Antigone: Sacrifice and Justice

The last of Sophocles’ Theban Plays  is Antigone, which was not written as part of the same set as Oedipus the King or Oedipus at Colonus, but is a good fit. Antigone is one of two daughters of Oedipus who comes into conflict with Creon, the brother of Oedipus’ wife (and mother) Jocasta. Her two brothers Polyneices and Eteocles have fought over the rule of Thebes, which led Polyneices to besiege the city to take it from Eteocles. Both die in the battle, but Creon who now takes power, has very different ideas about what it to be done wit the corpses of the two brothers. Eteocles was ruling the city, was therefore guarding it against Polyneices, and Eteocles orders an honourable funeral for him. Since Polyneices was the invader of the city, he is counted as an enemy by Creon, who commands that the body of Polyneices should be left on the battlefield, unburied and unmourned. The idea produces complete horror for Antigone,whose sister Ismeme is also horrified but less willing to take action though in the end wishing to share Antigone’s sacrifice.

Antigone takes the decision to resist Creon, and insists on burying Polyneices. The act is something that brings her into a sharp conflict between familial duty based  on divine law, and the commands of the sovereign. Leaving Polyneices unburied means that he becomes part of nature, as vultures and wild dogs will feed on him. There is an exclusion from human community and for Antigone a horror at the thought of her brother’s body decaying in the wild. Antigone is not yet married, and is clearly not at all experienced in intimate relations, as would have been expected of a woman of her standing. She is the daughter of incest, and there is a hint of improper desire in her attitude to her brother’s body.

Her repeated disobedience to Creon leads to entombment while still live, so that she becomes someone on the border of life and death. Oedipus crossed boundaries, killing  a man at the crossroads in the woods outside Thebes, the challenged and defeated the Sphinx, he became king in a city where he had no hereditary right, he found he had confused mother and wife, lost his sight, and went into the wilderness . Antigone challenged Creon, twice tried to bring her dead brother from the desecrating wilderness to ceremonial burial, and was placed between life and death. Antigone’s punishment leads to her suicide by angling in the tomb, paralleling the death of her mother after finding she has married her son. The death of Antigone leads to two further deaths, as her fiancé Haemon commits suicide after finding Antigone’s dead body in the tomb. Haemon is the son of Creon, and his death leads to the suicide of his mother Euydice.

Creon’s command to leave the body of Polyneices unmourned, and his determination to enforce this command on his niece, leads to the death of his niece, his son and his wife. The death of his son follows Creon’s retreat from his wishes to enforce his commands absolutely. Like Oedipus, he comes in conflict with the prophet Tiresias. Tireseas exposes Creon’s claim to just kingship when he provokes anger. This follows, as with Oedipus’ earlier anger against Creon, Creon’s anger and conflict in relation to Antigone, Ismeme (the other daughter of Oedipus) and Haemon. Unlike Oedipus though, Creon does give way to the advice of Tiresias, who predicts disaster for the city otherwise. He gives way to that advice and voice of the chorus, standing for the people of Thebes. His initial stance is to claim to listen to the people, but to insist on the absolute authority of his own commands.

In the play he progresses to a more real willingness to listen to other voices, and does not arrive at anything like the total downfall of Oedipus. However, that evolution of his understanding that his power is best used when not exercised t the most extreme limit follows three deaths which leave him isolated as king in that his closest family members have gone, because of his tendencies to autocracy. An autocratic tendency focused on his attempt to deny the most basic relation of the community to death, and of family members to keep dead members within the community after death, through the proper ceremonies. A way of regulating the relation between life and death that is about the relation with the gods, which is a way of summing up the community’s relations with death, nature, its outside in various forms, internal divisions, and its enduring nature despite death and change. Antigone is named after the central female character for good reasons, but it is the story of how a male ruler who learns to understand that power is better exercised within limits, through a most devastating series of personal losses and challenges to his authority.

The play Antigone has two points of concentration: the sacrificial death of Antigone; the melancholic survival of Creon. Sacrificial death of a woman who might challenge male power is inevitable in Greek tragedy, its values are those of a very patriarchal society. The plays expose a deep ambiguity in which it is recognised that women can be agents of justice and possessed of the capacity to criticise power gone beyond measure. Creon can only be a good ruler after learning from Antigone, becoming her in some way. He placed her alive in a tomb, which might serve as a metaphor for her relation to his kingship.

Oedipus at Colonus: Outcast and Prophet

Oedipus at Colonus is the second of Sophocles’ Theban plays, though it was not written as the sequel to Oedipus the King/Tyrant which is the first Theban play. The three ‘Theban Plays’ (the third of which is Antigone) were written for separate groupings of plays, and the other plays in the groupings have been lost. Oedipus at Colonus was performed before Oedipus the King/Tyrant. It is not surprising that the Theban Plays are often taken as a trilogy, since they do fit together fairly neatly and Sophocles must have been kept to a very consistent version of the stories of Thebes under Laius, Oedipus and Creon across various writings and performances. There are a great many other version of these stores in myth and in drama, which we will not go into, bıt the reader of Greek tragedies should be aware of the flexibility of Greek myths and the many different versions.

Oedipus at Colonus is the Athenian play in the Theban Plays, since Colonus itself was part of Athens, and is still a recognised district of the city. In Ancient time it was outside the walls but not very far. The play gives the impression of being a bit further away than in Sophocles’s own time. A recognition possibly that Athens was smaller in the deep past, since these plays along with Homer refer to the Mycenaean Greek world 800 years before Golden Age Athens. The play reinforces the sacredness of Athens by making Colonus a sacred place, suitable for the death of Oedipus who has become sacral rather than polluted in this play. The play has a big streak of Athenian propaganda running through, just as Shakespeare’s plays were conditioned by Tudor and Jacobean state propaganda. Oedipus, the fallen King of Thebes, turned prophetic figure and innocent victim finds justice and protection in Athens, where Thebans still try to reach him and persecute him. First Creon appears using force against Oedipus’ daughters Ismeme and Antigone in an an attempt to induce Oedipus to return to Thebes. Oedipus recognises immediately that Creon only wants him to go back to Thebes for his own reasons of the strategies of power. King Theseus of Athens, who appeared earlier offering protection to Oedipus, returns just in time from worshipping Poseidon to rescue Oedipus. A stranger arrives a bit later, who turns out to be Oedipus’ son Eteocoles, seeking help in his struggle with his brother Polyneices and with Creon. It is Theseus who persuades Oedipus to talk to Eteocles, emphasising the role of the Athenian ruler as a judge and wise guide to all the Greeks. Oedipus refuses to assist Eteocles and curses the city. This is part of a complete abandonment of Thebes and a acceptance of Athens as his real homeland. However, his daughters are prepared to return to Thebes after the ‘death’ of Oedipus, so returning to the curse made by their father.

Oedipus’ death at the end of the play is not a cşear case of death, as no one sees him die and his body disappears. One suggested possibility is that he has been allowed to pass to the world of the death without pain, a rather modest favour from the gods, since the world of the dead is itself a very gloomy place of ghostly semi-conscious existence. There is some play with the possibility that  Oedipus has been taken by the gods to their own world, which can happen in Greek mythology. There is no direct suggestion that this happened, but it’s possibility is allowed. In any case, Oedipus has moved from King-Tyrant to something more like Tiresias, the blind prophet persecuted by Oedipus in Oedipus Tyrannus when he claims that Oedipus has murdered his father and married his mother. Oedipus blinded himself at the end of Oedipus Tyrannus, linking him with Tiresias. As with Tireseas there is some play with the other forms of perception he has, though less with prophetic qualities. We learn that Oedipus sees with his ears, so that the use of language is emphasised over vision. A way of thinking which has an interesting relation with drama as a form.

Oedipus in some way passes on the sacral power of the Theban monarchy by telling Theseus a secret before his death, or disappearance. The content of the secret is not revealed to the audience, but we do learn that the secret protects Athens from future Theban kings. The protection of Oedipus by Theseus is very surprising for Creon, who states that Oedipus is polluted and therefore unworthy of sacred places in Athens. Theseus shows himself to be a better provider of hospitality than Creon, so reinforcing the idea of Athens as the moral leader and therefore the judge of Greece. Oedipus himself argues that he is the innocent victim of fate and a curse on the house of the Kings of Thebes.He regards all his polluting acts as accidents with no blame for himself. This is open to question, his murder of Laius is surely motivated  by his excessive anger at being challenged at the crossroads outside Thebes. Athens enables him to move from polluted refugee to wise man close to the gods.

Oedipus Tyrannus: Political and Individual Disintegration

The transliterated Greek title of Sophocles famous play is given, because it is important to be aware that the meaning of kingship is at stake, and that Oedipus is defined as the less legitimate kind of king, tyrannus rather than basilieus. The very negative meaning tyrant has now was not so clear for the Ancient Greeks, though the word was certainly used in a negative way. Plato and Aristotle certainly gave a negative meaning to tyrant as opposed to the king who rules through moderation and justice. However, Plato tried to educate the tyrant of Syracuse Dionysius II, in becoming a proper philosopher-king, and other tyrants attended Plato’s school the academy. Of course, Plato’s intentions in contacts with such people was to persuade them to abandon tyrannical behaviour, I can’t see any reason to think that Plato wanted them to give up the power they had.

Going back to 6th century Athens, the tyrant Peisistratos seized power, using it against the aristocracy. He appears to have had the ability tı converse with the lower class Athenians and is treated with some respect by ancient writers, who usually leaned towards the aristocratic in politics. There is a case for saying that he forced through political and social changes which allowed the flourishing of democracy and individual liberty in 5th century Athens. Peisistratus is perhaps relevant to Sophocles’s play, it is at least worth thinking about how that might work.  The dominating figure of 5th century Athenian democracy, Pericles is also worth thinking about here, and scholars have done so. Pericles died in a plague in the city of Athens during the Peloponnesian War with Sparta, which does suggest a possible parallel with Oedipus who experiences plague in Thebes. He does not die of the plague, but his attempt to end it, by looking for the murderer of King Laius ends in self-blinding and exile, when he realises that he murdered Laius, that Laius was his father, and that he has married his own mother. None of these horrors apply to Pericles, but he was a kind of elected king.

Unlike the more traditional form of elected king who was appointed for life, Pericles had to stand for his office (of military commander in theory, political leader in practice) every year. Nevertheless he could be taken as a king-tyrant like figure in his power. That his power rested on his personal abilities and public charisma makes him like the tyrant in the meaning of the man who seizes power, the term is also applied to the descendants of such a person who hold power after him, or more traditionally established kings who behave badly. Pericles was in some ways like Oedipus, as the seeker of knowledge. He had a very educated (and aristocratic) background, his friends included the philosopher Anaxagoras, and his power rested on his intelligence, as part of his general force of personality. Oedipus came to power in Thebes, as an apparent foreigner, because he overcame the riddling sphinx, and is then destroyed by the search for knowledge of who killed Laius.

After a rather long detour through possible personal and political references in Oedipus Tyrannus, we should consider the play, which amongst other things is concerned with what kind of ruler Oedipus was. The presentation switched between the leader who listens to the people and is their representative in the opening of the play to the paranoiac tyrant who thinks the Prophet Tiresias is conspiring with Oedipus’ brother in law Creon to overthrow him. Oedipus is even identified as a tyrant by the chorus during these conflicts. He threatens torture and cannot listen to inconvenient opinions without accusations of sedition. When he does fall Creon does become king, and himself seems a bit of a tyrant, ordering Oedipus to hurry up towards his exile and ordering him to leave his children behind. Oedipus has become revealed as something monstrous, an anti-human who cannot live in the city. That status comes from being the exile who was offered a throne he did not inherit, and who found himself to be a native who had the right of inheritance to the throne. That discovery can only come with the knowledge that condemns him to be an outcast monster. In the opening scene, the Thebans are identified by Oedipus as descendants of Cadmus, not knowing that he is one of them. That already introduces the theme of incest, it is the city where every generation has intermarried, reflecting the general greek unwillingness to accept foreigners as citizens, or even the children of marriage between a foreigner and a citizen. The right of inheritance self-destructs in the play, through the outsider discovering he is legitimate heir, which brings the whole idea of kingship into question. All notions of political authority and citizenship disintegrate, more so than the ending in which power has passed smoothly to Creon suggests.

Foucault on crime, truth, confession and justice: Post Three

On to my third post on Mal faire, dire vrai [Doing bad, telling truth], published a few weeks ago by Presses Universitaires de Louvain, based on lectures Foucault gave in Louvain in 1981.  English edition out in December of next year.

The lecture of 28th April 1981 discusses Sophocles’ Oedipus the King.  Foucault apologies for adding to the vast numbers of existing readings of Oedipus.  The discussions go back to Aristotle’s Poetics, so to the beginning of the literary critical discussion.  As Foucault concedes, many have already commented on the role of law and political sovereignty in Greek tragedy, the way that tragedy deals with their foundations.  Foucault refers to the importance of such themes in later tragedies highlighting Shakespeare, Corneille, and Schiller.  Foucault does not mention the French tragedian often rated the greatest, even compared to Corneille, Jean Racine, which comes as a surprise to me.  He might also have mentioned Calderón and Christopher Marlowe, amongst others.   It seems also like a good moment to mention some of the great philosophical-literary discussions on the ethics and politics of tragedy which may have had some influence on Foucault, and are certainly worth comparing with his commentary: G.W.F. Hegel (sections in Phenomenology of Spirit and Aesthetics), Arthur Schopenhauer (sections in The World as Will and Representation), Søren Kierkegaard (scattered but important comments in Fear and Trembling, a section of Either/Or), Friedrich Nietzsche (The Birth of Tragedy), Walter Benjamin (The Origin of German Tragic Drama), Carl Schmitt (Hamlet or  Hecuba); more recently there as been Martha Nussbaum, Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet (the last two sometimes in collaboration).

Foucault compares the play’s approach to law with that of Plato in The Laws, and quotes a passage in that text which he suggests is very close to the proclamation that  Odeipus makes to the city of Thebes, regarding unknown murderers.  The issue of the unknown murderer is of course that a plague şs afflicting Thebes which Oedipus learns is for allowing the polluting act of murder to go unpunished.  The murder is of King Laius, Oedipus’ predecessors.  What Oedipus does not know at that point is that he killed Laius, and that Laius was his father.  For Foucault, the play uses the ancient to comment on law in Athens at the time of Sophocles, an entirely reasonable suggestion for which Foucault offers some good arguments.

What Foucault builds up to through the lecture is the democratisation of law in Athens, the model democracy of the ancient world.  He suggests that we look at the search for truth in the play as operating at three levels.  The first level is the level of the divine, which includes the god Apollo, and the prophet Tiresias who follows the commands of Apollo.  Foucault quotes from the confrontation between Oedipus and Tiresias, in which Tiresias only agrees to explain who the murderer is after being threatened by Oedipus.  As Foucault points put, Tiresias still claims to only speak at the command of Apollo.  He can also be seen as lined with Apollo through inversion.  Apollo is the god of light who sees everything, while Tiresias is blind but still sees everything.

The second level is the royal level, which Foucault identifies with a conversation between Oedipus and Jocasta, his queen who is also the mother he married without knowing that he was her son.  Foucault sees this as an exercise in evasion in which Oedipus and Jocasta have already realised the truth but evade it by concentrating on secondary issues, in particular the report that Laius was murdered by a group of men, not by one man.  The royal evasion of truth while looking for it goes back to the decision of Laius and Jocasta to try to evade fate by abandoning their baby son to die, in order to avoid the prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother.  As those acquainted with the play know, a shepherd commanded to abandon the boy decides to find a family for him instead, with the result that he ends up as the adoptive son of another king, who engages in further evasion by not telling Oedipus about his origins.  The whole incident refers to the widespread practice in the ancient world of abandoning unwanted babies to die.

The royal evasion of truth can also be seen in Oedipus’ reaction to Tiresias’ revelation that it was Oedipus who killed Laius.  He accuses Tiresias of lying for the sake of power and money at the instigation of Jocasta’s brother Creon.  As Foucault further points out, Creon’s reaction to Oedipus’ accusation is itself evasive, as Creon just says that his life is good as it is, which does not really confirm that Creon is free of any desire to replace Oedipus.  Creon, of course, might normally have expected to be king after the death of Laius, but Oedipus’ success in destroying the sphinx leads to Oedipus becoming king.  Oedipus is ‘tyrannos’ in Greek, not ‘basileus’, suggesting someone who has royal power due to something other than normal means, or who exceeds normal limits of power.  I would like to add that the Athenian democracy had partly developed through the success of the tyrant Peisistratus in reducing the power of the aristocracy.  As Foucault explains, Creon defines his good life as that of the king who is not king, who has the prestige of a king, but who can leave the annoying side of kingship to Oedipus. Foucault suggests that therefore Creon is the king who has the ‘techne’ of ruling, that is the skill and know how of ruling.  Presumably the point is that we can suspect Creon of wishing to use that ‘techne‘ by having to official title of king.  It also suggests a separation between the art of government of the king, and the ritual aspects of kingship.  Foucault describes the ancient Greek techne of ruing as common to the who Indo-European world (without explaining why he uses that as the basis of discussion when he has little if anything to say about India, and just a bit to say about Persia, with more references to the non Indo-European ancient Jews).  In his discussion of this techne, Foucault suggests that it is defined in relation to the piloting of a boat and the skill of doctor until the early modern period.

The third part of judicial truth in Oedipus, according to Foucault, is the democratic, which arises when a shepherd and a royal servant are interviewed, they are interviewed under threat of violence, as the ‘divine’ Tiresias does, but do not claim to be commanded by Apollo rather than by state law.  It is here that the  truth emerges with a  definiteness that Oedipus and Jocasta have to accept, as it becomes clear that the servant gave the infant Oedipus to a shepherd who gave him to another king.  It also becomes clear that Oedipus murdered Laius.  Foucault sees this as the vindication of democracy in Sophocles.  The law which treats the testimony of common people as valid is the law that finds the truth.  That truth relies on confession which itself comes from threats of force.  Anyway the confession of common people is accepted without the intermediation of a master who has to give permission for a slave to be tortured.  The common people have a status which is that of citizens and is completely distinct from that of slaves.  Foucault’s progress through the divine, kingly and democratic stages f law is reminiscent of Giambattista’s account of divine, heroic and hum an stages of history, particularly law and language, in the New Science.  Foucault does occasionally refer to Vico, though it also possible that he had other reasons for adopting that threefold analysis.