Questions of Antigone
What is Antigone, in the Phenomenology of Spirit, doing for Hegel? What point does the tragedy help to articulate? Essentially, Antigone serves to illustrate the dissolution of the Ethical World, the Sittlichkeit of ancient Greece, the first manifestation of Spirit proper. But how exactly does this work? When we unpack the role of Antigone in the Phenomenology questions and ambiguities emerge. Does Hegel choose sides in the conflict between Antigone and Creon? Is Antigone an individual? Is she like the slave? These questions, which arise in close connection to one another, must be answered if we are to thoroughly examine the contribution Antigone makes to the Phenomenology. The answers to these questions might be no, and they might even stem from mistaken interpretation, but that is far from obvious, especially to the uninitiated reader of Hegel. Articulating how such questions emerge and interrelate will help us to illuminate Spirit’s movement through the Ethical World.
In order to ground an unpacking of the role Antigone takes on in the Phenomenology and anchor the questions that subsequently arise, we can sketch the primary reason Hegel is discussing ancient Greece in the first place. The reason is that, for Hegel, in order to get a perspective on modernity, it is necessary to contrast modern culture with another culture. His selection of ancient Greece as this culture of contrast is based, at least partially, on a specific conception of modernity. There is a problem of alienation, Hegel thinks, due to the subjection of human nature to the imperatives of reason. Here freedom comes by way of self alienation. Hegel’s conception of the Ethical World of ancient Greece, on the other hand, is diametrically opposed to this modern culture of disunity. In Sittlichkeit there is a harmony between reason and nature, a unity between substance and self. Hegel writes: ...this existent unchangeable essence is the expression of the very individuality which seems opposed to it; the laws proclaim what each individual is and does; the individual knows them not only as his universal objective thinghood, but equally knows himself in them, or knows them as particularized in his own individuality, and in each of his fellow citizens . In the universal Spirit, therefore, each of us has only the certainty of himself, of finding in the actual world noting but himself; he is as certain of the others as he is of himself.
Thus, by setting up this cultural contrast, Hegel thinks a true perspective of human spirit can be had. Stern explains, “Hegel (like many of his contemporaries) saw the life of the citizen in fifth-century Athens as a model for the sort of harmony and reconciliation he thought a proper understanding of the self and the world might provide”. For Hegel there is something to be learned here, in how Spirit succeeds in finding itself at home in the world and why the ancient instance of this success had to collapse.
With this context in mind we can now investigate Hegel’s presentation of the Ethical World and thus be in a position to examine Antigone’s place in it. According to Hegel, the state of equilibrium that constitutes this world is provided by a reciprocal and complementary relationship between two ethical spheres: Divine Law and Human Law. The former ethical sphere, the family sphere of home and private life and, as such, the female domain, encompasses the rights and traditions of consanguinity. In this way it is natural and immediate. Meanwhile, the ethical sphere of Human Law resides in the public community. Its “validity is openly apparent” and has “its real vitality in government”. This is state law, universal and reflective insofar as it is written law and, as such, the domain of men. Hegel describes their harmony and mutual dependence:
The husband is sent out by the Spirit of the Family into the community in which he finds his...
Cited: Stephen Houlgate, Hegel and the Arts (Northwestern University Press: 2007).
A.V Miller, trans., Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford University Press, 1977).
Robert Stern, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Hegel and the Phenomenology of Spirit (Routledge: 2002).
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