Hegel's Antigone
by Patricia Jagentowicz Mills

I II III IV EndNotes
Hegel's Antigone
Part III

In the analysis of Hegel's interpretation of the Antigone in the Phenomenology I have focused on Hegel's understanding of the pagan world as suffering from a dualism in which particularity, as represented by woman in the family, is in conflict with universality, as represented by man in the polis. I have shown that his understanding of this conflict causes him to systematically misrepresent or ignore crucial aspects of female experience that Sophocles' play actually reveals.26 Given the inadequacy of the account of the Antigone in the Phenomenology, it is not surprising to find that Hegel's use of the play in the Philosophy of Right is also partial, and therefore "false." This indicates that Hegel's own philosophy of the modern world cannot reconcile the opposition between particular and universal in the context of sexual difference any more than the ancient world could. I will argue in the following pages that the modern world described by Hegel, like the pagan world, is made at woman's expense and that Antigone is misused to represent woman in the family in transhistorical terms.

In the Philosophy of Right we learn that the bifurcation of reason in the pagan world is aufgehoben in Spirit's movement toward universal self-knowledge with the development of the modern Christian world into a triad consisting of the family, civil society, and the state. The bourgeois family is the sphere of the universal as undifferentiated unity or immediacy;27 civil society represents the moment of particularity; and the state is the sphere of universality in which the universal and particular are reconciled. The aim of the Philosophy of Right is to resolve the relationship of desire to morality and ethical life; the analysis begins with a discussion of sexual desire within marriage, shifts to a focus on the generalized desire of civil society and the abstract morality of that sphere, and ends with a consideration of the concrete ethical life or Sittlichkeit of the state.

The reference to the Antigone and the only discussion of woman in the Philosophy of Right, as in the Phenomenology, appears within the discussion of the ethical life of the family. And, as in the Phenomenology, the Antigone is used as a paradigm to justify woman's confinement to the family. But, significantly, here the play does not represent the relationship between brother and sister as a relationship untainted by male desire; nor does the play represent the relationship between crime and guilt. Rather, it represents the opposition between man and woman as the opposition between divine law and human law within the context of a discussion of the relationship between husband and wife. In the Philosophy of Right Hegel is not concerned with finding the ideal relationship between man and woman that is free from desire, but with showing how the relation of desire itself can be transcended.

Hegel claims that the husband-wife relationship is the ideal ethical relationship between man and woman in the modern world because the secret moment of desire, the moment of physical passion, is transformed into self-conscious love through marriage. Physical desire is a moment that vanishes when satisfied, while the spiritual bond of Christian marriage is above the contingency of desire. Here Hegel distinguishes the marriage ceremony from the marriage contract. The ceremony, as a public proclamation of the ethical intention to take responsibility for family life, puts sensual desire into the background while the marriage contract is said to be a contract to transcend the standpoint of contract.28 That is, a contract is a relation of civil society between atomic individuals while the ethical family is a unity bound together by love in such a way that one exists in it not as an atomic individual but as a member of the group. Through a relation of civil society the family transcends the familial problem of desire: The marriage contract eliminates the capricious subjectivism of love as sentiment, an "immediate form of reason," and makes love the ethical or self-conscious moment in marriage.

This is quite a different situation from the one we encountered in the Phenomenology, where love in the pagan world was not self-conscious and where male desire infected the relationship between husband and wife so that it could not be the ideal relationship between man and woman. The bifurcation of man's life in the pagan world into public and private spheres caused a split between desire and morality that introduced a moment of ethical contingency into the marriage. Only the brother-sister relationship, which was supposedly free from desire and took place before the brother entered the polis and experienced the bifurcation of his life, could be seen as ideal. According to Hegel, the modern Christian world has radically transformed the situation so that male desire is no longer a problem. The tripartite structure of this world is seen as overcoming the dualism of the pagan world and allowing for the reconciliation of desire and morality through the marriage ceremony, which is both a contractual relation (a relation of civil society) and a religious (familial) one.

Thus, in the Philosophy of Right there is a significant shift away from the brother-sister relationship as the ideal relation of recognition between man and woman, as a relationship free from desire, to a consideration of the husband-wife relationship as a relationship that transcends desire. This shift is characteristic of the claim of the Hegelian philosophy as a whole to overcome the externality of Greek philosophy and society with the realization of philosophy in historical life. Significantly, the shift changes the site of the paradigm of male-female relations from the family of origin to the family of procreation. Here Hegel wants to distinguish the "natural" feeling of love, which binds family members through an original blood tie, from a later, deeper, self-conscious tie of love in marriage.29 He defends the nuclear family against the rights of the extended family of origin. In the modern world any conflict of claims regarding duties and obligations between the family of origin and the family of procreation is always resolved in favor of the higher ethical family, the family of procreation; that which comes later is a more mature form of reason. The shift to the focus on the family of procreation also replaces the contingency noted earlier. That is, while only some women may have brothers in the family of origin all women may potentially have husbands.

In the Philosophy of Right love is subordinated to the claims of marriage and reproduction, which in turn are subordinated to the claims of property. Thus, the relation of husband and wife in the modern world is no more inherently self-complete than it was in the pagan world. The husband and wife still need the child as an externalization of the unity of their love (PR, addition to para. 173, 264-65). Marriage is for procreation and woman must remain confined to the family as "mother" so that the family may achieve its objective, explicit unity. As I have argued more comprehensively elsewhere, it is not really a question of man and woman coming together in love that is at issue here, but rather the inheritance of family property.30 For Hegel, property is the manifestation of ethical self-consciousness in the material and public world. Man expresses his freedom and gains historical continuity by effectively appropriating and transmitting property through his family. Woman, on the other hand, is allowed to own property in her lifetime, but she cannot bequeath it to others. Thus, woman's relation to the family property leaves her deprived of the experiences of freedom and historical continuity. Hegel's complicated schema, which attempts to give woman, as person, equal rights in terms of the family property, is ultimately overreached by his conception of woman as mother, tied to immediacy.

According to Hegel, woman, as wife and mother in the modern world, like her sister in the pagan world, is a passive and subjective being who has knowledge only as feeling or intuition. She never leaves the family but "has her substantive destiny in the family, and to be imbued with family piety is her ethical frame of mind." Here Hegel refers to the Antigone as "one of the most sublime presentations" of family piety as the law of woman (PR, para. 166, 114). However, the reference to the Antigone in the Philosophy of Right is within a context that puts the claims of the family of procreation over and above the claims of the family of origin, whereas Hegel's interpretation of the Antigone in the Phenomenology concerns the highest claim of duty and obligation within the family of origin: the duty of the sister to bury and honor her brother. Given Hegel's original interpretation of Antigone as the paradigm of ethical family life precisely because she represents the relationship between man and woman not as wife but as sister, this new appropriation of the play within the context of a discussion of marriage in the modern world seems quite untenable. While Hegel believes that the modern world has transformed the relation of desire between man and woman through the Christian marriage tie, and consequently has solved the problem of male desire, nevertheless, since Antigone represents "holy sisterly love" (a love free from desire according to the Phenomenology) and since she never marries, it is hard to see how she can serve as a model for wifely piety in the modern world. Hegel's attempt to use the play to reinforce his assumption that woman must remain confined to the family in the modern world is without a historical or conceptual analysis that would justify such a use. Most significant, Hegel posits Antigone as a transhistorical paradigm of ethical family life and the role of woman: The play has lost its historical reference to the pagan world in the Philosophy of Right in order to justify the confinement of woman within the family in the modern world. While Hegel's system is meant to be an historical account of the development of humanity, woman is presented as outside history.

For Hegel, as we have seen, particularity must necessarily be incorporated into political life in order for that life to be truly rather than abstractly universal. But this does not mean that woman qua woman needs incorporation into the political sphere. Rather, Hegel develops a philosophical system in the Philosophy of Right in which he conceives of particularity without the impediment of immediacy. Where woman was confined to the family in the pagan world as the representative of particularity, in the modern world she is confined to the family as the representative of immediacy; particularity and immediacy are separated, and particularity is taken up into the male realm of civil society while woman remains trapped in the ahistorical immediacy of the family. Thus, the Philosophy of Right details man's progressive movement into a world that reconciles particular and universal, but woman is forced to take a step backward: she now represents immediacy -- a moment that precedes particularity and is therefore a less developed form of reason.

Hegel wants to claim that freedom is realized in the modern world; at the same time, he excludes woman from the spheres of civil society and the state, the spheres in which man manifests his freedom. Woman's exclusion from these spheres is made necessary by the dialectical structure which requires that the sphere of the family be maintained or preserved, as well as negated, in the process of development toward the universality of the state. Modern man leaves the family in order to move into the realm of civil society, where he emerges as a particular; but the sphere of undifferentiated universality or immediacy must be maintained. Therefore, modern woman is forced to do the family "maintenance" work required by the Hegelian dialectic: Woman stays home to preserve the family. Only man "dirempts" himself; only he struggles for recognition in the universal sense. Fortunately, he can come home after a hard day of self-diremption to the wife who offers him "a tranquil intuition of...unity" (PR, para. 166, 114). In this way man achieves a wholeness through woman while woman remains confined to the family where only an abstract or undifferentiated identity can be achieved. Confined to the family as the sphere of immediacy in the modern world, woman still lacks the negativity that results from the initial sundering from nature; therefore she never achieves an independent self-consciousness. In preserving the sphere of the family woman is again forced to sacrifice her claim to self-consciousness. Thus, modern man's realization of himself and the dialectical structure are at modern woman's expense.

Given Hegel's schema in which woman must necessarily remain confined to the family, he must systematically misrepresent Antigone, especially her movement out of the family. His failure in the Phenomenology to analyze Antigone's actions comprehensively means that he cannot bring an analysis of these actions into the discussion of Antigone in the Philosophy of Right. Rather, he misuses her as a transhistorical ideal of woman as wife confined to the family as the sphere of animal life, the sphere of inaction.

Examining the Philosophy of Right via Hegel's discussion of Antigone raises two crucial issues: the problem of female desire and the question of whether or not the sphere to which woman has been assigned can be taken up and dialectically aufgehoben in Hegel's sense if woman is to be allowed her freedom.

In the Philosophy of Right, as in the Phenomenology, Hegel tries to solve the problem of the division of man's life by leaving woman in the position of not experiencing the division. Marriage to woman is said to resolve the bifurcation of modern man's life between family and civil society by mediating two forms of desire: (1) desire as familial, heterosexual union and (2) desire as general and differentiated in civil society. Woman remains confined to one sphere, the sphere of the family, precisely for the purpose of giving man an intuition of unity. In Hegel's schema, if woman lived in two spheres she could not offer man the access to wholeness he seeks. However, Hegel does not address the fact that because she lives in only one sphere woman has no internal motive for seeking marriage as mediation. That is, there is no necessity for the institutional mediation of two forms of desire in woman's life since she does not experience two forms. Therefore, woman does not need marriage as ceremony and contract. From her perspective, marriage is the result of external coercion: Out of his need for marriage man forces her to accept it. Given this conceptual framework, what emerges is that woman's confinement to the family as the sphere of immediacy indicates that she can represent desire only as capricious and contingent. Just as woman has no internal motive for marriage, she also has no internal motive for desiring one man over another. Female desire itself, if it is to focus on a stable object (one husband rather than many lovers), must be coerced. Thus, when we look carefully, we find that in Hegel's schema of the modern world the problem of male desire is "solved" only by creating a problem of female desire.

In terms of the dialectical structure, Antigone can be seen as the representative of woman as actor who refuses to fit neatly into Hegel's system, a system that requires her to stay home to preserve the family. Her move out of the family transforms her so that she has the potential to be a particular self. However, when woman in the modern world follows in Antigone's footsteps by participating in civil society and the state, the spheres of particularity and universality, then the family is not preserved or maintained as well as transcended in the Hegelian sense. Once woman lives in more than one sphere she cannot offer man the intuition of unity he seeks and the dialectical structure necessarily breaks down.31

Hegel's philosophic formulation of the relation between woman and man in the modern world is important because it reveals the problem of how to achieve unity in a world in which each one seeks satisfaction of particular needs and desires. But through an examination of Antigone in the Philosophy of Right we find that his solution, which separates particularity and immediacy so that the family remains the sphere of immediacy in which woman is confined and coerced, is not an adequate formulation of the required mediation. And, for Hegel, it is precisely the Aufhebung or reconciliation of the modern world that reveals the dualistic conflict of the ancient world. Given the inadequacy of Hegel's formulation of the modern reconciliation in the context of sexual difference he must necessarily misrepresent this conflict in his interpretation of the Antigone in the Phenomenology.

By confining woman to the family in the Phenomenology and the Philosophy of Right Hegel prevents the progressive movement of Spirit toward universal self-consciousness from being recapitulated in woman. The development of human consciousness outside the family is sex-specific, limited to man. Woman can never aspire to "concrete" universality or individuality; she cannot attain particularity much less universality.

With the limitation of woman there is a limitation of the Hegelian system. Hegel's universal is necessarily male and male is not universal. Humanity is both male and female and the claim to encompass the universality of human experience must allow for woman's experience and participation outside the sphere of the family; it must allow for a more comprehensive account of the Antigone than Hegel can provide.

Part IV
I II III IV EndNotes

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