Tyranny and Blood:Rethinking Creon
This essay revisits Sophocles's Theban tragedies to question the usual interpretation of Creon as a tyrant intent on forcing a masculine "rule of law" on an innocent Antigone. By looking at Hölderlin's German translation of Antigone and what we know about kingship and kinship in ancient Greece, I offer an alternative interpretation that shows the character of Creon in a different light, reinforcing claims made by Bernard Williams and Martin Heidegger, among others, about the ways in which we misunderstand the Greeks, and some of the consequences of doing so.
This is certainly true for every translation, because every translation must necessarily accomplish the transition of the spirit of one language into that of another.—Martin Heidegger1
We all know who and what Creon was. He was a tyrant—a proto-Nazi, according to French playwright Jean Anouilh. He was not even the same person in Sophocles's three Theban plays, according to translator H. D. F. Kitto.2 He was Antigone's uncle, her mother's brother. He was a symbol of the transition from a (feminine) "rule of tradition" to a (masculine) "rule of law" in ancient Greece, according to political scientist Catherine A. Holland.3 We also all know what those [End Page 1] terms mean—tyrant, the same person, uncle, brother, rule of tradition, rule of law. Unless, of course, we are philosophers.
I do not intend to argue here with all of these characterizations. The gender dynamics in Antigone, for instance, are fairly clear—"Now she would be the man, not I, if she / Defeated me and did not pay for it," Creon says (TT, p. 18)—and they have been extensively dealt with in the literature. And whether or not Sophocles is consistent in his portrayal of Creon, especially in the posthumously produced Oedipus at Colonus, is a matter of literary interpretation that we will return to only briefly later on. The remaining terms, however—tyrant, uncle, brother—raise important philosophical, as well as historical and literary, questions.
This was brought home to me when I saw a production of Friedrich Hölderlin's German translation of Antigone in the Roman amphitheater in Trier, Germany, not long after seeing a brilliant production of Oedipus Tyrannus at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. The portrayals of Creon in both productions helped illuminate for me the distance between what we all "know" about these plays and what is entailed in transforming any of Sophocles's characters, but especially Creon, from cultural icons into "real" people who lived almost three millennia ago.
The law is made first of all for you, Antigone, the law is made first of all for the daughters of kings.—Jean Anouilh4
Two main features of Sophocles's Theban cycle provide counterarguments to the interpretation of Creon as a tyrant. One is that the chronologically first, if historically middle, play is called Oedipus Tyrannus, meaning merely "Oedipus the king." Classicist David Grene suggests intentional parallels between Oedipus's actions as king of Thebes and Creon's: in both plays, he points out, a king issues a questionable edict, misunderstands those who oppose it, and has "a crucial encounter with the priest Teiresias," whom the king accuses of treachery.5 The stories then diverge, Grene admits, but it is Creon who repents of his authoritarian action and Oedipus who follows it through to the bitter end. In both cases, they and their entire families are destroyed by the edict. If Oedipus is no tyrant, in our sense, then neither is Creon.
In writing about Antigone, Catherine Holland follows Froma I. Zeitlin in arguing that both Thebes and Argos served Athenians in general, and their playwrights in particular, as symbols of the kind of bad, monarchical [End Page 2] government the city's democracy had replaced (FRA, pp. 34–35). Here again, however, Creon is no more the tyrant than Oedipus. The political landscape that gave rise to these plays, we have to remember, was not one where fascism was opposed to liberal democracy but one where autocratic rule was opposed to aristocratic rule—a king opposed to an Athenian assembly that was not itself immune to arguably "tyrannical" actions, such as the execution of Socrates.
There is also some room for doubt about the source of the edict that outlaws Polyneices's burial. Sophocles lays it at Creon's doorstep (TT, p. 3 and elsewhere), but in Seven against Thebes Aeschylus cites "the Cadmeian council" as its source.6 And is it so clear that it is a bad law, the arbitrary decree of a tyrant? After Polyneices led an attack against the city, what message would honoring him with even a rudimentary burial send? That it was Eteocles who broke the agreement to share the kingship of Thebes is less significant than the fact that he was king when his twin killed him. Rightly or wrongly, he embodied the city itself. To allow his killer to escape punishment would risk conveying the message that the city was less important to Creon, suddenly and unexpectedly king once again, than his personal relationship with the nephew who led the attack against it.
Moreover, by underscoring the fact that prohibiting his burial was the most extreme punishment the state could inflict, Creon's edict seems to respect (even rely on) rather than contradict the (supposedly feminine) "rule of tradition" that says the dead must be buried. Both Creon and Antigone understand and respect that tradition, but in refusing burial to his nephew, Creon places greater importance on reuniting a city torn apart by civil war. Antigone is able to act as an individual, but as king, Creon doesn't have that luxury.
The second piece of evidence in Creon's favor can be seen when the three plays of the Theban cycle are taken as a whole, rather than focusing on Antigone alone. Creon insists in Oedipus Tyrannus that he has no wish to be king of Thebes, but at the same time he clearly has the city's best interests at heart:
I have to govern.Creon.
Not govern badly! . . .
You are not the city! I am Theban too.(TT, pp. 67–69)7
Creon and Oedipus both want what's best for Thebes. The only contrast with Athens is that they can act to serve that interest based on their [End Page 3] own authority, without any meaningful consultation with the "Cadmeian council" Aeschylus refers to. Further, if there is a way to integrate the Creon of the earlier plays with the Creon of Oedipus at Colonus, it is on this point. In the later play he tells the Athenians that his mission to return Oedipus to Thebes "is not one man's mission, but was ordered / By the whole Theban people" (CGTS, p. 113). Whatever one might say about Creon's subsequent actions in support of his mission, there is no prima facie reason to doubt the truth of this first speech.8
Once we leave aside the image of Creon as a tyrant, a proto-Nazi, it becomes easier to see him instead as a man, like Oedipus, who places the welfare of his city above the well-being of his family, who makes laws that apply "first of all" to his kin, and who suffers horribly for that choice. Unlike Oedipus, however, one could argue that the primary victim of Creon's actions—of his intransigence—is not Creon but Antigone.
Kreon. Doch wenn sie schon / Von meiner Schwester and Verwandtesten, . . . / Dem allem ungeachter meidet sie / Den schlimmen Tod nicht
(Creon. But even though she is my sister's child and most closely related of all, . . . despite that, she will not avoid the most awful death).—Sophocles, Antigone (Hölderlin's German translation)9
The conflict between Antigone and Creon is always and above all about blood, but the English translations often elide that aspect of these plays under the word "brother." Compare Hölderlin—"Antigonae. Man ehrt doch wohl die Menschen eines Fleisches. / Kreon. Und eines Bluts noch auch ist, der furs Land gestorben" (Antigone. That is how one honors those of one's own flesh. / Creon. And of one blood was also the one who died for the city) (HA, pp. 753–54)—with Kitto—"Antigone. To reverence a brother is no shame. / Creon. Was he no brother, he who died for Thebes?" (TT, p. 18). The German brings directly into the foreground of the dialogue the maternal blood that binds Antigone to both Polyneices and Creon, and gives the latter reason to believe his command has more power over her than the mere "rule of law."
In the Greek tradition, even in the time of Sophocles, "blood" was passed not down the male line but from mother to child. (This is why Antigone and Haemon can marry, despite being first [and second] [End Page 4] cousins: they share no blood because Haemon's mother is of another lineage.) This powerless matrilineality ties Antigone, now that her brothers and father/brother are dead, more closely to Creon than to any other man—"most closely related of all." Antigone herself reminds us of this:
For had I lost a son, or lost a husbandNever would I have ventured such an actAgainst the city's [i.e., not Creon's] will. And wherefore so?My husband dead I might have found another;Another son from him, if I had lostA son. But since my mother and my fatherHave both gone to the grave, there can be noneHenceforth that I can ever call my brother.(TT, pp. 31–32)
Philosophers such as Hegel and Heidegger make much of the brother/ sister dynamic here. Others focus on Antigone's devotion to tradition, although the scope of that devotion is limited to her blood kin.10 All forget Creon was Jocasta's brother. With Jocasta's death, the bond between them passed to Antigone, so the same blood links them as links Antigone to Polyneices. In Oedipus at Colonus Creon refers to Antigone rightly, according to this tradition, as "she who is mine" (CGTS, p. 117).
Which brings us to the quotation at the beginning of this section. Note the subtle differences between the English translations by Elizabeth Wyckoff—"Creon. She is my sister's child, but were she child / Of closer kin than any at my hearth, / She and her sister should not so escape / Their death and doom . . ." (CGTS, p. 175)—where the closeness of the relationship between Antigone and Creon is expressed in the conditional ("were she child of closer kin"), and Kitto—"Creon. But though she be my niece, or closer still / Than all our family, she shall not escape / The direst penalty . . ." (TT, p. 18)—which is more ambiguous, and Hölderlin's German translation cited above, which is quite unambiguous ("But even though she is my sister's child and most closely related of all") and also falls closer to the Greek ("But either of sister or some closer kin"). Interestingly, Francis Storr's pre-Anouilh translation of Antigone for the Loeb Classical Library is very similar: "But though she be my sister's child or nearer / Of kin than all who worship at my hearth."11 Given Greek traditions of Sophocles's day, Creon is sacrificing someone who is closer to him than Iphigenia is to Agamemnon in order to forestall the disintegration of Theban society and not "govern badly," as he accuses Oedipus of doing. [End Page 5]
The reference to those "who worship at my hearth" in Storr, moreover, reminds us that the relationship between niece and maternal uncle, perhaps more than that between brother and sister, is for Greeks not simply a biological or kinship tie but also a religious one. The obedience Antigone owes Creon as her closest male maternal relative is as much a religious duty as her duty to bury Polyneices. Given that the two obligations conflict, it's not self-evident that the best course of action is to honor the traitor to Thebes over Creon, either as her uncle or as her king.
This is the insight that made Creon real to me. Strictly speaking, Antigone has a duty to him as her closest blood kin that cuts even more deeply than her duty as a Theban. His "law" is not "first of all" for her because she is Oedipus's daughter, but because she is Jocasta's daughter. The ties of blood and even, dare one say, the affection that bind him to a woman twice cursed—by her father/brother's transgression and by Polyneices's treason—are strong enough for him to allow her to marry his son. Such ties, I would argue, could reasonably be expected to reciprocally bind her to his will more closely than merely through the law he has proclaimed. She has not only defied him, she has betrayed him, abandoning what he sees as her duty toward him as her maternal uncle. They are not tyrant and victim but rather two complex people caught up in a vortex of competing duties and loyalties that destroys them both. This is why Antigone is a tragedy.
Going back to the play with this awareness, and without the assumption that Creon is a tyrant in the modern sense, it becomes easier to question Antigone's actual reasons for burying Polyneices. Bernard Williams suggests in Shame and Necessity that the arguments she offers against Creon are less the reasons behind her actions than debating points. He characterizes Antigone and Sophocles's Electra as relating to their brothers in similar ways and acting from a similar "obsession," but with a more fortunate outcome in Antigone's case, at least as regards posterity's interpretations of her character.12
At the same time, Williams takes Antigone's remark to Ismene, "So he has decreed, / Our noble Creon, to all citizens: / To you, to me. To me!" (TT, p. 4), as pure self-assertion based on her relationship to Polyneices ("To me, who, although a citizen, is also the daughter of a king and the dead man's sister") rather than as a challenge to Creon's right to dictate to those who are closer to him by blood than his own daughter would be ("To me, who is no mere citizen to him but his sister's child"). Both interpretations are possible, but the usual reading [End Page 6] of the character of Creon makes the second reading hard to see, even for someone, like Williams, who is trying to question aspects of the traditional interpretation of the play.
The task, then, would be to put into language the unsaid of the Greek word.—Jean Beaufret13
Williams's focus in Shame and Necessity is moral philosophy and the ways in which we misunderstand both the moral thinking of the ancient Greeks and our own: "In some ways, I shall claim, the basic ethical ideas possessed by the Greeks were different from ours, and also in better condition. In some other respects, it is rather that we rely on much the same conceptions as the Greeks, but we do not acknowledge the extent to which we do so" (SN, p. 4). Clearly, however, he is not interested in a reversion to the Greek way of thinking. Accepting his arguments, he tells us, "had better not leave us with the idea that modernity is just a catastrophic mistake," because "if many of the values of the Enlightenment are not what their advocates have taken them to be, they are certainly something" (SN, p. 11). Williams's target here is Alasdair MacIntyre (SN, p. 172), but Heidegger might also be included among those who regard the modern age as, if not "a catastrophic mistake," at least as the culmination of a long downhill slide that began with Plato.
Heidegger was also cited above as representative of the long philosophical fascination with the character of Antigone. He specifically addresses Sophocles's play in Introduction to Metaphysics14 and with a more extended discussion in Hölderlin's Hymn "The Ister." His concerns are quite different from mine, but it is worth noting that he also seems to reject the usual direct opposition between Antigone and Creon. He describes the uncanniness (Unheimlichkeit; literally, "unhomeliness") of Antigone's situation, and concludes that she "is within the unhomely in a way that exceeds every other being unhomely. She looms over the site of all beings not merely like Creon, who in his way also looms high therein. Rather, Antigone even steps out of this site altogether" (HHI, p. 103). Leaving aside a full interpretation of this rather murky passage, the difference between Creon and Antigone here is clearly one of degree, not of kind, and certainly not of opposition, even if the degree of difference is of such magnitude that Antigone no longer remains in the same "site" of uncanniness. [End Page 7]
If, in general, Heidegger is more interested in the "song of the Theban elders" (HHI, p. 57) and their invocation of the uncanniness of human existence than in the character of Creon (or Antigone, for that matter), some of his broader claims are more relevant to the argument I hope to have made here. He quotes the song from Sophocles in Introduction to Metaphysics in service of his interpretation of Parmenides, after warning us that "we must avoid not just this or that unsuitable representation of the human, but each and every one of them. We must attempt to hear only what is said" (IM, p. 155).
And what is said in Sophocles is not that Creon is a tyrant, or that Antigone is a martyr. She is not and cannot be the St. Joan of Anouilh's The Lark15 because martyrdom, like the authoritarian kingship the Dauphin represents in that play, belongs to a later, Christian world. In fact, Heidegger's long discussion of Antigone in Introduction to Metaphysics is followed by an account of the downfall of Western thought since Parmenides that begins when the Platonic "eidos, 'idea', comes to the fore as the definitive and prevailing word for Being (phusis)" (IM, p. 192). And one decisive step in that downfall is the Latinization, and also the Christianization, of the concepts of ancient Greek philosophy, taking over the Greek words, as Heidegger says in "Origin of the Work of Art," "without the Greek word." He goes on to say that "the rootlessness of Western thought begins with this translation."16
That we systematically misunderstand Creon is not an accident. It is part and parcel of the way in which we systematically misunderstand the ancient Greeks and the relation to Being embodied in the reverence for maternal blood on which both Creon and Antigone rely, a reverence that had been effaced for us by Latin patrilineal patriarchy. We also cannot grasp the archaic Greek understanding of kingship as it appears here: not as the exercise of political power but as a sacred duty to one's land and to one's people (understood as an extended family—Oedipus's first line to the citizens of Thebes in Oedipus Tyrannus is "My children, latest brood of ancient Cadmus" [TT, p. 49]). In the same play, Creon denies he wants to supplant his brother-in-law by saying, "But were I king, I'd be oppressed with cares" (TT, p. 67), fully aware of the hard, sometimes tragic choices the sacred duty of kingship can require.
We want to bring Creon and Antigone into our world, make sense of them in our terms, as Anouilh perhaps meant to do, but ultimately we cannot. We no longer bow down before the gods of the Greeks, neither the familiar Olympians nor their shadowy predecessors—the Fates, the Harpies, the gods of the hearth that haunt Sophocles's dramatic tales [End Page 8] of blood and death. Nor should we. But perhaps we should listen, one last time, to the messages from them that Sophocles brings us. One obeys the law of the father only at the risk of a lifetime of madness for the sins one commits against the mother. One seeks to avoid one's fate only at the risk of fulfilling the direst of prophecies. For the wise man, death is the only healing (as even Socrates reminds us). Those bound by blood, especially by tainted blood, can face exquisitely painful conflicts in their deepest moral duties. And always, the price of both vengeance and power is suffering and, if we are lucky, death.
One is left with Creon subject to "a doom greater than I can bear"—wifeless, childless, utterly alone, alive only because he must continue to rule Thebes, as the chorus leader reminds him: "here and now are duties / That fall on those to whom they are allotted" (TT, p. 45). Creon's ultimate humility in the face of a fate, a blood, and a duty he cannot control can still speak to us, however, at least insofar as it can be seen to resonate with key elements of Heidegger's own thought. Take, for instance, Heidegger's insistence on a linguistic connection between the German words schicken (to send), Geschichte (history), and Geschick (destiny or fate), which he interprets as meaning we are given or sent a history that is also a fate. The attitude he seems to recommend toward this giving or this gift is something very much like humility in the face of the Being that gives it, understood as the unknowable whatever that is responsible for the fact that we exist, and for how we exist. The most important, perhaps the only, thing we know about Being in this sense is that it is transcendent to human experience, so this is an "intransitive" humility, a humility without an object, because Being is not anything sufficiently specific or personal to be defined as a goddess, god, or God in any recognizable sense.17
The same might be said to be true of those forgotten Greek goddesses/gods of the hearth whose worship Creon invokes to mark the closeness of his blood bond to Antigone. Heidegger would perhaps say it: his discussion of the downfall of Western philosophy after Plato in Introduction to Metaphysics is followed by a return to the work of art as the place where truth as unconcealment (alētheia) can happen (IM, p. 204). But the truth unconcealed by a work is only available, as he already warned us, if we do what I have tried to do with Creon and "listen to what is said" (IM, p. 155). [End Page 9]
I would like to thank my Hamline colleagues Russell Christensen and Gary Gabor for their help with Hölderlin's German and Sophocles's Greek, respectively.
1. Martin Heidegger, Hölderlin's Hymn "The Ister," trans. William McNeill and Julia Davis (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996), p. 62; hereafter abbreviated HHI.
2. Sophocles, Three Tragedies, trans. H. D. F. Kitto (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), p. 48; hereafter abbreviated TT.
3. Catherine A. Holland, "After Antigone: Women, the Past, and the Future of Feminist Political Thought," in Feminist Readings of "Antigone," ed. Fanny Söderbäck (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010), p. 36; hereafter abbreviated FRA.
4. Jean Anouilh, Antigone, trans. Lewis Galantière (New York: Samuel French, 1973), p. 48.
5. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore, eds., The Complete Greek Tragedies: Sophocles (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959), pp. 2–3; hereafter abbreviated CGTS.
6. Aeschylus, The Seven against Thebes, trans. Christopher M. Dawson (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1970), p. 120. Note that Aeschylus also implies that Creon's son Megareus died in the battle against the Seven (p. 72).
7. The chorus leader refers to Creon at the end of Oedipus Tyrannus as "our champion" after Oedipus's "defection" (TT, p. 94).
8. A careful reading of Oedipus at Colonus might also do much to rehabilitate our understanding of Ismene, who, like Creon, may have been misunderstood by the pro-Antigone tradition (e.g., in Anouilh).
9. Friedrich Hölderlin, "Antigonae," in Werke und Briefe, vol. 2, ed. Friedrich Beissner and Jochen Schmidt (Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag, 1969), p. 753; hereafter abbreviated HA. Translations are my own, with no attempt to maintain the poetic structure.
10. This point is made by Debra Bergoffen in a paper entitled "Antigone after Auschwitz," presented at the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy session at the 2012 Eastern Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association and later published in Philosophy and Literature 39, no. 1 (2016): 249–59.
11. Francis Storr, trans., Sophocles, vol. 1, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1912), p. 351.
12. Bernard Williams, Shame and Necessity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), pp. 85–87; hereafter abbreviated SN.
13. Jean Beaufret, Dialogue avec Heidegger III: Approche de Heidegger (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1974), p. 224; my translation.
14. Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002); hereafter abbreviated IM.
15. Jean Anouilh, The Lark, adapted by Lillian Hellman (New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1998).
16. Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (New York: Harper, 1993), p. 149; italicized in original. [End Page 10]
17. For a fuller account of this with regard to Heidegger, see Nancy J. Holland, Ontological Humility: Lord Voldemort and the Philosophers (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2013), esp. chap. 2. [End Page 11]