Hegel's Antigone
by Patricia J. Mills
I II III IV EndNotes
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Hegel's Antigone

This article is a reprint of the revised and updated essay included in my anthology on Feminist Interpretations of G. W. F. Hegel (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996); the original version appeared in The Owl of Minerva, Volume 17, Number 2 (Spring 1986). The article is reprinted here with the permission of The Owl of Minerva and the Pennsylvania State Press. A slightly different version was incorporated into Chapter One of my book Woman, Nature, and Psyche (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987).

This article is copyright 1986, 1997 Patricia Mills. All rights reserved. Do not duplicate or redistribute in any form.

1. Seyla Benhabib, "On Contemporary Feminist Theory" in Dissent, no. 36 (summer 1989): 366-370. Joan Kelly-Gadol was the first to formulate a concept of a feminist "doubled vision" in "The Social Relations of the Sexes: Methodological Implications of Women's History," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 1, no. 4 (summer 1976): 809-23; reprinted in Women, History and Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 1-18.

2. Throughout this essay the term man is used to refer to adult males and never as a generic or universal term. This is done to illuminate the problems of sexual difference and sexual domination that are obscured by the use of "man" and "mankind" to refer to the human species.

3. Alexandre Kojeve, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, trans. James H. Nichols, Jr. (New York: Basic Books, 1969), 58-61.

4. G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Clarendon, 1977), para. 451, 270 (amended translation); hereafter cited as PS, with paragraph number followed by page number. Miller's translation of marklose as "impotent" is not to be confused with Hegel's term Ohnmacht, used to describe nature as "impotent" or "unconscious." Many of Hegel's ontological insights are rooted in Aristotle's philosophy. The bifurcation between familial and political life which Hegel subscribes to here can be found in Aristotle's Politics.

5. J. N. Findlay, Hegel: A Re-Examination (London: Allen and Unwin, 1958), 116-17; Kojeve, Introduction, 60-61, 296-98; Charles Taylor, Hegel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 172-77.

6. Kojeve, Introduction, 61.

7. Ibid., 61, 298.

8. PS, para. 457, 274-75; cf. G. W. F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, trans. J. B. Baillie (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1967), 477; hereafter cited as PM. In both the Miller and the [1910, 1931] Baillie translations of this passage the word "particular" is added in several places to reveal Hegel's meaning. Hegel sometimes underscores the word for "this" (dieser) instead of using the word Einzelheit to refer to the "particular" individual.

9. G. W. F. Hegel, The Philosophy of History, trans. J. Sibree (New York: Dover, 1956), 245-246.

10. The speech in which Antigone defends her decision to bury her brother, saying she would not make the same sacrifice for a husband or son, is omitted from many modern translations. This speech is reprinted in Ten Greek Plays in Contemporary Translations, edited by L. R. Lind (Boston: Riverside, 1957), 100. For a discussion of the history of the inclusion/exclusion of this speech, see Costas Douzinas, "Law's Birth and Antigone's Death: On Ontological and Psychoanalytical Ethics," Cardozo Law Review 16, nos. 3-4 (January 1995): 1353-54.

It is worth noting that this paradigm of mutual recognition between sister and brother, which is supposed to be devoid of desire, is rooted in the incestuous origins of the house of Thebes. Antigone's father, Oedipus, is also her brother making Polyneices her uncle as well as her brother and she his aunt as well as his sister. In choosing this seemingly atypical family to represent the family as natural ethical life, Hegel gives significance to the Oedipus myth long before Freud.

It is also important to note here that the figure of Antigone in the ancient Greek tragedy is not quintessentially European or Aryan. As Martin Bernal has persuasively argued, the culture of ancient Greece emerged out of the colonization of Europeans by Egyptians and Phoenicians (Africans and Semites). See his Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, vol. 1 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987).

11. PS, para. 475, 288. By claiming that woman shows man the power of his authority, especially that as son he is master of his mother, Hegel suggests that woman conspires to realize male domination.

12. Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E.B. Ashton (New York: Seabury Press, 1973), 173.

13. I understand experience not as something fixed and unalterable, grounding an "essentialism," but rather as a continuous process of engagement with and in the world through which subjectivity is created, re-created and understood.

14. Sophocles, Antigone, in Drama: An Introductory Anthology, alternate edition, edited by Otto R. Reinhert (Boston: Little Brown & Company, 1964), p. 22 (amended translation); all subsequent references to Antigone are to this edition. See also PS, para. 470, 284; and PM, 491.

15. One might want to argue that these gods are the divine representatives of male authority to which Antigone bows. Nevertheless, she does not accept male domination in its more obvious human guise.

16. Later, in his Aesthetics, Hegel himself describes Antigone as choosing her course of action: Insofar as she has pathos, she has free will. Here, Hegel describes Antigones's pathos as less than that of Creon's because she worships the underworld gods of Hades while Creon worships the daylight gods of self-conscious political life. However, the argument concerning the conscious, deliberate choice involved in Antigone's actions undermines the claim in the Phenomenology that the sister's ethical life is not conscious or actualized. See Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, trans. T.M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975), 232, 464.

17. Joyce Nower, "A Feminist View of Antigone," in The Longest Revolution (February-March 1983), 6. Why Antigone rejects Ismene's offer of sisterly solidarity is an enigma that can perhaps be illuminated by the fact that patriarchal society attempts to set women against each other so that they learn to see themselves primarily in relation to men.

18. It is important to note the fact that in Hegel's analysis of the master-slave dialectic there is no mention of woman: master and slave are both seen as males even though historically many slaves were women. This means that the difference between "free" and slave women is necessarily overlooked. For an important discussion of how the man-woman distinction ignores class and race divisions in the ancient world, see Elizabeth V. Spelman's discussion of Aristotle in "Who's Who in the Polis," chap. 2 of Inessential Woman (Boston: Beacon, 1988).

Several authors have attempted to present gender relations as an instance of the master-slave dialectic in which woman's consciousness is equated with slave consciousness. One of the earliest feminist attempts was that done by Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex, trans. and ed. by H. M. Parshley (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), 73. The inadequacy of Beauvoir's account is examined by Mary O'Brien in her book The Politics of Reproduction (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981), 67-73.

More recently Stuart Swindle has tried to make the case in a rhetorical attack on my own analysis of Hegel. In a detailed response to Swindle I show that it is delusive to argue that we can simply "recall" the master-slave dialectic to explain gender relations. There is no textual evidence in the Phenomenology for such a claim. To argue as Swindle does is to misconstrue Hegel's analysis of the master-slave dialectic while subverting the analysis of woman's unique consciousness. See Stuart Swindle, "Why Feminists Should Take the Phenomenology of Spirit Seriously" and my response, "`Feminist' Sympathy and Other Serious Crimes: A Reply to Swindle" (The Owl of Minerva, 24, no. 1 [fall 1992]: 41-62).

19. G. W. F. Hegel, Natural Law, trans. T. M. Knox, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975), 90-92. See also Kojeve, Introduction, 247-48.

20. PM, 483. These are Baillie's words, not Hegel's.

21. Page 18. Creon's reproach to Haemon underscores Hegel's contention that woman acts on the adolescent male in her effort to destroy the pagan world. In Let's Spit on Hegel Carla Lonzi extrapolates from this relation to argue for the revolutionary potential of political solidarity between women and young men in bringing down the modern world of the patriarchs. See Chapter 12, Feminist Interpretations of G. W. F. Hegel, ed. Patricia J. Mills (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996), 275-97. The psychological basis of Creon's fear of womankind is explored by Eli Sagan in The Lust to Annihilate: A Psychoanalytic Study of Violence in Ancient Greek Culture (New York: Psychohistory Press, 1979), 95-101.

22. In their play The Island, Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona present the Antigone as a play within a play to reveal the ancient drama's relevance to the situation of South African prisoners. In both plays moral laws are juxtaposed to state laws to demonstrate that justice and the law are not necessarily the same thing. This point, as we have seen, is lost in Hegel's interpretation.

23. My intent here is not to demean "feminine intuition" but rather to reveal the sexist implications in Hegel's account which does demean it.

24. According to Hegel it is because Polyneices offered Antigone the ideal relationship of mutual recognition between woman and man in life that Polyneices makes the greatest claim on Antigone with his death. I have argued that within the family of origin Polyneices was only a potential man and becomes a man at the same time that he severs his relationship to his sister, thus challenging the sense in which this relationship can be seen as the ideal one between woman and man. According to Sophocles, it is not the relationship of recognition based on blood ties, but the uterine relationship, that exerts the primary claim on Antigone: It is the fact that Polyneices and Antigone are of the same womb, the same mother, that is most significant. Antigone says: "if I had suffered him who was born of my mother to lie in death an unburied corpse, in that case I would have sorrowed...it is nothing shameful to revere those...from the same womb" (lines 465-511). Here the ancient womb/tomb imagery, the association of women with life and death, is revealed as an integral part of the play. Creon shifts the discussion away from the uterine relationship to a discussion of the more general concept of blood ties (lines 512-13). This shift and the emphasis on the uterine relationship in the Greek text are revealed in the Oxford translation of the Antigone (1880).

25. Antigone may also be seen as the precursor of the suffragists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the women involved in the temperance movement insofar as those women were trying to achieve familial goals in the public realm. For an interesting analysis of this process see Jean Bethke Elshtain, "Moral Woman and Immoral Man: A Consideration of the Public-Private Split and Its Political Ramifications," Politics and Society, 4, no. 4 (1974): 453-73.

26. To be sure, Hegel believes that the real historical conflict of the pagan world would be visible only after the Christian revelation had introduced the possibility of its Aufhebung. Nevertheless, since Hegel sees the tragic conflict of the pagan world revealed through the great Greek tragedians, all significant aspects of the plays of these ancient authors would have to be taken up in the Aufhebung.

27. Hegel's philosophy is ideological in its lack of an analysis of the difference between the working class and the bourgeois family as well as in its patriarchal assumptions. It is difficult to know how the working-class woman, confined to a subsistence level of existence within her own family which is not based on property and capital, or confined to the bourgeois family as a domestic servant, fits Hegel's schema. The working-class woman produces and reproduces laborers, not heirs to family property.

28. G. W. F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, trans. T.M. Knox (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), para. 161-64, 111-14; hereafter cited as PR, with paragraph number followed by page number.

29. PR, para. 172, 116; Hegel also maintains this understanding of the relation between the family of origin and the family of procreation in the Aesthetics, 463-64.

30. Patricia Jagentowicz Mills, "Hegel and `The Woman Question': Recognition and Intersubjectivity," in The Sexism of Social and Political Theory: Women and Reproduction from Plato to Nietzsche, edited by Lorenne M.G. Clark and Lynda Lange (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979), 74-98; see also chap. 1 of my Woman, Nature, and Psyche (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 39-43.

31. My analysis of Hegel is part of a larger project which focuses on the relation between the domination of nature and the domination of woman in the dialectical tradition that includes Hegel, Marx, Marcuse, Horkheimer, and Adorno. See Mills, Woman, Nature, and Psyche.

32. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, 3-8.

33. Ibid., 191.


I II III IV EndNotes

Hegel's Antigone

by Patricia J. Mills