In modern society, apologies for questionable actions occasionally include the phrase “I’m sorry, but I just wasn’t myself”.  For human beings, an understandable attraction to a deterministic view of the universe exists, as it is comforting to attribute our faults to forces that operate outside of our control.  It is undeniable that human beings are constrained by the spatial, temporal, and logical condition of the physical world; each individual is brought into creation without willing his or her creation to occur, is limited to his or her own body, and is incapable of altering the essence of his or her surroundings.  However, these limitations do not negate the ability of each individual to select specific behaviors in response to external stimuli; in other words, they do not preclude the existence of free will.  Rather, in the view of the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, the unceremonious introduction of an individual into the world represents a condemnation to freedom, a peremptory exhortation to subjectively determine the meaning of a seemingly absurd existence.  In literature, this condemnation to freedom can be observed within Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone.  In this play, Antigone, a citizen of the Greek city-state, Thebes, faces a complex ethical dilemma that arises as a result of her conflicting responsibilities to her family and her state, and this dilemma cannot be solved by a general adherence to the prevalent ethical traditions of her people; therefore, Antigone is condemned to choose her own set of values, and in choosing she bears responsibility for her actions.

Within ancient Greek culture, individuals were burdened with familial and civic responsibilities; however, within the Greek tragedy Antigone, a situation arises in which utter devotion to both of these responsibilities is impossible.  Antigone is set in the Greek city-state of Thebes, and describes the events following the penultimate battle of a civil war waged between the armies of two brothers, Eteocles and Polynices.  Eteocles and Polynices are both slain in this battle, and the new ruler of Thebes, Creon, arranges a burial for Eteocles, but issues a mandate condemning the corpse of traitorous Polynices to be left in an unburied condition.  In this cultural context, burial was perceived to be essential for a deceased individual to secure safe passage into the depths of the underworld.  Antigone, the devoted sister of Polynices, maintains that Creon’s determination to impede Polynices’ passage into the afterlife “[dishonors] the laws the gods hold in honor” (91-92), and she feels an exigency to subvert Creon’s blasphemous decree by engaging in a covert burial of her brother.  However, Creon’s proclamation is a component of the terrestrial law of the Greek polis, and obedience to this aspect of law was considered essential in Greek society.  Therefore, regardless of the action Antigone chooses, she will be transgressing upon a particular dimension of traditional Greek ethics;  if she buries Polynices in accordance with the laws of the oikos, or household, she will do so in direct opposition to the interests of the polis, but if she chooses to meekly submit to the supreme authority of Creon, it will be at the expense of her brother’s spiritual welfare.

Antigone’s ethical quandary and her subsequent actions, when interpreted through the lens of the existentialist philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, is indicative of the utter subjectivity of ethical judgements and the existence of free will.  Within the transcribed lecture Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre argues that within the human individual, “existence precedes essence,” arguing that “man first exists: he materializes in the world, encounters himself, and only afterwards defines himself” (22).  


Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, by Caspar Friedrich (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

In saying this, Sartre denies the existence of a universality among the natural tendencies of human beings, and rejects the notion that human action is a product of a complex aggregation of external forces, arguing that “we have neither behind us, nor before us, in the luminous realm of value, any means of justification or excuse” for “our conduct” (29).  As Sartre progresses in his lecture, he introduces the concept of “abandonment” as the necessary annihilation of all a priori codes of objective morality in the wake of the rejection of God’s existence and the subsequent responsibility of individuals to fashion subjective values.  In order to elucidate this concept, Sartre provides an example of a young man who faces an ethical dilemma of similar magnitude to that of Antigone.  

In Sartre’s example, one of his students, a young man, experiences the loss of his brother in World War II, and feels compelled to avenge the death of his brother by enlisting in the military.  However, the young man’s mother is grief-stricken by the death of her son, and the young man realizes that “his mother lived only for him and that his absence … would plunge her into utter despair” (30).  Sartre describes the young man as “vacillating between two kinds of morality: a morality motivated by sympathy and individual devotion, and another morality with a broader scope;” in other words, the young man is torn between familial and civic duties (31).  In Sartre’s opinion, the young man will be unable to derive ethical justification from the Christian or Kantian doctrines of morality, as “no code of ethics on record” can be applied to this particular situation without contradicting itself (31).  When asked for his advice, Sartre tells the young man, “You are free, so choose; in other words, invent” (33).  Since the young man cannot refer to any a priori codes of ethics in order to address this situation, the concealed subjectivity of his ethical decisions is revealed, and he is condemned to construct a subjective system of values in order to address the particular situation in which he finds himself.  In a similar fashion, Antigone is also mired in a situation of utter moral ambiguity, although Antigone is not depicted as engaging in similar deliberations prior to her decision to bury Polynices; from the very beginning of the play, Antigone is entirely committed to the deities of the underworld.  However, the brazen and overweening nature of Antigone’s approach to Polynices’ burial should not be interpreted as evidence of the deterministic powers of love, autocratic governance, and divine intervention.  From an existentialist standpoint, Antigone’s decision to bury Polynices is representative of the utter freedom that human beings possess in the creation of subjective valuations.  Like Sartre’s young man, Antigone does not have the opportunity to resuscitate her loved one and transcend her tragic condition, but she is inherently endowed with the responsibility to craft a response to the physical reality that she inhabits.  The nature of her actions implies a unique devotion to her perception of the wishes of the divine, a devotion generated by her possession of an innate freedom in moral construction.  Further illustration of this intrinsic freedom can be found in the actions of Antigone’s sister Ismene; Ismene and Antigone were presumably nurtured in identical cultural traditions and are both confronted by the same moral quandary, but Ismene symbolically aligns herself with the law of the polis by refusing to assist Antigone in the burial of Polynices.  Antigone certainly had a finite number of choices available in light of the circumstances of her external environment, but her actions are ultimately a product of her subjective interpretation of her predicament.  

In order to rebut the preceding argument, it is conceivable that one would argue that ancient Greek tragedies espoused a wholly deterministic view of existence; however, the Greeks did not consider human actions to be entirely the product of divine forces, instead choosing to allocate a measure of responsibility to individuals who perpetrate actions as a result of conscious and calculated reasoning.  Within his book Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece, historian Jean-Pierre Vernant provides a detailed account of the legal, philosophical, and literary perceptions of human action in Greek culture.  Vernant argues that the Greek interpretation of human action does not attempt to refer to any notion of absolute autonomy or determinism; rather, he asserts that “the designs of the gods and the plans or passions of men are both at work in the tragic decision” (74).  For Vernant, “the nature of tragic action” is “defined by the simultaneous presence of a ‘self’ and something greater that is divine at work” (75).  However, the existence of divine forces exerting influence on human affairs does not remove responsibility from the actions of the tragic agent.  Vernant draws upon the example of Agamemnon, a king and tragic hero who sacrifices his daughter in order to garner favorable support from the gods (see Figure 1).  Vernant argues that while the murder “is certainly necessary by reason of the situation that presses upon the king,” the “murder is not only accepted but passionately desired by Agamemnon,” and the existence of this desire within Agamemnon leads him to be culpable for his actions (72).

Figure 1:  The Sacrifice of Iphigenia, by Francois Perrier (Source: Web Gallery of Art)

This reasoning can also be applied to Antigone’s transgression of Creon’s edict.  In Antigone, the desires of the gods are not presented in an explicit manner; instead, we are presented with the theological perspectives of Tiresias, Creon, Antigone, and the Chorus.  However, this nebulous portrayal of supernatural forces does not alter the fact that Antigone emphatically chooses to disobey Creon despite possessing full knowledge of the punishment that awaits her, thereby bearing responsibility for her actions.  If this blatant disregard for civic responsibility is not enough to convince the audience of Antigone’s ability to choose in the face of opposing forces and external stimuli, one must look no further than the circumstances of Antigone’s death.  Rather than succumb to an execution involving entombment and eventual starvation, Antigone chooses to determine the circumstances of her own death by committing suicide.  This action implies a negation of the idea that external forces are the sole arbiters of Antigone’s essence.  It would certainly be fallacious to argue that Sophocles constructed the character of Antigone in order to demonstrate the existence of free will, as “our ideas of choice and free choice … are not directly applicable” to the lexicon and worldview of Greek antiquity (Vernant 55).  However, it is evident that Sophocles allocated a measure of responsibility to Antigone, insofar as she was depicted as being the conscious mother of her own actions.

The Greek tragedy Antigone primarily features a character who is confronted by external stimuli that operates beyond her control: Polynices’ death, Creon’s edict, and the prevailing Grecian perception of women are conditions of Antigone’s existence that she is powerless to alter.  However, this portrayal of a lack of control over the condition of human existence does not necessarily indicate a repudiation of human agency.  Rather, Antigone bears full responsibility for her decision to bury Polynices, as her decision is derived from the subjectivity of her own chosen valuations.  Antigone is confronted with a situation in which her presupposed responsibilities to the oikos and the polis are diametrically opposed, and she is bereft of any prevailing code of ethics appropriate to this particular situation.  She must choose her values, and in choosing she assumes an unavoidable responsibility for her actions.  As I stated earlier, it would be fallacious to project our modern conception of “free will” onto the literary phenomenon of Greek tragedy.  That being said, Antigone’s predicament is not an obsolete creation of antiquity, as it can be abstracted to the existential condition of modern human beings.  Human beings are hurled into an existence of apparent absurdity and meaninglessness, and they are incapable of altering or transcending the temporal, physical, and logical structure of this existence.  However, the conditions of this existence result in a condemnation to freedom that ultimately allows an individual’s essence to be a fervently cultivated product of a garden of inner subjectivity.

Works Cited

Sartre, Jean-Paul.  Existentialism Is a Humanism.  Trans. Carol Macomber.  New Haven: Yale University, 2007.  Print.

Sophocles.  The Three Theban Plays.  Trans. Robert Fagles.  New York: Penguin Books, 1984.  Print.

Vernant, Jean-Pierre.  Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece.  Trans. Janet Lloyd.  New York: Zone Books, 1990.  Print.