On 5/24, Mark, Wes, and Dylan were joined by John Castro (a drama guy and old St. John’s friend of Wes’s) to discuss Antigone, a play written by the ancient Greek tragedian Sophocles in around 441 BCE. Prior to that, we brought back the PEL Players (listen to our past productions here and here) to perform an unrehearsed reading through the script, again featuring the wonderful Lucy Lawless as Antigone, and this time adding the formidable Paul Provenza to read Creon. Listen to it now! Citizens can get the full discussion here.
The Aftershow for this, which you can attend, is tentatively scheduled for 6/28 at 3pm Eastern, noon Pacific. Sign up on the group’s page to attend. To see the page, you have to be a PEL Citizen, which incidentally will also get you ad-free versions of the play and discussion, and the Citizen version of the play will have several extra minutes of the after-performance discussion in it, so you’ll definitely want to sign up.
Though Antigone is the third chapter in the “Oedipus Cycle,” it was actually produced before the others, though the general story was among the myths that the audience would already have been familiar with. Oedipus had been cursed for inadvertently killing his father and marrying his mother, and so (as if this were really a causal matter) his sons killed each other in fighting over rule of their city Thebes, and his daughters are also cursed by fate for their parents’ violation of natural law. One such daughter, Antigone, is faced with a moral dilemma: her uncle Creon (now king of the city) has decreed that her brother Polynices, who had raised rebellion against the city, will receive no burial, but Antigone thinks that this law violates her familial duty and the will of the gods. So she flagrantly defies it, despite Creon’s paranoid insistence than any such breech will result in the death penalty. Complicating this is that Antigone had been engaged to Creon’s son (so, her own cousin) Haimon, and given that this is a tragedy, there’s a high body count.
So, why are we reading this for a philosophy podcast? Well, first of all, every Western philosopher you’ll read is working off of the ancient Greek tradition, so not only Plato and the other philosophers, but also the storytellers (Homer), historians (Thucydides, Herodotus), and playwrights (Aristophanes, Euripides) are all fair game, stuff that you should know about as a philosopher, and certainly a primary influence on philosophers if not actual philosophy itself.
That said, Citizens can right now go to the Free Stuff page and look under Not School Discussions, Philosophy and Theater group to download a conversation I participated in from last June with Daniel Cole and some other folks about this play, and I personally had a hard time coming up with a lot of unambiguously philosophical content.
The most obvious topic for discussion here is ethics, but as is the general case with literature, some work is needed to generalize from the particular ethical dilemma being depicted. Moreover, this is the ancient world we’re talking about: Is duty to the gods vs. duty to the state really such a live issue now that most of us don’t think that religion requires life-or-death strict adherence to ritual and that, of course, unquestioned obedience to the state isn’t a moral requirement?
One thread comes from our MacIntyre and Anscombe episodes: We often approach moral problems in ethics classes as if there’s some calculation we can perform to see which of two actions is preferable, and then if we choose the preferable one, we’ve done the right thing, and to the extent that making such a choice was hard, then we should be praised. But a tragic view of morality says that conflicting moral requirements don’t cease being requirements, even if they conflict with some other more pressing requirement. If you kill someone (says this line of thought), even to prevent further harm or defend yourself, you’ve still killed someone; you’ve taken a human life, which is an incalculable loss, and killing produces a stain on your soul no matter what the circumstance—you are damned when you do, even though you would have been damned if you didn’t.
Anscombe thought that our moral discourse of right and wrong is based around monotheistic Divine Command Theory, where God has the monopoly on determining what’s wrong and what’s virtuous, whereas someone like Nietzsche points out that there are a multiplicity of virtues, which are not necessarily all in accord or even compatible. The notion of right and wrong as a single, one-dimensional scale (even with “shades of grey” in between) is laughably simplistic, even though it’s more or less written into our language. Well, how do we talk ourselves out of this conceptual simplicity? One way is to return to the days of polytheism here, and think about absolute-but-conflicting prescriptions by different gods. Both Creon and Antigone claim (with some reasonableness, given the traditions of their time) divine sanction for their view. I happened to stumble across an essay about Hegel’s take on Antigone that described the two characters as pawns in a Hegelian dialectic, each operating on a one-sided ethical motivation that somehow gets resolved with the conclusion of the play, with (spoiler!) Antigone dead and Creon regretful.
A related thread brings us back to our Sandel episode, which depicts the conflict between Kantian moral absolutism (which, ironically, plays itself out in forming a society through “liberalism,” i.e., enforced tolerance and neutrality) and a type of morality that is purposefully relative to various unchosen self-identifications like my membership in a given tribe. If we take Antigone’s primary motivation as family loyalty set against the impartial state (impartial in that Creon is saying, “I don’t care if it’s my nephews and nieces in question; my duty is to maintain the state, which will fall apart unless I follow through with my decrees.”), then the corresponding modern question is whether laws or ethics need to be blind to personal relations in the same way—e.g., we say that spouses can’t be compelled to testify against each other.
Beyond these explicitly philosophical concerns, the three St. John’s guys in the discussion with me provided a good model for how to discuss literature itself in an interesting enough way, e.g., was it necessary for Antigone to be engaged to Haimon to put across Antigone’s moral conflict? What was the chorus’s role and attitude through the whole thing? Why was Creon so quick to accuse everyone of being bought off? Why was Antigone so loyal to the one brother but seemed unconcerned about the other and about her fiancé? Did she have a death wish?
Speaking of that, one of the available, semi-philosophical strategies for analyzing this type of thing is psychoanalysis, as we saw in our Lacan-on-Poe episode, and Wes dug up a few papers that we did not read as a group, but which I found provided some food for thought. Chiefly, this 1991 paper, “A Psychoanalytic Study of Sophocles’ Antigone,” by Renato Almansi, picks out specific language in the play to argue that Antigone’s desire to lie dead with her brother has clearly incestuous overtones (as would be appropriate, given the whole curse of Oedipus thing), and that Creon definitely had a thing for Antigone and was in no way the impartial defender of the stability of the state that he describes himself to be in his opening speech.
In addition to this discussion with the four of us, we did also spend about half an hour after the performance itself musing with Lucy and Paul about the conventions of Greek theater, the translation and poetry, and some other things.
There have been many translations, and Wes chose the one we performed (by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald, from 1939) because it was much more readable than the generally more ancient alternatives. John was adamant that we should have instead used the version written for the modern stage in 2005 by poet Seamus Heaney, called The Burial at Thebes: A Version of Sophocles’ Antigone.
Buy the translation that we read (which comes packaged with the other plays in the Oedipus cycle) or read it online. Or you can buy the Heaney version instead. Or watch this version on YouTube. But really, our performance will be the definitive version, so there’s no need for you to experience any other!