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Antigone: Right or Wrong?

from a lecture by Professor Jasper Griffin Balliol College, Oxford
Saturday 10th December 1994

When tragedy was invented in Greece, it was both radical and innovative. One of the new things about it was that here in the high style and in a mythical context, you could actually argue about things. Now in some way (though it is not quite possible to work out exactly how) this goes handinhand with the invention of democracy. Clearly, about the year 500 BC, there was something in the air which contributed to the origin of both tragedy and democracy. When one thinks back to the great homeric poems, although they contain a great deal of eloquence and people make marvellous speeches, issues are not really argued. When at the crucial point of the Iliad, in Book 9, the messengers come to Achilles and say "come back and join us", and Achilles won't do it, he does not argue and explain why he won't. In fact, he himself clearly doesn't really know why he won't. He just won't. True, he produces a marvellous speech, a great flood of rhetoric of a most spectacular kind, but there isn't really any meeting of minds. When he finishes, everybody is nonplussed, nobody knows what to say next, and they have to start again from scratch. Tragedy is also the last poetical form invented by the Greeks. (Greek literature, like other literatures started as poetry prose is the impudent younger sister of poetry which eventually pushes her elder sister out of the spotlight.) The rise of argument in tragedy is a sign perhaps that the reign of poetry is drawing to a close with its last magnificent flowering: we are now going to have philosophical and historical argumentation in prose. Something else which is new in tragedy, as distinct to earlier mythical poetry (all serious poetry in Greece is about the myths), is its liking for horrors. I shan't talk about that now, except to say that there are no suicides in Homer. Tragedy loves them, just as it loves incest, cannibalism, murder in the family, like a great bluebottle. Tragedy homes in on all the gruesome, sticky things which Homer likes to avoid. Now, a key issue, when considering Antigone and whether Antigone herself is right or wrong, is the question of the burial of the dead. This is a very important subject in Greek literature, though it leaves us a little bit nonplussed, because it is not a very large subject in modern literature, or in the modern consciousness as we like to think. But already in the Iliad, the last three books are dominated by the thought: what is going to happen to the corpse of Hector? The great Trojan champion is dead, and Achilles says his body is not going to be buried but fed to the carrion birds and dogs. This is not actually allowed to happen by the gods. It is so frightful that it couldn't happen. But the corpse is exposed, and in the end after a tremendously powerful scene with Priam, his father, come to fetch it (in book 24), it is released. Burial is also the centre of a number of other Greek tragedies (the last third of the Ajax of Sophocles is about whether the corpse of the hero should be buried or not) and it also was a very important question in real life.

You would accuse your enemies of refusing to allow the dead to be buried, a capital accusation in the C5th, a warcrimes charge. In 479BC, after the battle of Plataea, the Spartan king was presented with the body of the dead Persian general, Mardonius, and thus given the opportunity of avenging his fellowSpartan, Leonidas, whose body had been mutilated by the Persians after Thermopylae. (His head had been cut off and stuck on top of a pole.) But the Spartan king resisted: that was the sort of thing barbarians did, not Greeks. Greeks were disgusted by it. But there was a tremendous temptation to pursue enmity beyond the grave. The kings of Assyria were very keen on doing this and actually recorded in their inscriptions that when they conquered Elam, they dug up all the kings of Elam who were buried and scattered their remains. In the words of Ashurbanipal, "I made them more dead than they were before." This is an horrendous threat; you go on pursuing your enemy into the next world. Another example of how seriously burial was taken occurs in 406, at the very end of the Peloponnesian War. After the seabattle of Arginusae, the last victory the Athenians won, a great storm prevented their generals from collecting the dead. As a result the generals themselves were condemned to death. Now, we like to think that this is a bit remote from us but its immediacy was brought home to me the other day. An old member of my college in Oxford was a professor in America and was killed in the Chicago plane crash. His family was very anxious that they should have a memorial service for him in the college. Ordinarily we don't do this just for old members, but in this case what distressed them so much was that there was no body. There could be no proper funeral. They felt that the matter couldn't be settled until there was some ceremony somewhere. So we did it. Think also of what happened at the end of the abortive attempt to rescue the Tehran hostages, when the American force left in such haste that they left their dead behind. The people of Iran then came and gloated over them, and picked up the bones and laughed, and we experienced a tremendous feeling of outrage that a fundamental human law had been violated. Still, Greek thought, like Greek religion, was very different from our own. The gods of Greece were not like the God of the Old Testament they didn't lay down 578 separate laws which govern every bit of your behaviour. There are rather few unambiguous rules laid down by the Greek gods who on the whole interfered much less than the God of the Hebrews, but burying the dead was one of them. There was an institution in Athens whereby every year a family of hereditary priests, the Bouzuges, the OxYokers as they were traditionally called, pronounced curses upon those who had neglected the fundamental duties of a human creature. They are a rather unexpected collection from our point of view: if a stranger asks the way, you must tell him the truth; you must allow fire to be kindled from your fire; you must not pollute running water; you must bury the dead. What those things have in common was that they cost you very little. You've got a fire going, and in a world without matches it's quite tiresome to start one from scratch. The traveller comes and he asks you the way and you don't just send him in the wrong direction because it would be fun to do so. And burying the dead is like that. It's got to be done. The gods insist on it. But like the incest taboo, the taboo surrounding the burial of the dead go rather deeper than the question of riot misleading strangers. Both go back a very long way in the human animal back to the Stone Age, as far as we can make out. There is no human society which doesn't have rules about incest. They're not always the same,

rather strikingly, but they always exist. There are always people with whom sexual relations are prohibited. Similarly, already in the Stone Age it appears that the human animal was different from other animals in burying the dead and marking the grave. Incest and burial, then, go very deep and they are great subjects of Attic tragedy, whereas misleading strangers is not, because it's too trivial. You can't really make a tragedy out of that, even if the stranger finishes up falling off the edge of a cliff. In burial, then, we have an area in which the divine prohibition comes into direct conflict with the human will to pursue one's conquest beyond the point at which the gods say: "you must stop". It is often alleged (sometimes by my colleagues who ought to know better) that in the ancient world anyone who was guilty of treason, or was thought to be guilty of treason, was refused burial. That is not actually true. What the Greeks would say was: "We will not bury you in our country. You have betrayed the soil of your country and you will not be buried in it." The actual word for this meant "overthebordering". You were taken to the border and chucked over it, and then it became the duty of whoever came on your remains to bury you. What Creon does in Antigone, namely insist that Polyneices is not buried at all, setting guards on him for that purpose, is something which never happened in Attic law and is quite outside the normal conventions or legal code, and this is an important fact. People are very anxious to make Creon into a good guy in one way or another. In my view, there is no question that he is frankly wrong, and Antigone is right. This is all messed up by Hegel, who argued that in Antigone, two equal rights are in conflict: the right of the family versus the right of the state. That is not what Sophocles meant. What Sophocles meant was that the right of the state has no business in certain areas. There are areas in which the state simply cannot interfere, where political calculations are neither here nor there. It is very clear that Creon is a political person. That is to say he is a modern person. He is a CSth thinker, which makes him resemble C20th thinkers who think that politics is essentially everything. He gives a political justification for not burying Polyneices, an enemy of the state. He says it will deter other people from following Polyneices' bad example and that is a nice, clear, political reason. He refers to the gods regularly as "the gods of the city", and says that they will not want someone like this honoured, treated with respect, buried: But what Sophocles' wants to say is that they are not just "gods of the city" they don't belong to the city in that sense. Now of course there's a sense in which they are on our side. The temples are in Thebes. If someone's attacking Thebes, then you invoke the gods of these temples to defend them. But there is also something which overrides that, and that is the general law of the gods. Creon can make quite a plausible case initially, and many modern people, starting with Hegel have thought that essentially he is at least half right and perhaps more than half right. A certain professor in California, says that but for his neglect of sanitary considerations, we must think that Creon is right, because he is a political person and so are we. But that is like saying that Lear's daughters are essentially right and Lear should have been put in a home and not have a hundred knights. But that is not what the play is about and it requires a considerable effort not to notice this, especially as you get to the end of it. Creon starts off meaning well "good political reasons, sound calculations of state have led me to this decision", reasons which he expresses at the beginning of the play. But as the play goes on, he finds himself driven to

more and more regrettable and alarming actions by having taken that decision and by trying to sound (and indeed be) statesmanlike and rational. Before he knows where he is, he find himself threatening both sisters with death. Then, when it is pointed out that one of them hasn't actually done anything, he has to back down because he had lost his temper. Then, he tells his son, Antigone's f ance, Haemon, that he will kill Antigone in front of him, clearly not the language of a statesman, but of someone who has lost his temper and is saying rather appalling things. He invents the cruel and unusual punishment of walling Antigone up, again not a proper punishment in any legal code in Greece, but a savagery which he invents on the spur of the moment. (This has a kind of symbolic value for us, embodying his confusion of the upper and lower world. Antigone is shut out of the upper world without actually being dead, shut into the lower world, while still actually alive, and this is a reflection of the fact that he has confounded two worlds which should be kept separate.) We also find him insulting the prophet Teiresias always bad news! and talking in very insulting terms about the gods both of the upper and of the lower world: "I'll teach her down there that it's a waste of time to honour the gods of the dead" again, if you find yourself saying that in a play of Sophocles it's time to raise your life insurance. Similarly, when Haemon tells him that "the citizens don't agree with what you're doing" he replies: "the state belongs to me. I am the ruler." Now that again is meant to be a shocking utterance his son says "you'd be a good king in a desert". Creon did not intend to finish up saying these things, but by starting the way he has he finds the logic of events pushing him into being a tyrant, a violent and irrational person. This is partly what happens if you set yourself in opposition to fundamental laws. His opposite, Antigone, to come to her finally, is someone who says the shatteringly nonC20th thing: "Phooey to your politics. This is not a matter of politics, this is something which we do not do, and here your word doesn't run. The family, the dead, the divine law: they all have a claim to be heard in this area which overrides what you say." Now, Antigone is clearly not a progressive person. She is also not a particularly amiable person in some ways: she isn't very nice to her sister. It is not that Sophocles hasn't noticed that, that he tried to create a perfect character but unfortunately failed she has the characteristics which many heroic people, the sort of people who can be martyrs, do in fact have. He has created the sister Ismene as a nice ordinary girl. Many scholars have reflected that they'd much rather marry her, which of course is right. But that's not the clinching answer: the play's not about who you'd like to marry. The point is that Antigone is right, and Ismene really flinches and shows by contrast what an ordinary nice girl can't do. Antigone is not a particularly nice girl. I have known a truly heroic person who stood up to the authorities in Eastern Europe in a way that I wouldn't have done, but when he got to England he behaved in such an absolutely impossible fashion that one began to have some sympathy with the authorities in his country. He had the martyrheroic temperament and such people are admirable in a way that we can't be in that setting, but in other settings, in other contexts, in other relationships they are not quite what you want. Antigone's remarks to Ismene towards the end of the prologue are meant to be brutal. Of course, she is very young. Girls marry young in Greece, and she is on the verge of getting married. All this, of course, points up the extreme pathos of what happens to her. She is on the point of achieving what the woman in Greece considers the reason for her existence. (It's not exactly romantic love in the C 19th sense, but clearly love comes into it. Haemon has to love Antigone or he won't do the frightful things he does at the end of this play. But it's not

"about love" in the sense that La Traviata for example is "about love". We are made to dwell on the terrible tragedy of a young woman who has everything within her grasp, and then it's taken away in this extremely brutal and cruel way.) Antigone treats Creon with contempt. She speaks to him with scorn, and this is quite important. She doesn't try to be nice to him. She doesn't beg for her life. She just says: "That's what I've done. It was no business of yours. The laws which came from Zeus are eternal, timeless; nobody knows where they started, and you can't override them with your utterances.' The utterance of Creon is not a law. It is a kind of marshal law. He is referred to as a "general", or "colonel" asyou say in your translation, which is right really. He's in command, he issues this instruction. That is not a law in Greek terms and especially of course it doesn't begin to compare with the divine laws. Now, Antigone's strength is great. Of course she laments her death, but this is partly for our benefit so that we are not spared. The point of 4 Greek tragedy is not to let you off anything. The fact that you don't see people killed is not to let you off, but because you would not see it as clearly as you see it when I describe it and really rub your nose in it. Antigone, then, brings out the pathos of what happens to her, but she never admits she was wrong and she never asks for mercy or anything of that kind. Her genuine strength and stubbornness contrasts with Creon who starts very jackbootish, shouting at everybody, laying down the law, gets increasingly desperate and blustering under pressure, utters the rather ghastly things which I've listed, which come in the course of the play, and in the end, of course, crumples. Suddenly. "Right tell me what to do, tell me what to do next" and then, when the ceiling falls in on him he must admit: "I'm broken, I'm nothing. Take me away." That is to say Antigone is the person who has the admiration of the poet and Creon has only a kind of simulated strength which under real pressure is going to give way. In the end, then, Creon sees that he was wrong. He says as he is going away to let Antigone out of the cave: "I'm afraid it may be best to live one's life observing the established laws." A bit late to discover that. He has put his hand into the machinery and it drags him in and it grinds him up small, and in the end what you've got is mincemeat. We are meant to think that Creon is in no position to go on ruling Thebes. The poet has arranged it in such a way that it is the family values that have destroyed him. It was these he wanted to ride roughshod over, when he said that that the fact that it was a brother did not matter, the fact that his son wanted to marry Antigone was neither here nor there. It is these family values that come back and destroy him. It is his son's love for Antigone which makes him do the frightful things he does, which in Greek terms are absolutely ghastly spitting at his father and striking at him (extreme, extraordinary acts, the breaking of a terrible taboo). His own feeling for his son, which breaks him up, his wife's feeling for his son, his feeling for his wife: these feelings are the feelings which bring him down. And so, despite Professor Doktor Hegel, one is right, one is wrong. The state must mind its own business, and that is why we are right to read this as the first example in Western literature of a martyrdom, a question of principal. There is something which Antigone cannot bear to do. She feels confident that it is wrong. At different moments in the play Sophocles gives different reasons why she thinks this but these reasons support rather than exclude each other.

Antigone introduced into the world, which essentially was a world in which strength justified itself as, indeed, it does in most places (the fact that you win shows that you're right for early man) the idea that people can be weak, humiliated, put to death and yet right and in the end vindicated. The next such martyr, of course, was going to be Socrates, disgraced by his enemies, put to death in the most humiliating fashion, and yet we see (thanks to Plato) right in the end triumphant. And all this is part of the long perspective of history of preparing the ancient world for accepting what happened to Christ as a victory and not simply, as the Romans of course intended it to be, an annihilating defeat.

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