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Impossible Mourning: Sophocles Reversed

Focusing on the way in which sexual difference is articulated in Sophocles’ Antigone, I offer a reading that reverses the dialectic most commonly ascribed to the play. While most interlocutors of this classic tragedy connects its heroine to divine law and the private realm and see Creon as a representative of human law and politics, I trace what I call a Sophoclean reversal at the core of the play, suggesting that, through a series of negations and contaminations, things are the opposite of what they seem to be. Using Hannah Arendt’s distinction between the private and public realms as my main point of departure, I show how such a reading (contrary to what most people have suggested) parallels that of Hegel, thus offering a defense and deepening of his controversial claim that woman is the “everlasting irony” and “internal enemy” of the community. But while Arendt is full of praise for the Greek polis, Hegel, I argue, reveals the internal contradiction and inherent impossibility of a society whose foundation is the exclusion of women altogether. Such a society, just like Antigone, is an anti seed: it carries within it the necessity of its own downfall.


In ancient Greece, Arendt finds a model that distinguishes between the oikia and the polis. Although most readers of the Antigone have remarked that Creon acts like a tyrant, he is nevertheless associated with thepolis. This, I argue, is a contradiction in terms. Following Arendt, we know that the very distinction between ruler and ruled belongs to the private realm. Creon rules over Thebes as a father rules over his family. His name, kreion, means ruler or lord, derived from kratos, which means power or strength. The name indicates that his power is different from the Arendtian notion of power. It is based on strength rather than plurality. It is not the empowering power of many, but the violence of one. He has, moreover, gained his kingship by virtue of kinship—his power is based on familial bonds of blood rather than on speech and deeds. Creon, the king, who has inherited power through kinship, cannot simply be equated with the Athenian polis as we know it. He rather belongs to a pre-political sphere, to the time of warlike deeds of the Homeric kings.


In my view Antigone, not Creon, is the representative of the new order. She acts like the hero Arendt associates with the public sphere. Faithful to divine law, while transgressing Creon’s decree, she draws the clear distinction between private and public that would come to characterize and be the very foundation of thepolis. She refuses to let the ruler interfere with private matters like grief and mourning. And she refuses to let the city be run as a household. By transgressing the law she sets a new standard for lawmaking. She breaks with history, is a new beginning. She introduces a new model of the political, a model based on speech and action.


The main problem that we run in to when comparing Antigone with Arendt’s political actor is the fact that she acts alone. For Arendt, action is dependent on human plurality. To address this problem, we must consider the question of sexual difference. To belong to the polis meant neither to rule nor to be ruled: “The polis was distinguished from the household in that it knew only ‘equals,’ whereas the household was the center of the strictest inequality,” Arendt writes. What she (problematically) avoids to address is that the household inhabited men, women and slaves, while the polis allowed for free men only. Antigone, therefore, not only transgresses the royal law, she enters into a sphere, which exists solely through her very exclusion from it. In this sense, my reading of the Antigone ultimately addresses a blind spot at the very core of Arendt’s thinking. What does one do with an anomaly like Antigone? How does one account for the feminine aspects of political life? Judith Butler has argued that what Arendt failed to give an account for in The Human Condition was “precisely the way in which the boundaries of the public and the political sphere were secured through the production of a constitutive outside.” Woman is this outside. But as a constitutive outside she paradoxically also finds herself at the very heart of what is inside. The polis would not exist without her. The polis can only exist without her. It is this problem that I want to address, as I establish a dialogue between Sophocles and Arendt, using Hegel as their interlocutor.