Antigone and Tragic Wisdom

Summary:

Antigone tells the story of the daughters of Oedipus, Antigone and Ismene. After the fall of Oedipus, his son Eteocles becomes the king of Thebes. Polynieces, brother to Eteocles, wages war against Thebes and both the brothers die in battle. After their death, Creon assumes the role of king and decides that while Eteocles will be given the burial of a hero, Polynieces will not be buried, and that anyone who attempts to bury him will be executed. Defying his law and Ismene’s warnings, Antigone repeatedly covers her brother in burial dust. When brought to trial by King Creon, she refuses to bend on her decision or admit to wrongdoing, causing King Creon to seal  her away in a cave as a form of execution. Though rebuking the pleading of his son Haemon(who was betrothed to Antigone) and of a soothsayer who accuses him of defying the gods, eventually King Creon gives in to Antigone and changes his mind. By this point, however, it is too late and the tragic events of the story have already been set into motion. When he returns to the cave he finds that it has already been unsealed. Within awaits the dead Antigone, who committed suicide, and the grieving Haemon. Soon after, out of grief Haemon kills himself as well. When the news makes it to King Creon’s wife, she also kills herself, leaving him alone to live in despair. 

Analysis

In greek tragedy, the tragic fate that befalls its victims is always a form of justice. It is a divine justice. Foretold by the prophecies and warnings of soothsayers and often occurring after prayer is given to Bacchus.

The wisdom here is that tragedy is not merely a destructive moment. While it is the death or the despair of the individuals it befalls, it is also at the same time the affirmation of a higher order. Of a deeper objectivity that cannot be subjectively known or contained by the characters of the drama.

What makes Antigone unique among the greek tragedies, is that it tells the story of a woman who subjectively assumes the position of this deeper objective movement. She gives a subjective character to the objective reality of the gods, through her commitment to bury her brother Polynieces. It is precisely because Antigone acts as a mortal, who is standing for someone who is also mortal, that she can subjectively assume the will of the gods. She neither knows their will, in the way that the soothsayers do, nor can she legislate, contain or arbitrate their will. She can only have faith that her own mortal commitments, though outlawed by King Creon, coincides with a higher order beyond that of kings. 

It is essential that she does this not because of the guarantee of this higher order, but out of her own love for her brother and her own sense of dignity. Her subjective commitment and the objective order of the gods are things that exist in parallel, independent from one another, until the moment of tragedy in which they converge in excessive and dramatic ways. The force that is unleashed in this moment is a divine terror that swallows up the royal family, and even Antigone herself. 

Foolish Old Man Removes the Mountains:

Antigone surprisingly shares a lot in common with an ancient Chinese parable, Foolish Old Man Removes the Mountains. This parable is about an old man who sought to dig through the  mountains obstructing his path. When asked about how he could accomplish such a monumental task, he replied that through perseverance stretching throughout generations, through his son’s labor, grandson’s labor, great grandson’s labor and so on, one day the mountains would be removed. The gods, out of respect for his dedication and commitment, separated the mountains.

What does such an uplifting story of perseverance have to do with a tragedy like Antigone? The key to understanding the Greek wisdom of tragedy, is precisely the ability to see that this negative moment is at the same time the affirmation of something greater. To see it not merely as a negation, but also as a new positivity. Antigone, much like the old man, is faced with a practically impossible task. How can she compete with the King of Thebes, Creon? Not only as his subject, but also as a woman? Ismene relays this very sentiment to Antigone, “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.” With a similar unmoving dedication as that found in the old man, Antigone remains firm in her decision to bury her brother. And, just as the gods separated the mountains for the old man, the mountain named Creon is also removed for Antigone. The point here is this, it is when one is completely unmoving in their dedication, regardless of what mountains or difficulties exist in reality, that an even deeper reality intervenes. 

The idea of the intervention of a higher order, or of a reality deeper than what can be empirically seen, is not merely a religious one belonging to the ancient Greeks and to the ancient Chinese. There is a universal wisdom to this embodied by many concrete historical examples.  The parable of the Foolish Old Man Removing the Mountain, for example, finds its most significant re-emergence in one of Mao’s speeches, “Today, two big mountains lie like a dead weight on the Chinese people. One is imperialism, the other is feudalism. The Chinese Communist Party has long made up its mind to dig them up. We must persevere and work unceasingly, and we, too, will touch God’s heart. Our God is none other than the masses of the Chinese people. If they stand up and dig together with us, why can’t these two mountains be cleared away?” And is this not a theme common to the revolutions of the last three centuries? In the French revolution this same deeper reality of the people intervenes, the subjective character of which is assumed by the dedication of the French revolutionaries to The Republic. And just as Antigone herself dies and is swallowed up by this deeper reality, so too were many French revolutionaries eaten by the guillotine. And yet, the terror of the French revolution that appeared as an apocalypse, was at the same time the affirmation of something higher, of a new kind of statehood and of modern western civilization. The wisdom of Greek tragedy runs deep and soars high. Tragedy is the poetry of The Real, of that which lurks beneath appearances in the unconscious of the people, and as the very ground of all reality, while at the same time carrying the lofty weight of the Divine. It is the poetry of that which crumbles empires and founds civilizations and cultures. 

Metaphysics of Power: Master – Slave Dialectic

The story of Antigone reveals something about the nature of power. What it reveals is most clearly elaborated by Hegel’s notion of the master-slave dialectic. Who is the master and who is the slave in this drama? Is Creon the master because he is King? Is Antigone the slave because she is a woman lacking political and social power? The story of Antigone is a story in which the social order and dynamics of power themselves are turned upside down. The lesson of the master-slave dialectic, and of Antigone, is that behind one’s immediate political power is something more metaphysical. Not in a supernatural sense, but in that it is a kind of a priori and fundamental choice or willingness. Are you willing to die? How much are you willing to risk or sacrifice? According to Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, it is the one most willing to risk death that assumes the position of the master. It is this fundamental choice of how much you are willing to sacrifice for your dignity that can only be determined by you, and cannot be by the world around you. This is why despite Antigone’s political helplessness, and King Creon’s absolute power, it is Creon who ultimately wavers on his position and orders the burial of Polynieces(albeit too late). Antigone was willing to risk her death, and to risk a much greater tragedy, while Creon was not.

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