympathy.
The Antigone is a play of two intensely felt spheres - the religious and the political - colliding, and finally breaking down. For our purposes, Antigone represents the religious, and Creon represents the political: each has a rigid idealism, and each refuses to admit flux or contingency into their essential purview.
Creon, who embodies the political, also literally embodies politics in the world of the play - as king, he is the State - or at any rate, he believes he is, and acts accordingly. Creon looks at everything through the prism of politics; he perceives all of life and duty and meaning only in terms of a political framework; moreover, he is unbending - any deviance from the political order must not be accepted or allowed. For Creon, there is one way of seeing things, and all other views are wrong and intolerable.
Even though Creon fits the definition of the Aristotelian tragic hero, Antigone elicits empathy more readily both from the audience and from the other characters. Despite the fact that her perception of life is almost as limited as Creon's, it is founded upon some sense of something outside of herself (her brother Polyneices), upon a view of the world that requires a loving response, and a willingness to sacrifice her own person for the sake of something she believes is a higher ideal. Creon's fanatical belief in a political order is mirrored, however, in Antigone's deeply felt belief in a religious order, and she pursues her belief with an almost cold-hearted passion. Claiming that 'it is the dead who make the longest demands' because 'we die forever' (119), Antigone negates this life for devotion to the afterlife.
Both Creon and Antigone live an 'either/or' dualistic abstraction, ungrounded in the contingent events of life. Both operate in what should be normal spheres - that is, no one can deny that both religion and politics have their place in life - but they both introduce a problem when they try to see life in oversimplified terms. The results of both of their courses of action are almost wholly destructive: Creon keeps his city but loses his wife and son and the voice of his people; and although Antigone unknowingly effects the burial of her brother, she is coldly distant from both her sister - whom she leaves lonely and distraught, and her fiancé Haimon - who, despite her thorough neglect of him throughout the play, commits suicide for her, after trying to kill his father Creon whom he sincerely respects. In short, Creon and Antigone both hold, as it were, a good, but distort it and thus render it impotent through a maximal attempt to make it the only good.
Creon and Antigone represent an approach to life that is abstract and one-sided; the resulting harm they cause manifests itself when their one-sided thinking is taken to define or exhaust life. It is a living out of the inappropriate demand for all of life to answer to one aspect of life - a reduction of the symphony of life to one memorable but ultimately discordant melody.
The portrayal of what it means to be human implicit in the view of Creon and Antigone is what Tietz calls the effort towards 'total organization' of life, and what Martha Nussbaum defines as the 'rage for control' (FG, 79). It presents life understood philosophically, that is, abstractly, as something that does not vary with context.
The counterpoint to this perception of life can be found in the measured unity of the Chorus, a community of Theban elders. The second choral ode, sometimes regarded as the locus of the play's 'message', is an ode to the wonder of human being and its possibilities, but also to the various ways in which humans mistake their place in life and assume that their limited capacities can account for the whole of life. The Chorus warns that 'Nothing that is vast enters into the life of mortals without a curse' (Antigone, 131). This celebratory and yet cautioning ode to humanity characterizes the Chorus, which presents the moderate ground of the Antigone.
The unbending, and thus occluded, worldviews of Creon and Antigone can be contrasted with the open and flexible, and thus effective, worldview of the Chorus. It is the Chorus which progresses, which empathizes with each character in the play, and which is ultimately responsible for the play's resolution, such as it is. The critic Gerald Bruns writes that the Antigone is a play which presents (in the characters of Antigone and Creon) 'a collision of two sorts of narcissism. The play doesn't take sides, but grounds a critique of both in the ordinariness of the Chorus, whose acceptance of complexity, of singularity and open-endedness contrasts sharply with the whole idea of philosophical reduction that Creon and Antigone represent or anticipate' (114). The Chorus takes the middle and open ground between the two extreme stances of the main characters, and as the drama unfolds it reveals that the vision of the Chorus is the only way in which life proceeds and escapes being subjected to collapse or ruination.
In an important sense, the answer offered by the Chorus to the projects of Creon and Antigone is similar to the answer offered by tragic drama to a kind of purely philosophical view of life. Tragic drama obviates, or at least marks the limits of, philosophy, insofar as tragic drama is ineluctably perspectival, engaged, contextualized, and conflictual, and entails a participatory and often emotional knowing and understanding. As a located event, tragedy precludes abstraction and, at best, shows the audience the resolution or end of a certain situation which can enrich the audience and open up more of life to its understanding.
We can learn something from tragedy, both on the level of thought and of emotion. As the experience of tragedy has its own multiplicity, so does life - and our cares and thoughts and concerns in life must be balanced in a flexible equilibrium reminiscent of the disposition of the Chorus. In fact, seen in a certain way, the achievement of a balance of thought and emotion is a major purpose of good tragic art. Tragedy is not just intellectual explanation or instruction for coping in life - the rhythms of tragedy are connected on a deeper level to the emotional aspect of what it means to be human. Furthermore, the beauty of the ritual of tragedy is such that it lingers in our being - rendering us a little more open to the fullness of life, and giving our hearts and minds a little more space to stretch and explore. Tragedy doesn't just tell us things, it somehow allows the deeper knowing of our participation on the level of thought and emotion in something strangely beyond us and yet oddly familiar, reflecting certain perennial human experiences.
In the end, far from being a tract for one or another philosophical system, the Antigone is an exploration of various sensibilities, and it reveals how these sensibilities work themselves out in various detailed, specific, contextualized human events. The play thus both celebrates philosophy's insights and deplores its shortcomings, just as the play praises man but also points to his all-too-human failings.
The tragic sensibility is one that embraces alterity and variation, one that is and remains open to vagary and indeterminacy. In contrast to Creon's and Antigone's 'rage for control', it offers the Chorus's flexibility and openness. As such, it is neither a vindication nor a refutation of dogmatism, pluralism, or relativism, for it avoids all totalising '-isms', and gestures towards another way of being. Tragedy - especially as embodied in the Antigone - is simply an experience that shows all dogmas and representations to be, finally, inadequate in the face of complex life and perspectival human knowing. The Antigone reveals that tragedy places life above theory, and in its poetic portrayal of the human fortuitous lot, provides a compelling affirmation of this world in all of its wonder and strangeness and familiarity - and our life in it.
Bruns, Gerald L. Tragic Thoughts at the End of Philosophy. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1999.
Nussbaum, Martha. The Fragility of Goodness. Cambridge University Press, 1979.
Sophocles. The Antigone. The Complete Plays of Sophocles. Ed. Moses Hadas. Trans. Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb. New York: Bantam, 1967.