by Bryan Cheong

We are all political creatures, and cannot be rid of our place in society, and are thereby subject to laws, customs and authorities insofar as we are part of a larger community of people. That we are thus subject, however, does not mean that the individual’s will is entrapped. Rather, we can be free if our volition is in harmony with that of the society we live in. The Confucian way of navigating the competing demands and roles we play in a community is to balance between them and “find the single most humane solution to problems posed by social interaction.”[1] We are given the political freedom to realise the potentiality of becoming good citizens, to find a way to balance between sometimes incommensurate or contradictory duties, and to shape a manner of action and living that is uniquely our own. In this sense, the good citizen is free. But such freedom can only be afforded if the possibility of good citizenship exists in the first place, and that is not always the case. Sophocles’ Antigone is torn between an unyielding devotion to her dead brother and her place in the city of Thebes under Creon’s rule, two duties for which there is no ‘middle way’ of resolution. Caught in this tragic dilemma and excluded from a public sphere that allows no place for women, nothing she could have said or done could have harmonised Antigone’s passionate will with her role in an unjust society.

We live everywhere within the constraints of the society we are born in, and are subject to duties and internal passions we have little control over. But even if “each thing cannot escape its place in the course of nature,” [2] we can still be free when our will is exercised in harmony with the authorities, passions and duties that rule over us. In the same way, to be devoted to traditions, family and the laws of the state does not necessarily require an enslavement of our will. Rather, the good citizen comes to embrace these duties and authorities that tie them to their community by their own volition. It is only in the space of these interlocking relationships that bind us to one another that freedom has meaning, and is given a purpose. But when duties and authorities contradict, our choices become tragic dilemmas, and the morality of our actions cannot be committed without some remainder or ambiguity of wrongdoing. Antigone’s two conflicting roles, as sister to Polynices and as a woman of Thebes, produce her dilemma. For flouting the will of the state, the Chorus rebukes Antigone for going “too far [. . .] smashing against the high throne of Justice” [line 944]. But we may argue that it is not Antigone herself that forced this collision. Antigone not unjustly asserts that Creon “has no right to keep me from my own” [line 59], and she was merely fulfilling her natural duty by giving Polynices some semblance of burial. The germ of contradiction was already planted when the state, in the decree of Creon, prevented her from fulfilling her role as a sister.

In the Confucian conception, a ruler provides a moral centre for his state by “cultivating and giving expression to his fundamental moral endowment, serves as an example for others to emulate.”[3] A ruler’s virtue brings a positive influence throughout their realm and brings their subjects into harmony; conversely, the influence of an unjust ruler brings the state and its individuals into conflict, for “the moral character of the ruler is the wind; the moral character of those beneath him is the grass. When the wind blows, the grass bends”[4] and the ruler’s influence is inescapable. Antigone is not just a tragedy of individuals, but is a tragedy that swallows the entire city of Thebes. It is a tragedy of an entire society thrown into disharmony. According to Tiresias, it is Creon’s “high resolve that sets this plague on Thebes” [line 1123] in issuing a decree that, while it satisfies Creon’s own sense of justice, is in the end contrary to the customs of rites due to the dead. The reason why “it’s terrible when the one who does the judging / judges things all wrong” [lines 366-367] is that unjust laws make the option of being a good citizen utterly impossible for everyone. Either, like Antigone, the individual’s actions become in conflict with the state’s laws or, like with Ismene, become in conflict with personal and familial duties. Just as the Chorus recognises the guilt in Antigone’s actions, Ismene herself admits that she acts in a blameworthy manner and “beg the dead forgive me—/ I’m forced, I have no choice—I must obey / the ones who stand in power” [lines 78-79]. Her language of begging for forgiveness connotes guilt. Ismene knows she is being disloyal to the dead, and this pains her. If to be free is to be able to choose between more than one option, and the lack of freedom is to be forced to only one option, Antigone and Ismene are in an even worse state, for they have not even one genuine option before them, because regardless of the course they choose, both sisters earn their dooms, and must come to terms with violating some law or duty.

Antigone, as a woman in a near-mythological setting of a Classical Greek play, was arguably never free in the first place, and the option of being a good citizen was never open to her. Insofar as “what we say, think, and do depends on the discourse of the particular group or culture we live in,”[5] any expression of her individual will is necessarily disharmonious with her society, and the only harmonious existence possible for her is an inanimate captivity. When Creon accuses Haemon of “fighting on her side, the woman’s side” [line 827], his very language takes for granted that there is something errant in trying to advocate for women, to even argue on their behalf in public discourse. In the light of this, we get a measure of the gravity of Antigone’s act of civil disobedience and open argument with Creon. Ismene warns Antigone to “remember we are women, / we’re not born to contend with men. Then too, / we’re underlings, ruled by much stronger hands, / so we must submit to this, and things still worse” [lines 74-75]. By the word “born” Ismene implies that a woman’s ‘place in the course of nature’ in Thebes is to only passively suffer. In their twofold-captive position as women and underlings, Antigone and Ismene are never and nowhere free, for they must remain either meekly submissive as receptacles of suffering, or choose a rebellion that throws their own fate and their city’s harmony into disarray. Antigone chooses the latter course, and while we may call Creon unjust, one of the main reasons for his insistence on punishing Antigone is to redress this imbalance, for he angrily observes that the social order of Thebes would be other wise overthrown, and “I am not the man, not now: she is the man / if this victory goes to her and she goes free” [lines 541-542]. This discord in Thebes’ precarious political peace arises from the collision of wills of both Antigone and he, and not just through Creon’s rulership alone.

Although Antigone is barred from the freedom of the good citizen, she still has other means to express some form of self-determination. Her project of giving Polynices the same burial and rites as Eteocles is impossible, because a burial with full honours and rites can only be fulfilled with the accord of the city of Thebes as a collective society. Antigone can only afford to scoop “up dry dust” by the “handfuls, quickly” [line 477] in a makeshift libation with the barest of rites, because she is an individual acting out of accord with her city as a whole. Confucian discussions of power and freedom mostly discuss them in political and social contexts, in the context of a person’s relationship with other members of their community. Lacking any means of political power, in the Confucian sense Antigone has become an enslaved un-person. The only aspect of freedom left to Antigone is her exercise of choice over her own character, for which the choices we make as individuals are “not just one’s conscious choice of a goal but a conscious choice in terms of which one comes to define oneself.”[6] Antigone is fated to die only in that she actively sought and chose this fate and set her course in motion in the first place. Her death sentence was a sentence she fought for persistently. In her arguments with Creon she urges him, “why delay? Your moralising repels me [. . .] Enough. Give me glory!” [lines 558-560]. When Antigone tells Ismene that “you chose to live, I chose to die [. . .] I gave myself to death” [lines 626-630], she means that she has set out to define her nature as one devoted to the dead, to her interpretation of the traditions and laws of her gods, and to her brother, in opposition to the will of the state. Her insistence on dying for her devotion serves, for her and for her city, as proof of her identity as a devotee, that indeed she “was born to join in love, not hate—/ that is my nature” [lines 590-591]. By her actions, Antigone demonstrates her ownership of her own character. Within the political context she inhabits, this tragic choice is one of the few genuine options open to her. Having rejected the laws of her city and the role she plays in it, she enters into this choice utterly alone, rejecting even her sister Ismene, to receive the prize of her unique punishment. It is for this that the Chorus calls Antigone “a law to yourself, / alone” [lines 912-913].

Through Antigone, we observe that freedom can only exist in the fragile space where the will of individuals and the society they inhabit are in harmony. But as it is in the making of music, it is far more difficult to maintain a harmony than to fall into discord, and the existence of this space is contingent on the fulfilment of this political harmony. In the midst of the contradictions that entangle her, no such space exists for Antigone. For her, the freedom of the good citizen becomes an impossibility, and her tragedy thereby an inescapable inevitability.

[1] Nylan, Michael. “Boundaries of the Body and Body Politic in Early Confucian Thought.” In Confucian Ethics, edited by Shun Kwong-Loi & David B. Wong, 133. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

[2] Mencius, book VII. 1:2. my own translation.

[3] Ames, Roger T., and Huai-nan tzu. The Art of Rulership: A Study In Ancient Chinese Political Thought. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1983.

[4] Legge, James. Confucian Analects, the Great Learning, and the Doctrine of the Mean. 
Project Gutenberg, 2002. First published 1861 by Clarendon Press. (accessed 30 October, 2014).

[5] Yearley, Lee. “The Perfected Person in the Radical Zhuangzi.” In Experimental Essays on Zhuangzi, edited by Victor H. Mair, 126. Dunedin: Three Pines Press, 2010. First published 1983 by University of Hawai’i Press.

[6] Cheng Chun-ying. “A Theory of Confucian Selfhood: Self-cultivation and Free Will in Confucian Philosophy.” In Confucian Ethics, edited by Shun Kwong-Loi & David B. Wong, 133. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

The translation of Antigone used throughout this essay comes from Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus. Translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Books, 1982.