Sophocles: Antigone- Estrangement, the Divine, and the State
What a coincidence! Today, Mr. Brown and Mr. Carter debate the role of religious belief, or disbelief, and the state- largely about what ground of being provides the best common basis for society- and today we come to the last of Sophokles’s seven complete plays, Antigone, which asks whether we answer to God or the State, and what do we do when they conflict?
Antigone, like Oedipus, is a play about Thebes. You’ll remember that Oedipus, king of Thebes, was self-blinded and exiled for unwittingly committing incest and patricide. Complicating matters were Oedipus’s sons, Polyneikes and Eteokles, who both wanted the throne. In Seven Against Thebes (Aeschylus), they went to war, Eteokles fighting with the Theban army and Polyneikes leading an army against Thebes. This is an important detail because both brothers died in the fighting, and into the power vacuum stepped Kreon (literally “ruler”), who is now trying to right the ship of state in Thebes.
Here’s his problem: both brothers are dead. Kreon gave Eteokles a proper burial for defending the state. However, he refused to allow the traitor Polyneikes to be buried. Antigone, sister of both dead hotheads, openly defies Kreon and the state, burying Polyneikes and accepting a death sentence, because she insists that the natural law- the will of God- is higher than the needs of the state or society. The play is about these two orders- the sacred and the social- coming into tragic and hopeless conflict.
So, in the first place, this is a play about the power of the state and how we assert our higher loyalties- to family, to the Divine- in the face of state oppression. The most famous modern production, Jean Anouih’s 1944 Paris version, is so noteworthy because the Nazis occupying France, and the French under them, could not have missed the modern parallels. It is very hard not to sympathize with Antigone.
Today, Antigone is often taken for a feminist, and she’s that too- she defies the male leadership of her society and pays the consequences- and remember also that she’s more than just an underdog, she’s an outsider and the product of incest. Both Antigone and her sister Ismene are fortunate to have been taken in by Kreon to the royal family- he’s letting his son marry Antigone, whose father was infamously the son of her mother! So she’s already something of a social abomination, and now she’s defying the entire social order for a natural law that her very existence defies.
Yet, she’s not simply doing this to assert her will- “empowerment”, if you wish. She’s doing it in obedience to the sacred order. Antigone’s will has nothing to do with it; depending on your opinion, she’s either a religious fanatic or a pious woman. This is what I think gives her the eerie resignation she demonstrates throughout the play. Perhaps she’d rather not die- who can say?- but her desires have nothing to do with it. She has to side with the divine over the social, come whatever may.
This is where, I think, we see the limitations of the old Marxist saw about religion being “the opium of the masses”- there are simply more social revolutions throughout history that were grounded in common religious belief than those of the twentieth century that rejected belief in God; or pretended to at least. Certainly, faith has often served to reinforce unjust social orders, and religious people I think are obligated to admit as much. But it has also quite often served as a higher ground of resistance to oppressive states. If you want to inspire your neighbors to stand against the state, it helps to tell them they’re standing with God. Notably, we hear that the Thebans are siding with Antigone.
The brilliance of Sophokles is that we can’t fully side with her; nor can we fully condemn Kreon. All he’s trying to do is restore order to Thebes, which has been torn apart by the royal family psychodrama. He has a point (probably one reason the Nazis tolerated the Paris production). The great insight of the play, howeverm, is that Kreon is really in trouble first because he’s not a fully competent leader and becomes increasingly tyrannical as his personal flaws come into view. Because he lacks authority, he turns slowly to power. How many tyrants have become tyrannical because they sensed their own limitations as rulers? Certainly, there are more of them than rulers who arrive with visions of gulags dancing in their heads.
As for our debate, notice that Sophokles is writing about precisely the estrangement that results when the Divine is no longer the basis of the social order. One of the more interesting points raised by social conservatives- here I’m thinking of Philip Rieff, the original (and considerably more reactionary) James Poulos- is that all of western culture until very recently served to translate the sacred order into the social order. That is, every work of culture was addressed, in some sense, to the Divine. So, the recent development of secular culture amounts, in Rieff’s term, to an “anti-culture”.
Now, my own opinion is that Rieff went way off the rails, essentially arguing that morally serious “Jews of culture” should reject the anti-culture of Picasso, Joyce, and Mozart, and coming dangerously close to saying that Duchamp prefigured the Holocaust (at this point, my reading the book prefigured it being thrown against the wall). Nevertheless, I think he’s right that the overwhelming majority of art created before the Modern Era does, in some sense, address itself to the sacred and that, by doing so, it simply aims at something very different than art created solely for man. If you want to know why we have no Sophokles today, this might help explain it (Of course, Rieff claims the central motif in Greek tragedy is fate- and not faith- anyway). However, the biggest problem for me with this idea is that I can’t say if Shakespeare was a pious man, but I suspect he wasn’t. Who is Hamlet if not a man outside the sacred order? Does this account for his sliding in all directions? And, if not, I’m not ready to agree that Shakespeare moves me more than any number of “religious” playwrights from the same period solely because I am godless.
But nor am I willing to agree that the Greeks were basically godless. If there is what Jaybird calls a “moral fabric to the universe”, surely it’s represented in Sophokles as fully as in any Passion play, and that’s really what gives Antigone it’s horrible inevitability: she knows her obligation and we know our obligation, in spite of our individual terms for that obligation- we can’t help but know.
Endnote: Believe it or not, we’re finished with the seven complete plays of Sophokles (although maybe it’s a problem that we’re not done with Aeschylus!). Here, then, are the links: