In high school and college classrooms around the world, as well as in some of the most influential, notably Hegel's, scholarly endeavours into the text, Sophocles's Antigone is read as a story of conflicting orders of value, of radical division and of opposition between family and state, woman and man, ethics and politics, religion and law. Read in such a manner, with Creon and Antigone standing on opposing sides of what seems to be a fruitless and irreconcilable debate, both characters take on a quality of madness, foolishness, blindness, and fanaticism. Such is the reading offered by Simone de Beauvoir in her essay, "Moral Idealism and Political Realism," which uses Antigone to set up the long-standing clash between ethics and politics embodied in the roles of Antigone and Creon. What Beauvoir is ultimately aiming at, however, is less a thorough reading of the play than a reading of the political divisions and competing value systems of post-WWII France. She uses Antigone and Creon to dissect the commitments of the political players of her own time, when France had ousted the Vichy government and was trying its collaborators, when the revolutionary Left could no longer turn its head from the abuses of Communist Russia, and when the pacifistic Left had been proven reprehensible in its quietism. It is the tension between these political and ethical positions that Beauvoir sees played out through Antigone and Creon--the "moral idealist" and the "political realist."
Instead of a story of division, I suggest here that Antigone's is actually a tale of unification, one that exemplifies a very different relationship between ethics and politics than either Hegel or Beauvoir imagines. As opposed to exemplifying irreconcilable values and divisions between political and ethical commitments, the play, I suggest, is about the falsity and failure of such oppositions and about the impossibility of maintaining them. It is, as I see it, a feminist text about revealing and breaking down false dichotomies, such as man and woman, public and private, morality and the law. In what follows, I lay out Beauvoir's view of the play, which casts Antigone and Creon in radical opposition to each other, and in so doing, problematically mirrors Hegel's opposition of state and family and his gendering of action/inaction within these spheres. In critiquing the interpretations of Hegel, Beauvoir, and additionally, Martha Nussbaum, I claim that any account of the interaction between Creon and Antigone is inadequate without a feminist understanding of the gendered situations of the characters, specifically how radically limited Antigone's situation is in being a woman (albeit fictional) in ancient Greece and how profoundly political Antigone's rebellion actually is for the same reason.
Perhaps surprisingly, while I critique Beauvoir's actual, "pre-feminist" reading of the play in "Moral Idealism and Political Realism" for lacking an attention to gender and an adequately contextualized understanding of human freedom (problems I explore at length below), I ultimately see her later feminist existentialist theory as providing precisely the tools needed to best understand the play. Beauvoir's concepts of situated freedom, oppression, and the moral necessity of rebellion against coercive and oppressive power supply the groundwork for a reading of Antigone that Beauvoir might have given later in her career. Instead of being a figure of divisive moral obstinacy or political quietism, on my revised Beauvoirian reading, Antigone suggests a model of social rebellion that insists upon the uniting of the moral and political, the private and the public. She is a character who refuses the injustice brought about by their separation, and who acts in the only way she can to take a stand against that injustice. She does this not as an "everyman" moral/political hero, but specifically as a woman in a masculinist state, and thus her story demands a feminist interpretation.
Like Hegel in Phenomenology of Spirit, Beauvoir sees the ancient world as portrayed in Antigone as a world fundamentally divided. Where for Hegel that division is between the family and the state, private and public, Beauvoir casts the same basic divide as between the ethical and the political, the morally right and the pragmatically necessary (Hegel para. 451). Antigone, for Beauvoir, represents the clash of these "two irreconcilable orders of values" ("Moral" 176): "Antigone is the prototype of those intransigent moralists who, while being contemptuous of earthly goods, proclaim the necessity of certain eternal principles and insist at any cost on keeping their conscience pure--even though they may forfeit their own lives or the lives of others. Creon incarnates the political realist concerned only with the interests of the state and determined to defend them by every possible means" (175). Antigone represents the moral idealist who is absolutely unbending in the values that she deems "eternal" and imagines being more important than life itself. The moralist sacrifices efficacy for unflinching values, as opposed to the realist who sacrifices the right for the useful. The political realist, on the other hand, the "man of action," intent on getting things done and bringing about a particular vision for the community, finds himself uninterested in the dictates of a morality that only inhibits his actions without providing specific guidelines for what should be done (178).
The basic wrong of both of these positions is in their absolutism, their dedication to the necessity of either moral purity or political efficacy. The wrong of absolutism, for Beauvoir, is, above all, a moral wrong, a form of bad faith, an attempt to escape the strain of, and the responsibility for, our freedom. We can make more sense of the positions of the moral idealist and the political realist and their particular failings by turning to Beauvoir's catalogue of moral personalities in The Ethics of Ambiguity. The political realist--Creon--parallels the "serious man," the one who attempts to solidify his freedom by adopting certain limited values as absolute. "The serious man gets rid of his freedom by claiming to subordinate it to values which would be unconditioned" (46). The moral idealist--Antigone--embodies the "passionate [wo]man," a character similar to the "serious man" in that she is absolutely devoted to a particular object, but different in that that object is "disclosed by [her] subjectivity," instead of her subjectivity being subsumed by her adherence to something outside of itself (64). Beauvoir sees both idealism and realism as escapisms that "can free man from himself" ("Moral" 177) by allowing the individual to pass off his or her responsibility for freedom onto unconditional values.
Creon, as a "serious" political realist, is ruthless in his adherence to his value system that determines who is "good" and who "bad" in terms of their relation to the state, a state which is his to command absolutely, for better or for worse (Grene 665-68). Creon's total inability to hear Haemon's very rational pleas on Antigone's behalf (683-765), his initial insistence that Teiresias could only have come to him with personal profit in mind (1034-63), and his immediate shushing of the Chorus's wondering, "could this be God's doing?" regarding the as-yet mysterious first burial of Polyneices (278-83) all point to a highly restricted field of valuation. Indeed, Beauvoir's description of the serious man could have been written to express Creon's downfall: "The future will contest his present successes; his children will disobey him, his will will be opposed by those of strangers; he will be a prey to ill-humor and bitterness. His very successes have a taste of ashes, for the serious is one of those ways of trying to realize the impossible synthesis of the in-itself and the for-itself. The serious man wills himself to be a god, but he is not one and knows it" (Ethics 52).
Antigone, unlike Creon, does not want to be a god. Her concerns, while rigidly held, are more personal, a matter of "inner necessity" and "pure subjectivity," as opposed to the relentless "objectivity" of the realist (Beauvoir, "Moral" 177). Thus, Antigone is "passionate" instead of "serious," sharing in Creon's obstinacy but not in the supposed objectivity of his rationale: the good of the state, the necessity of obedience to one's leader, the righteousness of honouring the friends of Thebes and desecrating its enemies. The interiority of the passionate [wo]man leads to her isolation, though, a concern that Beauvoir expresses in The Ethics of Ambiguity, which rings out as clearly of Antigone as the above quote rang of Creon:
[The passionate man] causes certain rare treasures to appear in the world, but he also depopulates it. Nothing exists outside of his stubborn project; therefore nothing can induce him to modify his choices [...]. That is why though the passionate man inspires a certain admiration, he also inspires a kind of horror at the same time. One admires the pride of a subjectivity which chooses its end without bending itself to any foreign law and the precocious brilliance of the object revealed by the force of this assertion. But one also considers the solitude in which this subjectivity encloses itself as injurious. Having withdrawn into an unusual region of the world, seeking not to communicate with other men, this freedom is realized only as a separation. Any conversation, any relationship with the passionate man is impossible. (65)
Antigone's self-imposed isolation, through her rejection of her sister Ismene in particular, but even in her impatience with Creon ("Do you want anything beyond my taking and my execution? [...] Why do you wait, then?" [Grene 496-99]), serves to reinforce her unqualified passion for her brother and her own performance of his burial rites. Her solitary entombment only finalizes in death the character of the end of her life--both admirable and horrifying, but above all, alone.
Beauvoir's reading of Antigone and Creon as absolutists, as flawed characters tied to their inflexibility and dangerously limited range of concerns, is supported by Martha Nussbaum's reading of the characters in The Fragility of Goodness. Looking at Nussbaum's claims helps us turn to a more critical concern about what exactly is at the heart of what I am calling Antigone's "passion," and whether, indeed, it is as narrow, as apolitical, and ultimately as ironically unethical, as Beauvoir seems to contend in deeming Antigone the epitome of moral idealism. Nussbaum sees the play as revolving around the conflict brought on between Creon and Antigone due to their each having narrowed the field of values to such a degree that internal conflict does not arise. Of Creon, who has made "the well-being of the city" into the "single intrinsic value" (55), Nussbaum writes, "Creon has, then, made himself a deliberative world into which tragedy cannot enter. Insoluble conflicts cannot arise, because there is only a single supreme good, and all other values are functions of that good" (58). Creon should feel familial loyalties that would interrupt his death-bearing dictates, both to Polyneices, the nephew he refuses to bury, and to Antigone, the niece who is betrothed to his one living son. Instead, Polyneices is reduced to nothing but a traitor and an enemy, his familial relation obliterated as Creon "would not count any enemy of my country as a friend" (Grene 187-88). And Antigone, whom Haemon seems to genuinely love and admire ("Surely what she merits is golden honor" [698-99]), is now for Creon simply a "bad wife for a son of mine" (571), a woman whose "disobedience" (655) to the city should be enough to make Haemon "Spit on her, throw her out like an enemy, this girl, to marry someone in Death's house" (653-54).
Antigone is guilty of the same kind of inflexibility and "ruthless simplification of the world of value," according to Nussbaum, though ultimately she is less guilty than Creon (Nussbaum 63). Nussbaum writes of Antigone: "She draws, in imagination, a small circle around the members of her family: what is inside (with further restrictions which we shall mention) is family, therefore loved one and friend; what is outside is non-family, therefore, in any conflict with the family, enemy. If one listened only to Antigone, one would not know that a war had taken place or that anything called 'city' was ever in danger" (63-64). Nussbaum rightfully identifies Antigone as quick to divide who will count for her as "enemy" and who as friend, and Nussbaum notes that she does this without interest in that individual's relationship to Thebes. However, the "restrictions" on who gets to be inside the family circle are considerable enough, I believe, to significantly weaken an argument that Antigone's loyalty is to "family" in general. Most poignantly, as Nussbaum mentions and as I note above, Antigone utterly rejects Ismene, whose desire to live at first outweighs her desire to help Antigone bury Polyneices, making her an immediate "enemy" to Antigone as well (Grene 94). But Creon is family also, as is Haemon, and while Creon is obviously Antigone's primary "enemy" in the play, she also abandons Haemon, never speaking a single word to or of him throughout the play.
But if not to "family" in general, then to what is Antigone inflexibly and narrowly bound? Or, returning to Beauvoir's language, if Antigone is "passionate" about "the divine laws engraved in her heart" ("Moral" 175), what exactly is the content of those laws? Nussbaum goes on to more specifically address Antigone's obsessive sense of "duty to the family dead" (64). Yet, even this more qualified assertion seems suspect in light of Antigone's disturbing speech on her way to the tomb, claiming that she would not have risked her life to bury a husband or a child of her own. Only on behalf of her brother, made irreplaceable by her parents' deaths, would she willingly sacrifice herself to provide the proper burial rituals (Grene 905-12). Mark Griffith suggests that the operative division for Antigone that makes sense of this speech is not between family and non-family, but between natal family and marital family, where Antigone sides decisively with her cursed natal family, making her claims "amount to a resounding rejection of the institution of marriage itself" ("Antigone" 131). But this conclusion is difficult to swallow, considering the abandonment of Ismene, her natal sister, and particularly in view of the fact that the speech in question is situated in the midst of at least four specific laments for her unmarried death (Grene 809-13; 869; 877; 916-20).
While the text does not seem to support the idea that Antigone simply rejects exogamous marriage, she is certainly obsessively, perhaps even in incestuously, dedicated to her brother Polyneices and the necessity of his proper burial. Antigone characterizes her own actions as driven by "piety" (Grene 924) and "reverence" (943), and as "religious" (75) acts. However, as Nussbaum rightly suggests, what Antigone actually affects is "a strange reorganization of piety" so as to adhere to her singular, fixated interest in her brother's burial (64). Nussbaum notes that the other characters in the play see her "not as a conventionally pious person, but as one who improvised her piety, making her own decisions about what to honor. She is a 'maker of her own law' (autonomous, 821); her defiance is 'self-invented passion' (autognotos orga, 875)" (65). Hence, the unwritten laws to which Antigone claims to be bound are not exactly those of conventional public religion, but express her own chosen values and personal desires more than they do an unambiguous adherence to an established order of moral values.
Thus, while Antigone is clearly passionate about burying her brother, it is not yet very clear why. I propose that, to best understand Antigone and her actions, a reading of the play needs to have a more substantial account than either Beauvoir or Nussbaum provides of the role of gender in the interaction between Antigone and Creon and in the field of options that lay before Antigone in the face of the familial crisis. Both Nussbaum, who sees Antigone as wholly concerned about family and thoughtless of the welfare of the state, and Beauvoir, who takes Antigone as a moral absolutist and a purist bent on keeping her hands clean from the affairs of governance, place Antigone decidedly outside of the political sphere, even, for Beauvoir, in direct opposition to it. These readings, recalling Hegel's oppositions between the family and the state, divine law and human law, while not explicitly taking up his gendering of these spheres, tend nevertheless to reproduce the blindnesses of Hegel's reading by depoliticizing Antigone's actions. The next section will explore this Hegelian inheritance and some feminist criticisms of it, especially those that cast Antigone as an apolitical non-actor. I offer that looking at Antigone's actions, desires, and limitations as specifically gendered ones opens her character to more complex readings of her motivations. This will lead me finally back to Beauvoir's examination of the seeming opposition between ethics and politics and to the real life political scene of WWII France.
Perhaps it will seem ironic for this paper to purport to offer a feminist critique of Beauvoir's reading of Antigone, given that Beauvoir is generally considered to be a founding "mother" of contemporary feminism. The Second Sex is a tome of feminist riches that still demands our political and philosophical attentions. And yet, this is precisely the nature of my critique, one grounded in the suggestion that Beauvoir was not always as concerned in her philosophical writing about feminist issues as she was by the time of writing The Second Sex (began in 1946. first published in 1949). As I see it, there are two focal elements that differentiate Beauvoir's "pre-feminist" philosophical writings (the major ones being Pyrrhus and Cineas in 1944, and The Ethics of Ambiguity in 1947, but would also comprise numerous essays, including "Moral Idealism and Political Realism") and her feminist philosophical work (most significantly The Second Sex), the two of which form the basis of my critique of her reading of Antigone. These focal elements include an inattention to issues of gender and a notion of freedom that does not account for the significant limitations of social situation.
The "Pre-feminist" philosophical writings simply lack a significant interest in gender. Pyrrhus and Cineas does not take up issues of gender at all, and while The Ethics of Ambiguity brings up the situation of women on two pages (37-38), even that brief discussion is entrenched in the notion of radical freedom that is the second element that makes the work "pre-feminist." In terms of Beauvoir's reading of Antigone, gender never even comes up, which is particularly surprising considering how often Antigone's gender is made issue of in the play (by Ismene: 61-64; by Creon: 482-85, 525, 578-79, 648-51, 676-80, 746, 756). I see the problem that arises from Beauvoir's neglecting the issue of gender as related to her Hegelian interpretation of Antigone as apolitical. This reading is disputed by the relatively blatant fact that anyone who challenged Creon's dictate would be automatically entering into the political sphere, but the fact that Antigone did so as a woman made the act, I believe, especially politically charged. Beauvoir's reading of Antigone, in failing to account for the character dynamics as specifically gendered, this fails to see how Antigone, as a Greek woman, is denied access to the political realm and how her act of rebellion against the political sphere is her only real means of action at all. Hegel's interpretation of Antigone as a representative of the family means a number of different things in terms of how she is read. For one, in Hegel's explanation of ancient pagan life, it is the community of male citizens that is the sphere of conscious action. The family is the realm of immediacy that never rises to the level of consciousness (para. 457). The family is where women are trapped in this ancient world, which prevents them from attaining self-consciousness through action on behalf of the community. As Mills writes in "Hegel's Antigone," "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 someone who is" (73). Luce Irigaray critiques this same undertone of Hegel's in which women are non-actors and men are the active creators of life, both in terms of culture and even physical reproduction. Irigaray opens her discussion of Hegel's reading of Antigone in Speculum of the Other Woman by quoting Hegel's Philosophy of Nature on "active" male and "inactive" female anatomy, which she takes to lay out the basic assumptions about men and women that underlie Hegel's reading of Antigone. By making the active male/inactive female paradigm an issue that goes all the way down to anatomy, Hegel naturalizes this distinction, which any contemporary feminist would recognize as based on oppressive and controlling ideas of womanhood and also on the very real confinement to the home that has been imposed on women around the world for most of human history.
Beauvoir implicitly reproduces this Hegelian paradigm of seeing Antigone as a non-actor, a character at a distance from the political realm. Hegel, at least, understood that women were barred from a public life; on Beauvoir's construction, Antigone's is a chosen abstention. As a moral idealist who refuses to dirty her hands through morally compromising action, Antigone represents a "patently indefensible" quietism for Beauvoir (Kruks 169). In this sense, in "Moral Idealism and Political Realism," Antigone embodies the French pacifist of the 1920s and 1930s, who, according to Beauvoir, "served the cause of peace poorly," by refusing to take any action even in the face of an inevitable war (185). Moral idealism breeds quietism, according to Beauvoir, since "it is not possible to act for man without treating certain men, at certain times, as means" (189). Thus, the moral idealist tries to not act at all, to remain utterly apolitical, and to thus preserve her innocence: "It is, therefore, in the interest of the virtuous soul to abstain from action as he is concerned with keeping himself pure; at the very most will he affirm by symbolic gestures his loyalty to great principles. He will be a witness, a martyr. This is precisely the meaning of Antigone's stubbornness; but she will not get involved in struggles whose stakes she deems to be without value" (177). Yet, is Antigone's "stubbornness" not in her insistence upon acting, upon burying her brother at any cost? Beauvoir's seeing this burial as simply a symbolic gesture dismisses several key issues--why a woman, in particular, would be so deeply compelled to take responsibility for her dead kin, how completely excluded from other political options Antigone was as a woman, and also, perhaps, how valuable such "gestures," such defiant acts, can be for opening up the future possibilities of others, even after Antigone's death--all of which I will return to below.
Ultimately, Beauvoir's description of Antigone seems better suited for Ismene. Ismene is indeed unwilling to take political action, to defy the edict, though she is later willing to make the symbolic gesture of claiming the act that she did not do. Ismene pleads to Antigone to be allowed to martyr herself alongside Antigone, who, for her part, will have none of it. While the reader may sympathize with Ismene's practicality in refusing to act in the first place, there is then something pathetic and false in her desire to die at Antigone's side when she failed to live out the commitments for which Antigone gives her life. If the play makes a division between actor and non-actor, then it is between Antigone and Ismene, not Creon and Antigone, both of whom are actors. Antigone's antipathy towards Ismene is born of exactly this divide. Ismene gets involved in the issue only when her own fate--that of being left utterly alone by the deaths of her entire family-is at stake. Her willingness to die is not parallel to Antigone's, though they both feel the pull of their familial curse beaconing them to the grave. Ismene is willing to die because there is nothing left for her in life after the obliteration of all of her kin, save Creon. Her desire for death is a surrender to the powers that be, a giving up, a symbol of powerlessness and self-abandonment. Antigone's death is not a surrender but a final stand, a show-down, a last rebellion against those powers that have made her life unlivable.
The second element of the pre-feminist/feminist division of Beauvoir's work lies in the development in Beauvoir's thinking on the nature of human freedom away from the radical notions of freedom that she shared, to a certain extent, with the early Sartre. This shift involves the deepening of Beauvoir's concept of "situation" such that she comes to understand how profoundly limiting and controlling the circumstances of one's life can be. This is especially true for women who, even when "free" to make decisions about their lives, are still more or less controlled by social mythologies about what it means to be a woman and who are rewarded in the most basic ways (with love, social respectability, economic stability) for their complicity. Beauvoir's reading of Antigone in "Moral Idealism and Political Realism" is definitely still rooted in the more radical early notions of freedom that are expressed prior to The Second Sex. Sophocles's Antigone, though, if taken as a representative of a real woman in Classical Greece, was certainly living in a situation that was very far from radically free. And while, of course, Antigone was not a real woman and the play does not report on real events, I believe that the text nevertheless begs us to see Antigone as embedded in the social expectations of the time and place that both drive her passion and severely limit her options as to the expression of that passion.
The emphasis on human freedom is a defining element of French existentialism. As in the Sartre of Being and Nothingness, Beauvoir's work prior to The Second Sex tends to take freedom as relatively redical and unsituated, that is, a human potentiality that is not deterred by particular circumstances. A theory of radical human freedom would, classically, see the slave as equally free to her master, since theoretically she always has her own thoughts and can always, ultimately, choose to kill herself. While never holding quite this radical of a view, Beauvoir's notions of freedom prior to The Second Sex are still heavily rooted in the idea that freedom cannot be seriously impaired from without. As Kruks writes of Beauvoir, "in 'Moral Idealism and political Realism' (as in The Ethics of Ambiguity, which she began the following year) she not only affirms the value of freedom as what uniquely defines our humanity but tends also to claim that free, transcendent, action is possible and should be chosen in any and all circumstances" (170). For instance, Beauvoir writes in "Moral Idealism and Political Realism,": "he [every human individual] is what he makes himself be, what he choose to be. Whatever the given situation, it never necessarily implies one future or another since man's reaction to his situation is free" (180).
Later in life, Beauvoir will regret such "idealism" and "individualism" in her early work (La force 99-100). Indeed, as she comes to see when she begins writing about the lives of women, one's given situation is inseparable from one's reaction to it; one is never wholly free in relation to her situation, and some people's situations are significantly more limiting than those of others. In ancient Greece, even more than mid-twentieth century France, the situations of women were exceptionally limiting. As Josine H. Blok writes. "the principle rules concerning the relations between men and women, both in ancient and in rural modern Greece, may be summarized in a brief formula: women should not be seen, nor should they speak or be spoken of" (Blok 97). Similarly, Thucydides gives us Pericles's Funeral Oration for the Athenian war dead in 431 BCE, where he notes that if anything must be said "on the subject of female excellence" it is that the "greatest [glory] will be hers who is least talked of among the men whether for good or for bad" (273). Pericles says this just after noting the importance for men of a glorious reputation and fame even after death.
Women of ancient Greece were thus, as Hegel imagines, very much bound to the private sphere, to the oikos (household, family), and straying from it at the wrong time or too visibly was cause for social sanction (Blok 100). Blok notes, however, that along with the general rule to not be seen or heard or spoken of, there were a few specific events during which women were allowed to be present and heard in public (or "semi-public" spaces), even in the presence of men. These key times were regarding the performance of death rituals and the celebration of marriage. It was the women's duty to sing laments, to shriek and wail over the family dead (even Pericles notes this important function of women [Thucydides 265]), and marriage, as the main event in a woman's life, was made official by public celebration and ceremony (Blok 104).
It is not surprising that Sophocles has his tragedy turn on these two rites--death rituals and marriage--or that Antigone, as a representative of an ancient Greek woman, would be so fiercely protective of her role as mourner or so distressed by her thwarted role as wife. Creon's edict, which theoretically intended to posthumously punish Polyneices for his traitorous behaviour, actually served to rob Antigone and Ismene, as the closest female kin, of their legitimate and meaningful social role in mourning. As women who are allowed few other recognized and appropriate roles in wider society, few other circumstances where their voice could be publicly heard and respected, this ban could be considered a significant form of social repression for Antigone and Ismene. Ismene's pleas to Antigone to leave the matter of the burial, distressful as it is, in the hands of authority, is a clear statement about how Greek women experienced themselves in relation to power: "You ought to realize we are only women, not meant in nature to fight against men, and that we are ruled, by those who are stronger, to obedience in this and even more painful matters" (Grene 61-64). Antigone finds herself caught between competing social values; on the one hand is her familial duty to perform the death rituals for Polyneices, which entails the female right to a respected public voice, and on the other is the "virtue" of female submissiveness and obedience to masculine authority.
Antigone chooses one set of values and Ismene the other. Antigone's choice is no pure rejection of patriarchal power, however, as her decision to sacrifice the living (herself and Ismene, who is left alone and devastated) on behalf of the dead reflects the social values that make brothers more important than sisters, men in general more significant than women. This duty of performing death rituals is part of how the women share in the worth of the men who are able to gain respected reputations, fame, and social importance. Thus, while Antigone challenges patriarchal power in refusing to follow Creon's edict, she also reinforces it by abandoning Ismene and sacrificing herself for her brother's sake. But, I believe, it is not simply for his sake. Her passion for this duty is also an assertion of the value of women's role in carrying out the death rites and a declaration of the necessity of Antigone's freedom to do so, where lacking that freedom is an outright oppression. Antigone's desire to "shout it out," to "proclaim it, to everyone," against Ismene's wishes to keep the illicit burial silent, reveal that the act is not simply for her brother's sake, in which case the silence would be insignificant, but is also meant as a public statement of refusal of the edict (Grene 86-87).
Both Beauvoir and Nussbaum see Antigone's fault as rooted in the rigid, narrow field of values that she recognizes. For Nussbaum, the play teaches, through Haemon and Teiresias in particular, that what we need is "a practical wisdom that bends responsively to the shape of the natural world, accommodating itself to, giving due recognition to, its complexities" (80). Beauvoir, in "Moral Idealism and Political Realism " would agree; a sustainable ethics would have to recognize the necessity of compromise and the complexity of conflict, the impossibility of moral purity, and the obligation to act in imperfect circumstances. Yet, in the face of Creon's absolutist rule, what compromise, what "bending" is possible? In reply to absolutism, Antigone can only respond through absolute resignation to the edict (as Ismene does), or in absolute defiance of it. As Griffith writes, "the choices for a female subject in this play are thus limited indeed: speak out, take action--and die in isolation; or keep your place indoors, in silence, in subjection, so that men may continue their misrule" (Sophocles 54).
Under oppressive circumstances, Antigone's refusal to follow the edict is precisely a refusal to grant Creon the right to maintain such absolutist rule. Rebellion was her only means of acting at all, which is the defining nature of being oppressed for Beauvoir, writing in The Ethics of Ambiguity: "As for us [existentialists], we do not believe in a literal necessity [for freedom] but in a moral exigence; the oppressed can fulfill his freedom as a man only in revolt, since the essential characteristic of the situation against which he is rebelling is precisely its prohibiting him from any positive development" (87). Where no compromise is possible between Antigone and the masculine law, the compromise must be between Antigone's desire to act out against the illegitimacy of the law that denies her freedom and her ability to continue living, to marry Haemon, and gain the normal goods of a Greek wife and mother.
Indeed, Antigone makes a terrible compromise, one which she openly laments onher way to death in a sad parody of the laments she was unable to openly sing for her brother. Antigone's death by suicide is both a final act of rebellion, the act of an agent who refuses the death sentence she was given and at least chooses her own moment and method, and also a depressing expression of powerlessness and subjection to the mistakes of men, like the suicides of Jocasta and Eurydice. Locked away and out of sight, the women in this cursed family kill themselves, with the exception of Ismene, who perhaps dreams of death but lacks the will to seek it, while the men who drive the family tragedy remain in the public eye, admonished, but still in control.
Antigone is no faultless heroine. She is rigid; she discards her sister, her betrothed, and even her own life to fight a loosing battle with oppressive power. Yet, it is precisely in these imperfect compromises, these horrifying sacrifices, that Antigone comes to look a good deal more like a representative of Beauvoir's vision of true ethico-political engagement in the world than Beauvoir herself theorized. If we see Antigone's actions not as apolitical or anti-political, but instead as acts of rebellion against political injustice, acts of revolt against Creon's valuation of the state over the individuals who comprise it, then Antigone ceases to be a model of political quietism or absolutist moral purity. Perhaps the sacrifices that Antigone made were too extreme; however, if we understand her actions as an assertion of her right to freedom, her right to perform one of the few publicly praised functions that women are allowed, her right to publicly protest injustice, then we can see that Antigone's passion was about something more basic and more important than just a duty to her brother or the performance of a specific religious ritual. Rebellion, even at great risk, is reasonable when it is in opposition to an oppression that acts against our very humanity. Or, in other words, while ethics and politics are ideally united in ethical political practices, they also come together through political rebellion against unethical practices. As a woman, Antigone did not have the option to change the political practices of her state; in her fight for both moral and political justice her only option was revolt.
Beauvoir writes in "Moral Idealism and Political Realism" that revolt is not simply meant to achieve a specific concrete result, for example, gaining bread for the proletariat, but is itself a vital expression of the human right to have bread. "For this reason it is not absurd that a man is willing to risk his life in a strike, or in war, in order to maintain or gain a certain standard of living" (183). The political realist, who cares only for the ends and not the means, will never understand such rebellion. The realist, dedicated to the objective necessity and inevitability of his plans, will also tend to forget the power and possibility of refusal, a fault of Creon's as well as
the German Nazis' (181). Totalitarian regimes, bent on the limitation or even annihilation of individual freedom, will make such refusal difficult and costly while also insisting upon its insignificance. Yet, such rebellion, even in the harshest and riskiest of circumstances, will still sometimes arise, and though it may not benefit the rebel herself, her actions can potentially act as a beacon of hope and possibility in dark times.
If we read Antigone as just such a political rebel, then she can no longer be a representative of war-era French pacifism and quietism, as Beauvoir suggests. She is more like the character Helene from Beauvoir's 1945 novel The Blood of Others, a young woman who dies working for the French Resistance after realizing that "one could accept to risk death so that life should keep some meaning" (232). Beauvoir suggests that the true moralist, as opposed to the "moral idealist," must "come down to earth," must accept the imperfection of action and act nevertheless. She writes, "To come down to earth means accepting defilement, failure, horror; it means admitting that it is impossible to save everything; and what is lost is lost forever" ("Moral" 190). Though Beauvoir did not see it this way, I believe that this is precisely the sense of Antigone's rebellion; it is a painful renunciation of her future life for the sake of insisting upon the value of that life and the necessity of freedom from oppression.
Thus, Antigone ought not to be seen as a representation of absolutist ethics, where such ethics are opposed to politics and action. Instead, she embodies the very struggle to unite the two realms, the insistence on making politics an ethical practice and the use of political activism to create moral change in a corrupt regime. This is why Antigone is so much more captivating than Creon, because her motivations are more complex and more about basic human needs: freedom, the right to a public voice, the right to stand against oppression and injustice. Where Creon either ignores ethics or reduces it to politics (such that all "goodness" comes to refer to "good for maintaining the power of the state"), Antigone's life and death revolve around a refusal to separate the practical and the useful from the moral and the just. Thus is the nature of political activism that is bent on the expansion of human rights and the extension of human dignity. No political quietist, Antigone is a charter member of the small human community that is "la Resistance," wherever it pops up in the history of human civilization.
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AMY E. STORY is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio. She teaches and researches in the fields of Continental philosophy, feminist theory, and ethics.
This essay examines Simone de Beauvoir's reading of Antigone in "Moral Idealism and Political Realism." I argue that Beauvoir's reading of the play is inadequate because it does not take into account the constraints Antigone faces as a woman in her time and place. I offer a reading that accounts for gender in ways that Beauvoir might have done later in her career.