Hegel's Antigone
by Patricia Jagentowicz Mills

I II III IV EndNotes
Hegel's Antigone
Part II

Setting aside these objections for the moment we find that in Sophocles' Antigone Hegel finds the superiority of the sister-brother relationship demonstrated in a way that reveals the profound ethical conflict inherent in the pagan world between family and polis, woman and man, particular and universal, divine law and human law. Thus, while the central conflict for Hegel is between Antigone and Creon (as woman and man who represent the conflict between the family, as the natural ground of ethical life, and ethical life itself in its social universality in the polis) the central relationship in this drama is, for him, that between Antigone and Polyneices: Antigone's enduring sense of duty to her dead brother is explained in terms of the ideal male-female relationship of mutual recognition.10 Antigone "premonizes and foreshadows" most completely the nature of familial ethical life precisely because she represents the relation between man and woman not as wife but as sister. She is the paradigm of the law of the family as she carries out her "highest duty" toward her brother in attempting to bury and honor him.

While it is true that Antigone's burial of Polyneices represents familial duty (and in particular that between sister and brother), Hegel does not consider the play in its entirety. His references to the Antigone are scattered throughout his discussion of the ethical world and ethical action in the Phenomenology as "evidence" for his claims regarding the relationship between male/human law and female/divine law in the Greek pagan world. But Hegel's interpretation of this play, and in particular the conflict between Creon and Antigone, is an over-simplification made to fit his view of the tragic character of pagan life as a conflict between equal and contrary values.

Hegel considers the situation that precedes the action in the Antigone: the struggle between the two brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices, for control of the city of Thebes. "Nature" has provided two potential rulers where only one can rule. In the pagan world the ruler is the community as individual soul: Two cannot share power. Hegel claims that the two brothers each have an equal right to rule and that the inequality of the natural order of birth can have no importance when they enter the ethical community of the polis. Thus, the right of primogeniture is denied here. However, the equal right of the brothers to rule destroys them both, since in their conflict over power they are both wrong.

In human law or political terms, it is the right of possession that is most important. Thus, because Eteocles was in power when Polyneices attacked the city, Eteocles is given a formal burial by Creon, who has become the ruler of the war-torn city-state. But Creon's edict, which forbids anyone to bury Polyneices on pain of death, is a denial of sacred claims: Without burial Polyneices' soul cannot safely enter Hades. By honoring one brother and dishonoring the other, human law and divine law are set in opposition. And the "right" of human law is revealed as "wrong" through the vengeance of war waged on Thebes by Argos (PS, para. 473-74, 285-87).

Through his elliptical discussion of the Antigone, Hegel reveals the way in which the tragic conflict in pagan society between the universalistic polis and the particularistic family ends in the destruction of the pagan world such that it becomes one "soulless and dead" bare universal community. But, according to Hegel, it is not only external forces that destroy the community. Rather, there is within the community the seeds of its own destruction in the family. The family, for Hegel, is "the rebellious principle of pure individuality" (PS, para. 474, 286), which, in its universality, is inner divine law; and this law, as he claims again and again, is the law of woman. Here, woman is the agent of destruction of the pagan world. Since particularity is not included in the polis, it destroys the polis. Woman, as the representative of the family principle, the principle of particularity which the polis represses, is the internal cause of the downfall of the pagan world:

      Since the community only gets an existence through its interference with the happiness of the Family, and by dissolving [individual] self-consciousness into the universal, it creates for itself in what it suppresses and what is at the same time essential to it an internal enemy -- womankind in general. Womankind -- the everlasting irony [in the life] of the community -- changes by intrigue the universal end of the government into a private end, transforms its universal activity into a work of some particular individual, and perverts the universal property of the state into a possession and ornament for the Family. (PS, para. 475, 288)  

Woman, as the representative of both the immediacy of family life and the principle of particularity, represents the spirit of individualism as subversive. She revolts and destroys the community in the pagan world by acting on the young man who has not yet completely detached himself from the family of origin and therefore has not yet subordinated his particular existence to the universality of the polis. She persuades him to exercise his power for the family dynasty rather than for public welfare. According to Hegel, woman does this by asserting the power of youthful male authority, as the power of the son, the brother, or the husband.11

The question of exactly how woman can represent the sphere of particularity while never knowing herself as this particular self is a question never addressed by Hegel. In Negative Dialectics T.W. Adorno challenges Hegel on precisely this transformation of the particular into particularity. For Adorno, "the particular would not be definable without the universal that identifies it, according to current logic; but neither is it identical with the universal."12 Thus, for Adorno the concept of the particular is a concept of the dialectics of non-identity whereas the concept of particularity eliminates the particular as particular in order to absorb it into a philosophy of identity dominated by the universal. The transformation of the analysis away from a concern with the particular to a concern with particularity in relation to woman is the paradigm case of what Adorno points to. That is, Adorno shows that Hegel's identity philosophy necessarily excludes forms of human experience, and it is my contention that it is primarily forms of female experience, which Antigone symbolizes, that are excluded.13

While Antigone, as the paradigm of the ethical family, does not, in the Phenomenology, represent woman as the principle of particularity destroying the polis through intrigue and perversion, nevertheless Hegel misses what is most significant: that Antigone must enter the political realm, the realm of second nature, in order to defy it on behalf of the realm of the family, the realm of first nature. In doing this, as we shall see, Antigone transcends Hegel's analysis of "the law of woman" as "natural ethical life," and becomes this particular self.

Sophocles presents a situation in which Antigone must reconcile her obligations to the family and its gods with the demands of the political sphere represented by Creon. Her tragedy is that no matter which course of action she chooses she cannot be saved. If she defies the law of the polis and buries Polyneices, she will die; if she fails in her familial duty to her brother she will suffer divine retribution and loss of honor. She defies Creon and in so doing brings divine law into the human community in opposition to the authority of the polis.

According to Hegel, in the pagan world the two forms of law, human and divine, as represented by man and woman, exclude and oppose each other; their separation means the loss of certainty of immediate truth and creates the possibility of crime and guilt. Crime is defined here as the adherence to one of the two laws over and against the other. Thus, there is no Aufhebung of the two laws, but only opposition. For Hegel, "essential reality" is the unity or identity-in-difference of both human law and divine law; that is, there can be no justice without revelation (PS, para. 460, 276). But such an Aufhebung is only possible in the modern world, after the advent of Christianity. It is the revelation of God in Christ that allows man to acquire the knowledge necessary to make the transition to an ethical life that is self-conscious and therefore truly universal. In the pagan world conflict is always "resolved" on one side or the other, but the two laws are inextricably bound up with each other such that the fulfillment of one calls forth the other's revenge. The purer ethical consciousness acknowledges the other law but interprets it as wrong and acts as it deems necessary because "what is ethical must be actual" (PS, para. 460, 276). In this sense Antigone wittingly commits a "crime," according to Hegel. However, by acknowledging the other law, ethical consciousness must acknowledge that it has committed a crime against this law, and it must admit guilt. It is here, in the analysis of the relation between crime and guilt, that we begin to see the inadequacy of Hegel's interpretation of the Antigone.

Against Hegel's interpretation, Sophocles does not create Antigone and Creon as ethical equals. Antigone alone is the ultimate defender of the good; one sees this revealed in the fate meted out to Creon and in Antigone's refusal to admit guilt. In Hegel's attempt to fit the Antigone into his view of the tragic character of pagan life in terms of crime and guilt he has to "interpret" this play in the Phenomenology to the extent of changing Antigone's final words. In the section on ethical action Hegel makes it seem as if she acknowledges her "guilt" for the "crime" of burying her brother. What she actually says is:

      ...I have done no wrong,
I have not sinned before the gods. Or if I have,
I shall know the truth in death. But if the guilt
Lies upon Creon who judged me, then, I pray,
May his punishment equal my own.14

With her death she believes that she will enter the world of the gods and that they will determine whether her act was right or wrong. In a dialectical turn, Creon ends up living the fate he has tried to inflict on Antigone by entombing her alive: He must endure the solitude of a "living death," for his actions lead to the suicides of his son, Haemon, and his wife, Eurydice. In the end he declares: "I alone am guilty" (32).

While Antigone chooses to obey the gods, or divine law, nevertheless she does not admit guilt concerning human law.15 From Hegel's point of view Antigone's admission of guilt is necessary for her ethical consciousness to be equal to that of Creon and for the play to represent the tragic conflict of pagan life. When we adhere to what actually happens in the play and put it within Hegel's interpretative framework we find that Creon's admission of guilt actually makes him the hero of the play since it gives him a higher ethical consciousness. Thus, there are not two equal and contrary values in opposition in the conflict between Antigone and Creon, as Hegel tries to claim, but rather a "higher" political consciousness of the male and a "lower" familial consciousness of the female. From this perspective the play should have been called Creon since only Creon has the self-recognition made possible through the admission of guilt. While the action of the play transforms Creon from a criminal to a tragic figure for both Sophocles and Hegel, within Hegel's framework Antigone remains "criminal" in that she upholds only the law of the family and does not recognize the law of the polis as legitimate. Thus, Hegel wants Antigone to be a tragic character but he cannot show her as such without misrepresenting and "adapting" what she says to make it look as if she admits guilt.

In his interpretation of the Antigone, with its emphasis on crime and guilt, Hegel misses several critical components of the play that are central to an understanding of female experience. To begin with, Antigone retains a steadfast devotion to what is noble and just that goes far beyond the mere intuition of natural ethical life and the consciousness that comes from burying and remembering the dead. Antigone has a moral courage that allows her to choose a course of action even though it condemns her to death. Whereas Hegel claims that the sister's intuition of ethical life is not open to the daylight of consciousness, the chorus in Sophocles' play cries out to Antigone: "Your death is the doing of your conscious hand" (21). Sophocles shows Antigone choosing to carry out her duty to her brother and choosing to disobey Creon's edict. While she claims to owe a stronger allegiance to the dead, to her brother and to the gods, it is not an unreflective position she takes. It is not an unconscious intuition of her ethical duty as Hegel would have us believe. Rather, it is a noble stance, consciously taken.16

According to Hegel, the woman who remained in her place never felt the tragic character of pagan life, never felt the conflict between particular and universal because she never entered the polis, the sphere of universality. Thus, it is Ismene, Antigone's sister, rather than Antigone herself, who maintains the traditional place of woman. Curiously, Hegel fails even to mention Ismene in his references to the play. This is probably because Ismene's "instinctive" reaction is contrary to her supposed "natural ethical orientation": She explicitly sides with the political authority of the polis over the divine law. And in siding with the law of the polis Ismene bows to "the law of woman" as male domination. When Antigone asks Ismene if she wishes to help bury their brother Ismene cries out:

      Think how much more terrible than these
Our own death would be if we should go against Creon
And do what he has forbidden! We are only women,
We cannot fight with men, Antigone!
The law is strong, we must give in to the law
In this thing, and in worse. (2)

However, Ismene, motivated by feelings of sisterhood, overcomes her initial fears and attempts to share the responsibility for burying Polyneices. Antigone protests that there is no need for both of them to die for something she alone has done. To this Ismene replies:

      What do I care for life when you are dead? (14)  

While Antigone rejects Ismene's offer of sisterly solidarity, what we see here in Ismene is a second, more traditional woman, a woman representing conventional womanhood, created in human rather than heroic proportions, choosing an honorable death over the continuation of an ignoble life.17 Thus, Ismene wavers in her commitment to the good but her decision to do what is right is rooted in the familial devotion between sisters, not in the sister-brother relationship. Hegel completely disregards this aspect of the play.

Unlike Ismene, Antigone acts on behalf of the family, the sphere of inaction. She moves outside the sphere of the family and as a consequence becomes different within the family. As we saw earlier, the brother-sister relationship of mutual recognition, in which the sister is said to realize herself, necessarily ends when the brother leaves the family of origin. And Hegel asserts that it makes no difference to woman that she is not this particular self within the family of procreation. He claims that there is reciprocal recognition between husband and wife, but when we examine this claim carefully we find that it contradicts his claim concerning what one is to gain from the process of recognition within the family of procreation, i.e., particularity. Thus, man gains an unconscious particularity through woman's relation to the universal, but man's relation to the universal is separate from his relation to woman so that she is never this particular self. While the husband cannot renounce the particularity of his being in the pagan world, the wife never achieves it. She cannot achieve an unconscious particularity as this wife within the immediacy of the ethical family and she is not allowed out into any other sphere of life.

In the Hegelian schema woman cannot even achieve the self-consciousness of the slave since she does not experience the two central elements of slave consciousness. That is, she experiences neither the ubiquitous personal fear of death as "the absolute Lord," nor the "service" or work on nature as thinghood, the work of objectification that recreates the world to create history.18 Woman's response to death is said to be resignation while her primary responsibility is to memorialize the dead in order to raise them to living memory (PS, para. 457, 274-75). And, woman is represented as someone that does not do anything and therefore can have no universal recognition of her action or humanity in the polis; she is not seen as someone who acts but merely as someone who is.

Since woman remains confined inside the family she must remain the walking dead of "unreal insubstantial shadow." Thus, if Antigone were to proceed as a "normal" woman she would marry Haemon, her betrothed and Creon's son, move from the family of origin to the family of procreation, and never know herself as this particular self. But Antigone, like the male, leaves the family to risk her life in the polis. While it is true that she is in the polis on behalf of the family, nevertheless she experiences the duality of pagan life and has the potential to become this particular self. Through the conscious risk of life in the sphere of the polis, Antigone transcends the limitations of womanhood set down by Hegel.

If we accept Hegel's interpretation of pagan life as a tragic conflict between the familial particular and the political universal that cannot be overcome in life, then Antigone's decision to commit suicide, which Hegel does not discuss, is of paramount importance. That is, unlike the male, Antigone cannot live out the contradiction of pagan life. Man is able to endure the duality of pagan life through his relation to woman -- she maintains the family as the sphere of his particularity while he acts in the polis, the sphere of universality. But woman's relation to man does not offer her a way to make this duality tolerable. His desire for her is such that she is never a particular self in relation to him nor does she experience the universality of the polis through him. When woman leaves the family to experience the universality of the polis and to achieve particularity her relation to man cannot sustain her. Thus, man lives the tragic conflict of pagan life but woman dies from it. By violating the norms of womanhood set down by Hegel, Antigone comes to embody the tragic conflict that he finds inherent in Greek life. Her suicide expresses the inability to be both particular and universal in the pagan world. It expresses the fact that there can be no reconciliation, no Aufhebung, of particular and universal in that world. Against Hegel's focus on crime and guilt, which misrepresents Antigone, a consideration of the play itself, and most notably, a consideration of Antigone's actions on behalf of the sphere of inaction, reveals her tragedy as the tragedy of Greek life in Hegelian terms.

In addition, we can see Antigone's suicide as a form of defiance against patriarchal domination. By choosing to kill herself Antigone does not allow Creon to have the ultimate power over her fate which he seeks: She takes her own life to refute the power of the male, as the power of the universal, over her. In Greek society death was seen as preferable to slavery: It was more noble to kill oneself than to have one's fate controlled by another. Hegel himself writes of the liberating aspects of suicide, although not in regard to Antigone's tragedy. In his essay on "Natural Law" (Naturrecht) Hegel claims that voluntary death is a manifestation of freedom because it reveals one's independence from the life situation. He qualifies this by saying that this is not a realization of freedom, since it ends in nothingness rather than in free existence.19 However, in Antigone's situation a manifestation of freedom is all that is possible since her choices are only death or submission to the male principle as the principle of universality, which decrees that she remain confined to the family in subjugation to man. If we extrapolate from Hegel's theory of desire we can also see Antigone's suicide as maintaining her purity since she never marries and therefore never has a husband whose desire can overreach her ability to become this particular self. Antigone's suicide is an honorable alternative which shows that she prefers honor and arete to male domination.

In the Phenomenology "action is the principle by which distinction in unity is carried out in social life. Therefore the consideration of its significance is an essential problem of the social mind."20 Yet Hegel chooses to emphasize only Antigone's burial of Polyneices and misrepresents her "confession." When one considers all of Antigone's actions we see first that her burial of Polyneices was a moral imperative that goes beyond the mere intuition of ethical life and that she confesses no guilt in terms of the human law; second, that her action in the sphere of the polis allows her to transcend the Hegelian framework (which confines her to the family) so that she becomes a particular self; and third, that her suicide may be seen as the ultimate expression of the tragic character of pagan life as well as a refutation of male domination. Thus, through her actions Antigone goes far beyond what Hegel attributes to her.

For Sophocles it is because Antigone and Creon come upon the limits of their respective spheres that they both are transformed from criminal to tragic figures. Hegel also wants to show this but he misrepresents Antigone and Creon. That is, where Hegel does not consider the consequences that result from the fact that Antigone must leave the family in order to protect it, must act on behalf of the sphere of inaction, he also does not consider that Creon's behavior must necessarily be unjust. Hegel's interpretation of Creon as the just representative of the law of the polis is as radical a departure from Sophocles' tragedy as is his portrayal of Antigone. The conflict between the just moral law and the unjust political law that is central to Sophocles' Antigone is muted in Hegel's interpretation. For Sophocles, Creon's rule is not that of reasoned arguments and the rational order of the city-state; nor is Creon the community as an individual soul. Rather, Sophocles shows Creon to be a misogynist and a tyrant who requires unquestioned obedience.

Creon is forever fearful that man shall be "done in" by woman, yet he expects a man to bury Polyneices; he finds it unthinkable that a woman, even as the necessary defender of the divine law, would act in the public realm to transgress the laws of the polis. When he finds out that Antigone has committed the "crime," he exclaims: "If we must lose, let's lose to a man, at least! Is a woman stronger than we?" (17). And when Haemon challenges Creon's decision condemning Antigone to death, Creon rebukes him saying "Fool, adolescent fool! Taken in by a woman!"21 Finally, when the polis, in the form of the chorus, sides with Antigone, Creon declares:

      Whoever is chosen to govern should be obeyed --
Must be obeyed, in all things, great and small,
Just and unjust!...
My voice is the one voice giving orders in this City!...
The State is the King!

Confronted with the inexorable force of Antigone acting on behalf of the family, Creon becomes irrational precisely because he cannot incorporate the claims of the family within the political sphere that he rules. In a world divided between family and polis, particular and universal, Antigone becomes tragic when she must leave the family to protect it, and Creon becomes tragic when, to protect the polis, he must become an irrational and unjust ruler.

In summary, what we find are four aspects of Sophocles' Antigone that are overlooked by Hegel in the Phenomenology in his attempt to use the play to reveal the pagan world as a world defined by tragic conflict between particular and universal, family and polis, divine law and human law, woman and man. First, Hegel completely disregards the sister-sister relationship in his search for the ideal relationship as a male-female relationship of identity-in-difference. Thus, Hegel describes the family as the sphere of womankind without showing any curiosity about the relations between women. This is like describing the sphere of pagan political life as "the manhood of the community" without ever discussing the relations between men! While Antigone rejects Ismene's show of solidarity, nevertheless, it is important to note the attempt at sisterhood and to recognize that Ismene does not display the "natural ethical orientation" required of her sex: She instinctively sides with male political authority rather than with the divine law of the family.

Second, Hegel disregards the conscious choice involved in Antigone's actions. Sophocles creates a conflict in which Antigone represents not only eternal familial values but individual moral choice, in opposition to Creon who represents not only temporal legal authority but dictatorial rule.22 Hegel fails to see Antigone's action as anything more than the result of her intuition of the natural ethical law of the family, just as Creon fails to see it as anything more than the result of female rebellion against his absolute, patriarchal authority. But Antigone's tragedy is the result of strength and moral courage -- the so-called "masculine" virtues -- not simply a response to "feminine" intuition. (One wonders if Hegel would have "reduced" Socrates' daimon -- which is a private intuition unrecognized and persecuted by the polis -- to the level of "feminine intuition" if Socrates had been a woman.)23

Third, Antigone transcends woman's place in Hegel's framework because she breaks out of the limitation to the familial, which he requires of her sex. She represents the ethical family and as such she must relate to the universal as immediate, but, according to Hegel, she is not to know herself as this particular self. When we look carefully we find that woman is bound to immediacy as wife within the family through male desire, which overreaches her ability to become this particular self in and through her relationship with her brother. The brother-sister relationship as a relationship of mutual recognition, is transitory and ends when he enters the polis. The sister does not act in the polis but merely moves into another family to become the wife -- the object of male desire. And, the husband's life in the pagan city-state overreaches the wife's familial life as she remains confined to first nature. Woman has no contradiction to negate between herself and "first nature"; she lacks negativity because she remains confined within the sphere of "mere animal life" and thus remains "unreal insubstantial shadow." But Antigone moves into the political sphere on behalf of the sphere of the family and becomes, like man, a participant in both spheres. She does not represent "the irony of the community," the principle of particularity that changes the community through intrigue, but openly insists on the rights of the family, the rights of "first nature," within the polis.24 Unlike other women, it becomes possible for Antigone, subordinating herself to the universal, to know herself as this particular self and thus to epitomize the tragic conflict between particular and universal which Hegel claims characterizes the ancient Greek, pagan world.

And finally, Hegel fails to discuss Antigone's suicide. When the chorus declares: "What woman has ever found your way to death?" (20) it reveals Antigone as unique, as the exception to female behavior, and therefore as a transitional character, not the paradigm of pagan divine law as represented by woman. While embodying the tragic conflict between particular and universal, Antigone represents the history of the revolt of women who act in the public sphere on behalf of the private sphere, the sphere of inaction. She is the precursor of the women who, in the recent past, proclaimed the personal as political.25 Antigone rebels against Creon's claim to the right of the universal over the particular; in so doing she refuses to fit neatly into the Hegelian enterprise in which universality ultimately dominates. In criticizing Hegel's interpretation of the Antigone we begin to see another story in Western philosophy, one other than that of Hegelian reconciliation: the revolt of the particular against subsumption under a universal schema.

Part III
I II III IV EndNotes

Hegel's Antigone
by Patricia Jagentowicz Mills | Contact Holland Mills | Last updated 30 November 1997