Patricia M. Lines*
[From HUMANITAS, Volume XII, No. 1, 1999 ©
Some theorists define politics as who gets what, when and how. Alasdair
MacIntyre defines it as "civil war carried on by other means." I prefer
a more hopeful definition, and lean toward Michael Oakeshott’s definition
as "attending to arrangements." Or, Claes Ryn’s definition—"the peaceful
settlement of disputes"—especially since Ryn correlates politics at its
best with community. Such an emphasis would require the student of politics
to examine not just who gets what, but how individuals arrange things,
and how each takes into consideration the others who are trying to do the
At the very least, the peaceful conduct of affairs would require some
sort of agreement on the rules. To get that agreement without actual violence,
participants might still use threats based on superior power (natural or
supernatural), although eventually a challenge may require executing the
threat. Peaceful arrangements could also depend on deceit, bribes, persuasion
and an endless variety of human tricks. The goal is to obtain sufficient
agreement among enough of the individuals subject to the arrangements to
give the rules stability. This is true even for political regimes based
on some principle other than consent of the governed. Failure leads to
chaos, rebellion, war or permanent and physical separation of contending
How to attend to these arrangements and rearrangements? One choice is
simply to vote, but the time-honored distrust of the tyranny of the majority
would require something more. Ideally, the political community follows
the advice of the wisest. But who is wisest? Who decides who is wisest?
Which decisions the wisest are to decide, which are for individuals, which
should be left to habit or custom? The difficulty in answering such questions
has led many thinkers to identify deliberation as essential to the political
process. Political deliberation requires listening and persuading, engaging
and being engaged. Success depends, above all, on compromise. That is,
it requires yielding here and there to the opposition, and winning some
concession here and there in return.
The greatest obstacle to this kind of deliberation is hubris. It should
be no surprise that the first to become aware of politics and identify
it as a discipline—the Greeks—were also the first to worry about hubris.
As Hannah Arendt reminds us, hubris has a corresponding virtue:
the old virtue of moderation, of keeping within bounds, is indeed one
of the political virtues par excellence, just as the political temptation
par excellence is indeed hubris (as the Greeks, fully experienced in the
potentialities of action, knew so well) and not the will to power, as we
are inclined to believe.
Implicit in Arendt’s analysis, and in that of the Greeks, is the notion
that politics is the peaceful tending to arrangements. For those who prefer
to take a cynical view, the will to power is both the chief political virtue
and the chief political vice. Those who take such a view need not worry
about the qualities that allow one to engage in deliberation with others.
For those who take the view adopted here, there is still much to be learned
from the Greeks.
Just as no one among the Greeks stated the case for moderation better
than Aristotle, no one stated the case against hubris better than Sophocles.
One might object that Sophocles did not have politics in mind, and that
he presented only legendary familiar relationships. This would be selling
Sophocles short, and it fails to understand how pervasive politics can
be. Within the family and the clan much human action may appear to lie
outside politics. This is because such communities enjoy close and implicit
agreement on basic premises and how they apply to most of the community’s
routine. The basic arrangements are often invisible to the outsider. For
the most part, tradition and habit prescribe the action the community should
take. But even families and clans engage in politics. New circumstances
can challenge even the most insular and tradition-bound peoples. External
threats may require new or modified arrangements; new decisions must be
taken. Factions spring up, discussion takes place, and politics emerges,
albeit on a small scale. Even so-called primitive tribes have tribal councils
and engage in extended and serious political discourse when faced with
a new problem. In larger democratic communities—those harboring individuals
who differ in their fundamental approaches to living together—political
discourse becomes yet more necessary, as well as more complex and more
Sophocles, as I have said, was concerned with the political vice of
hubris. Oedipus Rex provides the most familiar example. Upon hearing the
Delphic prophecy of patricide and incest, the well-intentioned Oedipus
took radical steps to thwart fate—fleeing his parents and his home in Corinth.
He did well on his own in the world. Strong and cunning, he proved himself
many times, most of all when he solved the riddle of the Sphinx and saved
Thebes. After Oedipus became King of Thebes, Delphi spoke again, suggesting
that the only way to end a severe blight plaguing Thebes was to avenge
the murder of the former king, Laius. With god-like certainty Oedipus set
out to find the murderer and mete out justice.
The question of who murdered Laius fades to insignificance as Oedipus’s
search for truth unearths a history he never suspected, and would never
want to know. The audience and all the other characters in the play, even
the blind Teiresias, see the appalling truth long before the proud and
cunning Oedipus. Creon exclaims, "I can see you are blind to truth." His
mother-wife Jocasta cries, "My poor child! Those are the only words I shall
ever have for you." No one has mastered dramatic irony better than Sophocles.
Two frightened servants at last yield the pieces of the puzzle to Oedipus.
The former Theban king, Laius, and his queen, Jocasta, also hoping to avoid
the Delphic prophecy, had abandoned their infant to die. A shepherd had
rescued the child and sent him to Corinth. Oedipus killed a stranger on
the highway; most likely, this was Laius. Unaware of his kinship, Oedipus
claimed the widowed queen, Jocasta, as his wife. Oedipus the King believed
that he could simply discover who killed Laius and mete out appropriate
justice. Hubris blinds him. When at last he sees the truth, he wishes only
to be blind again.
What is Sophocles up to here? An astute and early critic provides clues.
According to Aristotle, tragedy requires, among other things, a character
whom we admire greatly, but who possesses a flaw—hamartia, or some error
in judgment. He falls from happiness into misery as the play progresses
through what is sometimes translated as "serious action," action which
is complete, noble, and poetical. The total effect invokes dismay and horror.
In the end comes the anagnorisis: the recognition or uncovering of the
error. In the naive form, a hero or heroine recognizes a person or thing
previously mistaken in identity, through some scar or mark or other sign.
Iphegenia, for example, recognizes her brother as she is about to sacrifice
him to the gods.
In the more profound form of tragedy, the hero recognizes the flaw in
himself and faces it. Oedipus Rex inspired Aristotle’s theory of tragedy
and exemplifies it perfectly. On seeing the truth, Oedipus gouges out his
eyes. The audience participates in the catharsis that follows. The human
spirit prevails over the horror, accepts the truth and clings to a more
humble bargain with fate. Oedipus gives up his determination to set the
world straight and accepts fate, retaining his noble qualities despite
the blows of bad fortune. The final irony may be the triumph of Oedipus
over fate itself, although not in a way he ever imagined. We see him again,
through Sophocles’s eyes, in Oedipus at Colonus where he lives his last
years in the company of a loving daughter and dies a good death.
Antigone does not seem to fit the Aristotelian formula. Aristotle himself
did not seem to know what to make of it. In the Poetica’s sole reference
to the play Aristotle offers Antigone as an example of a poor plot for
a tragedy. The least tragic plot, he avers, involves a character who resolves
to do a fearful deed and does not do it. His example is Haemon who seems
ready to slay his father, Creon, and does not. This may be one of those
rare cases where Aristotle misses the point. First, after more than two
millennia of experience with drama, one can imagine a situation where delay
in doing the dread deed makes the tragedy. Nor is it clear that Haemon
had resolved to kill his father; his veiled threat may have been to kill
himself, an action which he finally takes. Most important, the conflict
between Haemon and his father does not stir our emotions as much as the
conflict swirling around Antigone.
The play strikes us as a fine one—Hegel thought it was the supreme example
of tragedy, prompting him to pose a different theory for the form. Hegel
sees a dialectical clash between two ideals of justice. A noble and wise
Antigone fights for the justice of traditional belief, while a tyrannical
Creon fights for a right based on might. Irving Babbitt has suggested a
more subtle variation of dialectic theory, hailing Antigone as the "perfect
example of the ethical imagination" in contrast to her sister, Ismene,
who knows merely "the law of the community." Both Antigone and Ismene are
ethical, but Ismene lacks ethical imagination. As Babbitt sees it:
This law, the convention of a particular place and time, is always
but a very imperfect image, a mere shadow indeed of the unwritten law which
being above the ordinary rational level is . . . infinite and incapable
of final formulation.
While such interpretations no doubt are true—with each uncovering layers
of meaning—alone they reduce Antigone to a morality play. Such interpretations
fail to explain the play’s more complex and turbulent moods.
So what drives the dramatic tension in Antigone? Consider the story
anew: The two sons of Oedipus had shared the throne, alternating years
as ruler. When Eteocles refused to turn over power at the end of his year,
Polyneices attacked the city. The brothers died in single combat. Creon,
their uncle, now king of Thebes, buried Eteocles with full honors as defender
of the city. He left the body of Polyneices to rot, unmourned, outside
the gates and decreed death to anyone who would honor the traitor with
a burial. In the first lines of the play, Antigone has resolved to defy
Creon’s decree. She has invited her sister to join her. Ismene has declined,
recalling the family history of tragic defiance of both fate and lawful
order. The stage is set.
Alone, Antigone slips out and scatters funeral oil and earth over her
brother’s body. Creon discovers the violation of his decree, and carries
out its terms with one concession to Antigone’s position as member of the
royal family. He does not execute her forthwith, but walls her up in a
cave, to let the gods dispose of her as they will.
In minor eddies within the play, the Aristotelian formula applies—especially
to Creon, usually judged to be excessively harsh. Possibly, it also applies
to Ismene, who may seem excessively timid. Both are noble and both are
flawed. Both reach a moment of truth and change course. Ismene wishes to
stand by her sister’s side in death. Creon softens his hard rule. But the
play is not their story; Sophocles named the work Antigone. Antigone stands
noblest and most heroic among all the characters, defiant of man’s rule
and insisting on God’s justice. It is to her that we should look for the
chief elements of the tragedy. And, if the Aristotelian formula applies,
we must search for Antigone’s flaw.
The suggestion that Sophocles intended to present a flawed Antigone
rubs against the grain. She is the paragon. The religion of the Greeks,
like virtually all religions, required burial of the dead—even the enemy
dead. The ancient tales in the Iliad, the bible to the Greeks, warn of
the anger of the gods upon a failure to honor the dead. Besides, the restless
shades of the unburied could cause trouble. Antigone stands for all that
is right and for opposition to tyranny. Thus, we have only a play about
Creon’s excessive harshness and his tragically delayed conversion. Yet,
Sophocles provides a fair amount of evidence that he intended to create
something more complex than a morality play.
Consider first the parallels between Antigone and Oedipus Rex. Both
stories begin with a problem facing family and polis, and with the central
character resolving to make things right. Antigone proceeds with unswerving
resolution in her judgement of the situation. She possesses complete confidence
in her ability to choose and execute a just action. She does not see the
full situation; she is blind to key elements of the problem. She is like
her father in most respects. Both Antigone and Oedipus claim to know justice
with the certainty of a god. Oedipus believes most in his cunning and strength,
Antigone in her goodness.
The flaw of hubris is easy to spot in Oedipus, but Antigone’s brilliance
is so dazzling that we overlook her flaw. After all, she has formulated
a great and noble truth and maintains it with courage. She asserts God’s
law over man’s law. Especially in our own time, where we formally recognize
the superiority, within specified spheres, of individual right over the
demands of overly broad laws, Antigone seems a genius beyond her time.
Creon, by contrast, understands the needs of the polis. Following a
civil war, he has placed a premium on order. He will do whatever is necessary,
including the stern enforcement of harsh rules. He faces another dilemma
in his role as leader: he forbade the burial of Polyneices and decreed
this harsh punishment before he was aware of Antigone’s guilt. To pardon
his future daughter-in-law as his first serious act as ruler of Thebes
would compromise all future claims to fairness in his rule. Yet Creon listens
to the chorus of old men; he listens to the blind seer. After struggling
with the issue, he reconsiders his judgment; he determines to bury the
body of Polyneices and to unbury Antigone with his own hands.
Antigone, on the other hand, recognizes the demands of true justice
and champions it. She spurns Ismene, who initially hesitated to assist
her but soon after wished to share in her sister’s punishment and death.
Antigone refuses the offer. When Ismene asks whether her sister has cast
her aside, Antigone’s answer ignores Ismene’s change of heart: "Yes. For
you chose to live when I chose death." Antigone seems to speak not to spare
Ismene, but to wound her to the quick. Antigone leaves Haemon, her betrothed,
in the cold, as she left Ismene. She never seeks him out, nor even mentions
his name.1 Yet Haemon is ready to
defy his father for Antigone’s sake, and he refuses to live without her.
Ironically, this may be what he must do to win her affection, for Antigone
reveals no tenderness for anyone except those already dead.
Despite the solicitous love of Ismene and the fierce love of Haemon,
Antigone complains of being alone and friendless:
I call upon Thebes’ grove in the armored plain, to be my witnesses,
how with no friend’s mourning, by what decree I go to the fresh-made prison-tomb.
She compares her fate to Niobe’s—alluding to the stone image weeping on
a cliff near Thebes. Significantly, Antigone overlooks the fact that hubris
destroyed Niobe. Niobe had boasted that her six (in some versions seven)
sons and six (or seven) daughters made her the equal of the goddess Leto,
mother of Apollo and Artemis. Apollo and Artemis took offense on hearing
of this interesting assertion of quantity over quality. They resolved the
issue by killing the hapless children and turning Niobe to stone.
The chorus, often the truth-sayer for Sophocles, provides more clues.
Of Antigone, they tell us:
The girl is bitter. She’s her father’s child.
In perhaps the most revealing exchange, the chorus turns to Antigone and
tells her, plainly:
She cannot yield to trouble; nor could he.
You showed respect for the dead.
The last line is key: "se d autognwtoV wles orga."
The above quotation is from Wyckoff’s translation. But all translations
seem to head in the same direction: "A self-determined impulse hath undone
thee" (Campbell). "You were self-willed. That has been your undoing" (Townsend).
"And thee, thy stubborn mood, self-chosen, layeth low" (students of the
University of Notre Dame, 1983). In any translation, it seems the chorus
has identified Antigone’s flaw. She follows a truth that springs only from
her self: It is autognwtoV, or autognotos. She
will not consult with others. We could call it self-certainty or, perhaps
even better, self-righteousness. It is a form of hubris.
So we for you: but power
is not to be thwarted so.
Your self-sufficiency has brought you down.
At another point, the chorus tells Antigone she is autonomos. Literally,
this means "a law unto yourself." The English word autonomy does not convey
quite the right meaning, as individual autonomy was a condition the Greeks
viewed with discomfort and suspicion. The autonomous being is either beast
or god, living only within the horizons of its own laws. Most English translators
of Antigone do not choose to place unfavorable connotations on the word.
They tend to choose softer terms to describe the self-certain heroine.
The best rendering is probably from Wyckoff, who translates it as "of your
own motion you go." Antigone is the lone individual, refusing to sway or
be swayed by any in the community. She is autognotos and autonomos. For
Antigone, both knowledge and judgment are an individual affair.
Rather than see any flaw or limitation in her own understanding, Antigone
only becomes more extreme in her certainty. Those who would make her a
saint should reconsider her lack of perspective:
And yet the wise will know my choice was right.
Antigone has a single mission which excludes all else. She is also fully
Had I had children or their father dead,
I’d let them moulder. I should not have chosen
in such a case to cross the state’s decree.
What is the law that lies behind these words?
One husband gone, I might have found another,
or a child from a new man in the first child’s place,
but with my parents hid away in death,
no brother, ever, could spring up for me.
Look, leaders of Thebes,
These final words deny the existence of the still-living Ismene.
I am the last of your royal line.
The movement of the drama follows that of Oedipus Rex with respect to
most elements of the Aristotelian formulae. It deviates only in the continued
blindness of Antigone. The stage shifts to Creon, who also suffers from
hubris, or self-certainty, but who sees his error. It is difficult to identify
any such clear moment of truth for Antigone. Or perhaps hamartia is not
a key element of the Greek tragedy. Aristotle spoke of it only rarely (book
13: 1453a, 10, 16); nor did he emphasize the discovery of the error. On
the other hand, the lyrical playwright Maxwell Anderson believes the notion
is essentially correct; he believes one can find a recognition scene, if
ever so subtle, "in the plays we choose to remember." Perhaps the Aristotelian
formula can encompass a shift from one character to another. Or perhaps
Antigone’s moment comes in these words as she nears her end:
No marriage-bed, no marriage song for me,
She begins to understand that she has fallen victim to her own hubris.
She hints at the possibility that she may be wrong in some way.
and since no wedding, so no child to rear.
One must acknowledge, however, that she dismisses the idea at once.
She ends on a harsh and vengeful note:
But if it is the others who are wrong
Our last view of her on stage comes as her guards lead her away. The chorus
reminds her of three examples in which those imprisoned within the earth
forbeared and ultimately survived their rocky prisons. She will pay no
attention to their advice. Neither forbearance nor the ability to take
advice is among her virtues.
I wish them no greater punishment than mine.
Sophocles has told the story of both father and daughter, and more than
once the chorus compares the two, in particular, their temper, their stubbornness,
and their individuality. Both are strong; both self-certain. Both stories
construct similar tensions—between rival claims of justice; between individual
and familial claims and the needs of the polis; between human striving
and human weakness; between human individual conscience and human communal
judgment; between seeing and blindness.
Sophocles created works that balance tensions in many dimensions. Each
drama is different, of course. The tragedy of Oedipus seems unavoidable.
Political deliberation would not have helped him much; the drama serves
only to reveal the extent to which hubris can blind one to the truth. Antigone,
on the other hand, might have avoided her tragic fate had she paid attention
to and entered into discussion with others. To remain tragic, her story
depended on a weak and inadequate recognition of her own failing.
While they plainly ask "what is justice?," the tragedies of Sophocles
also ask the yet more difficult question, "how do we know it?" If Sophocles
is right, there is something to learn from Antigone’s fate. When it comes
to seeing the issues surrounding our understanding of justice, Creon may
have something to offer after all. He believes justice requires him to
give priority to the order of the polis, overruling individual judgments
based on conscience. He believes in equal application of the laws, with
no exceptions for the royal family. He is at least partly wrong, by the
judgment of most. Yet, he is ready to discuss the issue, to listen, to
question, to entertain self-doubt. Although he believes that in a time
of emergency the order of the polis may require harsh punishment for those
who create disturbance, he is willing to reconsider. He listens to the
chorus, to Teiresias, to others; and, although he seems adamant at times,
he changes his mind. With his own hands he will unearth Antigone and bury
the body of Polyneices.
Antigone, on the other hand, has found a higher justice. Most commentators
agree that she is right. But she will not discuss her judgment; she remains
unyielding. She never doubts the wisdom of her course. She isolates herself.
She acts under the illusion that only she is able to grasp the meaning
of higher justice. She can only conclude that she does not belong in this
world, which so misunderstands the nature of right action.
Antigone’s self-certainty and self-isolation cut short all possibilities
for full deliberation. Yet full deliberation was needed to persuade Creon
to change his mind. Had Antigone not isolated herself from her sister,
Ismene would have stood by her side. Had she sought out Haemon, she would
have had another ally. It seems likely that Eurydice, Haemon’s mother and
Creon’s wife, would have joined the children’s revolt. She did register
her objection to events in the end, through suicide. Had Antigone been
ready to engage in politics, Creon would find himself facing the open opposition
of all whom he loved. He has the capacity, as we know from his actions
in the play, to yield.
Antigone’s belief that she and only she understood justice and how it
must apply in the particular situation before her left her with no choice
but martyrdom. If she had only some portion of self-doubt, she may have
waited just a few moments before her suicide. In that event, Haemon would
have rescued her. Had she waited a few moments more, Creon would have done
so. A happy ending required her to consider the position of others, to
adjust to their views, and to hold her individual judgment of justice with
some humility. It required an Antigone who could anticipate the gradual
acceptance of her position by those around her. Her self-certainty brought
If all human beings suffer from short-sightedness, there is no certain
source for a human grasp of truth. The best humans can do is to share insights
in the hope of gaining a larger view of truth. The search for truth requires
to talk and consult with others, even such as come short . . . in capacity,
quickness and penetration; for . . . no one sees all and we generally have
different prospects of the same thing according to our different . . .
positions to it.2
It is no accident that the author of these words, John Locke, was a leading
advocate of government by consent. His remarks formalize the idea that
mutual consultation is needed before formulating a vision of justice and
choosing the right action for each particular case.
Antigone’s flaw—the flaw of self-certainty—is the chief obstacle to
this kind of deliberation. I probably do not need to draw attention to
the fact that politics in our time suffers from the same flaw. True believers,
religious or secular, seek to replace deliberative politics with eternal
principles. Such persons admit of just one right answer. Premises are beyond
questioning. Defining political questions as exclusively governed by immutable
principles of right eliminates all need for further, often troublesome
debate. Only the process of arriving at conclusions—whether the right principle
was applied—can be questioned.
It is easy to spot Antigone’s flaw in the character of an antagonist
one believes to be dead wrong. The rational mind easily identifies religious
fundamentalists as blinded by self-righteousness. This same rational thinker
may fail to perceive his own blind spots. Antigone’s flaw has a subtle
quality. She has indeed discovered a great truth. We must agree with her.
We must admire her. We identify with her.
Her story reminds us, however, of how difficult it is to recognize hubris
in our heroes or in ourselves. Upon the discovery of a certain truth, there
is a great temptation to believe one has access to all truth. To say it
in traditional religious terms, it is a weakness of human beings to believe
that, once they have access to one of God’s truths, they know the full
mind of God. From here it becomes ever so easy to mistake one’s own will
for the will of God.
Most true believers tend to enlarge their premises, leaving little to
deduction. If one has determined that a particular action, and only that
action, is the right thing to do, there is no choice but to take it, or
to enter the realm of the immoral. Action based on such unquestioned belief
lies beyond the realm of politics. I once suggested to a participant in
what might be described as secular and left-leaning politics that a few
leaders from that person’s organization hold a quiet, unpublicized retreat
with selected leaders who are religious and right-leaning on an issue of
common concern: the public school curriculum. The response was, "Whatever
for?!" If I understand Sophocles correctly, such abrupt closing of the
opportunity for conversation could lead to a contemporary tragedy.
If an individual as brilliant and noble as Antigone can succumb to hubris,
anyone can. Antigone pursued goodness with a singular insight and courage.
Discovering a flaw in a near-perfect character suggests a universal human
weakness. Antigone’s flaw is a special kind of hubris that afflicts those
who possess the greatest insights. Political modesty requires a recognition
that one individual or group alone is likely to come up short in the search
for truth: "something is left out which should go into the reckoning .
. . ." No one knows the whole truth, although each may know a part of it.
All human beings are "shortsighted and very often see but one side of a
matter . . . . From this defect . . . no man is free. We see but in part
and we know but in part, and therefore it is no wonder we conclude not
right from our partial views."3
Antigone’s flaw may be the plague of our times.
*Patricia M. Lines, former Director of the Law and
Education Center at the Education Commission of the States, is a Senior
Fellow at the Discovery Institute and a Research Associate at the U.S.
Department of Education's National Institute of Student Achievement. [Back]
1 There is one line that some translators, such as Townsend,
attribute to Antigone that mentions Haemon, perhaps to soften her one-sidedness.
line 572: "Poor Haemon! See how much your father cares." Wyckoff notes,
however, that all extant Greek sources give the line to Ismene. Creon responds
to the comment with a reference to "your marriage" which provides some
argument for attributing the line to Antigone, but, as Wyckoff points out,
Creon’s remark could mean "the marriage of which you speak." Wyckoff ed.,
2 John Locke, Of the Conduct of the Understanding
§ 3 (iii) .[Back]
3 Of the Conduct of the Understanding §
3 (iii). [Back]
Copyright © 2010 NATIONAL HUMANITIES
Updated 29 July 2010