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 self-conscious being. Just as the Family in this way possesses in the community its substance and enduring being, so, conversely, the community possess in the Family the formal element of its actual existence, and in the divine law its power and authentication. Neither of the two is by itself absolutely valid; human law proceeds in its living process from the divine, the law valid on earth from that of the nether-world, the conscious from the unconscious, mediation from immediacy – and equally returns whence it came. The power of the nether world, on the other hand, has its actual existence on earth; through consciousness, it becomes existence and activity.
This integration of the two ethical spheres, the way in which they provide for and rely on one another, is the way in which substance and self, nature and reason, could be unified in ancient Greece. It is the way in which Spirit is manifest. We have, Stern explains, “a picture of the structure of the ‘happy state’ in which Spirit was realized in the Greek world, one in which divisions existed in a balanced equilibrium, each side finding its own domain in harmony with its opposite, so that ‘their antithesis is rather the authentication of one through the other’ (PS:278)”. Hegel calls this world “an immaculate world” in which the movement between the two spheres is “interpenetration”. Of course, this harmony will prove unsustainable and thus we can now begin to unpack the contribution of Antigone.
Although Hegel is not very explicit in his references to the tragedy in the Phenomenology, his interpretation of Antigone subtly serves to illustrate the internal contradiction that would be the downfall of Spirit’s manifestation in Sittlichkeit. As Hegel has it, Creon’s prohibition of burial for Polynices, is exactly the thing, and in fact the only thing, he can do regarding an enemy of the state. Polynices is a traitor and Creon is the state authority. His decision is a decree, an inviolable interdiction of the state law, and in this way it is right and justified. By the same token, Antigone’s decision to bury her brother despite Creon’s decree is exactly the thing, and once again the only thing, that she can do in her situation. Just as Creon behaves in accordance with Human Law so does Antigone behave in accordance with Divine Law. Their respective ethical spheres are not only what they do, it is what they are. Hegel writes:
This immediate firmness of decision is something implicit, and therefore has at the same time the significance of a natural being as we have seen. Nature, not the accident of circumstances or choice, assigns one sex to one law, the other to the other law; or conversely, the two ethical powers themselves give themselves an individual existence and actualize themselves in the two sexes.
Creon and Antigone can do nothing but what they do and the result, as we know, is the death of Antigone and the suicides of Creon’s wife and son. With such an understanding of Antigone becoming apparent in this section of the Phenomenology, we can begin to see Hegel’s theory of Greek tragedy taking shape. As Houlgate describes it:
The essence of Greek tragedy thus consists not just in a tragic conflict between justified interests in which each violates the other, but in the relentless pursuit of that conflict which leads to the destruction or ruin of the individuals involved. Accordingly, what makes individuals fully tragic is not only their one-sidedness, but the fact that they cling on so insistently to their one-sided pathos and will not, of their own accord, compromise with or yield to another.
This capitulation corresponds to something Hegel says at the close of his Reason chapter: “Ethical disposition consists just in sticking steadfastly to what is right, and abstaining from all attempts to move or shake it, or derive it”. It seems, therefore, that the way the Ethical World made Spiritual unity possible has turned out to be the very reason why it must withdraw.
Now although we can see how Hegel’s understanding of Antigone is contiguous with the internal collapse of the Ethical World, we might nevertheless be surprised that his interpretation takes Creon to be just as much in the right as Antigone. So surprised, perhaps, that we look for evidence that Hegel really does take her side. Might it be possible? Commentator Philip Kain comes to this conclusion in his paper Hegel, Antigone, and Women. Kain writes, “The community, for its part, naturally tries to suppress Antigone and what it sees as her individualism”.This individualism, he claims, is the form of individualism that Hegel intends Spirit to achieve in modernity. Kain explains:
This is the key, I think, to why Hegel is so interested in Antigone and why Antigone is so important. The modern Sittlichkeit that Hegel is after stands in need of a form of individualism very much like Antigone’s. Her individualism is the sort that allows a self embedded in a context of cultural relations, institutions, and common customs, traditions, and practices to develop an individual identity.
While this is not, on its own, necessarily incorrect it leads Kain to draw the conclusion that “if anything, I would say that Hegel sides with the subversive Antigone against Creon”.  The mistake seems to be in the assumption that because she opposes the interdiction of the state Antigone is a subversive individual and therefore merits Hegel’s support. Stern, by contrast, rejects this idea. It seems wrong, he explains, to infer that Hegel thought Antigone “was ‘right’ because she acted as a modern individualistic consciousness, out of personal conviction and conscience in opposition to the tyranny of the state”. Houlgate similarly rejects the move. He writes, “They do not comprehend that Creon might err precisely in doing what is right and justified. Yet, for Hegel, that is Creon’s tragedy, as it is Antigone’s. The issue for Hegel is not whether Creon is in the wrong.” Furthermore, both Houlgate and Stern remind us that an attribution to Antigone of individuality as we moderns understand it is not an option in the Hegelian interpretation. As Hegel has it:
The way in which the antithesis is constituted in this ethical realm is such that self-consciousness has not yet received its due as a particular individuality. There it has value, on the one hand, merely of the universal will, and on the other, of consanguinity. This particular individual counts only as a shadowy unreality.
Thus we can see why, although we might be compelled to find Hegel sympathetic to Antigone’s cause over Creon’s, we must conclude that, rather than taking sides in the matter, he emphasizes their equivocality and their symmetrical blindness.
The same kind of mistake, however, might stem from another line of thought: because Sophocles himself seems to side with Antigone there must be some evidence that so does Hegel. In his paper Antigone and Hegel commentator Raymond Pietercil discusses Hegel’s divergence from Sophocles:
Sophocles is far from neutral, he chooses sides for the heroine, while Creon is shown draped in grandeur… [Yet] we understand the reason of this “distortion” in Hegel’s work. Whitewashing Creon means one further step in the direction of the irremediable; it means substituting for the clash between good and evil the much more frightening clashing of goodness with itself; for a simple fight for justice an insoluble conflict…
This interesting point brings us back to the Hegelian theory of Greek tragedy that came courtesy of Houlgate. The salient feature is once again the absolute rigidity with which Hegel characterizes the Ethical World. The citizens of this world do not have ability to yield. Even in doing what is completely justified they violate one another, good against good, bringing about a collapse from within.
At this point we have considered the views of various commentators on the questions of whether Hegel takes sides and whether Antigone is an individual. We have seen these questions emerge, in close connection to one another, from an unpacking of the tragedy’s place in the Phenomenology. If a reader suspects that Hegel favors Antigone (because we favor her, or because Sophocles does), he might ask whether she has, for Hegel, true individuality. Conversely, if a reader takes her opposition to the state to mean that Antigone is a subversive individual, he might look for evidence that Hegel backs her up (or, to the contrary, look for evidence that Hegel takes sides for Creon out of approbation for the state in his own political philosophy). There is a third question, however, directly related to these which we must now consider. From the supposition of Antigone’s subversiveness, or even from the supposition that Hegel champions Antigone, there emerges another question, a leap we might be compelled to make, especially as uninitiated readers of the Phenomenology. The question is
this: is Antigone like the slave? Not surprisingly, Kain thinks that she is. Here is his explication of the view:
To summarize, then, in “The Ethical Order” and in “Lordship and Bondage” we have three parallel steps that are quite similar. In the “Ethical Order,” (1) from the start, family and community, Divine Law and Human Law, are taken to be mutually dependent and essential. Then, (2) a conflict arises between Divine Law and Human Law, and the community (which was always more powerful) comes to dominate… Finally (3) Antigone as representative of the family subverts the authority of the community. The parallel to “Lordship and Bondage” is near perfect… in both cases we start with mutual dependence and equal essentiality, then there develops the domination of one over the other, and then the dominated subverts its dominator.
We must agree with Kain that the movement of the antithesis in the Lordship and Bondage dialectic parallels that of the Ethical World. However, Kain might be placing too much importance on this structural resemblance. As we have seen, the whole Phenomenology is a journey through the dialectic form. Hegel takes us through the movement of thesis to antithesis, negation and sublation, over and over again. The formal parallel should not be taken to supply good reason to think Hegel means for Antigone to represent the slave. To the contrary, we should expect such parallels throughout the Phenomenology.
For Kain, however, the structural analogue is accompanied by another reason to take Antigone for the slave. As we have already seen, Kain’s idea of her subversion of the state attributes a conscious, nearly modern, individuality to Antigone. He writes, “It is the state that in repressing her brings about its own collapse. And the master must be subverted – that is the only way we progress to a higher principle. Antigone, after all, develops an important form of individualism”. It is true that in the Lordship and Bondage section, the so-called slave develops a kind of individuality which brings about progress. To make this claim about Antigone, however, would be to ignore the details of the collapse of the Ethical World in which Spirit has found itself at home. As we have seen, the collision of ethical spheres is inevitable and without the possibility of reconciliation precisely because Creon and Antigone stand, ethically speaking, on equal ground. For Hegel, Antigone shows that beneath the reciprocal harmony there are untenable contradictions, each inviolable ethic is violated, each justified right is at the same time wrong. As Piertercil writes, “This double decline marks the disappearance of the ethical world, the disappearance of the immediate actuality of the spirit.”
We have rejected the view that Hegel takes sides. We have rejected the imputation of individuality (in the strong sense) to Antigone. And we have undermined the idea that Antigone is like the slave. However, in considering how each of these positions might be grounded and in noticing how they interrelate, a deeper understanding of the Ethical World has been reached. The compulsory collapse of the ancient Greek ethical order, in which Spirit was able to realize itself, and the role Antigone plays in the illustration of this movement have been cleared of ambiguities which, to the uninitiated reader of the Phenomenology of Spirit, call for clarification and precision.
Stephen Houlgate, Hegel and the Arts (Northwestern University Press: 2007). Philip J Kain, “Hegel, Antigone, and Women,” The Owl of Minerva 33/2: 2002. A.V Miller, trans., Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford University Press, 1977). Raymond Pietercil, “Antigone and Hegel,” International Philosophical Quarterly 18/3: 1978. Robert Stern, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Hegel and the Phenomenology of Spirit (Routledge: 2002).