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  • Antigone's Two Laws:Greek Tragedy and the Politics of Humanism
  • Bonnie Honig (bio)

By insisting on a 'common' corporeal vulnerability, I may seem to be positing a new basis for humanism.

—Judith Butler

Certain great themes such as ' humanism' can be used to any end whatsoever.

—Michel Foucault

Only tragedy can deal adequately with humanism on its high horse.

—Laurence Michel1

Humanism is making a comeback; not the rationalist, universalist variety discredited by poststructuralism and the horrific events of the twentieth century, but a newer variant, one that reprises an earlier humanism in which what is common to humans is not rationality but the ontological fact of mortality, not the capacity to reason but vulnerability to suffering. This resurgent mortalist humanism is connected to what has been dubbed recently "the turn to ethics" or "the ethical turn."2 Finitude is said to soften us up for the call of the other, to open us up to the solicitations of ethics and bypass the intractable divisions of politics. I argue here that even this humanism is implicated in political divisions it claims to transcend and, moreover, that an ethics of mortality and suffering is no adequate replacement for a (post)humanist politics with agonistic intent.

I proceed by way of Sophocles' Antigone, the tragedy of lament and suffering that has been centrally important in the last forty years to political theorists and for centuries to both humanists and antihumanists. Quarrels about whether Antigone is a political or ethical actor have been unrelenting since Hegel used the play to confine an ethical care for the [End Page 1] dead to the private realm. This essay offers a historical reading of the play that shows Antigone is not merely the lamenting sister Hegel admired nor the political martyr appropriated since by dissidents all over the modern world. She is a lamenting sister and she does die for her cause, but she is, more fundamentally, a political actor embroiled in fifth-century burial, kinship, and polis politics. Her until-now-little-appreciated uses of parody and mimicry, tracked in detail here, stage the dilemmas of resistance politics in ways still relevant to us. But that relevance can be overstated, abused, or misconstrued. When some compare contemporary mourning mothers to Antigone, they do so intending to underscore the politicality of actions they admire, but their comparison also undermines that aim. Classicizing the mourning mother naturalizes the maternal and the human, and creates a new universalism: we humans are and always have been, or had, mothers who mourn our mortality. And this universalism, into which tragedy is said to interpellate us, grounds the mortalist-humanist turn to ethics, displacing the conflicts and divisions that are fundamental to both tragedy and politics.

Humanism and Tragedy

Humanists have long found in Greek tragedy an illustration of their ideal, but tragedy seems a strange genre on which to pin the celebration of the human. In tragedy, after all, "everything humanistically worthwhile is blighted, then irretrievably cracked; men are made mad, and then destroyed," says Laurence Michel. Rather than depict a "Human Spirit" that is "autonomous and transcendent" (634), tragedy debunks such "pretensions." Humanist critics miss this, Michel argues, because they focus in Aristotelian fashion on the spectators' assumed pity for tragedy's victims ("the heart of the beholder") rather than on the play's disposal of them ("the heart of the play" [636]).

This split between text and reception, recently revived by a turn to reception studies in Classics, is not necessary to explain humanism's appropriation of this difficult genre, however, for where Michel sees only death and defeat, others find inspiring self-sacrifice and redemption. (Is Michel's approach secularist and that of many humanist critics providential?) If humanists promote tragedy as their genre of choice, it is because they think tragedy renders clear the human spirit, exhibiting human willingness to sacrifice on behalf of a principle, commitment, or desire, or knowingly to accept one's implication in unchosen acts or defiantly to march to one's death with head held high or to refuse vengeance or even justice on behalf of love for another or perhaps even [End Page 2] an ideal of self...