An Essay on Oedipus and Antigone
by Bill White
Neither Oedipus nor Antigone is guilty of any particular crimes. In the case of Oedipus, he violated neither divine law nor the law of man; in Antigone’s case, her fault is the method by which he strove to do that which the Gods had decreed. Only from the mundane perspective of seeing crime in the punishment can either be condemned.
It was a maxim of Ancient Greece that one should count no man happy until he was dead, just as it was recognized that material happiness was more the product of fortune than personal excellence or evil. Most Classical heroes suffered punishment; many died in misery. But this material punishment did not detract from their greatness, just as, in historical time, the terrible death of a figure like Cato, who disemboweled himself in old age and still failed to quickly die, does not detract from the respect paid him.
In the case of Oedipus, during the first period of his life, he is largely unconscious of his guilt, and actively trying to avoid it. He kills his father at a crossroads, after just provocation, and marries his mother unawares as part of his ascension to the kingship. The curse he is under is not the result of his personal failings – he is born to tainted blood, and is unable to escape the fate that has been woven for him.
Where Oedipus shows his excellence is in his response to these evils. Upon discovering he has fulfilled the curse, he blinds himself – an act both physically disabling and disqualifying him for the kingship. (Blinding, in fact, continued to be a method of disqualifying nobility among the Greeks through the late Byzantine Empire). Having violated taboo, Oedipus sacrifices himself to the law, thus affirming and reinforcing it. In some contexts, this sacrifice could have become a reaffirming act, such as the sacrifice of Odin’s eye to the well of Mimir, or as some tantric Hindu cults move beyond taboo to place the initiate beyond divine law. Oedipus’ own ascensions to the heavens may, in fact, reflect this final judgment.
Really, the moral question surrounding Oedipus is not in his own life, but in the curse he chooses to place on his sons. Having taken upon himself responsibility for the curse, why does he choose to affirm it and pass it on to his children? That, however, is a question for another essay; here he is only charged with murder and incest.
With Antigone, the question is both that of the proper relationship between subject and sovereign and between man and woman. As further discussed in my essay on heroism and arête, the excellence of men and women are of different types, and Antigone’s fault is in not finding the excellence proper to her type.
Creon is the legitimate sovereign of Thebes; he is of royal blood and no usurper. This is important, [because] if he were not the legitimate sovereign, the analysis would be different. But being legitimate, the question becomes one of Antigone’s proper relationship to him.
Antigone’s fault is not in being morally wrong, but in failing to recognize her position as a subject and a female. Her position relative to Creon entitles her to comment – she is of royal blood and of proper caste to play a role in governance. However, the arête of a woman is not in action, but in the generation of action in the man to which she is dedicated and united, just as the arête of a subject is found in obedience to the sovereign. Proper action for her would have been to either persuade Creon of his error, or manipulate (really, unite) with her lover so as to cause him to bring about the necessary change (though, given Haemon’s effeminate nature, her inability to attach to him is understandable).
There is no question, though, of Creon’s error in denying the corpse of Polynices a proper burial. Vengeance for mortals does not extend beyond death. His lapse from righteousness also contributes to Antigone’s moral error, as he becomes unable to command her due to his faults. His fault, as well as hers, is responsible for the tragedy.
Neither Oedipus nor Antigone is in the moral wrong. Insofar as the will of the sovereign is the law, only Antigone can be said to violate the laws of man. But more important than the mundane law is Oedipus’ excellence in adhering to the divine and Antigone’s error in diverging from it. These kinds of metaphysical rights and wrongs are not for men to judge, and are best left to the gods and fates, who judge them whether men follow or not.