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Political Obligation: An Ancient Illustration

Judith N. Shklar

Obligation may lead to conflict. It implies, on one hand, the duty to obey the law, to keep promises, to follow social rules generally, because society depends upon our doing so and because it is inherently right and the condition of justice. On the other hand, the difficulty is that we may have grounds for believing that the rules are not right. Much of this course will deal with why people have made that claim and what arguments were then put forward for either obeying or disobeying the laws or the existing government. That is not all. We may have loyalties that are simply in conflict with the demands of the rules: loyalty to the gods, to families, to friends, to affinity groups, or even to an ideal of human perfection. It is fortunate that at the very dawn of our intellectual history a play was written in which many of these themes arise: Sophocles’ Antigone (441 B.C.). Drama in Greece was not like our theater. These dramas were open-air public events and also religious rituals. The stories originated in familiar myths but were given specific treatment by exclusively male poets. Masks, dancing, and music were part of the performance. They perhaps resembled our opera; they were terrifically powerful. Indirectly the gods were always present. They have planned the entire course of events, and they are often malevolent and appear to enjoy human suffering. Families are cursed for some infraction on the part of one member, and the rage of the gods is brought down on one generation after another. Given that everything is determined by the gods and by their quarrels with one another, what room is there for human responsibility? Plenty, it appears. Like actors in a play we can perform our part well or badly. It is not so much what we do as how we do it. We can behave fittingly or inappropriately, and the gods and other people hold us responsible for it, punishing or praising us.

Politics is almost always involved in a tragedy because it is about heroic individuals who are of necessity aristocrats, kings, or great nobles. No one else matters, except as background. These are men who rule, and their ethical problems are those of powerful men. The great fault of such men is hubris: excessive pride, immoderate willfulness that defies the gods, enrages them, and ends in disaster for the defiant male. So the moral system that we confront in Greek drama is in many ways remote from our own, which does not mean that we cannot see its power or feel its impact. Usually there is one hero in a play, or at most two heroes. They are called protagonists, and all of Sophocles’ heroes have certain characteristics which make them tragic. Not only are they doomed by the gods; they have personalities that bring them down. They are intransigent and inflexible, they will not listen to reason, they refuse to change, they are passionate and morally and intellectually unbalanced; the mockery of the world does not move them because they think of themselves as equals of the gods. As such they are utterly alone, and their despair at the end is terrible. They are autonomous—that is, a law unto themselves, which is what the word literally means in Greek. All of this marks the two central figures of Antigone.

There are three main interpretations: A (Antigone) is good and true and C (Creon) is a villain; C is right and A, though noble, is wrong; both A and C are right and wrong and undo one another. I am inclined to think, as do many contemporary scholars, that the last is correct; but most readers have preferred the first interpretation, and some very clever philosophers, notably Hegel, have held the second view. You should therefore feel perfectly free to make up your own mind. Whatever you choose to think you will be in fine company. There are no acts in a Greek play, but between each episode a chorus comments upon the actions we have just seen or introduces philosophical and religious reflections that pull us back from the main events of the drama and allow us to rise above them momentarily. The chorus does not necessarily express the view of the dramatist; in the case of Antigone we are told that the chorus consists of the chief citizens, the elders of the city of Thebes—but they too are not involved directly in the struggles of the main characters.

From the first we know that the two girls whose conversation opens the play are the daughters of Oedipus, who had unknowingly killed his father and married his mother. When he found out what he had done he blinded himself and left the city; his wife, Jocasta, killed herself. Antigone, Ismene, and the two brothers who have just killed each other are all the children of this incestuous, and therefore cursed, marriage. Antigone opens the play by recalling these facts and raging against the hostility that must haunt her and her family. Her gentle sister is just numbed. Antigone then reveals her plan. The king of Thebes, her uncle, Jocasta’s brother, has decreed that one of the slain brothers, Polynices, shall not be buried and that his body is to remain exposed to be consumed by birds and beasts. Anyone who tries to bury him will be stoned to death in public, the usual punishment for people who have committed polluting crimes. The other brother, Eteocles, received a state funeral, because he had defended the city against his brother, who had been a traitor, having married a princess from Argos and joined its army against Thebes. He had a good reason to do so: he and his brother were supposed to alternate yearly in ruling Thebes, but Eteocles would not step down when his term was up. Nevertheless, treason it was, and traitors were reviled, and refusing to bury them was not unknown. Antigone, however, intends to bury her brother and asks her sister to help her. Ismene refuses and offers four reasons for not going along with Antigone’s scheme. First, they are the last living members of their family and they are defenseless. They will be destroyed if they disobey the law and the king. Second, they are women, unfit for battle with men. Third, they are subjects of the king, Creon, and should obey him. She will ask forgiveness of the dead, but she will obey because it is her obligation, her duty to do so. Fourth and finally, the whole country is against this project. No one is interested in helping them. They would be going against the entire public. To this Antigone replies in scorn that Ismene has cast aside the principles which even the gods honor: first, the dead have a greater claim on her than the living; second, she loves her brother, and she is ready to suffer and to die for him. Hers is a “holy crime,” which sounds like an impossibility, but it does not seem so to her. She never denies that she is a lawbreaker.

From On Political Obligation by Judith N. Shklar. Published by Yale University Press in 2019. Reproduced with permission.

Judith N. Shklar was the John Cowles Professor of Government at Harvard University and the author of The Faces of Injustice.

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