Hegel's Antigone
by Patricia Jagentowicz Mills

I II III IV EndNotes
Hegel's Antigone
Part I

The Antigone [is] one of the
most sublime and in every respect most
excellent works of art of all time.

G.W.F. Hegel, Aesthetics

Hegel's interpretation of Sophocles' play Antigone is central to an understanding of woman's role in the Hegelian system. Hegel is fascinated by this play and uses it in both the Phenomenology and the Philosophy of Right to demonstrate that familial ethical life is woman's unique responsibility. Antigone is revealed as the paradigmatic figure of womanhood and family life in both the ancient and modern worlds although there are fundamental differences between these two worlds for Hegel. In order to situate the interpretation of this play within its wider context I use Seyla Benhabib's understanding of the "doubled vision" of feminist theory, a method that takes traditional issues into account but does so by simultaneously focusing on gender issues that have been "traditionally" marginalized.1 Thus, my analysis of Hegel's Antigone proceeds through an internal or immanent critique of the Phenomenology, then turns to an immanent critique of the Philosophy of Right.

In the Phenomenology we learn that history can be understood as a dialectic of particular and universal: man seeks recognition of his own particular self from all men; he seeks universal recognition of his particularity.2 And universality, as the overcoming, reconciliation, or Aufhebung of the opposition between particular and universal, is "concrete" or universal individuality. However, in the pagan world, which is a specific historical moment in the movement of Spirit toward self-realization, the dialectical opposition between the particular and the universal cannot be overcome in life because the polis or city-state only recognizes or realizes the universal aspect of human action and risk while the particular remains embedded in the family.

Man is necessarily a member of a family and the family is the sphere of the particularity of the pagan male's existence. Within the family, man is this particular father, this husband, this son, and not simply a father, a husband, a son. But the family is the sphere of "merely natural existence," "mere particularity"; as such its supreme value is essentially inactive biological existence or animal life. While man has particularity inside the family circle, it is an unconscious particularity because, within this circle, there is no negating action -- no risk of life for recognition. Within the family man cannot achieve self-consciousness or truly human satisfaction because, according to Hegel, in the pagan world the truly human demands the conscious risk of life.3 While neither male nor female can achieve self-consciousness within the family in Hegel's schema, the pagan male moves out to become a citizen. He does so "because it is only as a citizen that he is actual and substantial; the individual, so far as he is not a citizen but belongs to the Family, is only an unreal insubstantial shadow."4 Hegel writes that within the polis "the community is that substance conscious of what it actually does," which is in opposition to the family as "the other side" whose form is that of "immediate substance or substance that simply is" (PS, para. 450, 268). The community draws man away from the family: By subduing his "merely natural existence," and his "mere particularity," it induces him to live "in and for the universal." What is achieved in the polis, through action and risk, is "the manhood of the community." But while the universal aspect of a man's existence is recognized here, this existence is not truly his: It is not he as a particular who is recognized by the polis. Acting on behalf of the polis man achieves universality at the expense of his particularity. The Aufhebung of the familial particular and the political universal that results in concrete or universal individuality is possible only in death in the pagan world.5

In that world the transcendence of death in and by historical memory is achieved through the family. The ethical relation between the members of the family is not that of sentiment or love but duty in connection with burying and remembering the dead -- as well as avenging them if need be. Through these obligations to the dead the "powerless, simply isolated individual has been raised to universal individuality" (PS, para. 452, 271). Since familial life does not depend on the activity of the members but simply on their being -- their inaction -- death changes nothing in the value attributed to and by the family.6 And by burying and remembering the family members, the family maintains the continuity of the human community through time.

In the pagan world the family and the polis, the particular and universal spheres of man's existence, are mutually exclusive: The family represents life and the polis represents the risk of life. The conflict between these two spheres is inescapable and unalterable. Man cannot renounce the family, since he cannot renounce the particularity of his existence, nor can he renounce the universality of his action in and for the polis. This conflict between the familial and the political makes for the tragic character of pagan life and creates a fundamental antinomy between family life, as the natural ground of ethical life, and ethical life in its social universality, or "second nature," in the polis.7

For Hegel the conflict between family and polis, particular and universal, is also a conflict between divine law and human law as represented in the conflict between woman and man. Nature, according to Hegel, assigns woman to divine law and man to human law. Thus while the political life of the city-state represents the manhood of the community, the family is the sphere of womanhood. The two are opposed such that when they come into open conflict woman, as the representative of divine law, sees human law as "only the violence of human caprice" while man, as the representative of human law, sees only "the self-will and disobedience of the individual" in obedience to the divine (PS, para. 466, 280).

In the section on the pagan or Greek ethical world in the Phenomenology where the interpretation of the Antigone appears, and where we find the only discussion of woman, Hegel is in search of the ideal relationship between a man and a woman as a relation of identity-in-difference. He begins with an analysis of heterosexual marriage and says that there is reciprocal recognition between husband and wife in the pagan world, but that this recognition is "natural self-knowledge," not realized ethical life. That is, it is a process of recognition rooted in the immediacy of desire or affective understanding, not in conscious ethical intention.

Hegel claims that the wife's desire for the husband always has a universal significance while for the husband desire and universality are separate. Here Hegel accepts the traditional view that there is a separation of morality and desire in man's relation to woman, but that morality and desire are united in woman's relation to man, and, therefore, that woman is ethically "purer" in her love relations. That is, a wife's ethical relation to her husband is not to feeling or the sentiment of love but, rather, is a relation to the universal (PS, para. 457, 274-75). What creates the separation of morality or universality and desire or particularity in man is the bifurcation of his life into the public and private spheres. While woman remains confined to, and defined by, the family, man lives within the polis as well as within the family. In this way Hegel distinguishes the family for-itself from the family in-itself. That is, woman represents the family as immediately universal for-itself while, from the perspective of the man, she represents the family in-itself as the sphere of particularity. Thus, central to the relationship between particularity and universality in the family is the split between desire and morality in the pagan male's existence.

For Hegel, the husband acquires the rights of desire over his wife precisely because he has the rights of a citizen. The husband's authority and position in the polis allow him to have sexual domination over the wife in the family and simultaneously keep him "detached" from his desire for her: Man rules woman in the private sphere because he rules in the public world. And as he rules in the public world and in the family he rules himself.

What is most significant in this analysis of desire in marriage is that for Hegel it is male desire that taints the purity of the male-female relationship: The husband's desire for the wife is expressed as merely particular desire such that a moment of indifference and ethical contingency is introduced into the relationship. However, insofar as this relationship is ethical, the wife is without the moment of knowing herself as this particular self in and through an other.8 Thus, in the ethical family of the pagan world the husband gains an unconscious particularity, as this husband, through the wife's exercise of universal recognition of him as a husband, while his recognition of her is such that she never achieves particularity. He is particularized but she is not. Man, says Hegel, achieves particularity in the pagan family, through the wife's recognition of him, precisely because he leaves this sphere to attain universal recognition in the political sphere. But woman never enters the political sphere; she is caught and bound within the immediacy of the family circle.

For Hegel, the relationship between husband and wife in the pagan world is a mixed and transitive one in which male desire infects the process of recognition between a man and a woman so that each maintains a knowledge of dissimilarity or "independent being-for self." Husband and wife are separated as male and female. Because the husband and the wife each retain a moment of independence -- a being-for-self -- the "return-into-itself" of the relationship cannot take place. Rather, the relationship is necessarily externalized through the child. Thus, the husband-wife relationship is not complete in itself; it needs the child to complete it, and the child changes the relationship (PS, para. 456, 273). Given this, the husband-wife relationship is not the ideal relationship of identity-in-difference between man and woman.

However, Hegel believes he has found this ideal in the relationship between a brother and a sister because he believes that this relationship is without desire and therefore without the separation and ethical uncertainty that male desire entails. He writes:

      The relationship [between man and woman] in its unmixed form is found, however, in that between brother and sister. They are the same blood which has, however, in them reached a state of rest and equilibrium. Therefore, they do not desire one another, nor have they given to, or received from, one another this independent being-for-self; on the contrary, they are free individualities in regard to each other. (PS, para. 457, 274)  

Brother and sister are not independent of one another because they are united through the blood tie. Thus, the brother-sister relationship is a unity of male and female that is not recognition as separation, distinctiveness or dissimilarity: It is a relationship of identity-in-difference. Their recognition is that of "free individualities in regard to each other" which transcends the indifference or ethical contingency characteristic of the husband-wife relationship. Whereas mere particularity is implicated in the husband-wife relationship through male desire, "The for the sister a passive similar being" and the recognition of the sister in the brother "is pure and unmixed with any natural desire" (PS, para. 457, 275). The brother's nature is ethically like the sister's -- that is, directly universal -- which allows for the realization of self in and through an other. The sister's recognition of herself in the brother is therefore pure and complete, as is his recognition of himself in her, and "the moment of the individual self, recognizing and being recognized, can here assert its right" (PS, para. 457, 275). Thus, Hegel makes a distinction between, on the one hand, the process of recognition between man and woman based on an immediate unity (an immediate universality grounded in blood) that is transcended through the process of recognition into a unity or identity-in-difference (brother-sister); and, on the other hand, recognition grounded in desire, the mere particularity of male desire, that necessarily retains separation and dissimilarity in such a way that a unity of male and female cannot be fully realized (husband-wife).

While Freud's theories and anthropological studies of incest taboos would seem to make the assertion that "brother and not desire one another" at least dubious if not altogether untenable, it is significant that Hegel believes that this lack of desire offers woman, as sister, the possibility of truly mutual recognition. The death of a brother thus becomes an irreparable loss for the sister since with his death she loses the ideal relationship with a man. And, the nature of this relationship is such that the sister's familial duty to the brother is the highest in terms of honoring and remembering him after his death.

Woman as sister in the pagan world is the paradigmatic foreshadowing of ethical life, precisely because she represents familial duty to man which is "purely" spiritual. But the brother-sister relationship is not one of conscious ethical life; rather, the law of the family is the sister's immediate, unconscious nature. The sister in the pagan world cannot realize or actualize this life completely because, according to Hegel, the dualism of the pagan world resists the possibility of transcendence or the realization in consciousness of ethical life. Hegel writes:

      ...the feminine, in the form of the sister, has the highest intuitive awareness of what is ethical. She does not attain to consciousness of it, or to the objective existence of it, because the law of the Family is an implicit, inner essence which is not exposed to the daylight of consciousness, but remains an inner feeling and the divine element that is exempt from an existence in the real world. The woman is associated with these household gods [Penates] and beholds in them both her universal substance and her particular individuality, yet in such a way that this relation of her individuality to them is at the same time not the natural one of desire. (PS, para. 457, 274)  

Hegel retains his understanding of the ethical purity of the brother-sister relationship being tied to sexual purity in his Philosophy of History where he describes Apollo as "pure" precisely because "he has no wife, but only a sister [Artemis, the virgin goddess of the hunt], and is not involved in various disgusting adventures, like Zeus."9

The unity of the brother-sister relationship necessarily "passes beyond itself" when the brother "leaves this immediate, elemental, and therefore, strictly speaking, negative ethical life of the Family, in order to acquire and produce the ethical life that is conscious of itself and actual" (PS, para. 458, 275). The sister merely moves into another family situation by marrying and becoming a wife: She moves from the family of origin to the family of procreation. Thus, the brother passes from divine to human law while the sister continues to maintain divine law as wife. In this way, according to Hegel, natural sexual difference comes to have an ethical determination.

At this point it is important to note several problems in the brother-sister relationship which Hegel does not address. In the first place, this relationship takes place within the family of origin before the brother has entered the sphere of the city-state and accepted the claims made on him by that sphere. Woman is said to realize herself within the family, but insofar as the brother is still only part of the family, he is an adolescent, not part of the manhood of the community and therefore not an adult male in Hegelian terms. The fact that the brother is in this way only a potential man, not a realized one, undermines Hegel's claim that brother and sister represent the ideal relationship between man and woman. Certainly such a relationship requires, at the very least, that there be a man and a woman. Second, the brother-sister relationship does not entail equal responsibility. Since the brother's vocation is to accept the bifurcation of life, and with it the separation of desire and morality, he leaves the family of origin and does not look back. The sister assumes the familial obligations of divine law, which require that she bury and remember her brother when he dies, but there is no mention of any responsibility the brother has to his sister in terms of human or political law. Thus woman, as sister, assumes a responsibility for the brother as a member of the family of origin, that the brother does not reciprocate. This unequal responsibility mitigates the sense in which the brother-sister relationship can be seen as ideal. And third, Hegel is in search of the self-complete relationship between man and woman that is an identity-in-difference: It must be a "natural" relationship that is dialectically transcended through consciousness (recognition/history). But there is no guarantee that a woman will have a brother. Insofar as Hegel attempts to institutionalize forms of consciousness this means that a woman without a brother can never achieve even a glimmer of an unconscious self that might be the equal of man's.

Part II
I II III IV EndNotes

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