The past half-millennium that began with the fall of Constantinople and the subsequent discovery of the New World has gone by so many titles that its name might be legion: It has been the age of “progress” and “discovery,” a period of “enlightenment,” the era of “democracy.” However, all these glorious nicknames that stud the pages of history textbooks like so many Homeric epithets are surface indications of a darker truth that lies in the depths, that this has really been the age of false dichotomies, which began in the distinction between the imagined “Dark Ages” and the rediscovery of individual dignity in the 15th century, and it is dying, crushed under the rubble of its shattered historical lies. Progress and Enlightenment, Democracy and Individualism are so many words on a tombstone, and it is time to lay their ghosts.
Philosophers from Montaigne and Descartes to Marx and Mill have spent the past four centuries honing abstractions into weapons to cut the cords that weave men and women into the social fabric: the concept of absolute national sovereignty that sucked away the vitality of communities, families, and the Church; the concept of equality that obliterated all the little differences and polarities that converge into a commonwealth; and the concept of the free autonomous individual that accomplished, from the bottom, the social and political revolution which the sovereign state was enforcing from the top.
By the mid-20th century, no political discussion could be conducted if it was not expressed in the polar terms of the Individual and the State. Libertarians and leftists, who might disagree on virtually everything else, do concur on the terms of the debate and reduce political theory and practice down to the allocation of power between atomized individuals and the molecular state that may or may not express their “general will.” These twin concepts, sown by Hobbes and Locke and Rousseau, are the dragon’s teeth that have sent poor men into killing each other over theories of national destiny, class conflict, and human rights.
Although discourses on political theory are salted with discussions of the state — its origins, nature, and development—the individual is taken for granted, as if the mere fact that our bodies are separate constitutes a self-evident proof that the individual is universal. It is a strange fact, however, that the Greeks—who are said to have had a word for everything—only slowly were able to conceptualize the individual, and even Aristotle wondered if an individual human being could be regarded as happy if, after he died, his family and community suffered a disaster.
In the earliest and greatest works of our literature—the Iliad and Odyssey—the outlandish treatment of the human personality led so great a scholar as Bruno Snell to conclude that the Greeks of Homer’s time could not conceive of the human being as an individual. Homer has no good word corresponding to English words like person or individual, and when his warriors react or reflect, it is usually through some physical (or quasi-physical) organ. When Agamemnon rages against Achilles for his presumption, his phrenes (diaphragm?) are swollen black, and various emotions are felt or expressed by activities in the heart or in the thymus. When Achilles is making up his mind whether or not to draw his sword and kill Agamemnon for his insults, his decision to meditate a more rational revenge is portrayed as divine intervention—Athena pulls him by the hair and tells him to vent his spleen (the Greeks are not the only people to think organically) in words.
Although it is unlikely that the inventors of our civilization were far more primitive, intellectually, than any known culture, the ancient Greeks, even in the age of Aristotle, never fully arrived at a conception of the human individual that would have pleased a modern philosopher.
Obviously, even Homeric Greeks had names to distinguish their individuality, and there were ways of metaphorically referring to the individual as “the head of so-and-so.” In the first line of Sophocles’ Antigone, the heroine calls upon her sister Ismene, saying literally, “Oh common self-sister head of Ismene,” which Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones (in his recent Loeb edition) Englishes as “My own sister Ismene, linked to myself” Although the word “head” is used to indicate the person of Ismene, the two sisters are verbally linked to a degree that would be difficult in English, and throughout this great tragedy, Sophocles lays great stress on the common identity of the two sisters with their two brothers and with their entire lineage.
The plot of the play is simple enough. King Oedipus of Thebes, who inadvertently killed his father and married his mother, left behind four children: the daughters, Ismene and Antigone, and the sons, Eteoeles and Polynices, who quarreled over power and precedence. Expelled from Thebes, a disgruntled Polynices recruits an army of champions and attacks his native city in a vain attempt to recover his power.
The brothers kill each other in battle, and the new ruler, their maternal uncle Creon, orders that the body of Polynices be left unburied and unmourned on pain of death. Polynices’ sister Antigone is caught sprinkling dust on the body. Brought to Creon, she confesses her “crime” and is condemned to be buried alive in a cave. Wlien her fiancé, Creon’s son Haemon, attempts to intercede for her, he is rebuffed and goes off to join Antigone in death. The prophet Teiresias, who warns Creon of his folly, is accused of taking bribes; but on second thought, Creon orders the burial of Polynices and rushes off to prevent the death of Antigone only to find his son weeping over the dead girl, who has hanged herself. After attacking his father, Haemon turns the sword upon himself Creon’s wife, hearing the news, kills herself, leaving her husband to reflect on the vicissitudes of human life.
Few ancient masterpieces have been revived and discussed more often than the Antigone, and few have been more distorted in the process. The play has been viewed as a contest between religion and the state, women and men, the individual and society. During World War II, Jean Anouih composed a French version in which Antigone obviously represents France in resistance and Creon is the Nazi tyrant. But most such interpretations, while valid up to a point, overlook certain facts of life (both ancient and modern) that are essential to any comprehensive understanding of the play.
The crucial problem of Antigone is the burial of Polynices; It is the family’s religious duty to bury a dead member, whatever he might have done. An enemy of the city remains a member of the family, and unless the social order is actually threatened, it can never be a good thing for a child to treat a parent with disrespect or inform the authorities of his brother’s bad habits. As Antigone tells Creon, “There is no shame in showing regard for those of one’s own stock.” Creon asks her if doing honor to her traitor-brother is not an insult to Eteoeles, who defended his country, and when Antigone tells him that the god of the dead demands it, Creon insists that the good and the bad are not equally deserving.
Antigone, speaking as a believer, explains to her uncle that no one knows what the gods of the dead think is honorable. Creon, thinking as a statesman, insists; “An enemy is never a friend, even when he is dead,” which sounds sensible enough, until Antigone goes to the heart of the question, which is the duty of blood: “I was born not to share in hatred but in love”—that is, it is part of the human condition to care for those we are related to.
Creon exemplifies the political leader who understands everything under the sun except the power of love and the meaning of death. In the end, his arrogance costs him his entire family. Antigone’s ease is also hard. Her brother, admittedly, became an enemy of the people, and he could not have been an easy man to “love.” But this young girl’s love is not a merely emotional attachment: It is an unseen umbilical cord that ties her to all her family, dead as well as living. Since all the male heirs of Oedipus are dead, it is up to the elder daughter to discharge the family’s functions in life and death. Such “heiresses” in Athens were typically married off to uncles or cousins to preserve the lineage and property. (In this sense, it is perfectly natural that she is engaged to Haemon, whatever the two might think of each other.) Although she is a very brave girl—her actions would be heroic even in a man—her defiance of the ruler is not an expression of her individual will but of her commitment to her family. Paradoxically, it is the strength of that commitment that impels her to an act of individual heroism.
The intellectual heart of the play is the so-called “ode on man” celebrating the accomplishments of the human race and warning against human presumption. Playing on the word deinos (which means “exciting wonder and terror” but also, when used of people, can mean “good at” doing something) the chorus tells us that there are many wonderful/terrible things on earth, but none is more wonderful/terrible/skillful than man.
Human skills, they sing, have invented devices with which they have tamed the beasts, and in inventing society, man has proved himself to be “all-resourceful”: It is only death’s kingdom that he approaches without resources. The meaning is clear: Creon, in putting his trust in human skill, fails to realize that human ambition is limited by the gods of the dead. The point is driven home:
Skillful beyond hope is the contrivance of his art, and he advances sometimes to evil, at other times to good. When he applies the laws of the earth and the justice the gods have sworn to uphold he is high in the city; outcast from the cit) is he with whom the ignoble consorts for the sake of gain [i.e., his individual advancement].
So long as man continues to see himself in the context of his community, he prospers, but if he tries to set himself above the traditional prejudices and superstitious reverence of his people, he will, like Creon, destroy everything.
This play of Sophocles is not “about” individualism; what is striking is not so much what he says about self-will and community as the social and moral attitudes that are taken for granted both in the Antigone and in other Attic tragedies.
The conflicts between loyalties—loyalty to kin, loyalty to community, loyalty to the gods—are the constant theme of Creek literature in its “Golden Age.” The strain of attachment was a reflection of Creek social life in places where the polis was growing at the expense of clans and kindreds. During the same period. Creek religion was subject to great stress from rationalizing philosophers like Pericles’ friend, Anaxagoras, who taught that the sun was a hot metallic ball and explained away prodigies on a naturalistic basis. In Homer’s day, human motivations were inextricably entwined in the divine, and it was not possible to conceive of man except, in some sense, as a projection or plaything of the gods. By the time of Aeschylus and Sophocles, however, hun)an nature is in the forefront but not to be understood except in relation to the divine—and woe unto the mortal ruler like Creon, who contemned the power of Hades, or Pentheus (in Euripides’ Bacchae), who tried to suppress the rites of Dionysus.
The classic moment, best caught in the Parthenon sculptures, is the generation when the divine, the transcendent, and the ideal are still glimpsed, as in an X-ray vision, beneath the surface of human life. Earlier Greek sculptors had conceived of the human body in essentially geometric terms of angles and mathematical proportions. As the demands of realism were felt increasingly in the sixth century, the formulas had to be constantly revised; however, the natural human form was never the goal, but a human form in which both mathematical perfection and our ordinary intuition of human beauty were realized. The moment of balance comes in the mid-fifth century, when Greek sculptors accomplished the most realistic sculpture the world had seen without backing down a step on their mathematical idealism.
That balance between the divine and human, between flesh and pure number, is the essence of classicism, and once it is lost, religion retreats into the realms of fables and philosophy, and artists must be content with flesh alone. The tension in the Greek mind was only restored when they recovered the sense of the divine by learning to accept the man who is God.
And so it went for a thousand years and more, when the Western mind recovered its virility, the primitive vigor of archaic Greece, in that richly creative millennium we used to call the Dark Ages. Another set of classic moments were reached in the Renaissance, as one by one the cities and peoples of Europe rediscovered the person without, at least at first, losing their faith in the divine.
But this time around, the descent into the “all-too-human” was more precipitous. Instead of sinking into the glorious mediocrity of Hellenistic civilization which lasted, after all, for a thousand years, we slid violently into the abyss. While philosophers and political leaders dreamed of being Napoleonic heroes and Nietzschean strongmen, in reality they were only becoming individualists, producers and consumers whose highest conception of community was mutual exploitation, for whom love was sex without children. Their true philosopher was neither Mill nor Nietzsche, but the Marquis de Sade, a man born 200 years before his time. In the name of individual liberty, Sade opposed capital punishment but championed abortion and women’s rights, (hi more playful moments, he also defended the value of theft, rape, infanticide, and murder.)
If the “divine Marquis” could walk up and down upon the earth today, he would give his blessing to the films and television programs that encourage us to think of children not as extensions of a family but as individual objects for sexual exploitation, and to a global political-economic system that, in the name of “individual human rights,” has assumed more power over the world than Greon ever dreamed of exercising in tiny Thebes and that, like him, is bent on eradicating “the justice the gods have sworn to uphold.” Indeed the “gods” themselves are made the enemy of the state, as if America were the Thebes of Pentheus and Creon.
Sade’s only disappointment would come from the realization that there was so little left for him to do. He might want to run for some high political office in the United States, but he would find those positions were already being filled admirably by his disciples.