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Hegel on Tragedy: Between Feminism and Christianity

Simon Goldhill

            There is an extensive feminist tradition of reading Sophocles’ Antigone within a framework of political theory in response to Hegel’s influential comprehension of the play in the 19th century. More than thirty articles have been published in recent years, and several significant books, in which Antigone, the heroine, has been made an icon and battleground of feminist theory. In an article, “Antigone and the Politics of Sisterhood”, published in (2006), Simon Goldhill offered a critique of this tradition, and Judith Butler in particular, for a systematic devaluation – indeed, ignoring – of Ismene, the sister of Antigone. Bonnie Honig – also responding to Butler and the Hegelian tradition, and with a critique of this article – has attempted recuperate Ismene for a feminist politics, first in “Ismene’s Forced Choice” in Arethusa (2011).  Her argument there was in turn criticized in Goldhill’s Sophocles and the Language of Tragedy (2012), and redrafted in response to this critique in Honig’s major work, Antigone, Interrupted (2013). This paper aims to take a quite different tack to illumine the force of this debate (which by now involves several other scholars, including Jean Elshtain, Jennet Kirkpatrick, Stefani Engelstein) and its potential significance for the modern feminist political approach to ancient tragedy.  It sets out to investigate two central interlinked questions which have been underappreciated in the continuing response to Hegel: first, the place of religion in Hegel’s reading of Greek tragedy; and, second and more importantly, following from this first question, the role of teleological thinking in the political use of tragedy in modern thought.

            The paper takes its start from an absolutely extraordinary passage in Hegel’s reading of Sophocles’ Oedipus, which has surprisingly not been commented on by critics. In it, Hegel likens Oedipus to the biblical Adam. In particular, he suggests that both figures are exiled by God for sexual transgressions. The comparison is not even superficially convincing. Adam knowingly transgresses God’s command, but has no knowledge of sexuality until he has transgressed; Oedipus does not wish to transgress, is predicted to do so by a divine oracle, and attempts to avoid the transgression he unwittingly commits: he is fully aware of what a sexual transgression is. What could have led so great a thinker as Hegel to force such an apparently bizarre parallel?  In the first part of the paper, it is argued that Hegel’s choice of Adam is part of a fully Christianizing reading of Oedipus, which goes so far as to construct a parallel between Oedipus and Jesus, as figures who “die for us”. This, it will be shown, is part of Hegel’s engagement both with Schelling – who claimed Caldéron was a greater playwright than Shakespeare because, as a Catholic, he had a stronger sense of the inevitability of sin – and with his desire to see Greek tragedy within a Christian framework. This first part of the paper will conclude by exploring what the consequences are when political theory silences the religious force of its foundational texts.

            The second part of the paper will take forward Hegel’s evidently teleological thinking and see how it has been adapted or adopted in modern feminist political thinking in particular, and, especially, in Judith Butler’s and Bonnie Honig’s reading of family dynamics, in Antigone (and against Hegel). It will be suggested that both Butler’s argument for a new set of conditions for family relationships and Honig’s re-evaluation of sisterly affection depend upon a telelogically committed strategy of argument that has surprising affiliations to Hegel’s religious argumentation. This, in turn, will lead to a final set of questions about why modern political theory – one could mention here Salkever, Euben, Ahrensdorf, Badger – needs Antigone at all. Can the turn to Antigone ever avoid the circular argument of finding in the play the conclusion the political theorist is seeking?

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Tragic Interruptions

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